“Okay class…I would like you to turn to page 394 in your science books. I will be calling on each of you to read a paragraph.”
This phrase is one we have all experienced as students in school. We have all waited to be called upon either by surprise, or knowing, that the teacher would want us to read aloud to the class. For some of us this wasn’t a big deal, but for others it was an experience that brought about a multitude of emotions. Stress. Fear. Anxiety. Embarrassment. Outright terror.
When I was younger, reading was something of an escape for me. A chance to immerse myself in a different world, a different time, a different life. It allowed me to explore thoughts and feelings through the lens of a character. I was able to find a deep, appreciative love of literature and it is something I still love today.
My sister’s experience with reading, however, was incredibly different from my own. While reading came to me with such ease, reading to her became an anxiety-ridden experience based on embarrassment and fear. I asked her what reading aloud was like for her and she said, “The anxiety I had when we had to randomly read out loud was crippling. I was so worried I would be called on and have to read out loud, which I was not good at. I fumbled over each word. My brain would be looking at the next word while my mind was still trying to say the word before. I was always stumbling, and it was embarrassing. This followed me up until college.”
Watching my sister struggle with reading undoubtedly shaped my teaching practice. When I was in college I knew that I wanted to work in elementary education, but my experiences with my sister, other people in my school and friends helped shape my desire to pursue special education.
Over the course of the last 10 years, I have had many experiences with different students, different exceptionalities and different schools, but the experiences I had at Holly Springs Elementary School helped to cement and guide my path as a teacher. During the 2015-2016 school year, I had the great pleasure of having a group of students that would change my life. At the start of the school year I met Klaire, a bright, tenacious and hard-working 4th grader.
At the beginning of the school year, there is always the beginning-of-school testing that happens to benchmark the students to find their working levels for math and reading. After all of this was done, I was looking over Klaire’s results and I noticed that there were areas of concern when it came to her reading. Her sight word fluency was very erratic, she had splintered decoding skills and her fluency rate was between 40 and 50 words per minute. I formulated a plan to start working on her skills and I knew that she would rise to the challenge. She was that kind of girl.
When we started that school year, I had a rule that I would never ask the students to read out loud unless we all agreed as a class that they would like to do that. The sheer look of relaxation that came over their faces told me all I needed to know about that decision. I told them that we were going to approach this year with confidence, a positive attitude and high expectations that I expected them to work towards.
That brings me back to Klaire and the expectation that I set for her. When we sat down to talk about her goals, I told her that there would be ones that I would set and ones that she could set for herself. I set goals related to decoding skills and fluency and then I asked her what goals she wanted to set for herself. What she said humbled me in a way that I still can feel when I think about her. “Ms. Pittman, I just want to learn how to read,” Klaire said. “I want to be sitting in homeroom and reading like all the other kids. I don’t want to have to look around and wonder what it’s like to really be able to read.” I knew right then and there that I would do whatever I could to help her achieve that goal.
During the 2015-2016 school year, I had started using Microsoft’s Immersive Reader and OneNote as my teaching platform. Everything that we did was housed in the OneNote and the students were able to use the Immersive Reader to be independent readers and thinkers. Microsoft’s Immersive Reader could not have come at a better time for my kids, especially Klaire.
You see, I have wished for a tool like the Immersive Reader for what seems like an eternity. The thing to remember about struggling readers, is that independence in the classroom is something they see other students have, but cannot experience for themselves. When you are asked to read a 4th grade level passage, and your reading skills are on a 1st grade level, you must rely on the teacher or other students to help you work with that material. The Immersive Reader is a comprehensive set of tools that addresses text size, spacing, contrast and a built-in text reader all on one tool. Not only does the tool have amazing capabilities for fostering independence for struggling readers, but it also helps to engage the students in content and allow for the students to focus on comprehension and not solely on decoding the words.
When we started using Immersive Reader and OneNote, my classroom was transformed from a teacher-controlled environment to a teacher-facilitator role. I was able to allow my students to take control of their own learning because they now had a tool they could use to be independent learners.
The one child who really took to this was Klaire. I still remember the moment Klaire realized that she was going to be able to have that homeroom reading experience. It was late December, close to Christmas break, and I was working with a group at my back table. Klaire was working on an assignment, and suddenly, she burst into tears. At first, I thought maybe something had happened, so I jumped out of my seat and ran to her. At this point, she was sobbing uncontrollably and it took her a minute to calm down. I grabbed a tissue and wiped the tears from her face. When she was ready, she told me what was happening. She looked at me with her tear-stained face and watery eyes and said, “Ms. Pittman, I can do it. I can read. I was sitting here working on my assignment and I realized that I never even turned on the reader. I did it, I read it by myself.” In that moment, a calm came over me like I had never experienced before. I knew Klaire was going to do great things.
I remember looking Klaire in the eyes, holding back my own tears, and telling her, “You’re going to be amazing, Klaire Bear.” And she is. Klaire is an amazing young woman. She stayed with me the following year and as a 5th grader, Klaire realized her dream of being an immersed reader in homeroom. During the school book fair that year she bought a series of books about a rowdy panda and soon had completed the series and was able to move on to new books. She was able to make the jump from resource to co-taught reading and is making incredible strides in middle school.
Children who struggle with reading are looking at an immovable mountain of emotions that they are trying to climb. They need someone to climb with them, someone to fight for them and guide them when the climb seems impossible. They need gear to help them find confidence, like Klaire did with the Immersive Reader, and they need the skills you teach them to reach the summit of success.
Someone once told me that Klaire’s experience was all due to me, and I politely told this person, “No. It’s the fighting spirit in Klaire that matched the fighting spirit in me and together we were able to move mountains.”
At the end of that school year, my students read aloud Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and together we conquered the fear. Together we experienced the joy of reading.