Failing Students or Failing Schools?

IMG_0543Just imagine a child’s excitement when he is ready to begin school.  Perhaps he watched cartoons and children’s shows depicting fun-filled school days filled with learning and activities, listened to his friends, parents, and siblings talk about school, and watched the school bus pick up children on the block.  And now the time has come for him to get on the bus too!  He is so proud to have a backpack like the big kids, and he is excited that he will learn to read and write.  On the first day of school, parents and caregivers gather outside snapping pictures, smiling, and waving goodbye until the bus takes off. Unfortunately, for this child and many other children, the smiles and laughter of that first day quickly dissipate as the school year proceeds.  What happens to that light-hearted child and his hopes and dreams of school being a joyous place, where each day would be filled with learning and laughter?

Perhaps that child began school with some speech and language delays.  He might have had a hard time remembering the alphabet or recognizing rhymes in preschool.  Maybe he never understood that all those squiggly lines in a book represented sounds in our language.   Now that same child tries to follow along with his classmates as the teacher points out words that will be in little books that they will have to read on their own. He becomes easily distracted because the lessons do not hold his attention.  He just isn’t picking up words or making the connection between letters and sounds, or remembering how to write letters or hold onto to words for any length of time.  He tries to entertain himself with the pencils in his desk or little toys that he hid in his jacket.  The day seems to feel longer and longer.  He recognizes the disappointment on his teacher’s face, but he can’t seem to stay focused when the lessons are not making sense.  The child’s parents cannot hide their concern, and the child can sense that they are feeling anxious.  The child internalizes those feelings, and now he feels very much alone.

The parents reach out to the teacher numerous times to see if there is anything they can do to help their child.  The teacher suggests reading aloud to the child each night and helping the child remember the weekly lists of high-frequency words that appear in the little books organized from A – Z.  The parents dutifully listen and are heartened when the child moves up from an A to a B book.  They notice, however, that his writing is still illegible, and he is not showing that he understands how letters are connected to sounds.  Sometimes he is able to remember the first letter of a word or the last letter, but the middle of the word is just jumbled.  Over time, he gets very good at looking at the pictures and predicting what might happen, but the parents notice that he loses his place often and does not really pay attention to the words.  Again, the parents meet with the teacher.  She tells them what she is doing to help him in the classroom:  using rhyming books with high repetition, pausing when reading so he fills in the refrain, previewing titles and pictures before attempting to read, pre-teaching background information, giving him free choice to read so the material is of high interest, encouraging silent reading for the gist of the story, and allowing him to orally respond to questions.  It sounds reasonable to the parents, and they appreciate that the teacher is doing everything she can to help.  They ask for extra help for their child, and she recommends a seasoned special education teacher to tutor him.  The parents hire the teacher but soon notice she is using the same strategies and getting the same results.  Nothing is working.

Now the child is in third grade, not reading, except for the limited words he was able to memorize. He sits slumped over in his chair, head on the desk, and walks looking down at his feet hoping the school day ends and looking forward to Thanksgiving.  He has an IEP and is classified with a Specific Learning Disability. The child’s mother begins to do research and sees that there is a different way to teach children who struggle with reading, writing, and spelling.  Desperate to help her child, she decides to give tutoring one more try.

This story epitomizes what I see on a daily basis.  Within six months of tutoring, this child learned to read.   This is not a miracle.  This is not a lie.  This is not an aberration.  This is what can happen when children are taught how to read, spell, and write explicitly.  This is what can happen when reading is taught in a structured, sequential, and systematic way.

Who is failing?  The students are made to feel like there is something wrong with them, and parents are made to feel like they haven’t done enough to help.  If a child can begin to read with a different approach, why isn’t this approach available to all children?  In my soon to be released book, Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention, I take the reader through my own journey and share what I have learned over the last thirty years in education.  No parent or child should have to suffer when there are proven strategies that work for all children.  No teacher should feel as though he or she is not effective when there is training available that can change the trajectory for the hard-to-reach child.

My book will be available soon.  I hope that it will be an impetus for change:  for parents to stand up and demand better instruction, for teachers to insist on structured literacy training and materials, and for administrators to understand that low reading scores are not the fault of the teacher, the child, or parents.  It is my dream that all children will begin that first day of school with a smile and never feel the downward cycle of defeat and failure.

Faith Borkowsky, Founder and Lead Educational Consultant of High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching, is a Certified Dyslexia Practitioner, is Orton-Gillingham trained, and has extensive training and experience in a number of other research-based, peer-reviewed programs that have produced positive gains for students with dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, ADD/ADHD, and a host of learning difficulties. Visit her website:




2 thoughts on “Failing Students or Failing Schools?

  1. Me says:

    Congratulations! Can’t wait to purchase and read your second book!!
    This would have been a beautiful situation for me and so many other children who were failed by our horrible public school system. It’s disgusting how many middle schoolers don’t have basic Phonics skills and can’t read.
    The public schools love their building level reading and WILL not mention the word ‘dyslexia’…
    Cost too much to remedy .

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