The Active Reader Method
Structured Literacy... with a twist.
Reading and writing are complex processes, requiring the simultaneous activation and integration of multiple areas of the brain. Some children may learn to read easily or even spontaneously, and while this is great when it happens, it is actually misleading; it gives the illusion that reading is a "natural" act, and that left to their own devices, children will just kind of learn to read on their own. This simply is not true for most kids.
The Key to Unlocking Literacy
The Active Reader Method uses a Structured Literacy approach to provide the most thorough, clear, and efficient intervention for struggling readers. Structured Literacy is the umbrella term for instruction that is multisensory, explicit, cumulative, cognitive, flexible, and diagnostic. This type of instruction is derived from the Orton-Gillingham approach, and is exemplified by Wilson Reading, the F.A.S.T. Phonics system, The Spaulding Method, Barton Reading, and (to some extent) Lindamood Bell.
What does this mean in practice? First, multisensory learning involves the simultaneous use of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic/tactile pathways to consolidate memory; sounds are never just read or written, but pronounced in conjunction with movement. This may mean writing while speaking the sound in question, moving tiles or blocks, or looking in the mirror and pronouncing words and sounds, learning to identify and feel how they are formed.
Explicit instruction makes no assumptions about what the student knows; every component of language is explained clearly and efficiently, with attention paid to spelling patterns and affixes.
Cumulative instruction is progressive, with each concept building on the one before. This ensures there are no gaps in knowledge.
All learning is of course cognitive but in this context, it refers to instruction that encourages analysis and application, rather than the rote memorization of rules and spelling.
Diagnostic instruction means that student progress is continually assessed so strategies can be targeted at specific areas of weakness. The instruction must therefore be flexible, adjusting to the student, rather than the other way around.
So... What's the twist?
The twist is how I sequence our time together. Active Reader sessions are structured around three learning modalities: repetition, integration, and meaning.
When we read and write, we map individual speech sounds (phonemes) onto symbols (graphemes — aka "letters"). For struggling readers, this is neither intuitive nor natural. So our first step is to isolate a sound and associate it with the letter (or letters) that represent it. Then we practice. We read, write and repeat just until the sound-symbol connection becomes clear. Next, we integrate that sound into syllables and words of increasing complexity. Finally, those sounds and words are woven into connected text, which has meaning. This is where comprehension strategies, vocabulary, and questioning come into play.
This cycle of repetition / integration / meaning ensures that small, seemingly minor errors are corrected at a foundational level. Does your daughter still mix up her "b"s and "d"s? Does your son insert random “l”s “r”s “m”s or “n”s into words? These are not careless mistakes — they’re an indication of a disconnect at a foundational level, and they need to be taken seriously.
Within this framework, I use a variety of methods to consolidate students’ understanding. Handwriting, for example, is one skill that is not typically addressed in the classroom because it's time-consuming, difficult, and not assessed on standardized test). But for strengthening the sound/ symbol connection, handwriting is the ultimate multisensory activity. (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-apes/201803/teaching-kids-handwriting-help-them-read)
I also use interleaving and desired difficulty in Active Reader sessions. New research in cognitive science reveals that deep learning is not necessarily learning that comes easily. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/04/27/29stability-2.h30.html
Tasks that are mindless or rote are ineffective because without thinking, analyzing, and making connections, nothing will “stick.” With reading, more is not necessarily more, especially when it’s more of the same instruction that didn’t work in the first place. Interleaving concepts and adding desired difficulty is like doing exercises on a balance board; it's harder, and it feels weird, but the extra effort makes everything stronger. Depending on the student, this could mean having them read weird or silly nonsense words, using fonts they think they can’t decipher, or teaching them big words that will impress their friends and family. It’s never too early to be a sesquepedalian!
As a result, Active Reader sessions are challenging, but never boring. I move quickly through many styles of instruction, taking cues from my students rather than from a prescribed curriculum. If they are squirrelly, we may do a handstand, play a game, or just take a minute to laugh at a video of cats being terrified by cucumbers. Then we get back to work.
No one should tell you that learning to read will be easy for your child, but it’s definitely easier than not learning to read. With the right instruction, things will get easier. School will get easier. It won’t happen overnight, but there will be less frustration, and fewer tears. Someday, you might even “catch” your child reading for fun. It could happen. It does happen.
Desired Difficulty? What???
Learn why adding a level of "desired difficulty" to deliberate practice can increase engagement and retention