What It Sounds Like When a Child Doesn’t Know How to Read

Last month, I sat one-on-one with about 50 kindergarten, first, and second grade students at the elementary school where I work to find out if their reading skills matched those required for their grade level, or if they might qualify for some extra reading help. I am a new tutor with Literacy First, an organization dedicated to providing intensive and effective literacy tutoring to K-2 students in low-income schools. We aim to bring students up to grade level in reading and combat illiteracy early in the education process before it has the chance to deliver far-reaching, negative results.



This year, I switched some syllables around as I made the transition from Corporate America to AmeriCorps. While the shift from Marketing Professional to Literacy Tutor looks like a big jump on my resume, in reality it feels only natural to have ended up working for Literacy First. During my time in Austin, I’ve had the chance to volunteer with two of our city’s impactful nonprofit organizations where I learned that the effects of illiteracy are evident far beyond the elementary school classroom.

Three years ago, when I first moved to Austin, I volunteered as an ESL instructor at El Buen Samaritano community center. I saw the challenges experienced by full-grown adults as they faced difficulty writing their names or pronouncing the most basic letter sounds. These were employees, parents, and members of our community who put their heads down, ashamed, sometimes with tears in their eyes, as they worked on simple reading exercises. How would they figure out how to find affordable housing, ask for help, or advocate for their kids in our English-speaking society? I was new to Austin and new to adulthood, so it was an unexpected reversal of roles as I stood in front of the class, knowing how much more difficult it becomes to learn a second language with each year that we age.

A few years later, I started working with Austin Partners in Education to coach seventh graders in their math classes. I was surprised to find out that some of them could fly through a numbers-only problem set with almost no hesitation. These kids knew their math. But when faced with the task of setting up a word problem or the dreaded, “answer in a complete sentence,” they would freeze. The students’ knowledge of numbers was obscured by the fact that they struggled to read and write. It made me wonder how they might fare on a social studies essay prompt or, later, on their SATs. Would they even graduate high school?

Now, working with even younger students makes it is easy to see the confidence that the ability to read gives a person. The kids who read well seem to have a brightness about them, as they spiritedly talk about their favorite stories or books, each containing new worlds to expand their already active imaginations. Those who read poorly tend to be quieter. They keep their heads down and aren’t as eager to share facts about themselves or the exciting things they have been doing in class. Would they grow up and be like my adult students, whose self-confidence was so low because they couldn’t read?

So last week during our beginning of the year benchmark testing, a student shyly blushed and told me, “Lo siento. Yo no sé leer” (I’m sorry. I don’t know how to read). After a twinge of sadness, my heart feels light. It feels good to know that there is still time – time to stop the cycle of illiteracy at its roots, before another child is driven to feel demoralized, outcast, or apathetic as they go out into the world. I’m glad this student is working with Literacy First now, where he will have the chance to learn to read with a program that is breaking down barriers and introducing children to the joy of reading from an age where it matters.

I’m excited to be a part of it.

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