Students who struggle with reading, or perhaps anything, do so for different reasons. The most rewarding and interesting part of my graduate work in literacy was learning how to diagnose and then design appropriate lessons for individual students who struggled with reading or writing and find ways to solve their problems or at least get around them.

As a core classroom teacher, there is little time to delve so deeply into individual student’s troubles, especially when the difficulties require extensive diagnostic testing and tutoring to overcome. But sometimes the difficulty and its solution are not so elusive and can be remedied fairly simply.

I have worked with several students, for example, who simply needed glasses. This is easy to detect if you observe your students while they’re working. Usually you will see students squinting when trying to read the board—an obvious give away. Many might think this is too obvious to mention, but I worked sometimes with 8th graders who sat in the back row squinting and no one in the school to that point had taken notice or worked to solve the problem.

Once I had a student, however, who never squinted at the board, but whenever she had to read at her seat from a handout or book, she literally took her thumb and forefinger and physically opened her left eye so that it was open wider than normal. After seeing her do this on more than one occasion, I asked the nurse to test her eyes. Sure enough, one eye was seriously impaired compared to the other. Her body was quite naturally reacting to try to increase the vision in her impaired eye.

I have also had students who could not hear well, and when you consider that reading is most fundamentally a phonological skill, this can be a serious obstacle to effective reading. We learn our alphabet as a set of sounds that correspond to certain symbols. So any infection or injury that may have impacted a child’s ears in his or her early years could also have an impact on the child’s ability to identify sounds.

Hearing issues impact learning in other ways as well. One student I tutored was not enunciating very clearly and it turned out she had several complications but one of them which may have been related was that she had allergies, which in turn caused her a good bit of congestion, which in turn caused her hearing to be seriously impaired for several months during the school year. The degree of the impairment was likely affecting her learning in many ways. There was no visible sign to alert an observer how badly this was impacting her hearing other than her speech. She was a quiet student and very shy. She rarely volunteered in class. I had her assessed for hearing because she was so congested, and I was hoping she could get some decongestants if it was documented that she had hearing loss. It was.

A sixth grade student I had once had been told as an elementary student that since she liked listening to books on tape, she could listen to the books she read for class instead of reading them.  She tended to choose only books with accompanying tapes, and became a very passive reader as a result. Yet when I tested her, she had no fluency problems or reading problems that would necessitate audio books as an intervention. So we stopped that right away.

I worked with a fourth grade student who had a fairly easy problem to fix, but it took me a few sessions with her one-on-one to notice what her problem was. Her mother came to me saying she was bright, read well and a lot, but when it came to testing, she always failed her benchmarks.  As I worked with her I discovered that when she read, what interfered with her comprehension was what I. A. Richards in Practical Criticism called “mnemonic irrelevances.” This is when the reader is diverted by irrelevant personal experiences or feelings that s/he associates to the material. She did what a lot of teachers try to teach students to do as a comprehension skill (namely, to personally connect to the reading) only she did it to such excess that it was difficult for her to focus on the main idea of the author.  I witnessed her doing this as we read  together a passage of a few pages, so I suggested that she make a note in the margin about what each paragraph was about as she read. She tried this and found she could answer almost all questions correctly. Giving her the task of taking notes forced her to stay focused on the author’s point and not all her related experiences. She aced her next benchmark.

I’d be interested in hearing from other readers of this blog what difficulties you notice students having or what kinds of reading difficulties you have noticed or solved. It is fascinating to discover all the different ways we approach the same skill.  What reading story can you tell?