Potholes in the Path to Literacy

If you have taken any of our classes, you have probably heard us talk about "potholes." We use the word potholes to describe the typical areas of struggle for students as they develop reading, spelling, and writing skills. 

To understand this concept, we first need to understand what the reading path might look like in the non struggling learner who has had the proper teaching of skills. The reading (not writing) path might look like this:

At point A, new learners are introduced to the reading code. We teach them sound-to-letter connections, have them read some early readers, have them write some words to apply their new skills and solidify their knowledge, and they make slow steady progress (shown at point B). Then, often young readers and writers seem to take flight-and this is what we all count on. They begin making more and more literacy connections, following our lessons, and then making new leaps on their own. Their independent literacy connections accelerate with increasing pace. Non struggling learners get used to writing, and even though their handwriting needs time and their spelling is a long way from proficient, they connect their new writing skills to their oral language skills, and they are launched. By point C, they are well on their way to independence-even though they will need more instruction along the way. These kids can be given free time to engage in reading and writing, and that independence will actually build on their strong foundational skills. Summer library reading programs were made for these kids!

Although not every child takes to reading like a duck to water—any more than every swimmer is immediately brave or willing, once we get the typical learner's attention, sprinkle in a bit of motivation, and teach the skills needed, they progress along nicely. In general, we expect typical readers and writers to make leaps in literacy growth around 3rd-5th grade, in both fluency and accuracy for reading and basic spelling. Writing and more complex spelling skills continue to develop more slowly throughout the student's education, following a much flatter arc. 

Literacy is not a natural or easy path for non struggling kids, but once they learn the skills needed and practice, they are ready to roll.


 Struggling Learner's Literacy Path

The struggling learner has a different literacy path. These learners follow a slower trajectory that is filled with gaps in learning that look like potholes in the path. These gaps result in a weaker foundation which further impedes their literacy growth. Their path looks like this:

Struggling learners may show weakness at the start (point A) as compared to their peers. These children may have language delays or they may be typical language learners. They may struggle with attention or have typical attention skills. They will likely have difficulty with rhyming. They may struggle to learn their alphabet. They may have word retrieval weaknesses. They may have difficulty writing and spelling their name. They may show disinterest in learning to read and will likely express resistance and frustration early in the learning process. They may have difficulty recalling what they have learned. They may try to memorize words rather than decode words. They may or may not struggle to write. However, the struggling learner may have letter reversals that persist beyond the first 18 months of learning. Struggling writers will persist in lowercase vs. uppercase letter confusion, continued difficulty in anchoring letters on the line, and may have persistent word spacing difficulties.

As these learners progress in their reading and writing instruction, they will likely display the following weaknesses or "potholes" that cause plateaus in learning (points B and C):

  • Difficulty processing (identifying and tracking), reading, and spelling words with blends; for example, spelling "from" as form or "black" as bak.
  • Difficulty learning and sorting vowel sounds and spellings; for example, confusing the short /i/ with the short /e/ sound, having difficulty remembering when to spell <a-e> vs. <ai> in high frequency words such as "make" and "rain."
  • Difficulty reading and writing multisyllable words; for example, guessing beyond the first syllable, skipping multisyllable words altogether, or omitting syllables with spelling.
  • Difficulty reading and writing affixes, especially suffixes; for example, incorrect usage of common suffixes, such as spelling "jumped" as <jumpt>, misreading or skipping suffixes in multisyllable words, or difficulty learning complex suffixes such as -ion. 

Each of these skills may have been taught, but they are BIG areas of weakness for the student. These skill areas—blends, vowels, syllables, affixes—are particularly demanding and grow in complexity over time.

In addition, struggling learners will begin to avoid or resist literacy instruction (point D). They may become confused and have regressions. They may seem to lose prior skills. Potholes and regressions are the result of weak skills coupled with the escalating demands of literacy. Each student and their areas of weakness need consistent time and attention rather than strict adherence to grade-level demands.  

Sadly, well-intended advice leads educators toward two other options: they either allow the struggling learner to avoid literacy (a dead end), or they introduce "accommodations" that get the job done without filling the potholes. These typically include using spell check vs. learning to spell (even when kids are inefficient on the keyboard), relying on speech-to-text software (or scribing) vs. learning to write, and using audiobooks vs. learning to read. 

While accommodations are certainly appropriate for the cognitively or physically challenged learner, these resources will keep struggling learners moving forward, while also ensuring kids flounder as they age. This method prioritizes independence, while unknowingly convincing the young learner of all they cannot do on their own. Instead of empowering kids, the result is learned helplessness. No matter how many participation trophies we give, kids still know when they are stuck sitting on the bench. In the long run, accommodations, like participation trophies, may leave kids feeling worse instead of better.


Struggling Learner's Literacy Path with Explicit Teaching

But there are answers for the struggling learner! Rather than accommodations, we can introduce modifications to the learning process. We can work to strengthen the underlying system, which is weak. We can engage in systematic instruction that moves at an appropriate pace and targets potholes in the path, where each skill area receives explicit teaching and on-going practice. We can help students learn to consolidate these skills across all areas of literacy (reading, writing, and spelling). Our goal for the struggling learner is to create a learning path that looks like this: 

Explicit and systematic instruction is provided across all skill areas. All skills are practiced in context each time they are taught:

In reading practice with word lists, sentences, paragraphs, and stories.

In writing practice with Intentional Copywork, Dictation & Editing and supportive original writing. 

At the start (point A), consistent handwriting and self-monitoring skills are taught and reinforced. Strong sound-to-letter connections are the goal and are continually reinforced and monitored throughout all new learning.

Progress (points B and C) will be slow and extra attention will be given to any area of struggle. Continuous review and practice will fill potholes as they occur, even if this takes time. While we don't wait for 100% proficiency, we continually work to strengthen prior skills as we teach new skills. There will be plateaus, but these are often followed by small jumps in progress. The struggling learner is making a difficult uphill ascent. They need to stop, rest, and regroup along the way. They need to experience success as they climb.

Periods of confusion, frustration, or regression will occur (point D). Literacy is hard exercise and hard won for the struggling learner. The student will want to take a break from practice, which unfortunately, will cause even more regression. Instead, we allow students to back up to a level of success. We reteach, review, get creative, play more games, take more short breaks throughout the school day, and engage in tasks we know will be successful, but we help students stay on the path, working their way back up the hill again. Think of this as a time of injury. Brains cells are like muscles: if we don't use it we lose it. Like injured muscles, we don't want atrophy from prolonged rest; instead, we want to rebuild strength and endurance so those muscles can get back to form.

Independence and proficiency are now viable goals (point E). Reading with blends, vowels, syllables, and affixes occurs consistently at all reading levels, helping students progress toward reading fluency and comprehension. Pairing spelling and writing practice using all forms of writing helps skills to become automatic, ensuring better work at each stage, and allowing for writing fluency in the future. Therefore, writing occurs every day and is always paired with reading and some level of gentle editing. Good teaching paired with meaningful application ensures growth!


Path to Independence

Each of our classes shows you how to help your learner on this path to true independence—a literacy life where audiobooks and speech-to-text software are options, not necessities, and where spelling and grammar checks are aids, not life supports. Where keyboarding is a mastered skill, not the ONLY form of legible writing. While these goals may not be attainable for some learners with complex disabilities, they are attainable for most struggling learners. 

To learn how we fill potholes on the path, consider these online educator training classes:

To learn how we consolidate skills in reading and writing, consider these online educator training classes:

To learn how to effectively use Intentional Copywork, Dictation & Editing, consider these programs, depending on your student's age and skill level:


Every learner deserves good teaching and needs support in order to become successful and independent readers and writers.

Take the time your student needs; it will never be wasted.

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