[Editor’s note and disclaimer: This is another in an occasional series of interviews with readers, reading specialists, and educators. The content for this two-part post came from an interview conducted by Miriam Ruff on October 4, 2020, and it has been edited somewhat for length and fluency.]
MR: Thanks for being with us and sharing your insights into reading and reading instruction. Let’s start at the beginning. At what age did you start reading? Did you learn in school, or did your parents teach you before?
LK: I was 7-8 years old. I struggled with reading and needed help with phonics. There is a family history of dyslexia, ADHD, and Autism. I struggled mostly with not understanding the rules of reading. We had a tutor help me when I was late first, early second grade. Once I was more versed in the rules of phonics, it all seemed to click and I became a very avid reader.
MR: Did your parents read to you as a child? And what were some of your favorite books or type of books to read jointly?
LK: Yes, reading was part of our nightly routine. Favorite authors and books: Walter Farley, Marguerite Henry, The Secret Garden.
MR: Do you think reading to children makes a difference in their willingness or ability to read fluently?
LK: I think children learn by example, and establishing reading as a family event is helpful for giving them that example. If they don’t see you enjoying reading, they will be less likely to try reading for enjoyment themselves
MR: Let’s turn now to instruction. When did you become interested in teaching as a profession, and how did you arrive at being a Special Education instructor? Were you “sparked” by a particular teacher you had?
LK: I was always pretending to be the teacher from a very early age. So I have wanted to teach longer than my oldest memories. Special education became an interest around 4th-5th grade because I was allowed to spend my recess in the special education classroom at my school to avoid bullies. I think the reason I have focused on Autism specifically has to do with my own learning journey. Teaching students with autism is very dependent on structuring the learning from the ground up. Much like my own need in not understanding the rules of reading intrinsically, it’s the same for those with autism, but not just for reading, it’s for multiple learning areas. I love making it easier for these kids to understand the “rules” of learning.
I was sparked by that teacher who let me volunteer, but she wasn’t my teacher, just someone who wanted to help. I was moved to see her finding ways to shape and mold children with a lot of struggles in life. It was a multiple disability class. There were a wide variety of needs from moderate to severe, but she figured out ways to help them learn at their level. Watching these kids make progress was like seeing magic happen.
MR: What grade(s) do you teach, and what exactly is involved in reading instruction at that level/those levels (during normal times)?
LK: I currently have 2nd-12th in sped [Ed. Special education]. I mostly teach social skills, but I also like to teach general extended school year regularly. I also assist other self-contained special education teachers. I basically am exposed to/assisting with reading instruction from the ground up. Often even having to re-teach or structure reading instruction differently than most classrooms.
MR: We’ve recently run a series called [The Science of Reading] that talked about best practice instruction strategies for emergent readers. I wonder if you could weigh in with your thoughts about the core topics: phonics, vocabulary and comprehension, and fluency.
LK: Phonics is imperative for emerging readers; if they don’t understand how to decipher those sounds, learning new words becomes increasingly harder. Vocabulary is helpful for specific content areas. Comprehension is just as imperative as reading basics. Skills like visualizing, making predictions, actively questioning, and making connections while reading are what makes reading enjoyable as well as informative. Without these skills, the meaning of the reading can often be lost or overwhelming. Fluency lends more to reading understanding than people often give it credit for. A fluent reader can decipher new words using context clues easily and better understand the meaning of what they are reading. Cadence, tone, pausing, all lend to better understanding of what is being read, thus supporting comprehension too.
MR: What is your “Ahah!” moment when you’re teaching, when you know you’ve reached a student?
LK: When they begin generalizing strategies across settings. [It’s] that point where they are starting to sound out, use context clues, or make those connections when not in an isolated exercise.
MR: Do you use any online text, or do you work exclusively from printed material? What about homework?
LK: I use a variety of technology. Reading a-z is heavily supported in our county as well as myon.
I personally don’t assign homework but that is for my own students. When I was teaching elementary regularly, I often worked with the more severe population, and I felt that the families had enough trouble getting them through regular routines so I didn’t regularly assign homework then either.
MR: How do you interact with parents concerned about their children’s ability to read?
LK: I listen first, then paraphrase their concerns so they know I’ve heard them, then I bring their other teachers in on the conversation with the parents on possible next steps.
MR: Do you recommend parent-student work at home? What would that look like?
LK: Yes to some extent. I think it depends on how the parents assist their students. They need to be encouraged to support but not do the work for their students.
It’s best if students have access to structured activities via technology or workbook. Parent support would need to be focused on reminding the students about the specific strategies being taught, i.e. if they are learning to find the main idea using the first and last sentences in a paragraph, the parents should remind them to look there but not interpret the information for them. It’s an extended opportunity to encourage students to perfect the routines associated with such strategies. If it’s a phonetic sound being learned, the parents could model the mouth shape associated with the specific sound while the student reads.
Next week: Interview with Leah King, Part 2 (teaching during COVID)