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Observations of a poor reader

Margaret Sutherland
Edith Cowan University
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Andrew was my choice for this observation of reading problems. He is 14 years old, lives on a farm with his older brother and his parents and buses to school each day. He can drive all the farm vehicles and plants his own crop each year. Andrew has a history of poor reading, writing and learning skills. His parents bought him a Windows 95 computer in 1996 to try to see it would help him with his work and he has been able to use it for several projects. Using the word program helped him see where his spelling mistakes were occurring. His primary school years were spent in an educational support unit at the local school. This unit was closed down in 1995 and all the students including Andrew were mainstreamed into normal classrooms. Andrew was placed in a Year 8 class and is about to go into the second term of Year 9. So far he has not been able to cope with or function in the normal curriculum and is becoming very frustrated with the whole idea of even going to school.

I have been tutoring him for about 4 years and am at present tutoring him twice weekly, working with him on his homework, which he finds very difficult. His self-esteem has become very low and he is displaying negativeness towards school and teachers, including myself. The school is having difficulty in modifying his program from the normal curriculum, as even modified work appears to be beyond his capabilities. His level on a Weschler Intelligence scale test shows that he is in the 2.2% quartile and -2% SD so therefore is classed as intellectually disabled on the learning curve. (See Appendix A). His parents and I are now trying to arrange through the Education Department a special program for him at his level.

He seldom reads because he finds it a difficult task and a lengthy procedure. Reading aloud is a chore he would rather not be faced with especially in the classroom as he also has a speech impediment which he has had therapy for, but still feels embarrassed about others hearing him read. He uses his finger to follow the text stabbing at the words as he reads and sometimes backtracks when he feels that something does not make sense. He mispronounces words frequently, runs over word and leaves them out if he does not know them or says things like "something or other", "don't know it", or "whatever it is." He occasionally asks for help when he does not know a word. His reading is very fragmented and there appears to be no recognition of full stops or commas in any of his reading.

Sometimes when he realises that he has made an error and he tries to self correct and go on. His reading rate is sometimes slow, but when he is interested in the story it seems as though he is taking each word and trying to make sense of it. If he loses interest it is accelerated at a great rate as if he needs to finish quickly so he can stop reading. When he does this his words become very jumbled and unintelligible. His word attack skills are negligible and he does not appear to have any strategies to work out unfamiliar words.

The books I chose would were ones he would have encountered in primary school, but may not have read himself. They were Fantastic Mr Fox by Roal Dahl, Chicken Licken from the Favourite Tales Series of the Ladybird Books, The Cabbage Patch Fib by Paul Jennings, The Second Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling and a book on the Story of Wheat by Fiona Hamilton and from the Kondinin Group in the Workboot Series. He only had to read about three paragraphs from each book.

Fantastic Mr Fox: This book did not hold Andrew's attention for long as he told me it was a baby book and he was in high school now. The book has plenty of pictures in black and white, which he constantly looked at as he read the words. The word font was about size 10 with only small amounts on each page. His reading was interspersed with incorrectly pronounced words, which were mainly the names of the characters in the story. He read the first chapter and then decided to give up.

Chicken Licken: This book held Andrew's attention for much longer so much so that he read the whole book. The print in this book was probably about font size 12 and there were much fewer words per page than the previous book. There were lots of colourful pictures and it seemed that he was fascinated by the double rhyming name of each character even though he had trouble pronouncing them. His speech impediment was more obvious during the reading. The further he went the more he became tongue tied but because he was determined to complete the story he did not seem to mind. When he read about Foxey Loxey eating all the others instead of taking them to see the King he sounded quite disappointed and commented on the awful ending. This possibly relates to his farm life and his love of animals.

The Cabbage Patch Fib: The pictures in this book were only black and white sketches and the writing was about size 12 font. His interest dropped away very quickly during the reading. It was very noticeable that he was running over full stops and commas so that the story sounded as if it continued on and on. He could not say the word "spaghetti" even after several tries. In this book he constantly hesitated as the words were longer than the other two stories, he stumbled over many words and did not self correct or phonetically correct any words he could not understand. It seemed as though he was just reading words and not comprehending the story.

The Second Jungle Book: This book had no pictures and each page was filled with many words, which were about size 12 font. It appeared from his unintelligible, incomprehensible reading of this story that he had reached his limit. He became very frustrated, read much faster only reading about half the first page and confused 'was' with 'saw'. When I stopped him reading he seemed quite relieved that he did not have to go on.

The Story of Wheat: Andrew's whole demeanour changed with this book. Even before he opened it he seemed to be eager to read it as he said it was about farming. The pages were colourful and only had small blocks of text in each corner. Even though the printing was about size 8 font and much smaller than the other books he appeared to have no trouble with the words. His expression improved, he did not stumble over as many words even the harder ones, for example 'botanical', and he was telling me all about wheat farming after I stopped him reading. I had kept this book till last as I had an idea that I would get a good reaction from him. His mother saw the book and how he enjoyed it and when I returned to tutor him at the end of the week she had been to town and bought him two of the series, Wheat and Wool.

When I asked him comprehension questions about the books he had read, the only two books that he gave me feedback on were Chicken Licken and the Wheat Book. He had promptly forgotten any of the names or stories of the remaining three books. This was as I had expected, as he does not have the ability to remember what he has done at school during the day when he arrives home and has to be prompted to find out if he has homework by searching his file.

I collected several sheets of Andrew's writing, a poem, a short story, some social studies notes, science notes, health education notes and drawings, English notes about a play and another about a film and a cloze activity from a book he had been reading in class. In these I found that Andrew constantly left out vowels from words, endings were missing, repetitious incorrect spelling of small words, incorrect grammar and tense, but I did not find any reversals of letters. Many words appeared to be spelt as they were sounded, yet some large words were spelt absolutely correctly. There did not appear to be any real pattern in the errors.


For the eight and a quarter years that Andrew has been in the educational system there are only two years where he showed progress in reading and writing. In Years 1 and 2 his reports indicated that he was having little or no significant problems with either skill. However by Year 3 his report shows that he was beginning to lose interest in reading, writing and learning in general. He had been in the Special Education Unit since Year 1 on the recommendation of a school psychologist because of his poor motor skills, both small and large. His learning continued to deteriorate and he has never been able to do well at any time since. Aaron (1995) says that poor readers who are both deficient in reading and listening comprehension may be learning disabled and not just reading disabled. He further says that these students are sometimes incorrectly labelled as reading disabled when often they are disabled in all aspects of learning. They also cannot be labelled as dyslexic as many dyslexics have reading disabilities but also have adequate intelligence (Rutter, 1978).

From this experiment it can be surmised that Andrew is a student who has not been able to use encoding, storage and retrieval processes because of his problem in remembering the activities he has participated in daily (Torgensen, 1985). This does not mean that he cannot remember anything he has learnt, because this depends on the method that is used. For example when he was in Year 7 his maths was very poor due to the fact that he had never been able to learn the times tables. I gave the parents an audiotape, which had the times tables set to music and told them to play it during the night while he was asleep. The parents bought him a stereo-player that could reverse the tape when one side had been played to play the tape continuously overnight. After three weeks I tested him on various tables and discovered that he was able to retrieve the tables and write them correctly. I started with the easiest, 3x's, 5x's, 10x's etc and then I asked him to write the 6x's. At first he said he did not know them and then to his surprise he did it without any mistakes. He still knows them now and can also go beyond 12x's on most of the tables. Unfortunately we cannot use this procedure for all of his learning. This basic processing operation has helped him to be able to do simple maths.

If Andrew were to be classified as dyslexic he would have to be tested on his phonological skills. Can he recognise words holistically or does he have to translate them phonetically? To my mind he showed no evidence of and ability to use grapheme-phoneme conversion (GPC), where he would be looking to see if the words could be segmented as in 'sheep', sh-ee-p. In words such as have, sew, aunt and come there is no segmentation available so students have to recognise these words as a whole word. This is probably why many students similar to Andrew have problems with the smaller more common words. It is very difficult to recognise that 'what' seemingly says 'wot' (Aaron, 1989).

Andrew did not use any of the three strategies that are shown in Figure 1, whereby a written word can be recognised by directly accessing its meaning, by directly accessing its pronunciation or by constructing its pronunciation by applying GPC rules (Aaron, 1989).

Figure 1

Figure 1: Three potential strategies for recognising a word. A written word can be recognised by directly accessing its meaning, by directly accessing its pronunciation, or by constructing its pronunciation by applying GPC rules. After Aaron (1989).

Researchers have said that a simple straightforward test for grapheme-phoneme conversion (GPC) requires the subject to read aloud-pronounceable nonwords. These words can not be recognised as normal words can so therefore the subject has to use GPC to encode them. This test has been incorporated into many standardised tests of reading because it has been found to be an important component of reading to be able to sound out the nonwords and provides a pure measure of the phonological decoding skill of the reader. Aaron (1989) believes that the incomplete mastery of the GPC rules can be expected to affect both reading and spelling. In Andrew's case this is totally evident in his writing and spelling examples.

Torgensen (1985) found that when a child of low intelligence has difficulty learning to read, the reading failure can be seen as consistent with a low aptitude for taking in new information and performing complex tasks. Andrew appears to fit into this category with his low IQ and problems with retrieval. Gearheart and Gearheart (1989) say that classifying students as learning disabled is difficult to measure precisely and objectively. Take the example of the students who appear to have poor motor coordination and general clumsiness. Do these students necessarily have a learning disability, or are they academically highly superior in all areas? Gearheart and Gearheart (1989) say the only way to identify learning disabled students is to look for a variety of disorders such as:

  1. Reading difficulties. The student's reading achievement is significantly lower than what would normally be expected, given the student's age, intellectual ability and school experience (opportunity to have learned). The student might be experiencing difficulty in any aspect(s) of reading; for example, comprehension, decoding ability, or so on.

  2. Mathematics difficulties. The student's achievement in mathematics is significantly below what would normally be expected, given the student's age, intellectual ability and school experience. This might include difficulty in basic arithmetic, quantitative thinking ability, or any other mathematics related skill.

  3. Written or oral language difficulties. The student may exhibit serious problems in spelling, written composition, listening, speaking, vocabulary skills and/or related abilities.
These characteristics are said to be directly related to the definition(s) of learning disabilities and identification criteria and were proposed in 1981 by a distinguished joint committee representing six national groups organised on behalf of the learning disabled (Gearheart & Gearheart, 1989).

Finally it would appear that Andrew exhibits all three of these difficulties and may never be able to learn at a higher level because of his disabilities and poor memory. He is a student who would benefit from one to one correspondence or in a smaller group situation. He is probably an example of how a normal curriculum is not beneficial, and unless he is given a program that is at his level his prospects for the future are extremely limited. He will most certainly have to be employed in positions that require minimal reading and writing or those that require neither of these skills.


Aaron, P. G. (1989). Dyslexia and hyperlexia. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Dahl, R. (1970). Fantastic Mr Fox. George Allen & Unwin. London.

Gearheart, B. R. & Gearheart, C. J. (1989). Learning disabilities: Educational strategies (pp. 3-22). Columbus, Ohio: The Merrill Publishing Company.

Hamilton, F. (1963). Wheat: The workboot series. Kondinin Group. Belmont WA.

Jennings, P. (1988). The cabbage patch fib. Penguin Books Australia Ltd. Victoria.

Kipling, R. (1984). The second jungle book. Macmillan Publishers Ltd. London.

Ladybird Books (1993). Favourite tales: Chicken Licken. Ladybird Books Limited. UK.

Stanovich, K. E. (1986b). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. In P. G. Aaron (1989), Dyslexia and hyperlexia. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Torgensen, J. K. (1985). Memory processes in reading disabled children. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 18(6), 350-357.

Author: This study was conducted and completed during Andrew's Year 10 (1995) by Margaret Sutherland, c/o Post Office, Bencubbin WA 6477. Email: mssuther@student.ecu.edu.au

Footnote to this paper: In 1996 Andrew was supplied with a moderated program and was tutored until he went on to graduate from Year 10 with his peers. He was able to be employed as a shed hand working with sheep.

Please cite as: Sutherland, M. (2008). Observations of a poor reader. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 2008. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/2008/sutherland1.html

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