Nevada’s ‘Reading Disabled’

Penny Brock

Editor’s note: The following report was first published by NPRI in March 2002. We decided to re-issue it after being told, by parents, more stories of how their children were seriously damaged by Nevada schools, but attained proficiency when provided with competent, private, educational services.

Susie's mother called at the end of January two years ago. Her daughter — in special ed — was not learning anything.

Susie, a 12-year-old 6th grader, had been in special education since kindergarten — which she had repeated twice. She had been labeled "learning disabled" by the public school system, but her mother was sure something was wrong. She wanted to know: Could our private school perhaps help her daughter?

I asked Susie's mom to bring her daughter in for a reading test. Why? Because I know that the vast majority of students in Title I and special ed remedial programs are there simply because they were never correctly taught how to read. Rather than "learning disabled," they are "reading disabled." Or, in the words of Regna Lee Wood of the National Right to Read Foundation, they are victims of "school-induced illiteracy."

The test showed that Susie was a classic product of "whole language" reading — i.e., guessing — instruction. She skipped words; she substituted words for the printed words; she inserted unrelated words, and she mispronounced words. Although she was proud she could thus "read," in fact she could not get the meaning from sentences. She was illiterate.

Nevertheless, I was excited. Why? Because I know that any student who can see, hear and talk can learn to read, if given the proper instruction. Susie assured me she could see, hear and talk, and I knew I could provide the proper instruction.

The Action Reading program is what I use. It's a research-based, intensive, systematic, explicit phonics program developed by Dr. George Cureton specifically to teach older students and adults to read. With its games, workbook, exercises and music, it makes learning to read fun.

And so Susie and I embarked on our journey. I couldn't help but compare us, somehow, to Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan.

We started February at the very beginning, teaching Susie to read left-to-right and top-to-bottom. Most importantly, she began learning to recognize the sounds each letter makes. Research has found again and again that teaching children explicitly the single sound of a given letter or letter combination — phonics — is much more effective than other methods.

Each day the lessons would end around 2:30 p.m. And each ending brought the same complaint from Susie: She did not want to quit. She was excited to be really reading and experiencing learning success.

On one occasion I gave her the homework assignment of finding certain word-sounds in the newspaper. The next day Susie came in and told me what a particular article was all about. I ask her if her homework had been to "read" the article or find the sounds. She assured me that her assignment had been to find the particular sounds — but she had just had to read the article, too!

Yes! She was reading, all by herself, because she wanted to and could. This was the day every reading teacher waits for: the day the student independently reads.

By the end of February Susie had completed the intensive, systematic, explicit phonics program. She had acquired the key body of knowledge — of how to read. She was reading signs, newspapers and books, including the Bible. She was no longer "reading disabled."

In mid-April Susie took the SAT achievement tests with the other students. Reading results showed that in the two-and-a-half months since February she had advanced TWO GRADE LEVELS.

What makes this story even more remarkable is that after Susie had learned to read, I received her special education school records. They pegged her as "mildly mentally handicapped."

But is she truly mildly mentally handicapped? Or did she test that way because the public school environment for years kept failing to do its job? Susie is working hard to catch up to her grade level, and the story is not yet finished.

Still, years have been lost in her education.

Her mother weeps and asks, "What were they doing with our daughter for seven years? Why didn't they teach her to read? We trusted the public schools. We trusted the teachers, the professionals, and special education experts. What have they done to our daughter?"

Susie's parents told me they want this story told so other "learning disabled" children will find their own chance to learn to read.

Though Susie received a second chance, there are tens of thousands of reading disabled students in the Nevada public school system who — under that system-never will.

When will the State of Nevada quit sacrificing these children?

Penny Brock, of Reno, operated a private school during the 1999-2000 school year, and the next year taught reading at the Nevada Leadership Academy, a charter school. She can be reached through NPRI.