Cracking the Code

By Illan Kunik, 2019-2020 Literacy First Tutor

During Literacy First’s pre-service training for tutors, I remember hearing incredible stories from past tutors and Supervisors about students who, as they described it, “broke the code before their eyes.” What they meant by this is that all of a sudden, whether it be during a lesson or some activity together, everything clicked for a student. Some have described this as an “aha” moment of sorts, when a student who has been struggling comes to a point where everything finally makes sense, and they are simply able to read.

For a majority of these stories, tutors are referring to first and second grade students, and I had yet to hear a story of a Kindergarten student breaking the code. Typically, for a Kindergarten student, they have a hard time breaking words into syllables on their own. When working together to read words, many of my younger students will simply repeat after me when I am reading a syllable, and once they have heard the syllables they are able to recode the word and say it entirely. Breaking down a word into syllables and then reading it is a difficult task, and not one that I expect of kindergarteners, who are still working to ensure they have all of the letter sounds down, building on that as a foundation.

In February, I had been working with a Kindergarten student, Mateo, for around a month. He was making steady improvements, mastering his letter sounds and slowly gaining the ability to read syllables without using letter sounds as a crutch. In each lesson there is a section where we work to read words together. I model how to break down words into syllables, recoding the entire word once I have read all the syllables. During one lesson, I began to do this with Mateo as we had done for several weeks, when all of a sudden he tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “I think I can do this. Is it okay if I try and read the words without you?” I was shocked to hear such a request from him, but nonetheless told him I would love it if he tried it on his own. And just like that, Mateo began to break down words and read them on his own. He even began to recognize several words that he sees frequently, such as “mama” or “papi”, reading them without utilizing syllables as a means to break down the word. I was taken aback. I told Mateo how proud I was of him, because he had worked so hard with me to come to the point where he is able to fully read words. However, I didn’t fully divulge just how amazed I was to him.

After I finished that lesson with Mateo and took him back to class, it took a little time for it to sink in that I had witnessed a kindergarten student begin reading for the first time, seemingly out of nowhere. I shared the story with my cohort during lunch, and everyone was as amazed as I was. We all wanted to know how this could even be possible. His teacher hadn’t indicated to me that he was capable of reading on his own already, and I hadn’t seen this in our lessons either. It was as if, in that moment, it all clicked for him Mateo and the ability to read naturally came out. I wondered whether this skill would solidify in the coming lessons, and incredibly, it has. Mateo is now able to break down just about any two-syllable words and recode them, and we are beginning to work with three-syllable words as well as more difficult letter pairings within a given syllable.

Witnessing exponential growth from my student was an incredible experience and one that I will never forget. I am very happy that Mateo has grown so much as a young reader, and feel privileged that I was able to be there when he first truly “cracked the code.”

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