What are we teaching our kids? Our teens?

Mad MagazineAs a teacher, this is what I often see when a desperate parent brings a teen to me because he/she missed the reading boat: I see a learner who was pushed to learn random (aka boring) sight words and phonics rules, and flat-out didn’t want to learn that stuff. I see a learner who was not helped to fall in love with reading by reading about totally awesome topics (awesome to that particular learner.) I see a learner who didn’t learn, and worse–believes he can’t learn to read, like, ever.

A very grown-up friend of mine, a retired educator and high school librarian, told me that he had zero interest in reading until…guess what…he discovered Mad Magazine. And he became a librarian. Exactly! This is the flag I wave as often as anyone will look at it. To teach reading, we “go in through the heart,” as I say again and again in my book Whole Child Reading: A Quick-Start Guide to Teaching Students with Down Syndrome and Other Developmental Delays.


I’ve written before that I taught my son Jonathan (now 32) to read when he was 5. By 9, he could read most things. By junior high, in the words of his then-teacher, “Jonathan can read anything. He’s the only one in my class who can.” Since this was happening in 1990, there were no reading materials available like I’ve now created on this site. I was on my own, having only Glenn Doman’s “How to Teach Your Baby to Read” as a book-in-hand.

So how did Jonathan learn? Through one personal book after another, created at home by Mom. Starting out with huge books and type 1″ high, each book got progressively more advanced, the type smaller, no pictures until the end of the book, repeating learned vocabulary and introducing new words. Every single book was about something he either loved or thought was funny. No exceptions. I went straight for his heart. I never tested comprehension, as there was no need. He loved what he was reading about, and had no picture cues to lean on. And then…

The Puppy Storypuppy in pond

At age 9, Jonathan was required to have that every-3-year evaluation to qualify for continuing special services…you know, the test that proves his Down syndrome didn’t go away. Ha!

So the evaluator handed him a sheet of paper (no pictures) with a text on it. She asked him to read a story about a puppy aloud. He did. Then she asked him comprehension questions.

You need to know that Jonathan is terrified of animals and dogs in particular, since they tend to be visible on sidewalks and all, don’cha know. Well, this story was about a puppy that wandered into a puddle and needed to be rescued by a little boy wearing boots. Jonathan doesn’t like boots. He doesn’t like shoes. So we know up front that he had zero interest in this story, right?

She fired questions at him. “Why did the puppy go into the puddle? Why did the little boy wear boots? Why did the boy wade into the puddle?” etc. Jonathan calmly answered her questions, one after the other.

Is that all a learner needs?


App: Starfall ABC

Jonathan had only the knowledge of letter sounds and many personal books to carry him to independent reading. Somehow, that worked for him–exactly as it had worked for generations, including mine. We learned by repetition and sight. Dick and Jane. In the UK, it was the Peter and Jane series. Apparently, Jane got around.

In my own teaching now, I use a combination of letter sounds (I recommend using the app StarfallABC), flip books for decoding practice (I recommend the comprehensive set of flip books you’ll find on, personal books, and of course my own reading program, Special Reads. And I do everything possible to engage, engage, engage by “going in through the heart.”

Learn to read for meaning, and comprehension is effortless

That is the glorious truth, and I am very grateful for it being so. If we teach reading for meaning, the journey is a loving and fun one, and we have the best possible shot at creating a real reader.

And by “real reader,” I don’t mean someone who reads the classics. I mean someone who likes to read about what they like to read about. I embrace ALL topics; I honestly don’t care what it is (okay, there are a few unmentionable exceptions to that) as long as the learner loves reading about it.

I quoted Maya Angelou in my Down Syndrome Parenting 101 book at the beginning of Chapter 11: “Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.” And not only any book. Mad Magazine once did the trick, and “the proof is in the librarian.”

Here’s my heartfelt hope that you can create a Real Reader!

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