Five years ago, I was teaching a Year 2 class in New Zealand. One of my students was a quiet, polite six-year-old boy. Early reading assessment indicated that his alphabet knowledge was limited to the first sound in his name. It was a J, which is the letter I will use to refer to him.
My friends who are not teachers often think of assessment as the test at the end of learning a subject, but it actually plays a far more holistic role in teaching. The test is just the end result, and teaching is all about the journey.
When starting a new class, initial assessment is utterly necessary to find a baseline for each student, though I always treat it with a pinch of salt, as we are still getting used to each other. I wondered at the time if J could do more than he was saying, and just needed space to come out of his shell.
When it became clear a week in, that, barring his first initial, he hadn’t yet learnt any alphabet letters or sounds, we had our next step and we could go forth and conquer the reading world.
At first, it was an immense challenge, more due to his confidence (or lack of it) than anything else. J was phobic about reading, because he just didn’t understand how this page of squiggles was supposed to mean anything. He could pick one letter out of the ether, but even that felt quite scary to him. He found it easier to just pretend he could read.
He explained how he pretend-read to me much later, and I found myself marvelling at how much effort and intelligence went into him ‘doing’ reading convincingly. He showed me how he used to pick up the book, how to cock his head to one side as if in deep thought, and how to count back from ten on each page to indicate he’d perhaps read it. By carefully studying the reading behaviours of others, he’d taught himself how best to avoid reading.
Together, J and I began to work on letter and sound recognition, but because J’s default behaviour towards reading was avoidance, I desperately needed a hook to get through to him. Something more interesting and consuming than his fear. His reserved nature made gleaning his interests difficult, but I was with him every day, which helped.
The way into reading for him was unexpected. A student came into the class at the beginning of the day with an insect native to New Zealand, called a Weta, perched on her arm. She didn’t know it was there, and when she discovered it, she screeched. J was instantly transfixed, so much so that he asked me questions about it, which was a huge step for him.
It was a huge step for me too. I finally had a way into his mind.
Now that I had found an interest big enough to drown out his instinctive fear of reading, J learnt to read surprisingly quickly. I realised that perhaps the effort he had put into flying under the radar and pretending at ‘doing’ reading was now being used to do something much more interesting – to learn about the strange, six-legged creature that came into our lives on his unwitting classmate’s shoulder and made him want – desperately – to know more.
The first book he read with a degree of independence was about a jungle explorer with the same name as him. It was a reader I had to borrow from a friend of a friend, but it was worth the two phone calls. The character having the same name as his meant the absolute world to him. And finding a way into his clever, questioning mind? That meant the absolute world to me