ELL Teacher Diary #1: Nagib Learns to Read

By Ámbar de Mejía, ELL Outlook™ Staff Writer

Ana had been absent for a week. Since she is almost always sick with some cold or another, I didn’t think much of it except to note that this time, her absence was longer than usual. Today I saw her during dismissal while I was standing in the hallway saying goodbye to the children and keeping my eye on the flow of traffic. “Walk, please!,” more of an order than a request, not that I’ll tell them that. Ana walked by me.

“Hey!” I called out. “Were you sick?” She shook her head no.

“What? Get over here, kid!” I said playfully, and she did.

“Were you in Honduras?” I asked, it being so close to the Christmas holidays and all.

“No, I was in Florida,” she replied.

“Florida?! What were you doing there?”

“My sister was sick!”

“Oh,” and we talked a bit more before I let her go. Couldn’t let her miss the bus, after all, could I?

“Walk, please!” I cried out. “Walk, please! Thank you!”

A common occurrence. A family member gets sick and mom goes to take care of him or her and brings all the children, because, after all, if mom is gone, who will take care of the children for her? Who will take them to the bus and watch for their return in the afternoon? Who will make sure they have their chocolate caliente to make them sleepy-at least, that’s what they say-before bed, and give them bread and their cafecito in the morning? I struggle sometimes with the demands of the school law, of unexcused absences and family values. A culture clash, perhaps?

“Walk, please! ¡Me le das saludos a tu mamá, por favor! ¡Gracias! Say ‘Hi’ to your mom for me, please! Thanks!”

Family loyalty, I say to myself as I walk down the hall.

To pull or not to pull, that is the question, or rather, the dilemma. To modify content and teach in an inclusion atmosphere or not . . .

Nagib has been in a U.S. school for three years now. He is repeating fifth grade. This year, I was hoping that things would be different, that he would learn to read, that he would really be interested in school instead of playing around all the time. What could I possibly do to motivate this child? He attended a sheltered instruction class for reading and math in fourth grade with me-that is, whenever he showed up; he continues to attend a reading instruction class for struggling readers and a pull-out class for reading, again, with yours truly. Somehow, I have failed this child.

I stopped sending supplementary materials home, including books on cassette and Leap Frog readers, since they only made their way back to school after numerous requests and under threat of no party at the end of the year. Plus, they always came back in a permanently altered state.

He has to take state exams at the end of the year.

“Nagib, why didn’t you do your homework?” I asked him after the many complaints about his homework began to pile up. We were sitting in the hallway, right outside his classroom. He lowered his head and said, “My father works two jobs. He comes home at twelve o’clock. I go to bed. He can’t help me.”

“Why didn’t you try?”

“I can’t read.”

Sigh! He doesn’t even try.

Nagib loves coming to my room and picking out Dr. Seuss books or my kindergarten readers. He is intelligent and has a very good memory; so much so that if he hears the facts, he can pass an orally administered exam most of the time. But what about the state exams at the end of the year? What about sixth grade and seventh grade, and people laughing at him because he can’t read? He’ll be swallowed alive in middle school.

I had to make a decision. Either I would continue teaching and modifying for reading class, or I would teach this child to read once and for all; my schedule could not accommodate both.

Why should I be doing resource work when I am an ESL teacher? I still have a lot of things to do, and now I have to do this as well!

I consoled myself with a cup of coffee, dark roast, black, no sugar. Of course, I always answer myself. Being able to read is his greatest need, not getting through the school year.

The next day, I saw Nagib and told him to go to my room, and forget the books, please.

“Nagib, you have to learn how to read, once and for all.” He lowered his head. He always does when we talk about reading.

“I can’t read,” he said.

“We will begin with these books,” I said, ignoring the comment, “and I think that by January or sooner, you should be reading at about a fifth-grade level. Now, let me show you how this works.”

His eyes brightened at the flashcards with the engaging pictures.

“I’ll be reading fifth grade when?” he asked.

“I think in three months or sooner, because you have a good memory and you’re intelligent. So, you can learn to read, right?”

“Okay,” he said.

We spent the next month and a half delving into phonics, reading skills, and reading books he likes, slowly going up to the next level. I decided to copy the summary of the fifth-grade textbook story. After marking phonics rules and vowels together, and listening to me read the summary first, he read. It was slow going, very slow going, so much so that I was getting desperate and frustrated, but I didn’t show it-or so I thought.

“I hate it when you do that,” Nagib said one day after he made a mistake. I usually don’t help him until he tries to figure it out himself, but I have this bad habit of drumming my fingers on the table or on my hand when he makes a mistake or while I wait.

“Hate what?”

“When you do that when I make a mistake.”

“Okay, I won’t do it anymore.”

“No, it’s okay. I don’t really hate it.”

I didn’t believe him. Little things hurt. He saw that as a sign of disapproval. I kept my word; I haven’t done it again.

“How did I do?” he asked.

“Let’s try this paragraph again,” I said. He did better.

“How did I do?”

“You did better! I think that you will read this to your class on Friday.”


“Yes, Friday,” I answered firmly.

We practiced and practiced. Friday came. He read the summary before his class. I stood in the back on purpose, so that he couldn’t ask for my help, but he did get some from Mrs. J. Most of the time, he figured it out on his own.

So, it looks like I’m a reading teacher. And a math teacher. And a resource teacher.

The class gave him a round of applause!

The gift of reading…

I love the little people. This year, most of my kindergarteners had attended pre-school or daycare and could speak some English when school began in September. I’ve never had a roomful of newcomer chatterboxes before, and it was a most welcome experience. After assessing them, I determined that I would begin at level one anyway, but this time, I’d be able to cover the lessons in more depth and, possibly, a little faster.

One day, after reviewing letters and sounds of the alphabet, I announced that we would be talking about people. After turning the poster around to the picture, I asked, “Who is this?” expecting them to say “a man” or “a dad.”

“Assur!” they cried out.

“A what?” I asked.

“Assur!” they replied in chorus. I racked my brain for something that might sound akin to that.

“A ‘sir,’ as in ‘Yes, sir’?” I tried.

“Uh-huh!” they chorused, nodding.

“Oh…” A “sir.” I smiled at them. Ha! Respect!

Gabriela is in third grade. I hardly ever get a chance to go to her classroom because of a conflict in scheduling, but sometimes I finish a class earlier than anticipated and rush over. They’re usually finishing math class, working independently. Gabi is good at math computation, but not at reading. Using a 1-5 rating system, Gabi’s teacher rated her at a 1 compared to the other children.

I looked at her math problems and pointed to the words as I read them to her softly so as not to disturb the other children. Reading out loud, she began to notice that something is wrong. So we talked about how reasonable her answer was compared to what the text said. She changed her answer. I continued to read and she continued to change her answers. I made a mental note that she must receive a read-aloud modification consistently in class and during testing. I also made a mental note that Gabi was wearing the same pink jacket as last week, even though it was much colder today.

“How is your mom?” I asked.

Bien, gracias,” she said. Fine, thanks.

“Is she working?”

“No, ella cuida al bebé. She takes care of the baby.”

“Okay. Tell her I said ‘Hi’, please!”

I made sure to speak to her teacher and got a permission slip for choosing donated items from the Christmas Care Tree. The students and parents from our school donated gloves, scarves, and jackets for needy people. I explained the program to Gabi and wrote a note in Spanish to her mom on the permission slip.

That’s all I did. Gabi and her brother were called to the counselor’s office a few days later and chose warm winter wear. It’s a relief to know that they won’t freeze at the bus stop. The jackets aren’t too thick, but at least now they have two each for layering. I’ve got to remember to get coupons from the thrift store. Even wearing two jackets, they won’t stand a chance against Old Man Winter.

A week later, the day of the Christmas program, Gabi came to my class with a small wrapped present.

“For me?” I asked.

Gabi is so shy, she only nodded.

“Thank you so much! Chocolate! Mmmmmmm! My favorite! Tell your mom I said thank you. Let me give you a hug!” I hugged her and kissed her forehead while trying to hide the concern I felt. The chocolates looked a little expensive and mom was home taking care of the baby and dad went away almost a year ago now and hadn’t come back and mom couldn’t get a job because there was no one to care for her baby and the kids wore the same clothes all the time and now I had this gift in my hands.

Some gifts are bittersweet.

Nagib came to class today with his fifth-grade reading book. We began our reading session by reading a book at the second-grade level, something that he can handle more readily for practice. I told him that I wanted him to develop speed and fluency. He nodded. And so, he read. And read. And self-corrected after some prompting. “Does that make sense?” “Did that sound right?” He finished the book, happy that he actually finished in one session with time left over. We opened his fifth-grade book to the section of poetry and spoke about poetry, songs, and rhyme for a while. I recited two funny poems to him.

“You sing a lot!” he said with admiration.

“I’m not singing; I’m reciting poems.”

“When did you learn them?” he asked.

“In fourth grade.”

“When was that? In 1998? No? In 1982? No?”

I reminded him that 100 years old is pretty old.

“You’re not 100 years old! You’re 42!”

I laughed. Vanity, vanity. Why did I ever tell him?

I began to read the introduction to the unit and had Nagib point while I read. He frequently reads from right to left, as if he were reading Arabic, and pointing keeps him on track. To my delight and suppressed surprise, he took over when I paused, reading slowly, steadily. I made no comment about that.

I read the first poem. He reread it mostly on his own, self-correcting, but asking for help with difficult words. We discussed the poem and he offered his own explanation as to why the author wrote that poem. From struggling to read, he is now reading to learn.

It was worthwhile throwing the book out the window, so to speak, and grabbing the bull by the horns. Nagib is becoming independent, and I am as proud as a mother duck with new ducklings.