The Non-Reader In Public School And What To Do

Johnny’s Story — A Struggling Young Reader from Public School(this could be Susie’s story too!)
Where’s the Real Problem?

Johnny’s family is home schooling him now, but they did not start out as committed home educators.  His parents are like a growing number of other home educators who have removed their children from a public school classroom.  Johnny struggled to read fluently in first grade, and his teachers said he just did not understand what he was able to read.  Even Johnny’s writing was not up to par.  Mom and Dad tried to help at home, but incredibly, his teachers in the public school exhorted Mom and Dad to avoid correcting his spelling errors!  This flew in the face of common sense (at this point, Johnny’s parents seemed to have more common sense than the child’s teachers).

The school following second grade put Johnny into summer school for remedial reading classes (which, for some reason, used the same ineffective program he’d suffered through in second grade!).  By now, the teacher had recommended that Mom and Dad allow Johnny to be evaluated for a special education class.  His grades in third grade were so low that his teacher spoke of having him repeat third grade.  By the end of third grade, Johnny’s parents reached the end of their patience.  Something had to change.

Johnny’s mother knew friends who had begun home schooling.  Mom and Dad asked a lot of questions, and before the start of fourth grade, they made the decision to remove Johnny from public school.  It was better, they reasoned, than letting Johnny’s problems continue or having Johnny face a special education placement. 

Now that fourth grade has begun at home, Johnny’s Mom is the “reading teacher.” She expects that things will improve.  Mom and Dad looked online and talked to some folks at church.  They purchased a well-respected reading program for fourth grade level.  Things should start to improve — right?  Not for Johnny.

Even with Mom’s infinite patience, Johnny still struggles to read the texts that Mom paid a lot of money to buy.  Johnny and Mom get more frustrated, and things don’t seem to be working out.  Although the parents don’t know it, the real reason for Johnny’s problem has not been identified yet.  Consequently, Mom pushes on.  Like many beginning home educators, she wonders whether she and Dad have the necessary training to teach all the important and necessary skills for reading success.  Her self-doubt increases as months go by.  She assumes that Johnny’s public school teachers were better trained and endorsed to teach young students how to read, and she unwisely compares her “preparation” to theirs.  Even though Johnny has not mastered reading fluently, Mom still doesn’t blame Johnny’s teachers — they tried so hard to help him.  This reasoning leaves Johnny’s Mom believing now that she is the weakest link — she was never trained how to teach.

Soon Mom starts to network with other home schooling parents, searching the Internet and the library shelves trying to learn how to be a better teacher.  At this juncture, Mom and Dad try some different textbooks they borrow or buy from friends, but Johnny’s reading just isn’t much better.  It doesn’t take long before Mom cannot stop herself from wondering if the lack somehow lies within Johnny!  After all, she is now more experienced at teaching and has been using books approved for home schooling!

Maybe he has a learning disability.  Maybe he is dyslexic.  His parents’ fears of their own inadequacy are now compounded by fears that Johnny himself may be unequal to the complexities of reading, spelling, and writing.  Silencing these fears as best she can, Mom pushes on.  Her fears reach a crisis point as Johnny reaches the end of fourth grade.  Johnny is unable to read his fourth grade reading material.  Mom notices that it is much harder compared to Johnny’s third grade texts.  By now, he has become resistant to reading for pleasure — not to mention reluctant to do school work.  Johnny’s family’s next step is to seek testing to find out “What is wrong with Johnny?”

The Missing Piece

What’s the missing piece we need to solve Johnny’s struggle to read?  He’s now got a one-on-one teacher, he’s tried several textbook series, but he still can’t read books at his grade level, let alone answer questions and do workbook pages on his own.  Johnny is certainly not unique — he is one of many students who didn’t “get it” in the public school reading classes.  He lacks the necessary structure and principles to unlock the written code we use to read and write English.

What’s behind Johnny’s continued failure to master the essentials of reading?  Is it really his former public school teachers?  Not likely.  Does Johnny have a learning disability or even dyslexia?  It turns out that this is a less likely answer than the other possible factors.  Is it that Johnny’s Mom is inadequate for her job of teaching Johnny one-on-one?  Not in most cases like Johnny’s. 

There is one other place to look to understand Johnny’s problem.  The school’s reading instruction program!  The approach in the program itself usually is the problem — not the teachers nor the child!  The program was recommended and selected by highly trained professionals, but it has been “flying beneath the radar” — escaping detection — while all the other elements in Johnny’s education are suspected of creating Johnny’s problems.

Johnny’s story is very typical of a home school student who started education in the public school system.  His story is very typical for the countless children who remain in the public school classrooms of America.  The recent push for “No Child Left Behind” has addressed the issue squarely — schools with failing students must use reading programs to help failing readers — programs that are shown by scientific research to work! 

Whole Language programs alone are not enough, and scientific research can prove it.  What a clear yet new concept for America’s public schools!  The answer for Johnny’s problem is not the public school teacher, or Johnny’s Mom, and it is not usually in Johnny’s behavior and his abilities.  At its simplest level, Johnny and countless others like him have been cheated.  Johnny is simply “curriculum disabled.”  He attended a school that relied on a reading method that has been shown to be inadequate for up to 30% of the children in America’s schools (National Reading Panel,

How It Happened

How did this happen?  Before the 1980s, many public schools in America turned to reading programs based on an approach called Whole Language (which also has many other buzzword names, such as Authentic Literature, for example).  Even earlier, in the 1950s, Dick and Jane readers used a very similar teaching approach.  Fortunately, scientific research is bringing the deficiencies of this approach out into the light, and well-informed educational leaders are starting to make changes that will spare children the frustration and struggles that Johnny has endured.  Students like Johnny are not lacking the mental capacity needed to learn reading, nor is it likely they have neurological or processing lacks.

The Whole Language approach is based upon a mistaken belief that is still being taught to student-teachers in teacher preparation programs all over America.  These young pre-teachers are told that “children can be taught to read as naturally as they came to speak” — if they are exposed to quality reading material at their interest level, and given chances to follow along while it is read to them over and over, they will learn how to “read” it.  This foolishness is transparent even to a high school graduate, yet professors propound the claim as if it were gospel. 

What is missing in whole language-based reading programs is a thorough grounding in phonics, the sounds that letters make.  The children are not taught how to decode letters into sounds.

Reading teachers-in-training and graduates of Whole Language programs honestly believe that they do teach “phonics” because the programs emphasize teaching children to figure out new words by saying the first sound of the word.  [Search the magazine, “The Reading Teacher,” in most public school libraries (, for examples of how easily writers redefine “phonics” or redefine “research” to accommodate their theories!]  In addition, children are encouraged to guess at how a whole word sounds by noticing the context — because Whole Language proponents believe use of context will help make effective beginning readers.  A key fact is neglected — how are the children supposed to read (speak and comprehend) the letters and short words that help unlock the other words?  Students are encouraged to look for contextual cues and clues beyond the text — sentences that precede the unknown word, story helps such as bold print, and even pictures.

Teachers are directed to help younger children “read” books that have words above the child’s grade level.  Classes listen to the teacher read several times from a new “big-book” story, then they are encouraged to pair up for “co-operative reading” where children take turns “reading” the same book that the teacher has already read aloud to them many times.  In truth, the children learn to memorize much of what they have heard.

When the child does not know a word, he or she carefully studies the teacher’s face for a hint.  Parents of students like Johnny notice that the struggling reader “reads,” but not all the words are on the page!  The child will leave out words, or substitute a word that BEGINS with the same letter sound as the printed word — but the word spoken aloud by the “reader” does not make sense.  More significantly, the child does not seem aware of it!

There is one sure “give away” indicating that a child has been taught with Whole Language strategies — when the child cannot seem to unlock new words on a story page, he glancea almost desperately all over the page and then beyond — even looking to the face of a parent — for some hint.  Children trained by Whole Language are even less able to read unknown words from a list where there are no clues whatsoever to help them.  These problems persist long past first or second grade, and by fourth or fifth grade, the child is a reading cripple.  How did this happen?

The Need for Early Phonics Instruction

Johnny has not been taught the basic foundational skills on which 70% of the English language is built (the other 30% is, unfortunately, not based on common rules because of its origins in multiple languages).  He has not been given a framework that creates the basis for reading — and its mirror skill of putting sounds into print, that is, spelling. 

Skillful reading results from fluently and smoothly decoding the printed text — getting sounds and meaning from print.  Only after the child can break the “code” and assign sounds to the printed word can the child begin to address issues of comprehension!  Whole Language puts the comprehension cart before the horse.  Unfortunately, the wagon of Whole Language learners often goes nowhere.

Correct spelling results from drawing upon the known principles and rules that govern encoding — putting the sounds we speak into printed form.

Acquiring the pair of skills that Johnny lacks but that he needs to succeed, reading and spelling, is a consequence of carefully sequenced and explicitly taught rules.  [As an aside — there are a few children who seem to understand how to read almost “intuitively” — it is as if they have been gifted with a God-given “code breaker” that lets them understand how to read no matter which program is used to teach them.  Teachers mistakenly point to these children and conclude that these children “learned to read” because of the “Whole Language” approach.]

Johnny is not alone — he is one of about 25-30% of school children who need, in the early grades, a carefully taught phonetically based reading program.  The parent who expects Johnny to make progress without backtracking long enough to build these foundation skills is being unrealistic.  Johnny’s Mom correctly decided that Johnny was not going to improve if he stayed in the public school setting.  Now she needs to recognize that she cannot take Johnny further in his reading skills until they together go back and fill in the gaps and weaknesses in Johnny’s phonetic foundations.

The Next Step — A Comprehensive Evaluation

Does this scenario sound familiar?  Are you a Johnny’s Mom?  or a Susie’s Mom?  If you have been watching your public school child struggle with spelling, reading aloud, or reading comprehension, there is something you can do.  If you have already decided to remove your child from the public schools, there are steps you need to take as a home schooling parent.  No matter where your child is being taught right now, get an educational consultant to do an assessment of your child’s present levels of reading and spelling skills.  There are many good tests that will provide accurate information for you.

Public school parents may want to avoid paying a consultant.  You are entitled to request a complete evaluation of the child at no cost as a provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  Your request MUST be made in writing!  If you ask orally, don’t be surprised if administrators “forget” or just say they will get back to you.  Local school districts have specific procedures that they must follow, but finishing the evaluations can be stretched out to 65 working days — this means possibly three more months of your child failing.  The schools are within their legal rights in this timeline because it is in the law.

If the test reports are not in clear English, you also have a right to ask as many questions as you need to understand what is presented.  If you do not find the tests are helpful or seem very “off target” about your child, you also have a right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation at the school’s expense!  Again, make the request in writing.

Do not accept any pre-written consultant lists that indicate a limit on who is permitted to give independent evaluations!  You can select your own consultant.  Expect resistance, but be firm.  Recognize that if you choose the public school evaluation route, most of the school year may be over before you have satisfactory answers about why your child is behind and whether non-curriculum related reasons are the cause.

After testing, you will have accurate information about where to begin remedial reading instruction.  You will also have a better idea of what to realistically expect from your child in other academic subjects that require reading and writing.  Test results are a starting point that enables you to select a reading program that fits Johnny’s specific needs. 

The Remedial Process

In general, any good remedial program will systematically introduce the foundations for reading.  Start with a book of word families.  The Natural Speller is a wonderful book that contains graded lists of words grouped together by similarities of spelling rules.  Another series of word family books by Dr. Fry can be found at parent-teacher bookstores or through internet bookstores.  These word families are to become the basis for teaching phonics rules as well as making up spelling lists.

Let’s assume testing showed Mom that fourth grade Johnny was reading at a late second grade level and was spelling second grade words.  She would start using word lists at the second grade level from Natural Speller.  You may choose a different program, such as Modern Curriculum Press, but make very certain that each week’s lesson is based on a single main spelling principle or word family.  You may like a “regular spelling text” because it has activities for each day of the week.  Please make certain that words in each family are printed in groups — if not, recopy the word lists with the same letters directly above one another.  This helps the child to visualize the part of the word that is consistent.



You may try the use of color — print the dissimilar starting letters in a bright color and the similar portions of words in black.

Activities that involve mixed use of hands, ears and eyes are best.  One activity that works well is to use plastic letters or letter tiles (even Walmart sells these!).  A less expensive option is to make “tiles” with index cards cut up.  Make cards for all the consonants.  Make card duplicates for the endings of the word family (such as “ake” or “ate” from the examples above), as many times as the word shows up in the list words.  Scramble the letters and word-beginning letters.  Have the child reassemble the tiles (cards) into correct spelling — and then have the child copy words onto paper, saying the letter sounds or names as he writes.  Even older students can benefit from using plastic letters (or letters printed on cardstock) that are scrambled and reassembled to form correct spelling.  Stay with one word “family” at a time.

After explicitly pointing out the similarities in the appearance/spelling of the words, give the child a piece of paper and dictate the words to the child — you should mix up the order of the words within each family — but complete all the words in a given family before starting a new word family.  If your child is struggling with this task, write the last letters at the top of the column and ask the child to look at the “family” spelling while taking dictation.  You can remove this prompt the next time you dictate the words.

Example: divide the paper in columns and then write:

___ake    |       ___ate    |       ___ope
______    |       ______   |       ______

Continue this systematic introduction of new word families at a rate that assures the child has mastered each set before moving ahead.  You can use other strategies from for further practice. 

The important thing to remember is that learning new rules for spelling and reading is not just a result of recognizing and saying letter names to spell words.  It also includes seeing patterns of letters.  The learning process is a result of both storing this new information, and practice in retrieving that information when it is needed.  Therefore, you should be spending as much time asking the child to produce evidence of what has been studied as you spend on teaching new information.

Activities To Improve Spelling and Word Recognition

You can make spelling practice more enjoyable by playing games with your student.  One motivating way to practice spelling is a “fill in the blanks” worksheet with spelling/reading word lists.  You type out the words with letters missing that Johnny must fill in.  You can play this with plastic magnetic letters and give the child a pile with all the letters he will need to complete the words you say aloud to him.  Systematically following these suggestions will quickly enlarge your child’s base of predictable words he can read and spell.  There are also many good computer software packages that will create spelling challenges, crossword puzzles, and other activities.

As you are spending time on word families, it is valuable to incorporate a carefully written phonics-based program of instruction to create a strong foundation of phonics skills.  Educator’s Publishing Service has an excellent selection of well-written and carefully sequenced programs that produce successful outcomes for children.  Right into Reading is ideal for students who test at grade-one skill levels.  It begins by introducing vowel and consonant sounds and teaches good comprehension skills from the earliest levels.  Sentence pairs are written next to a simple outline drawing with one accurate sentence and one nonsense sentence from which the student must make a choice.  Students must read every word accurately to get the answers correct!  All these features help stop “Whole Language” guessing habits.

Here is an excellent strategy to adapt for older students as well.  Parents can scan some pages of reading material into a word processing program, enlarge the text and number each sentence.  (It is legal for parents to make single copies for instructional purposes!!)  Carefully go through the newly created document and change a random number of words to something that the child will recognize as nonsense — IF they read carefully and accurately.  You can incorporate motivational elements, such as points for correct answers, to make this a motivating game for your child.

Helping the Child Recognize Errors in Oral Reading

Another strategy to correct bad “Whole Language” guessing habits is to ask the child to read a new passage aloud into a tape recorder.  Shut off the machine and ask the child to practice reading the passage until she is certain she can do so without errors.  Tape the “final performance.”  Allow the child to compare the two recordings.  You want the child to notice how often she makes certain kinds of mistakes (ones that are typical of insecure readers).

If the child is going to benefit from listening, instead of simply feeling uncomfortable at the experience, he or she should know what you expect.  Older students should be able to accurately identify and explain that they notice while listening to the tape of their oral reading.

Children have a hard time improving reading on their own if they do not know what is expected of them.  Encouragement to “do better” is too vague.  Furthermore, children have trouble really focusing on the nature of errors while simultaneously trying to decode and read aloud.  A child needs something visible and very concrete to improve an intangible skill like accuracy in reading.

A scoring grid called a “rubric” can be created easily to make it possible for your child to significantly improve and to take ownership for his or her performance.  A rubric is a grid displaying a pre-determined set of standards (i.e., criteria) that must be met for a child to attain a specific grade for individual elements of a task.  To begin, you should list the different problems you want your child to correct as he reads aloud.  Listen as he reads aloud and make notes on the kinds of errors you hear.

Here is a sample listing of typical oral reading problems that can affect comprehension.  The reader:

1.  leaves out words
2.  substitutes words
3.  starts sentences over
4.  repeats words
5.  ignores end marks
6.  sounds “jerky” and uneven.

The identified problems become targeted reading behaviors that you will teach your child to notice about his own reading as he reads.  When these problems are addressed in an appropriate sequence (not all at once!!), your child will be reading more fluently and more accurately.  This inevitably leads as well to better comprehension, because your child acquires the skill of reading ideas, not just words.

The rubric is created to help your child focus on these reading habits one at a time.  Assume your child is asked to read a 200-word passage.  You may use Microsoft Word to create the rubric, as it has a “Table” function on the task bar, or you can use graph paper if you prefer.  Create a box that has 7 rows and 5 columns for this rubric for scoring oral reading skill.

Rubric for Reading Skill

Reading SkillA (happy face)B (pleasant face)C (neutral face)D (frowning face)
leaves out words0-3 times4-5 times6-7 times8 or more times
substitutes wrong words0-3 times4-5 times6-7 times8 or more times
starts sentences over0-3 times4-5 times6-7 times8 or more times
repeats words0-3 times4-5 times6-7 times8 or more times
ignores end marks0-3 times4-5 times6-7 times8 or more times
sounds uneven0-3 times4-5 times6-7 times8 or more times

You have now put down on paper what constitutes “better reading” in a task-by-task form that your child can understand.  Better reading is no longer “intangible” — it is visible.

You should introduce your child to this rubric and tell your child that at first you will only be scoring the first line’s reading problem — “leaving out words.”  Explain how the scoring system will work.  The child is to read a 200-word passage that you have chosen.  You will make a tally mark each time the child omits a word.  Since you are taping, you can replay the tape and show the child the tally marks for each error as the tape plays.  You will tally up the errors, and that total determines the “grade.”  The child should then listen to the tape a second time and mark down by himself how many words were left out.  The total becomes the daily “grade.” If your child asks for a second chance, hide your desire to do jumping jacks, and just say “yes.” Let the child choose which performance is the “final” grade!  He has thus accepted the whole point of using the rubric — to improve reading!

The next week or when the child achieves an “A” or “B” (whichever comes first), you will add as part of the grade the second reading problem: “substitutes wrong words.”  The scoring bar is raised so that his reading will be graded on TWO skills at the same time, and it will take no more than three errors in each skill to get an “A” grade.  You should explain that now the total score must be a 0-6 in order to earn an “A.”  Anything from 7-10 (the total of the two highest numbers in that box) earns a “B,” 11-14 earns a C, and so on.

This process is repeated weekly — or at regular intervals — until the child can make fewer than 18 errors in all to get an A (six skills with no more than three points per skill), while more than 48 errors (six skills times eight errors) means a “D.”

The system is very easy to understand, and you can establish your own items for scoring.  It is empowering to the child to know what is expected, and to be able to improve his performance and the grade he receives for oral reading.

Removing Dependent “crutch-like” Behaviors

One teaching practice will help undo a child’s negative “Whole Language” reading habits.  Have the child read aloud facing away from you.  Younger children will enjoy sitting in your lap, while older elementary students can sit alongside you. 

Use reading material at the level where your child placed on his evaluation.  It must not be too hard — but it must be unfamiliar.  One option is to scan schoolbook pages and delete all the pictures!  You may choose to keep the book nearby and show pictures after the page has been read! 

When the child misreads a word, lightly tap above the word and keep your finger there until the word is corrected.  Move your finger along one word at a time as the child reads.  You may provide sounds for letters or even words they do not know, after giving them plenty of time to attempt it alone.  Be certain, however, that child looks at the word and re-reads it correctly before going ahead.  If the meaning seems to have been lost by the time a word is corrected, lead the child to read the entire sentence again by gently tapping the first word.  This tapping motion becomes a silent signal that lets your child recognize there is an error without distracting him from remembering what he is reading. 

If you are not sure whether he understood the sentence or paragraph, ask him to restate what the sentence was about in his own words.  This can be difficult for some learning disabled students who struggle with putting ideas into words — in such a case it may be necessary to ask leading questions instead of asking for restatement.

Reading Games for Making Progress Enjoyable

As you improve your child’s reading habits, you can introduce many playful elements that are fun, educationally sound, and create a challenge.  Tell the child you will try to trick him so you can see if he is paying attention.  Try reading to the child (as he follows along), but intentionally insert an obviously silly word from time to time!  (Example: “Hickory, dickory dock, the dog ran up the clock!”)  Keep a straight face and don’t alter your pace or voice (if you can manage it!).  If your child is following well, he will be able to “catch” you — and this increases his self-confidence.  This is a great teaching strategy to apply when a child’s attention is wandering on other studies too!

“BEEP” is another reading game that teaches the child to follow accurately and helps a child “save face” when encountering a difficult new word or passage.  Again, you should read a passage with the child facing away from you so he cannot rely on your face to help him see if he guesses correctly.  Explain to the child that you will read and that you are suddenly going to stop and say, “BEEP.”  Explain that upon hearing the word “BEEP,” the child should begin reading the very next word after the one you completed.  If the child has been accurately tracking along with you, he or she will start in the correct place.  This back-and-forth reading activity lets children hear how you phrase, how you use inflection of your voice, and how carefully and correctly you read each word.  As your child reads, he can then read and decide when to “BEEP” the story back to you.  [A word of caution: If you don’t set the rules in advance, your child will become mischievous enough to try reading only a couple of words before saying “BEEP.”]  This can be quite a lot of fun.  It reinforces many good reading habits, and corrects “Whole Language” habits of guessing, “reading” text that has been memorized, and substituting similar but wrong words.

As you can see, there are many options that parents can employ to develop improved reading habits.  The website has many articles with more ideas for teaching beginning reading skills, as well as articles that explain in more detail the differences between phonics-based and whole-language based reading programs.

For an in-depth exploration of the problems with Whole Language based reading programs, you may choose to read one of the following resources:

Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print, Marilyn Jager Adams, MIT Press.  This is a very lengthy volume, but it does a marvelous job of explaining why the phonics-based system of teaching reading is a necessary foundation. — This is a good, brief page summarizing the benefits of a phonics-based reading approach with several important links. — The testimony of nationally famous Dr. Reid Lyons before the National Institute of Child Health and Development, where he lays out clearly the important reasons why most reading programs in public school are failing children today.  Very persuasive and compelling reading. — a review of the fallacies of the whole-language based techniques.  Helpful links.

Final Thoughts — Good Points about Whole Language

While the Whole Language approach does not provide a strong foundation for about 30% of the children who are introduced to reading, it does have several positive characteristics that must be mentioned.  The assumption that young readers can create their own structures for unlocking the sounds of our English reading code may not be right for all young learners, but the strategies that are taught by teachers using the approach are highly effective for strengthening comprehension once a child has learned the basics from a good phonics program.  The phonics program should come first, teaching decoding of letters and words, syllable rules, and use of explicitly taught reading strategies.

The main characteristics of Whole Language have been mentioned earlier — it emphasizes using context and pictures, and encourages guessing to “read” (“figure out”) unknown words.  Memorizing sight words and putting them on word walls make reading more efficient.  By themselves, however, these techniques are insufficient for teaching beginning readers to read new words on pages that lack pictures or to read words in lists, i.e., in isolation.  By fourth grade, texts get harder and there are fewer pictures.  They may include more “word walls” to help the child recall how to pronounce new words, but word walls won’t help a child who can’t read the words on those walls.

Whole Language strategies, however, can be useful strategies for improving comprehension when a student encounters a new word in a subject area textbook, such as history or science.  Sentences surrounding a new vocabulary word are typically composed by textbook authors to explain the new word in context, but students must be taught how to use the context.  Other textbook study helps, such as bold print, picture captions, sub-headings and titles are additional study helps emphasized by teachers in Whole Language programs.  These are important aspects of reading comprehension that are seldom a part of purely phonics-based decoding (word-reading) reading programs.  Once a child has mastered the elements of sounding out words, blending sounds into words and syllables into longer words, the basic building blocks are in place for reading comprehension — to understand ideas.  Combining the foundational strengths of a phonics-based reading program with the useful tools from Whole Language programs produces, in the end, effective and competent readers.  One without the other is an inadequate approach to teaching reading.