Teaching a 14-Year-Old to Read

How do you begin to teach a 14-year-old to read, when she's reading on a 2.5 grade level?
A co-worker asked me to teach her 14-year-old how to read. She's reading on a 2.5 grade level. What are some ways I can help her without boring her to death with children's books and games? Where do I even begin helping her with comprehension and phonics?
In order to teach this girl how to read you need to know what her problem is. That means knowing the cause of her reading disability. Here is a checklist to consider in answering this question.

1. Has she been taught poorly or has she moved from school to school? If this is the case, then she might benefit from a modified "adult literacy" program. This means that she would be taught to read in a systematic fashion, with the assumption that there are no real barriers, such as learning disabilities or mental retardation, to her acquisition of reading skills. In this case, you could use almost any good reading text from a public school and get her vocabulary words from her daily life, and from the newspaper, and magazines that she might like. For ideas about how to teach phonics, you might try two excellent books by Patricia Cunningham: Phonics They Use: Words for Reading and Writing and Making Words.

2. Has some qualified professional said that she has a learning disability? If so, what's the nature of the disability? Trying to teach a student with learning disabilities without a good diagnosis is like trying different medicines to treat a disease, hoping to hit on the right prescription. You need to know if she has LD, and if so, whether her poor reading is due to visual perceptual or auditory processing problems. Take a look at the websites http://www.ldanatl.org and http://www.interdys.org for more information about learning disabilities and how to help kids who have this condition.

3. How have others tried to teach her in the past? How successful was the approach? Knowing more about her educational history will help you discover what approaches have been used, and which, if any, were successful. This will help you avoid some frustrating trials and errors.

4. What's this young lady's attitude toward reading? Does she think she can learn to read? Does she want to? If she's reading so poorly at age 14, I would be surprised if she hasn't been turned off to reading altogether. She needs to know what has gotten in the way of her learning to read (e.g., the nature of any learning disability or whether or not she was properly taught). She also needs to be helped to identify the purpose and goals of learning to read (how she will benefit from learning to read), so that she has a real purpose in mind when she embarks on this difficult task.

Above all, she needs to be read to a lot! I wonder how much knowledge she's missed by having to rely on what she hears in class, from TV, or other people. Assuming that her auditory processing skills are good, she needs to learn through her ears until her reading improves. Good luck.

Jerome (Jerry) Schultz is the founding clinical director of the Learning Lab @ Lesley University, a program that provides assessment, tutoring, and case management services for children with learning challenges. Schultz holds a Ph.D. from Boston College, and has completed postdoctoral fellowships in both clinical psychology and pediatric neuropsychology.

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