Shame and Vowels: The Story of a Struggling Reader

Vowel sounds highlight the concept of phonemic awareness and the ability to both glue words back together and break them into their individual sounds.

Recently, I had this driven home to me when I was working with a sixth grader whom I tutor. This student has been in the public schools and can read and spell thousands of words. Nevertheless, he struggles with reading and spelling and does not perceive himself to be smart. He has read and spelled below grade level his whole school career.

As I have been working with him, I have noticed he often mumbles. I had not wanted to push him too hard, because of his low self esteem. Today I realized it is his cover up for not knowing the vowel sounds. Up until this point, he has sounded out words that he already knows how to spell. He must think ahead to the spelling and as he knows the sounds of the written vowels he says them correctly when sounding them out. However, today he stumbled greatly over the word "children." He could not sound out the second syllable and seemed particularly hung up on the short E sound. Like many struggling students he began to shut down.

So often this is the point when teachers and parents become frustrated, though, as a tutor, I have the privilege of being able to step back and try to understand him. His passivity, rolling of eyes, refusal to look at me, and squirming were immature responses to not understanding. Rather than saying, "this does not make sense," asking for help, or staying attentive through another attempt, many students who have experienced a lot of failure will begin to act out. His behavior was my cue that he was struggling. Too often we see behavior as the root cause: he cannot focus, he is lazy, etc. Though this may be true, it is not necessarily the case.

I suspected that he was struggling with hearing the vowel sounds. When I tested him by saying pairs of vowels such as the long and short sounds of O, he heard them as the same sound.This was also true if I mixed vowels such as the long sound of I with the short sound of E. He was very downcast, to the point of his extreme passivity that is often labeled as lazy. 

(Once again, it would be very easy as a parent or educator to not believe the student at this point. We often accuse students of not trying because we think the activity should be easy. This only deepens their shame and sends them deeper into immature coping mechanisms when they really do not understand.)

Since he is able to produce the vowels in his daily speech, I knew that he could hear vowels, though he was not able to distinguish them in isolation.

I then began to have him repeat individual vowel sounds and describe the shape of his mouth. He became very animated. I was quite impressed with many of his descriptions. He pointed out his mouth was more tense with long O than with short O. He noted that with the long A sound, he pulled back his mouth, etc. It was really wonderful to seem him engaged. Once he described the position of his mouth for all the vowel sounds, we repeated the game where I would say two vowel sounds and he would tell me if they were the same or different. This time he got every one correct. I asked him, "How were you able to tell them apart?" He replied, "I can feel them in my mouth."

I then asked him to write fifteen words from dictation. I explained to him, "I do not want you to mumble. When you mumble, I am not able to tell if you have the sound correct. I also want you to sound out clearly and loudly all the sounds, even if you know how to write the word." (This is part of my usual method, but I had let him speak quietly and not as clearly, as I did not want to push him unnecessarily.) This time he wrote all the words correctly, including children.

When I asked him about it he said, "It helps me to feel the sounds. I still can't hear the vowels, but they feel different."

Sometimes it can take a while to discern the missing links in a child's understanding. This student had me fooled with his understanding of vowel sounds. Students' behavior is often a cue that they are missing a link and feeling shame.

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