* Puxa story sample

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Below is an example of an early decodable book for a dyslexic student, written by my ghost author, Puxa the cat.  My student was then reading single-syllable words with four syllable types (open, closed, silent e, and double vowels or ‘vowel teams’), with some use of -ing and -ed suffixes.  I was experimenting with the font and spacing to improve his fluency, so you may notice the extra gaps between words.  Eventually I dropped the additional spacing because he was more distressed by the extra pages than he was about focusing on accuracy.  As we worked on these skills, his accuracy improved anyway.

This story is the second in a series about Puxa helping her boy get money for a field trip.   The first paragraph sums up previous events.   Puxa is helpful in some stories, but other times she is a nuisance.  (Sorry, Puxa!)  Although Puxa is an outdoor cat (her family is as allergic to her as I am!), she manages to sneak in the house whenever necessary to help her boy.  Or seek revenge….

Puxa Checks

* Color my world Puxa gray

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This is Puxa gray, with contrasting yellow flecks.  Not only does she sport two colors, Puxa has two distinct personalities as well.  My favorite is the “you-may-touch-my-incredibly-silky-fur-because-I-want-more-food” persona.  Her other persona is disdainful: “you-may-touch-my-silky-paws-for-one-second.”  Fortunately, I am allergic to cats or I would have snatched her away from her (loving) family.  Puxa is featured in a series of stories I’ve written for a dyslexic student.  She manages to one-up her “Boy” in every scenario.  Her name could be Puxa Revenge.  Her Boy insists that Puxa cannot possibly have written these books, but I believe Puxa.  She’s quite convincing.

Teacher note: Books written about a student’s interests are compelling.  The challenge is to structure each one around the specific skill being taught.  Such decodable books are powerful but take time to write.  It helps when you have an excellent ghost writer like Puxa.

* Social narratives in decodable books

Although social narratives (or social stories) are typically used with kids who have Autism Spectrum Disorders, I find them quite effective in my work with a variety of struggling learners.  For kids who have a reading disability but cannot easily describe and/or cope with their feelings of despair, social narratives provide a format for beginning that important dialog.  These stories also allow them to see that others deal with the same frustrations.  Developing fictional characters who struggle with similar issues also creates a safe distance between those intense feelings, while still allowing discussion of both feelings and strategies. Cam book picture

It is not necessary to use decodable books with kids whose reading abilities are average, but allows dyslexic kids access to realistic fiction through materials at their particular stage in phonetic analysis.  I begin by developing a character with whom the child can identify, but without any reference to learning problems.  The characters have interests which are similar to that of my student and are usually the same gender and in the same grade.  However, I change enough other factors so that my intent is not transparent (at least not immediately!).  After taking the student through a few “chapters” in the character’s life, I introduce a school situation which causes that character distress.  Depending upon my student’s responses to these stories, I determine how closely the situation will parallel my student’s issues.  For example, if they have been able to talk openly as we discuss what they’ve read, I can make the chapters more direct.  If my student has avoided any relevant personal connections, I will broach key similarities such as behavior or strong feelings but change the subject matter (such as from writing to math).

I do ask kids to make personal connections to what they are reading with every chapter.  They may describe shared interests or similarities to friends or family.  Once the book series begins to address more “difficult” topics, such as anger, frustration, sadness, and misbehavior, I continue to ask the kids to make personal connections.  Many of these students will skirt the tough issues at this stage.  The books then start to focus on strategies; kids make predictions about the outcome of these interventions, explaining their reasoning.  At that point, they are discussing situations much like their own, but with a degree of emotional distance.  My students typically follow the struggles of these characters with much interest.  Again, depending upon their response, the decodable books may describe successful resolution for some of these issues, or will shift to another character who confronts similar problems.  After the “second round” of exploring difficulties with learning problems, I have found that most kids are willing to describe their own experiences.

This approach is usually too transparent for gifted kids, so I typically start a similar dialog verbally, in gradual increments.  For an average learner with reading disabilities, these stories can support important discussions about feeling anxious, upset, or stupid.  One student was on his “second round” with a set of decodable books when he turned to me and said, “Don’t think I’m going to discuss anything personal after I read this, because I’m not!”  I stifled a smile (and said to myself, “Yes, I can tell that you are!”).

If you have a student in crisis, you don’t have the luxury of waiting for weeks of character development before addressing tough feelings that often accompany dyslexia.  This narrative approach works best with students who are extremely resistant to talking about their strong feelings and with whom I will have time to inch forward.  Just as kids do when being bullied, I’ve found that kids with dyslexia usually feel embarrassment and shame.  Those kids who act out in a large group setting (and hope I don’t know about it) are the most resistant to disclosure.  Then I weave a sympathetic teacher or other adult into the plot, hoping that my unhappy student will identify with the relief of talking openly.  All the while, I am teaching specific decoding skills and syllable rules, so the process has the potential to be doubly effective.  My student is addressing valuable reading skills systematically (which will translate into more confidence and hope) while giving them much-needed opportunities to share their feelings or at least, recognize that others have similar problems.  This is not a “fix” for the feelings of stupidity and anger that dyslexic kids often experience, but I have found it an effective tool.

* Phonics instruction

There are whole courses devoted to this topic, but you can relax.  I am going to focus on two issues: the current controversy regarding phonics instruction and the type of phonics instruction that is best suited to students with reading disabilities.  If your deductive powers are at work, you already know where I stand on this issue.

Is phonics a bad word?  In some groups, it certainly is.  The conflict over phonics instruction goes back at least to the 1950’s and has continued to this day.  The last decade has seen heightened rhetoric about what works for kids, especially after the National Reading Panel concluded that phonics was one of five key components of effective reading instruction.  And educational research has been used to substantiate both sides of the debate.  In actual practice, there are teachers who will not allow kids to sound out words, even preventing those little fingers from tapping out sounds.  Phonics instruction becomes a subversive activity, only allowed behind closed doors.    (I personally haven’t seen the other extreme, but perhaps someone in my audience has.)

Many teachers are convinced that phonics instruction rules out the use of good literature, is a skill that can only be applied to words in isolation, and is primarily taught through tedious “drill and kill” routines.  Another concern is that those assessments which are correlated to reading success (such as fluency in decoding nonsense words) are creating havoc, forcing teachers to abandon authentic assessment and instruction.

First, it is possible to use good literature to teach phonics.  And it is also true that many decodable books (see below) are lousy literature.  Use both.  Second, the whole purpose in teaching phonics is its application to authentic reading.  Good readers are fluent and don’t labor over words, so they can engage with text at more abstract levels.  Phonics helps dyslexic kids achieve that fluency through practice.  By definition, a child with a special education label is intervention-resistant.  This simply means that these kids need something more than regular instruction.  It does take practice, but that practice can be meaningful and engaging.  No question, it’s a struggle for those smart kids whose brains are hard-wired differently.  And those fluency assessments? They measure a sub-skill of reading, but one that acts as a closed door to literacy if students don’t learn the alphabetic code.

What type of phonics instruction is best for students with reading disabilities?  

Systematic. That means phonics is taught by following a scope and sequence of skills. Each child should start at the point in that sequence which is appropriate for his or her ability level.  Incidental or embedded phonics instruction occurs when a teacher selects reading material and then points out or teaches a phonics rule.  This random approach does not work effectively for kids with disabilities.

Explicit.  Phonics instruction is not learned by taping a poster of letter sounds on a wall.  Teacher instruction, modeling, and guidance in applying rules to text are all needed.  Students must be taught letter-sound associations and specific rules.  They learn a skill and practice it.  This practice often involves reading decodable texts, but other books work as well.

Early.  Dyslexic kids who receive early intervention are more likely to avoid a cycle of reading failure in which they fall farther behind their peers while their self-esteem takes major body blows.  Early intervention (that is, teaching the alphabetic code) can support ALL kids, whether or not they are at risk for reading failure.  True, many kids come to school already equipped with some phonics skills.  But those kindergarteners who aren’t even aware that words are made of individual sounds are already behind the curve.

Reading instruction shouldn’t be narrowed to a debate of “phonics” versus “meaning.”  Phonics instruction encompasses more than isolated skills and gives kids the ability to access literature.  Meaning-based instruction fosters higher level thinking but can’t occur in a letter-correspondence vacuum.  Enough said?  Want to share your perspectives?