Case study: Julie, a seven-year-old, high-achieving reader

Julie had just turned four when I began to tutor her in reading. Her mother, a native of China, had been taking Julie to a tutoring agency since she was barely three. The mother worked with her daughter daily on the reading lessons which Julie brought home.

Child looking at flash cards of two and three letter words.

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When I met Julie, she could read many one-syllable words and some two syllable words. However, I noticed that when confronted with a new word, she could not figure it out. She had memorized the look of the words she knew but she had not learned phonics skills to sound out new words.

We began by reviewing ABC names and consonant sounds, almost all of which Julie knew. Then we spent many lessons on vowel sounds, focusing on short vowels first, and later mixing both short and long vowel sounds. We did this using pictures (pig, hat, run) which Julie would match with cards labeled ā ē ī ō ū and ă ĕ ĭ ŏ ŭ. We would spend about ten minutes of a lesson on this kind of work. Julie’s attention span was about ten to twelve minutes, so this was one of several activities in a single, hour-long lesson.

Tutor teaching a child.

When she mastered the vowel sounds using pictures, we worked on forming three-letter words using short vowels. At first I moved letter tiles around to form words, and with time, Julie made her own combinations and tested me to see if I knew what words she had formed.

Next, I added blends to short vowel words, first at the beginnings of words, and later at the ends of words. She found the beginning blends easier than the ending blends, as most children do. I made index cards with blend words on them, and when Julie would read a word on a card correctly, she would use a date stamp to mark the card—a way to make the learning fun. After a few weeks she mastered the blend words.

Late in our first year together, Julie began work on long vowel words ending with a silent “e.” She knew many of them by sight but not by sounding a word out. As our first year ended, we were working on long vowel single syllable words with double vowels such as “beat,” “fuel” and “rain.”

We were also building words using roots, prefixes and suffixes whose parts were written on little cards which Julie would push together to form words such as re-mix-ing and un-read-able. In the months which followed, when she encountered a long, unfamiliar word, she sometimes covered the prefix or suffix to figure out the middle part, and then constructed the word bit by bit as I had demonstrated.

Young girl reading a book

Julie could read many picture books. She enjoyed short paragraphs with colorful pictures on each page, but she would not try a chapter book. “Too many words,” she would say. She continued to go to the tutoring agency and do the reading homework with her mother, and to work with me once a week. When Julie was five, we began adding spelling and sentence writing to her lessons.

Julie is 7 now and has finished first grade. She is in the gifted program at her school. She reads voraciously, everything from Ranger Rick magazines to hundred-page chapter books. She has exhausted the phonics-like reading materials I have. She can read fourth or fifth grade materials as fluently as I can. She is working on expanding her vocabulary and on using more details in writing.

Julie is an example of the progress a child can make with a tutor or tutoring center augmenting school instruction. She is also an example of what studying during school breaks can do. She goes to school year round—nine months in her public school, and 12 months with tutors and her mother. Julie has a mother committed to Julie’s education, a mother who scours the library for appropriate books for Julie, subscribes to Ranger Rick, and oversees Julie’s homework and her piano practicing. She also teaches Julie how to write using Chinese pictographs.

For Julie, education is a way of life.

Julie—mischievous, hardworking and accomplished—could be your child’s classmate.

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