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Book Review

When Kids Cant Read: What Teachers Can DoA Guide for Teachers 612

For Kylene Beers, the question of what to do when kids can’t read surfaced abruptly in 1979 when she began teaching. That year, she discovered that some of the students in her 7th-grade language arts classes could pronounce all the words, but couldn’t make any sense of the text. Others couldn’t even pronounce the words. And that was the year she met a boy named George.

George couldn’t read. When George’s parents asked her to explain what their son’s reading difficulties were and what she was going to do to help, Beers, a secondary certified English teacher with no background in reading, realized she had little to offer the parents, even less to offer their son. That defining moment sent her on a 23-year search foranswers to that original question: How do we help middle and high schoolers who can’t read?

In When Kids Can’t Read—What Teachers Can Do: A Guide for Teachers 6–12, Beers shares what she has learned and shows teachers how they can help struggling readers with comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, word recognition, and motivation.

Here, Beers offers teachers the comprehensive handbook they’ve needed to help readers improve their skills, their attitudes, and their confidence. Filled with student transcripts, detailed strategies, reproducible material, and extensive booklists, this guide to teaching reading both instructs and inspires.

I cringed a little as I started reading this book. Beers’s story about George, the kid who couldn’t read, and her inability to help him, reminded me of the many Georges (most of them unidentified) who drifted through my classroom over the course of my career. At one point I decided it would be a good idea to give my students a reading assessment test at the beginning of the year. That idea was short lived, though, when I realized I had no idea what to do to help the students who had reading difficulties.

Like Beers, my own education did not include even a single course in the teaching of reading. My courses consisted primarily of literature classes, with a little grammar and criticism thrown in. None of the courses I took had anything to do with teaching kids that one skill that is fundamental to acquiring all education: how to decode the written word.

When I walked into my own classroom for the first time, I assumed, as Beers writes she did, that my students would come to me as proficient readers. How else could they have become high school seniors? When some didn’t do well on tests and written assignments about the literature we studied, I assumed they hadn’t applied themselves somehow.

Looking back at my career, I have to say I feel remiss at not having been more astute. How could I not have been more aware of the struggles some of my students had at understanding the literature I assigned them? Sure, some of the stuff I gave them was difficult: Shakespeare and Hawthorne, and Huckleberry Finn, for example. But, some of my kids struggled, not because the texts I gave them were particularly difficult, but because the process of decoding any written text was difficult. I do understand, though, that even if I had understood this, I was singularly unequipped to help them. I simply didn’t know anything about the teaching of reading.

I also realize that I was not alone. I don’t recall any of my colleagues in the various departments of my school, except the ones who were officially designated as reading teachers, who worked methodically at improving students’ reading skills. Oh, sure, many of us assigned vocabulary lists and passed out questions for the readings we assigned, but these practices are not at all the same thing as teaching the kids how to tease the meaning out of the assigned material.

At one point in her book, Beers writes about being in a middle school to help the language arts teachers with vocabulary instruction. The principal told her the teachers were spending a lot of time teaching vocabulary, and he was spending a lot of money on vocabulary workbooks, but they just weren’t seeing any results. “Most important,” he said, our poorest readers, who are getting the strongest dose of vocabulary instruction, are still our poorest readers.”

Beers met with the language arts teachers and learned that they all assigned between 15 and 20 words for their students to learn each week. “Students were expected to learn the words by looking up the definitions in the dictionary and writing them in their vocabulary notebooks or by completing the exercises in the workbook. It all sounded very familiar.” Familiar, indeed. This describes the vocabulary instruction I got when I was in elementary school during the Eisenhower administration.

Beers got the teachers to agree to learn the assigned lists two weeks before the kids got them. Then they were to use the words in class before the lists were assigned. Four weeks after this experiment started, they all met again. The teachers admitted how difficult memorizing all of the words was. One commented that she didn’t even use the words on the lists.

“Then a critical thing happened. Another teacher responded, ‘Yeah, but the kids don’t feel that bad because they don’t ever really have to use the words….’ She stopped, her words hanging in the air. No one said anything, but folks nodded in the dawning understanding. She continued, ‘O my God, that’s it, isn’t it? I never really expected that they’d learn them to actually use them. It never bothered me that there were so many, because I always must have known deep down that they were only learning them for a test. Not to really use them.’”

As a result of this epiphany, they decided to reduce the number of words assigned each week and to keep using the words before the kids saw them. “The results: Students began using the words long before they were introduced in the workbooks, and when they got to the workbooks, the students made comments like, ‘Look, we know this word already,’ or ‘These lists are getting easier,’ or ‘Oh, they think this is important just like you do.’ Students remembered the words longer, as borne out by unit test scores. Furthermore, students began using the words in both their oral language and their written language.”

When Kids Can’t Read is filled with “O my God” moments. Teachers reading it will recognize students with familiar reading difficulties. They will find some of their own practices, good ones and bad ones; and most important, they will find practical, concrete instructions on how to diagnose reading difficulties and specific practices to help ameliorate them.

If I were a principal, I would buy enough of these books for my entire staff (in all of the academic departments in middle and high school), and we would have a workshop on reading instruction. Teachers could select the parts of the book most applicable to the reading students do in their classes. Teachers of advanced courses might object that their students are already proficient readers, but there are helpful instructions and practices here for teachers at all levels. My guess is that conducting such a workshop would not only improve grades across the board, it would also advance schools towards today’s educational Holy Grail: improved standardized test scores.