I asked Don if there was one word that I could teach him before he left that day, what would it be? Earnest, was his reply.
Don had come into our office and asked for help reading. A simple assessment had shown he had no reading skills at all. He could not read a single word from the text I had given him. He was able to identify all of the letters of the alphabet but not a word I had asked him to read.
He told me he had worked jobs in the food service industry his whole adult life, mostly bussing tables of doing dishes. He had struggled along on the most modest of incomes just surviving day to day. Now in his early fifties, he was willing to make one last attempt to change things.
Then I asked him about what school was like for him. He replied it had been horrible, not being able to read had made every class a nightmare except the fourth grade. Wait, except for the fourth grade? What was different then? He replied that he could read in the fourth grade.
Now my curiosity was really peaked. I asked what was different in the fourth grade that allowed him to read there. He explained his teacher had cut a rectangle out of an index card and allowed him to move it over the text so he could read. I asked what happened in the fifth grade and he said his teacher would not allow that and he never read again. I believe he had changed schools and apparently, the key to his being able to read had been lost he said he grew frustrated and decided school and reading just were not for him.
I had a clue on what might be wrong and asked him to read the letters in a sentence in the middle of a paragraph and he could not do it. He would get a few right and then it seemed to be random letters. I realized his eyes could not track a straight line. Allowing him to simply put a ruler under the line made a big difference. He did not know the words but he did know the letters.
We matched Don with a tutor and after two years she had him reading. He had the confidence to move forward without additional help. It was a great success story for a student and tutor, one I will never forget.
At the end of our interview, I asked him why he wanted to learn the word earnest, which had been puzzling me. Don explained that Earnest was his son’s name who was serving in Iraq and he wanted to be able to recognize his name. You can imagine what the rest of our meeting was like.
Don and I were lucky that day. Luckily I had asked the right questions and his answers provided the clues we needed to identify a problem that we could solve. With his hard work and a tutor’s dedication, we changed his life. It is seldom this simple but we often find a way to make our students' lives a little easier by increasing their literacy skills.