Month: January 2017

My “Decoding Hurdle” Obsession

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “He’s like a dog with a bone.”

You know, it’ referring to that person who won’t let up or who keeps beating the same drum over and over.

Sometimes I feel that way.

I won’t say how long I’ve been  beating the “decoding hurdle”  drum,  but I know I’ve been at it a while.

Perhaps it’s an obsession.

Why have I been beating this drum for so long you might ask?

I think it’s very simple.  When kids struggle to get over the decoding hurdle, I see how challenging things are for them.

Some of you may not know what “decoding” is referring to since it’s a bit of a jargon term that is casually tossed around in educational circles like everyone knows what it means.

To explain decoding take the made up word,  fabulationingly.  If you can read it quickly and easily you probably have internalized a pretty good “decoding system.” Most kids by fourth or fifth grade can read words like  that pretty easily.  Many kids can’t.    They get stuck when trying to read the big words.

It’s in the fourth grade range that the text really gets tough.  That’s primarily because it’s in the fourth grade range that the text takes a giant leap forward.  No longer is the text  primarily made up of common words.

No, the text has words that don’t show up too often –  words like philanthropist, fortify, institute, obstinate, materialistic.  If you can’t read these quickly and easily everything gets bogged down.

Each word is a hurdle you have to get over.

It’s exhausting.

To add to the exhaustion, there’s the writing side of things.

This week when I asked young Marcy,  age 9 to write her top problem, she wrote, “My fist prodlem is my reading.”  Then when asked to write a wish, she wrote, “To get a Ponny and all of the Spliz.”  (She was hoping for a pony and all of the supplies, just in case you weren’t sure.)

Takeaway Point

If your kid is having trouble getting over the decoding hurdle, don’t wait around.  If possible, seek help.  Don’t wait for the school’s blessings.  Take action.

Help me with my decoding obsession.

Reading Comprehension in the “Way Back Machine”

Let’s go once again into the “Way Back Machine.”  This time we will go to the mid 1980’s.  What was the red hot topic in the field of reading and cognitive psychology?

I will give you a hint.  It wasn’t decoding or reading fluency.

The topic of the decade, the one receiving millions of dollars of grant money across the country to major university centers (especially in the Midwest region), was not dyslexia.

The central topic was reading comprehension, with a particular emphasis on higher-order thinking, inferential reasoning and that funky term that almost no one understands –  “metacognition.”

Sadly, like most of these hot topic initiatives and movements (anyone out there remember Reading First), over time they are largely forgotten and put into the educational/psychological dust bin, sort of like an education  psychology version of Toy Story.  (“Hey, remember me, I was the toy you  played with all of the time  and now you’ve forgotten me.”)

Interactive Nature of Reading Process

Even though we are squarely in the Decade of Dyslexia (Is everyone “dyslexic” these days), there were important research findings from that era that are important to remember.   (Sadly, our version of “evidence based” practice seems to be based on about a five year window of research, so good research conducted in a time such as the 1980’s would not make the cut.)

One of the biggest take away points from that time is the interactive nature of the reading/learning process.

We used to think about reading in more one-directional terms.  That is, there was text on the page that somehow went up through the eyeballs and into the brain for comprehension.

The cognitive psychologists studying this stuff in the 1980s told us that was erroneous.  Reading was not a one-directional process. Instead, we have “schema,” (i.e.,  prior knowledge or the stuff in our head) that gets activated while reading.

The more “stuff” (schema) we have in our head, the better will be our understanding of the material on the page.

Another big takeaway that is now in the dust bin is that in order to improve comprehension we need to interact with different types of questions that stimulate a child to seek information and find justifications in the text.    In other words, just answering questions on a worksheet was not how to teach comprehension.

Inferential thinking is a skill that does not come naturally to many kids, but can be taught with good facilitated instructional practice and questions that guide this type of thought process.

Comprehension is not an easy skill to teach, but if the research findings were followed, comprehension could be improved.

Takeaway Point

Some of the toys forgotten in the toy chest may still have some value.

Matthew Effects are Powerful – Act Early


Matthew Effects Are Powerful-Act Early

A number of years ago a very powerful piece of research emerged in the field of psychology and education. This research, by Dr. Keith Stanovich ultimately became known as the “Matthew Effects.”

The Rich Get Richer

A biblical metaphor, the Matthew Effects highlighted the simple concept of the “rich getting richer.”

How do these effects apply to learning disabilities and child development?

Let’s take Child, A, named William.  On a smooth road in preschool, William did not encounter any difficulty. From normal exposure to the school curriculum, William started to learn his letters and associated sounds. Participating in most of the typical preschool educational games, William enjoyed himself and did quite well. Later in kindergarten, the pattern continued. William started to understand basic word patterns and simple decoding skills began to take hold.

By the end of first grade, William successfully progressed and everyone was quite happy. Williams’s received a great deal of gratification, both from a skill vantage point, as well as with the emotional gratification that came with the success.  Put simply, Williams “emotional tank” was filled in a continual positive loop. By the end of second grade going into third grade, William was seen to be devouring books.  Exposed to thousands of different words simply by reading widely, by the upper elementary school grades William was solidly on his way to being a successful student. The smooth ride was enjoyable. Skills layered on top of skills.

The rich got richer.

Child, B., young Beth, was the opposite of William. In preschool, whenever her parents tried to read books to her, Beth resisted, finding any other activity with which she could engage. In the classroom whenever letter and sound activities were conducted, Beth experienced a sense of nervousness that was not observed by anyone. Intuitively, Beth understood that she was not “getting it.” She looked around the room and saw other children clicking in with their letters and sounds, something that was not occurring for Beth. Any attempts at writing letters or even small words resulted in scribbles that caused her sense of embarrassment.

Moving into kindergarten and then early first grade, the pattern continued. Avoidance on top of avoidance occurred. Compared to William, Beth was exposed to far fewer words just from the simple fact that Beth labored one word at a time, while William was already skating along. (Secretly, Beth hated William and she resented the other children around her seem to be doing so well, so easily.)

By the middle to end of first grade, Beth detested school, and everyone kept telling her she needed to just “pay attention more.” Any attempts at reading chapter books caused Beth a great sense of distress.

 Negative Cycle

The negative cycle continued all the way through elementary school. While Beth was formerly “diagnosed” and classified by fourth-grade, it was already late.  There was a wide gap between Beth and many of the other kids around her.   William had read many chapter books by the end of fourth grade, being exposed to a broad range of vocabulary, enriched language, and imaginative experiences, none of which Beth experienced.

Bottlenecked by her difficulty, it was like there was a clogged fuel line.

 Think About This

While the difficult road that Beth went down could not have been totally avoided, understanding these Matthew effects and how powerful they are argue, again, for early identification and action. By acting early, so much emotional scarring can be avoided, as well as the enhanced skill development occurring in recognizing these effects.

The Grind of School


Let’s be honest, school can be a bit of a grind.  This is especially so if you are the kind of kid who struggles with reading, spelling and writing.

For those who do not have learning problems, school also can be a grind, as well, but they have a much easier ride since their fundamental skills are intact.

I think of children with reading/writing disabilities as always running up a hill – a very long hill, with a long and slow incline.

Motivation varies throughout the year with very uneven effort.  The beginning of the year no one notices the grind as in the story of Jason.

Jason, age 12, always starts the school year in an optimistic vein.  In September he vows he will do his homework and turn in his assignments on time.  Then the grind of the year kicks in.  Usually, this starts around middle to late October.  Jason begins avoiding reading assignments because he reads very slowly and with much effort.   The process isn’t much fun for him and it isn’t gratifying.

Jason’s teachers will say that they rarely give more than an hour of homework, but for Jason the work always takes twice as long and it is rarely done well. After a while Jason just decides that he won’t bother anymore since it takes him so long and he makes so many mistakes.

Jason is encountering the grind of school.

One of the biggest issues with struggling kids like Jason is that they are simply given work that is above their instructional level.  The work is too challenging and it results in much frustration.

When work is leveled appropriately, then it does not take an excessive amount of time and the child feels in control.  There is less of a grind.

Excessive use of worksheets also grind it out of the child.  On average they deplete motivation.  Has your kid ever come home excited to say, “Hey, mom, I got a great worksheet today?”

I doubt it.  

Consider This

Even if teachers keep it relatively fun, there’s an inevitable grind to school that is probably unavoidable.

“Same as it ever was.  Same as it ever was.”


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