Thursday, March 31, 2011

Reflections from a Miracle in the Making

I have two remarkable daughters. My girls came to live with me at the ages of 11 and 8, and I was given the amazing privilege of adopting them. For their own right to privacy I have chosen to give them pseudonyms for my blog posts. My oldest is now 17 and she is Percy because she has an amazing spirit of perseverance and because she'd be quick to tell you that Percy is the main character from her favorite series of books. My youngest is 13 and she is Miss B because she is one of the bravest people I know.
This week I've been watching a miracle unfold. Percy has a learning disability. She has had amazing odds to overcome. When Percy came to live with me she could only read about 50 of the 100 most common sight words. Reading was extremely difficult for her. In addition to being dyslexic, she also had difficulty blending sounds together. Reading is something we've worked on since day one. The school provided services to help, I enrolled her in additional tutoring, I would read aloud to her, and I encouraged her to daily read. Although she made some progress, at age 15 she was still reading between a 1st and 2nd grade level.
My hope and dream for Percy has always been to give her the tools she needs to be the independent adult she longs to be. Like most kids she wants to go to college, be able to be on her own, and most importantly (like any teenager) have her own car. As she traveled through her 9th grade year I was unsure if all her dreams could become a reality. My goal for Percy was to reach at least a 5th grade reading level because I knew she could be independent at that level. (Many publications are written at approximately the 6th grade level). In 9th grade and age 15 she was a long way from that goal.
That Christmas, while listening to a Grammar Girl Podcast, I discovered the website They provide audiobooks at economical prices. I downloaded a book through a special offer and thought, "Hey, this is neat." Percy's class at the time was reading the novel Holes and she was struggling to keep up. I began to wonder if the books from Audible could help Percy. I downloaded Holes to an MP3 player and gave it to Percy with one rule. She had to follow along in the book as she listened.
Being 15 and reading at a 2nd grade level is a drag for many reasons. One of those reasons is that there is no reading material at your interest level (I'm excluding academic materials available to teachers in this statement). Your peers are busy consuming and raving about titles such as Twilight and your Stuck with Junie B. Jones. ( I have nothing against Junie, but if I was 15, she wouldn't be on the top of my reading list).
With the magic of a credit card sized listening device and 15 dollars a month my daughter's literary world began to expand. I was very careful at first to direct her book choices. I would recommend books I had already read so we could discuss them and because I knew they met her other interests. I wanted it to be a positive experience from the very beginning. The first book she read for pure enjoyment was Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. Not only did she read it once, but she read it over and over and over (I lost count after 5 times). She couldn't get enough of the story, and I knew the repetition of hearing the word, seeing the word was invaluable.

We have one of those fancy pants TVs that has the viewing guide built in. In the past I never had to worry about statements like, "Mom can we please watch __________! Please, pretty please!" because Percy was unable to read the guide. Within six months of using the audiobooks I noticed things changing. I began to get more and more frequent requests to watch specific shows because she could now read the guide.
Another example of marked improvement came from watching the show Heroes. Several of the characters were not english speakers, so their dialogue was always displayed as subtitles. Even as Percy's reading improved, she still asked me to read them to her because they would scroll on the screen so quickly. One night I was preoccupied, as mothers sometimes get, all of a sudden I realized my daughter was reading aloud. I looked up and saw that she was reading the subtitles on the screen. She didn't miss a single word or make one mistake. In my heart I started to do a happy dance. It seems so little, but that night we won a major battle in the war to become a proficient reader.
Two years have gone by since I put that first MP3 player in her hand. She has read at least 39 books and has accumulated 497 AR points. (For you none teacher types, AR is a school reading program that monitors comprehension and provides incentive to keep reading). I know the MP3 player alone hasn't made all the difference, she has had some amazing teachers along the way too, but it has played a pivotal role.
Now, back to our miracle in the making. A few weeks ago I took Percy to a large bookstore for some Mom/Daughter time. We picked out a couple of books to be her next reads. The plan was to download the accompanying audiobooks when we got home. After shopping we went out to eat and perused our purchases. Percy picked up Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz. I thought she was just going to thumb through it with anticipation, but the next thing I knew she had turned to chapter 1 and had begun to read it on her own. I asked her a couple of questions to monitor her understanding, and she asked me the name of a couple of characters. Then she was on her way. She has set out to read the whole book on her own. She is already halfway through chapter 4. She has complained a few times that the reading is slower when she doesn't have anyone to listen to, but she is determined to achieve this new goal.
I was inspired to share this story after of blog post from my friend Kevin Honeycutt. In his post he was talking about the power of reading aloud to students and giving them them the opportunity to read aloud to others. Audiobooks have had an amazing impact on my daughter's life, and I know that she will one day be able to read to her own children because of them.