Differences in Teaching Reading – Young vs. Older

: If you deal with young people at all, make time to read the following in its entirety. It is only slightly edited from the original post/
ORIGINAL POST QUESTION: You work with older alternative students as well as with young children. Can you explain the difference between working with them?
I’d love to tell you a bit about the new job that Darlene and I took on. Although in this particular job we make great use of the three principles of positivity, choice, reflection, we aren’t using the program to handle discipline problems in the same way as we do with our primary students. I’ll have to describe the job, the students, and the school to make sense of that for you.

I teach almost full time, sharing two jobs with a partner teacher. We take turns teaching K/1 for half the week, and for most of the other half of the week we teach 16-19 year olds who either couldn’t read at all when we first met them or couldn’t read much past a primary level. Many people think that we have two quite opposite jobs, but we find that in many ways they are very similar.

In both schools we teach exactly the same reading skills in almost exactly the same way. Although many of our older students have beards and in some cases children of their own, their maturity level is often not much more than that of our little kids. Definitely, our older students are much more emotionally fragile than any of the smaller kids whom we have in our primary job. We must always keep this in mind or we couldn’t work with them at all. They are extremely sensitive and very rigid in their thinking.

Almost all of them have “hardened hearts,” as Dr. Gordon Neufeld would say, and it took a lot of time before they began to “soften” even the slightest bit. In the beginning, it was rough. Many of them didn’t accept us easily, and it wasn’t until nearer to the end of the year that some of them would even call us by our names. Many of them never did this year, but I suspect that in our second year at the school they’ll find it easier to be “personal” with us.

Often I found my eyes welling up with tears on the way home from this school thinking about the harsh lives that these young people have lived. One of our favourite students, a 16 year old who is due to have a baby in August, had her mom die of multiple sclerosis in the last week of school. She has been nursing her mother almost single-handedly since she was about 12 years old. She had only been to school about 60 days total in the last two years. Another boy from a very violent family lost his dad to an alcoholic suicide. His father threw himself in front of a train when this boy was eight. Each one has their own story to tell. Every story is full of pain, frustration, anger, and disappointment. When I go home, I often spend time to think of how unbelievably fortunate my own children are simply for the “boring” normality of their lives.

The school has about 150 students “on the books” but with attendance a huge problem, on a typical day there might only be about 30-40 students in attendance. Almost every one of the students attend this school because they have been expelled for behaviour reasons from two of the five regular high schools in our district. There are also a few “genius” type kids who have been picked on in regular schools and so have found this school to be a refuge.

Half of the students have “labels” such as “Extreme Mental Illness,” “Extreme Behaviour,” “Learning Disabled,” etc. The other half would meet the requirement of a label but don’t have one simply because many of their previous schools wouldn’t have had them tested—either because they were such poor attenders or because their families wouldn’t have known to insist on testing. Probably at least 95% of them come from very dysfunctional homes and as a result many live on their own, are in foster care, or move from relative to relative or friend to friend. Drugs, alcohol, smoking, run-ins with the law are all part of daily life for almost all of these students.

Many of them are hungry, too. Although the school runs a breakfast program for the cost of $1.00 and a student can receive a great meal every morning, the students we see are so poor and come from such unbelievable homes that they can’t usually afford to eat—even at this great price. Darlene and I started bringing baking and sandwiches from the beginning in September and this has been a very much appreciated part of our program all year long. Each student has their favourite snack and we try to accommodate them all at some point. The food has allowed us to get to know many of the “regular” students in the other part of the school as well—the ones who can’t resist coming in to see what’s for snack today!

Originally, when we first got this job, it looked as if it might be a classroom job—in other words teaching a literacy course. Before a couple of days into the school year, it had evolved into a one-on-one job. Each of our students is at a very different place in their reading ability—all the way from total non-reader right up to someone who can read the driver’s manual well but has only one strategy for learning new words, namely, straight memorization of the word as a whole. He has an incredible memory, but boy, what a stressful, ineffective way to read!

Basically all of the students we see have exactly the same problems; they have poor reading habits, i.e., reading past punctuation, not looking inside the words to look at all the letters, not looking to the end of a word to see if it ends in “ing,” “ed,” “s”—no self-correcting, no re-reading when they make a mistake, etc., and they have absolutely NO understanding of how to decode.

In other words, although most of them have memorized a certain number of primary sight words and can “read” a bit, none of them knows how to tackle a word that is new to them. This means that when they come to a word they have never seen before, they are totally stumped; they simply make their best guess. Because they over-rely so heavily on figuring out words from context, they cannot read names of any type (street names, names of people, businesses, cities, etc.). Even simple words are an impossible challenge for them.

To give you an idea, they could read the word “jump” or “bump”—perhaps because they would have memorized these words at some point during their school lives, but if you gave them the nonsense word that follows the same pattern as bump and jump, such as “zump,” they would have no idea of how to read it. Needless to say, it is impossible for them to read much past primary books because of the need to read vocabulary other than the Dolch words. Because they can’t sound out words at all, they cannot spell at all either.

With such individual needs, the only way we could truly help them in any meaningful way was one-on-one. So, depending on how many of our students show up in a day, they receive an individual lesson of 20 – 40 minutes. Most days, lessons are about 20 minutes long, but we do have some students who are so keen to have longer lessons that they will give up their lunch hour or break time to read.

Darlene and I work in a portable with another teacher who runs the classroom. This allows us to take kids aside (in the cloakroom if you can believe it!) for their reading lessons. Next year, they’ve moved us into the main building to the anteroom of the furnace room. We haven’t decided yet if this is a step up-or down from the cloakroom!

Despite the fact that basically all of the students have been sent to this school as a result of “behaviour problems,” for the most part, poor behaviour isn’t really as much of an issue as you would think. I know that sounds ridiculous, but these students are all really very nice. They are fairly well-behaved kids who learned to mask academic difficulties by becoming behaviour problems. These kids often introduce themselves to any new adult in the building, are polite, hold doors, get along well with their teachers, and are usually willing to help if asked. Despite the fact that sometimes there are behaviour incidents at this school—someone angry at his girlfriend smashed his hand through a window; another stabbed a knife into a wall in a fit of anger at another student and was taken away by the police, DVD players and video cameras that aren’t locked up are quickly stolen. THERE IS ALMOST NO NEGATIVITY OR COERCION AT THIS SCHOOL AT ALL BECAUSE THE STAFF ALL REALIZE THAT IT WON’T GET THEM ANYWHERE (caps added). The students find this refreshing that they can be the nice people they really are instead of engaging in counterwill as they always did previously.

On the down side, most of them are very immature, quite rambunctious, have little self-control, little ambition, are quite loud, have extremely short attention spans, and the swearing is enough to turn your ears blue. They aren’t swearing AT teachers; it’s more or less just the way they talk. Some of them want to curb their swearing. In our classroom, for those who want to quit swearing, a thing started where all the adults make a clucking sound with their tongue if an individual who wants to stop swearing, swears unconsciously. It sounds a bit crazy, but it seems to be helping. (NOTE: A PROCEDURE WAS ESTABLISHED FOR AWARENESS AND REDIRECTION.)

Working one-on-one, Darlene and I have almost no discipline problems to deal with. However, we constantly use the three principles. Positivity is the biggest one! We very quickly learned that we had to word everything we said in positive terms. If we make ANY negative comments or make a joke that a student “can’t take,” we immediately see our students shut down or get angry and defensive. Some of them are so fragile/sensitive that we can’t even speak in a regular speaking voice with them because it will scare them away. With one particular boy, we almost have to whisper during his actual lesson times.

We can NEVER tell any of them they have made a reading mistake. Within a day or two we quickly learned to be proactive—a way of thinking that we picked up from Discipline Without Stress. For example, before they begin to read their passage for the day, we ask them (principle of reflection) what types of things will make them a good reader, but we NEVER correct them if they make an error as they are reading as we sometimes might with our smaller, but more resilient beginning readers who haven’t experienced years of reading/school failure. These older ones simply CAN’T TAKE even the smallest dose of failure.

It’s been a great thing for us to see that this focus on being proactive has really worked academically, too. Despite the fact that we never mentioned ANY errors they were making in their reading, they’ve all become increasingly more accurate as time went by. With a focus entirely on what they SHOULD be doing to become a better reader BEFORE they begin reading, they have all become VERY accurate readers at their own developmental level. It’s been so exciting to see this growth in each of them. Seeing this happen has made us use the same tactics more often with our little kids, too:

—Be proactive in our teaching by telling them what they SHOULD do,
—Point out any specific examples of good things that they are doing, and
—End with a comment such as, “Continue doing THAT.”

We’ve found that this is not only a positive way to teach but it’s effective, too. Although we knew this in theory before, as a result of this job—where the ONLY possibility for working pleasantly with a student is to be 100% positive (not 99%!)—we have now experienced it in a very real way.

Because of our crash course in the need for extreme positivity, we are finding that it’s becoming easier for us to be positive in both of our jobs. We have a lot more patience with our smaller kids now because of our experience with the damaged older kids that we work with. For the older kids, school has been such a negative experience with so many bad memories and resentments that WE SEE FIRST HAND HOW MUCH DAMAGE CAN BE DONE TO A CHILD WHO IS NOT TREATED RESPECTFULLY AND POSITIVELY BY THEIR TEACHERS (caps added).

All of these kids relate stories of their bad memories of trying to learn or get along in elementary school. One boy, who is actually very bright but has some incredible learning disability that makes reading VERY difficult for him, described painfully how he was through the years—often put behind cardboard dividers so he “could concentrate better.” Because he could speak so intelligently and articulately, most of his teachers found it impossible to believe that he COULD NOT read. They thought that he was simply misbehaving and putting on an act. Although I am sure his teachers felt they were trying to do something positive and helpful for him by using a cardboard screen in front of his desk to help him maintain focus, he felt as if he was being singled out for punishment and put in prison. Heartfelt stories like this really hit home and make us think about how we treat each and every one of our little students—especially the ones who are the most challenging and annoying in their behaviour.

So in a nutshell, that gives you a bit of a picture of our job. As I said, we don’t use the hierarchy in a regular classroom discipline sense, but we do use the thinking behind it to motivate the kids. For example, when they choose do something that shows initiative such as telling us that when they write their grocery list they think about some things from our reading lessons that will help them spell more accurately, we have the words and concepts (from the hierarchy) to be able to explain to them that this small thing that they have done is a sign of the highest possible level of human behaviour. CHOOSING to try and improve their literacy skills is concrete proof that they are taking some initiative in their lives. As the kids come to accept and trust us more and more, we are finding ways to offer them valuable Discipline Without Stress understandings. It’s definitely a learning experience that we find challenging but are enjoying.



COMMENT: Darlene and Kerry have established a relationship of trust and noncoercion. These two factors are the foundation of any successful relationship for influencing others in a positive way. For a moment, just think of a friend. Chances are that if that person continually attempted to coerce you or if you did not trust that person, the friendship would not last.

In my own classroom, students would admit to and redirect their inappropriate behaviors based on these two factors. Students knew that my only interest was for them to become more responsible—that I had absolutely no interest in punishing them. I also had positive expectations for them by continually referring to the Hierarchy of Social Development and prompting them to reflect when they behaved inappropriately.

More of Kerry’s posts can be read at Discipline Answers.