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Trauma-Informed Approach to Improving Literacy for Struggling Students

 Dr. Carol Gardiner

Kate Barrows, a Readable English Coach, knows that Readable English is what many students need because she has spent her career working to ensure other students aren’t overlooked.

Trauma-Informed Approach to Improving Literacy for Struggling Students

She continued to move through elementary and middle school despite report card notes like:

  • "Not paying attention or progressing"
  • "We are hoping Kate will buckle down and do what she is capable of by the next grading session."
  • "I've never met someone work so hard to be a nonconformist."
  • "Caught by teacher for forging grades, AT celebration dinner for improved grades"

Her experiences from middle and high school included consistent academic failure and a narrow escape from juvenile incarceration and dropout status. Thanks to her transition to an alternative high school program, she was able to not only graduate from high school but is now an alternative school educator and advocate of 20 years (and counting). Kate knows the delicate but necessary balance between repairing educational trauma while tackling decoding and comprehension strategies with a sense of urgency in middle and secondary classrooms.

For this reason, she joined the Readable English team so other students did not need to go through the struggles she experienced. When she saw how easy it was for students to read grade-level material after learning the 21 glyphs that represent the letters' nontypical sounds, she wanted to be part of the solution to illiteracy with Readable English.

Kate’s childhood story allows her to understand and share her expertise in supporting students who have experienced educational trauma during their struggle with reading. When describing learners experiencing trauma, Kate suggests that we often think of these students as icebergs; but they may be more like ducks - calm on the surface and paddling like crazy underneath.

Kate describes her middle school experience as a blur in terms of learning new content. She had mastered the art of blending in and not disrupting class. She was just moving along. Eventually, however, her coping strategies failed and she had to work hard to recover. As she learned, wherever there is a reading gap, there is a knowledge gap. She had to make many changes but ultimately overcame the odds and graduated with her class, despite being labeled a “delinquent” by the juvenile court system.

Learning, and struggling to learn to read, is a source of trauma for many students. Like Readable English, Kate believes it is important to illuminate to students exactly why English is so hard to learn. Our words are not pronounced the way they are spelled, letters can make more than one sound, and there can be silent letters in our words.

This difficulty in learning to read is demonstrated by the research adapted from Seymour, Aro & Erskin (2003). While children from most language backgrounds can read at a 90-100% accuracy rate, children learning to read English are only able to read at a 35% accuracy rate after a year of reading instruction!

Word accuracy first year

Cognitive overload is what hinders many students from reading fluently and comprehending what they read. With the 1000 most common words, only 280 words can be pronounced without learning rules and their exceptions. Kate’s story highlights the importance of needing a way to reduce the cognitive load required to learn all of the rules and exceptions that make the English language so hard. In addition, Kate emphasizes the need to give students access to grade-level texts on an independent level. Kate’s belief in Readable English is grounded in the Conversion Tool within the program. The Conversion Tool, that students can be taught to use independently within the program, quickly allows teachers and students to convert grade-level reading material into the Readable English font making access to grade-level material readable for all students. After reading the text fluently, students can more easily comprehend what they read.

We Need Something New

What does Kate’s story mean? She would argue that these ‘underdog’ stories, while inspiring, should not exist. She argues literacy is a basic human right and no one should have to experience the types of struggles we see and read about daily. Stories like these should be prevented instead of celebrated. Kate says “We need to do more than celebrate the exceptions. We need to change the rules. And the rules (how we traditionally address students who are not reading/writing on grade level) have not worked for us so far.”

When we have students who are not reading or writing on grade level, who are not performing in class, and have not been diagnosed with a significant intellectual disability, the chances are high that they have experienced educational trauma. And while we are doing a better job identifying and addressing the trauma that students experience outside the classroom, we must talk about the ways in which schools can cause trauma. Because these students have been excluded, or attacked, or ignored, they have few positive associations with school.

Kate emphasizes that when we are dealing with middle and high school students who struggle with reading, we have to start by restoring their relationship with learning, with educators, and with schools. Kate believes that sometimes this means looking at some hard truths about how we have traditionally “done school.”

Kate highlights the Hemingway quote: “Never mistake motion for action.”

Our educational system often moves students along with hope and good intentions – mistaking it for action. This is how we have students that are passed along and overlooked and end up failing their classes before someone discovers, or better yet, does something about the fact that they can’t read. Readable English has the potential to create new and positive outcomes for all students, and the time has never been better to initiate change!

We truly believe that every student can learn to read at grade level.

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