If you’re struggling to teach non-readers to read, Terri Jenson’s incredible story of how she transformed non-readers into readers in under four months will inspire you to never give up.

Terri’s readers went from struggling, to putting letter-sounds together, to reading chapter books in just three to four months!

How did she do it?

Well, she adopted the Reading Simplified system and has really run with it, becoming a leader in our community, which is why I can’t wait to share her wonderful story with you!

Terri Jenson Tutoring Breakthroughs

[00:51] – How Terri’s reading and tutoring practices changed after finding Reading Simplified
[08:08] – Terri’s favorite techniques to help teach kids how to read
[11:08] – Why (and how) the ‘Sort It’ activity works
[15:13] – The importance of re-reading
[18:14] – Terri shares two remarkable breakthrough stories where she helped to transform struggling readers into readers in under four months! (see these superb readers in action in the video below!)
[42:05] – Terri’s top tips for anyone struggling to help non-readers progress

[If you'd rather read the transcript from the above video, here ya go...]

How Reading Simplified Changed Everything

Terri talked about what she did with her struggling readers before and after adopting Reading Simplified techniques. Before implementing the techniques that we teach here at Reading Simplified, Terri helped students in junior high and high school.

She also taught eighth-grade language class, where she did the usual lessons in spellings and reading aloud, etc. However, not everyone in the classroom ‘got’ it. One kid had a hard time with his spelling tests, and he required a lot of help from teachers and his parents. So, Terri wanted to find out what was really going on with him and other students who were also struggling, so she used the San Diego Quick Assessment that she had been using for several years because it's just so quick.

The San Diego Quick Assessment is a word identification test, which features a list of words in isolation to read and gives you an approximate reading achievement level. Terri also tested the student’s handwriting fluency and reading fluency, both of which were very bad. These measures were at the third-grade level – yet, these students were eighth graders!

So, Terri got to work to find out what was going on and, hopefully, transform the non-readers into readers. One quick Google Search led her to find Reading Simplified, which she then sent to other kindergarten teachers and the supervisor. She signed up and thought about her now ninth graders and thought “how is it that I can teach them this without them feeling stupid having to talk about letter-sounds all over again?”

Terri got permission from Marnie to show the Switch It training videos to these 9th grade poor readers with the intention of having them tutor the kindergarten readers. Thus, these older students learned more about our written code by working with beginning readers doing Switch It.  Terri didn't make any other change other than, for homework, she made the kids read out loud for 10 or 15 minutes a day. All three of the kids moved up two grade levels to the fifth-grade reading level by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Terri was tutoring 16 kids in school on a Tuesday and a Thursday morning, 10 minutes at a time. She had to adapt Switch It really fast and was mostly doing Switch It and Guided Reading. For Switch It,  she would often write the letters on the board and tell them the letters they could use.

What is Switch It?

If you're not familiar with Switch It, it's our term for a phonemic manipulation activity. It's sort of word building, where we have the letter-sounds cards on a board and we challenge the students to move the sounds in and out of words, so change "cat" to "cot" and "cot" to "pot" and "pot" to "pod" and "pod" to "sod." 

We change every position in the word and we move rapidly from three sounds to four sounds, five sounds, to six sounds and so on. For example, you can ask the child to change "stamp" to "stump" to "stomp."

If you’d like to learn more about Switch It, read our blog post: The Foundation for Strong Sound-Based Decoding–Switch It!

Helpful Techniques to Help Teach Kids How to Read

Along with Switch It, Terri also did oral reading with Reading Simplified passages. Terri also shared some of her favorite techniques to assist during Guided Reading:

I love tapping the pencil on the word…if they're struggling, I'll just say that says "a" and make them Flex It until they are at least confident enough to start playing with it.”

What really struck me about Reading Simplified is it's not isolated - it's intuitively what we know.”

For many struggling readers the manipulation and the perception of sounds, linking the sounds and symbols, is often the missing piece because of the phonics.

That was a little eye-opening. So, I started to really bug the supervisor, and say, "We need to look at what we're doing." Meanwhile, I would caution against one of the mistakes I made, which is that we started using the letter tiles to manipulate spelling words.

So, they were spelling words, they had a whole spelling list every day, and so we'd do a spelling, you know we'd take that list, and use the letter tiles and it works to some degree. It helps the manipulation but it’s not for the same purpose. They still had to memorize how it goes. It’s not as taxing to just move things that are already there around. They're not even writing it and they don't have to recall it. That’s one of the early mistakes we made.”


Boost Reading Achievement with the Sort It Activity

Terri loved using Sort It to help transform non-readers to readers. Sort It is another key activity that we teach here at Reading Simplified. It's teaching all of the major spellings of one sound at the same time. Presenting them from the get-go at the same time and then having the kids read it and sort it by spelling.

They then say the sounds as they do it, which is a really key part of it, that they say the /oa/ as they write the whole "o." This helps them to synch sounds and symbols--it reinforces the advanced phonics.

(If you want to learn more about the Sort It activity, read our blog post: Organize Advanced Phonics Information for Rapid Learning–Sort It)

The national data suggests to us that around 30% of kids don't perceive the sounds and words well. So that is what’s blocking them from being able to access the code and that's why Switch It and Sort It are so helpful. These activities, and other Reading Simplified activities, help tune students to the sounds in words and connect these sounds more easily to spellings.

Implementing More Guided Reading (Blend-As-You-Read)

Another thing that Terri would do with her non-readers is Guided Reading.

That was new to me, to have them re-read the passage multiple times to gain fluency, and that's really fun. I love Guided Reading with Re-Reading!

I've never experienced the Re-Read like that. I had only read through and I'd keep the kids, (like my ninth graders) on task and make them sound something out. I did Blend As You Read, which was huge. I'd make them stick with it and not answer it for them, but they didn't really have that phonemic awareness. They didn't have the ability to see a letter and translate it into the sound, especially in a big word.”

“It’s mind-blowing that they cannot even know 90% of the text on a simple decodable and within a day or two, they're starting to pick it up, and so we'd read through a little bit. If it was long, I'd read part of it, they'd read part of it, we'd come back, and they'd try it again.”

“I didn't give many homework that first year because I felt like we made some really good progress. We saw some break-throughs with the kids.”

Over the summer, she continued tutoring the struggling readers and saw a year of progress with some of the students and even two years’ worth of progress with others! (how amazing is that!?) She continued to grow in her understanding of Reading Simplified that first year.


1st Grader Moves from Non-Reader to Reader in 4 Months

Terri has had incredible progress with many of her students. However, three kids stand-out in particular. The first student was a struggling 1st grader who saw amazing progress in just four months.

The student’s name is Brinley. When Terri first started tutoring Brinley in November, she could write nine letters in a minute. She could only read a few CVC words and had almost no phonemic awareness (even though she knew all her phonograms). 

Within a month of tutoring, Brinley started putting some of those pieces together and her handwriting speed went up like crazy. She went from writing just nine letters a minute to 60 letters per minute, which is mind-blowing!

She has a hard time saying her r's and so she couldn't hear the sounds. We went up to Christmas and we were making progress. In January she came back, and something just clicked. We were just looking at her like, "Look at this girl. Look what's happened here." She just took off and now she's reading chapter books on her own and big multi-syllable stuff.”
Tutor Transforms Non-readers to Readers in 3-4 Months

(If you want to see video footage of Brinley in action, watch the video at the top of this blog post)

In the video, you can see how she came to the word ‘stay’ and she probably didn't remember that /ay/ is one thing and its sound and so she went, /ah/, /eh/, she did a couple of different sounds and she said to herself, "Oh /ay/." And she pulled it all together, so she read that word and then Terri wisely just gave her the word "through" because this was a second read so "through" is pretty tricky, a little bit harder for her level, just to keep her moving.

However, when she got stuck, like on words like ‘else’, she didn't look up at Terri, she didn't make a guess. She looked at the sounds really carefully and figured it out for herself.

She then went on to read Magic Treehouse books on her own.

She went home that day with her little packet. I give them five days worth of work and she said, "I just want to read a book, Mom." "Can I just read a book?" She picked up Magic Treehouse and her Mom sent me a message and said, "She figured out 'mysterious' and 'discovered' on her own."

(You can see a video of Brinley in action and reading Magic Treehouse in the video above)

She was very attentive to print and carefully tracking the words. She wasn’t as ‘robotic’ as she was in the early days. She was actually pretty fluent.

1st Grader Overcomes His Blending Difficulties!

The next student Terri talked about was a young boy named Clay, who was recommended to get some tutoring. He was a first grader, and when his mom contacted Terri she was worried he might be dyslexic because he was testing at a mid-kindergarten level.

Tutor Transforms Non-readers to Readers in 3-4 Months

He reversed /b/ and /d/, /n/ and /u/ and /m/ and /w/. So, Terri tested him on simple handwriting and ran through the Snapshot Assessment and the PAST Test.

The PAST Test is great because it identifies phonemic manipulation strengths and weaknesses--an advanced level of phonemic awareness--while our Reading Simplified Snapshot Assessment offers a nonsense word test, letter-sound knowledge, and just phonemic segmenting.

Clay’s problem was that he was not reading at a first-grade level. He could do some decoding but had serious trouble blending.

The first piece of homework I gave him was to do 18 letters a minute on his handwriting, and we walked through how to do it.”

He was very motivated and reached 40 letters per minute within the first week.

All of the reversals (except /b/ and /d/) went away. Within a couple of months, I tested him, and we did a lot of Word Work and we did a lot of Say As You Write, where you say the sound as you write and we moved to big words. As soon as he was blending, we moved into multi-syllable.”

In just three and a half months, Clay had a year’s growth.

“I did a spelling test and he tested on a 2.6 grade level in spelling.”

As you can imagine, this was a massive jump for a kid who couldn't apply his phonics to reading. You can see Clay in action in the video at the top of this post, where he is reading "Betty Botter" and focusing on learning the /er/ sound.

Terri’s Top Tips to Transform Non-Readers To Readers

Terri saw incredible improvement and so, I asked her to share some of her best tips and advice for anyone who is having a hard time teaching struggling readers to read (particularly those who are using traditional teaching methods that just aren’t working!).

Here’s what she had to share:

“One of the major attractions for me [about Reading Simplified] was simple. I have always felt like life isn't supposed to be that hard, and I know kids struggle so I'm not saying that they don't. But I think it has to be simple. One thing that I hear a lot from parents is "Well, I'm not the teacher. I don't really know how to do that. The teachers know how." And I think, you guys, if you're a parent, you're a teacher. That's just the bottom line and you can do it and it's simple and it's doable.”

Going through the Reading Simplified Academy helps you learn every little step at a time….It's really effective, it's really simple, and it's really fast.”

One of the easiest ways to help students (in situations like the global pandemic we’re currently facing) is to ask parents to help support their reading at home. We can coach parents in how to respond by videoing their own child's reading, along with our own coaching prompts. There are just a few that we use over and over--and parents can adopt these. In addition, we have an example video for parents in how to correct reading errors here

Terri was impressed with the Reading Simplified technique of challenging students to work out their reading difficulties--as much as possible--on their own...

Sometimes I'd tap to make sure he would fix a mistake that I thought he could fix. And sometimes I just gave him the word… you don't have to know the label for the phonics pattern. It doesn't have to be a long /oa/ or a short /o/, it's just tap on it. "You didn't read that right, this is it."

Yes, some kids are going to have more profound reading difficulties and need more than just 4 months of reading intervention. And yet, with Clay, he would have been diagnosed as dyslexia if there hadn't been an intervention. Phonemic awareness was missing, and he and the students in his class were getting systematic phonics already, but that was not enough for Clay. He needed to be taught how to hear the sounds of words and integrate it with the print in that integrated way.

I hope Terri’s breakthrough stories encourage and motivate you to try new techniques and not to be afraid of branching away from the ‘status quo that might not be the best way to help transform non-readers to readers.

Do you have a breakthrough story of your own you’d like to share? Tell me about in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you!

Tutor Transforms Non-readers to Readers in 3-4 Months