Case Study: An Emerging Reader

Samy (not his real name) is a slightly-built twelve-year-old, Cambodian-American child assigned to a split 7th grade English/History CORE class in September 2008. The class is loaded with the maximum, thirty-two students, from ages 12 to 14.

A split CORE at this school means the class meets at 4th period and again at 7th period. Students have an 9-period day (8 classes plus lunch). Samy is assigned to five (5) classes in five separate physical locations in the morning and three (3) in the afternoon.

It is more than he can handle – too much movement and disruption. The counseling department says nothing can be done about the scheduling. As the year begins, Samy is not a disciplinary problem but he demonstrates many learning difficulties.

He has attended local public schools since kindergarten and reads with difficulty at the 2nd grade level. Past assessments are not available and the teacher’s calls home are unproductive because persons answering the phone speak no English.

Samy begins to cut and by the end of the first semester this child completely stops coming to all his classes. He comes to school, hangs out in the gym and at a nearby playground, but does not go to any classes.

Fellow students report seeing him but the teacher is never able to spot him. She asks for a SART (student attendance review team) but is told there are more than 70 students on the waiting list. The school itself has not recovered from problems generated at the beginning of the school year when it was short nine teachers. Support services are running on empty.

The teacher’s school and district have money allocated but there is a substantial gap between the resources and the children. At her middle school there are no resource teachers to call upon, there is no curriculum lab from which to get materials, there is no SB 65 person (i. e., assigned social worker as mandated by state law).

There is a library being used as a classroom but there had been no librarian for several years. Special ed is non-existent because it is severely understaffed and there are no outreach workers available. In this case, parents don’t speak English and a translator is not available. Yet here is this youngster, Samy, who is lost in the system. His teacher wants to do something.

 The Opportunity to Make a Difference

At the end of April 2010, after a three-month absence, Samy shows up 4th period and stands in the doorway silently. “Where have you been, Samy?” his teacher asks. He shrugs his shoulders.

“I’ve been missing you,” she says. No response except a flick of the eye. “I think you have a problem with reading. Is that right?” A nod. “Would you like to work with me on your reading?” A nod. This is a make-or-break moment. And this is triage.

They work out a schedule for Samy to come to the teacher’s room over and above the time when he is in his regular classes with her. It isn’t that difficult. The teacher in one class says Samy is beyond catching up in her class and agrees he should have some kind of reading support.

The teacher in another class doesn’t want the child because, as that teacher puts it, “I have too many kids already.” Each morning, 3rd period, Samy comes and listens to selected books on tape while the teacher continues her regular class. He comes again during the teacher’s conference period and they do one-on-one reading.

The teacher is late arriving for the conference period one day and Samy is not there. She sees him later and asks, “Samy, what happened to you? “You took too long,” he says. Except for that slip-up Samy has come faithfully two extra periods every day for more than six-weeks (to the end of the school year).

While the affective needs of this child are clearly the most important, his intellectual needs are also critical. His teacher draws from a wide range of multicultural and cross-curricular titles to enrich his meager reading background. Books selected are quality literature with strong story lines – narratives which a twelve-to thirteen-year-old boy will enjoy. In addition, these books are available at the local public library.

Although the teacher has audio tapes for the student to use as he follows along with a book (most books are either personal purchases or checked out by the teacher from the local public library), she recognizes that it is especially important to read to the student as part of attending to him. They have short conversations about the book as they read but she is careful to keep the story flowing.

She gives Samy her full attention even when she is completely silent, ostensibly giving no instruction; she recognizes that giving a child one’s full attention is a very powerful pedagogical strategy.

 The Process

Here is a simple program of reading, one day at a time.

1. Both the student and the teacher have a copy of the book.

The teacher sits with the student and reads the story out loud slowly and with appropriate expression. The teacher checks for comprehension of any word or phrase which the student may not understand. (For example, when they read El Chino Samy did not know the words “rodeo” or “castle” as well as many other words.

When they read Ox-Cart Man he did not know what a maple tree was nor what tapping a maple tree meant. Nor did he know what a yoke or a harness were, and so forth. He has some sight words, such as “shearing the sheep” but does not know the word “wool.” He does not recognize “picnic” and has difficulty sounding it out.)

2. After the student has heard the teacher read the entire story, the student and the teacher read the text together, slowly.

3. Finally, the student reads the story to the teacher (an audience of one) with assists as needed in sounding out word(s).

4. The student does a story chart, a teacher-created “work sheet” consisting of three sections: vocabulary section, a short summary written by the student and a picture created by the student which shows something about the story (a kind of comprehension check) for which the students writes a title, a caption. The teacher supplies colored pencils or markers.

The story charts provide ongoing assessment. (Click here to download a copy of the story chart, or send a large stamped envelope to Rusting Educational Services, 4523 Elinora Avenue, Oakland, CA 94619).

The teacher notes any consistent decoding or comprehension problems and uses these in the vocabulary section of the story chart. Mainstream teachers with no resources and no special training will find the above strategy is well within their normal professional competency. As the teacher reads with the student a history of shared knowledge grows and becomes a powerful part of the process.

Teaching others to use this process

With careful preparation a parent, older sibling, peer tutor, instructional assistant or adult volunteer can be taught to do this supportive reading activity with a child. There are some pitfalls to avoid. The support person/tutor must be willing to follow the process. Not all volunteers or instructional aides are open to this approach to reading.

One encounters volunteers and support staff who want to help in the classroom but who do not appreciate nor understand oral/aural language development. Some think it should not be necessary to read to an older child. That bias will undercut the process. Others see independent reading as a goal to be achieved immediately and they rush the student. Sheer enjoyment of stories and a savoring of words and phrases are basic literacy building blocks.

One last thought: The teacher needs to check in regularly with the volunteer tutor, even if it is no more than a “How’s it going?”


Over time, the teacher/tutor will notice areas where a student is making the same mistakes over and over, or is not self-correcting after the teacher has taught a particular sound, vocabulary word or concept.

The teacher works on these things or ignores them for the time being, depending on a particular item and how serious it is. The willing participation of the student is, in itself, a clear marker.

If the student is enjoying the sessions and so is the teacher/tutor, both will notice improvement. In the case study cited above, the teacher’s main objective was to get the child back into the school by making a place for him and providing some one-on-one support.

A Working Book List

This list was developed for a particular child, hence the title “A Working Book List.” It serves as a good model for addressing the skill level of the student while at the same time drawing from many sources. Each teacher will naturally pull from familiar favorites to personalize the reading; however, this is a good-jumping-off spot.

  • Barton, Virginia Lee. Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, [48] pages, 1939. When Mike and his steam shovel, Mary Ann, lose their jobs to the gasoline, electric and diesel motor shovels, they go to a little country town where they find that one new job leads to another.
  • Bunting, Eve. Fly Away Home. Illustrated by Ronald Himler. New York : Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin), 32 pages, 1991. A homeless boy who lives in an airport, with his father, moving from terminal to terminal and trying not to be noticed, is given hope when he sees a trapped bird find its freedom.
  • Goble, Paul. Buffalo Woman. Story and pictures by Paul Goble. New York: Aladdin Books, Macmillan Publishing Co., [32] pages, 1981. A young hunter marries a female buffalo in the form of a beautiful maiden, but when his people reject her he must pass several tests before being allowed to join the buffalo nation.
  • Estrerl, Arnica. Okino and the Whales. Illustrated by Marek Zawadski. San Diego : Harcourt Brace & Co., [28] pages, 1995. As a Japanese mother waits with her son for the whales to return to the bay, she relates a story about a girl who visited the royal palace of the whales.
  • Galdone, Joanna. The Tailypo, A Ghost Story. Illustrated by Paul Galdone. New York : Houghton Mifflin Co., [32] pages, 1977. A strange varmint haunts the woodsman who lopped off its tail.
  • Hall, Donald. Ox-Cart Man. Pictures by Barbara Cooney. New York : Viking Press, [40] pages, 1979. Describes the day-to-day life throught out the changing seasons of an early 19th century New England family.
  • Haskins, Donald. Count Your Way Through Africa. Illustrations by Barbara Knutson. Minneapolis, MN : Carolrhoda Books, [24] pages, 1989. Uses the Swahili words for the numbers from one to ten to introduce the land, history, and cultures of Africa.
  • Heide, Florence Parry and Gilliland, Judith Heide. The Day of Ahmed’s Secret. Illustrated by Ted Lewin. Lothrop. New York : Lee & Shepard Books, 32 pages, 1990. A young boy in Cairo who used to go with his father selling goods throughout the city is now old enough to make deliveries on his own, driving a donkey and cart. He has a secret to share with his extended family at the end of a long day-he proudly shows them that he has learned to write his own name.
  • Heide, Florence Parry and Gilliland, Judith Heide. Sami and the Time of the Troubles. New York : Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin), 1992. A ten-year-old Lebanese boy goes to school, helps his mother with chores, plays with his friends, and lives with his family in a basement shelter when bombings occur and fighting begins on his street.
  • Hopkins, Lee Bennett, ed. Surprises, poems selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Illustrated by Megan Lloyd. (An I Can Read Book) HarperCollins Publishers, 64 pages, 1984. A collection of short poems by Marchette Chute, Myra Cohn Livingston, Aileen Fischer, Lee Bennett Hopkins and other author.
  • Johnston, Tony. Day of the Dead. Illustrated by Jeanette Winter. San Diego : Harcourt Brace & Co., [52] pages,1997. Describes a Mexican family preparing for and celebrating the Day of the Dead.
  • Johnston, Tony. The Wagon. Paintings by James E. Ransome. New York : Tambourine Books (William Morrow & Co.), [36] pages, 1996. A young boy is sustained by his family as he endures the difficulties of being a slave, but when he finally gains his freedom, his joy is tempered by the death of President Lincoln.
  • Lattimore, Deborah Nourse. The Flame of Peace, A Tale of the Aztecs. Harper & Row, Publishers, 40 pages [with end pages], 1987. To prevent the outbreak of war, a young Aztec boy must outwit nine evil lords of the night to obtain the flame of peace from Lord Morning Star.
  • Lawson, Julie, retold by. The Dragon’s Pearl. Paintings by Paul Morin. New York : Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin), [32] pages, 1992. During a terrible drought in China, a cheerful, dutiful son finds a magic pearl which forever changes his life and the lives of his mother and neighbors.
  • Lum, Darrell. The Golden Slipper, A Vietnamese Legend. Retold by Darrell Lum. Illustrated by Makiko Nagano. Troll Associates, 32 pages, 1994. A variation on the Cinderella story, in which a kind-hearted young woman meets her prince with the help of animals she had befriends.
  • Monjo, F. N. The Drinking Gourd: A Story of the Underground Railroad. Pictures by Fred Brenner. New York : HarperCollins, 62 pages, 1993. When he is sent home alone for misbehaving in church, Tommy discovers that his house is a station on the underground railroad.
  • Say, Alan. The Bicycle Man. Boston : Parnassus Press (Houghton Mifflin), [40] pages, 1982. The amazing tricks two American soldiers do on a borrowed bicycle are a fitting finale for the school sports day festivities in a small village in occupied Japan.
  • Say, Alan. El Chino. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 32 pages, 1990. A biography of Will Wong, a Chinese American who became a famous bullfighter in Spain.
  • Williams, Vera B, A chair for my mother. New York : Mulberry Books, [32] pages, 1982. A child, her waitress mother, and grandmother save dimes to buy a comfortable arm chair after all their furniture is lost in a fire.
  • Xiong, Blia. Nine-in-one, Gr! Gr! A Folktale from the Hmong people of Laos. Told by Blia Xiong. Adapted by Cathy Spangnoli. Illustrated by Nancy Hom. San Francisco : Children’s Press, 32 pages, 1989. When the great god Shao promises Tiger nine cubs each year, Bird comes up with a clever trick to prevent the land from being overrun by tigers.