Addressing Cynical Students

Providing Real Help to Struggling Readers

Many parents and teachers feel discouraged when their enthusiasm for the Logic of English is not met with equal enthusiasm by their struggling reader or speller. As the student's parent or teacher, you see the advantage of teaching spelling rules and phonograms and may feel very excited about teaching. Nevertheless you must respect your student's cynicism. Written English has not made sense to them and the years of struggle have added up. Likely this is not the first time someone has announced that a new curriculum, program, or tutor will help them. Many students have repeatedly been disappointed. They have developed a cynical attitude with good reason.

Rather than confronting their cynical attitude, embrace it as a healthy response from someone who has repeatedly met disappointment. Understand that the pain of failure in basic skills like reading or spelling is not overcome in a day or a week.

Here are a few tips for working with cynical, struggling students:

Introduce the Phonograms Quickly. Do not linger on teaching only phonograms, or wait until the student has mastered them to begin teaching words. Struggling students need to see a purpose behind what they are learning. They need to experience how the phonograms and rules work together to build words and see that these rules explain a majority of words. Teach A-Z and then immediately begin to demonstrate how they are used to build words. Add in multi-letter phonograms quickly and teach the student to spell words that use them. It is only by seeing the phonograms consistently used in hundreds of words that the student will be won over.

Bear the Burden. Children and teens who struggle with reading are carrying a heavy emotional burden. Too often we blame struggling students and tell them they are not working hard enough. This only serves to increase the shame and emotional damage. Rather than pushing them and adding to their burden, apologize to the student for not providing instruction that has made sense to them. This is not meant to guilt the parents or teachers, but to acknowledge that we are adults and can carry part of the burden for the child. As teachers and parents we need to remember that we could not teach what we did not know. It is not our fault. But now we have new answers that will make a difference. Apologizing is a way to acknowledge the student's pain and to bear part of the emotional burden for them.

Explain They are Not Alone. Though 60% of our nation's students read below grade level, most students secretly believe they are the only ones who do not get it. Recently, I began tutoring a fifth grader who struggles with reading and spelling. One day he opened up and began to lament how stupid he felt because of his struggles. I responded by drawing a circle on the board. I divided the circle into thirds. I colored in one part and said, "This is how many students in school cannot read and understand a text." I colored in a second part and said, "This is how many students are struggling and cannot read at grade level." I then pointed to the blank area and said, "This is how many students read well." The boy got up and drew an X in the lower area of the "struggling" students and announced, "This is me. I can read, but it is very difficult. I am slow and there are a lot of words I do not understand. I had no idea I am not alone."

Stop Torture Reading. If the student has never learned the phonograms and rules that govern words, reading is akin to torture. It is torture for the student and for the person who is helping them. So often the student is blindly guessing at the words. The listener often responds by simply reading the unknown words for the student and frequently saying, "That's an exception." If this approach has not worked for the last several years, stop and try a new one. Put away books for a few weeks and teach the phonograms and spelling rules. When students know the 106 tools that build words, then take out a book. Now when a student comes to an unknown word, they will have a strategy to decode the word. When the student forgets, the teacher or parent will then be able to guide the student using the rules and phonograms and to provide a logical explanation for difficult words.

As teachers and parents we need to understand that our students' struggles are not out of lack of trying or serious character flaws. In fact many of these students are working much harder than students who read well. They are guessing, using higher order thinking skills, trying to put together a complex puzzle without hints, and hurting because they believe that everyone but them gets it. Recognize their intelligence, affirm their efforts, and provide real help for learning to read and spell. Teach the phonograms and spelling rules that provide real explanations and help.