Helping 5th Grader, Shelby

If you read Leslie's comment to the October reading post, you'll know that her daughter Shelby is resisting help with reading. I know Shelby, as Leslie and I worked for the same organization for several years.

Four years ago Shelby and I spent a Saturday afternoon together while her mom caught up on a project deadline. Shelby happily read the books I offered, and was most interested in the Birds of Illinois. For over 90 minutes she used it to identify birds at the bird feeder outside the window, sketching them on separate pieces of paper and adding their names and a few facts about each one. I worked nearby and touched base with her once or twice. She was seven. She was successfully and happily reading and writing.

Several years later Leslie wrote to tell me that Shelby had a serious interest in Abraham Lincoln and wanted to read everything she could find about him. It's hard to believe this is the same kid that is now disinterested in reading!

One can't know precisely when and how things went awry, even for a knowledgeable and involved parent like Leslie. Several of my hypotheses are that 1) Shelby is experiencing the reading and writing assignments in school as exercises or burdens (e.g. finish reading a book/write a report or take a test, study words for a test) rather than experiences that help her accomplish learning goals that she can shape, and perhaps 2) the feedback she's been given about her work hasn't been perceived as helpful and supportive.

Kids who are responding emotionally to what I call a mismatch between their learning and the expectations of school may sometimes be able to talk about why they are upset. Occasionally Nick would offer a comment about the cause of his struggles. But most learners are responding to them rather than reflecting on them.

The good news is that Shelby has many skills as a reader and Leslie is committed to her support. I'll offer a couple of suggestions and invite Leslie to make a guest post next month if she is willing.

There is no doubt that Shelby knows that something is wrong. She's been tested, her mom is concerned, and she's resisting even reasonable work. The good news is that the more people read, the better their fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, even without help from others. Instruction can wait for another time. Set aside any interactions that cause emotions to flare up. Relax.

Let Shelby know that you expect her to read every night and that she can choose what that reading looks like 5 nights out of 6. And mean it! If you read together, let her decide where you should stop and talk. If she reads "gibberish," offer to swap that book for a simpler one ("one you might like better") with a strong story line (e.g. Because of Winn Dixie or Out of the Dust or Love That Dog) that pulls her along, rather than focusing on figuring out words. Read joke books or American Girl magazine, and talk about what you read like you would talk with a friend. Read cookbooks together and choose recipes to make. Invite her to read picture books to a younger reader, maybe a friend's child.

Ask her to learn something with you. Find a few good books that answer the genuine questions that either of you are asking about the topic. Make sure the texts are rich with illustrations, charts, and photographs. If you can get out into the world to study the topic (like Nick's interest in crows), all the better. Or use the cooking experience to learn together and create a file of favorite recipes.

Use your best judgment to negotiate school assignments that work for Shelby. Do the same with any tutoring you might arrange. You know she's bright and has loved learning in the past. Let that knowledge keep your sights on better times ahead. And please stay in touch!

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