The Struggling Reader, Part 2

Becca reading to Caleb

Siblings sharing a book.

Teaching my own child to read is one of the most exciting and sobering things I’ve done. If God is the foundation of our children’s education, then reading is the ground floor. Nothing can make you feel an inadequate teacher more than a struggling reader.

I remember trying to teach my first child how to read. The experts at his kindergarten believed he was dyslexic and wanted to put him in a special ed class. In rebellion, my husband and I brought him home, and I became his teacher. It was a nightmare. I had no idea what I was doing, but reading is my passion!…how hard could it be to pass this passion on to my son.

I will admit it was one of the most difficult things I’ve done! Childbirth was easier. Teaching him to read was like childbirth…but a 5 year childbirth. That’s how long it took before it “clicked” for this son. But from kindergarten through fourth grade, I experienced horrible labor with this one, intense contractions that hurt like crazy and seemed to accomplish nothing. Yep, childbirth was easier.

Since then I’ve taught 8 more children to read. And at least one more also struggled. Now I’m teaching my last one to read. He hasn’t been the hardest to teach, but neither has he been the easiest. He’s struggled just enough that my interview with Dr Bill Eckenwiler, reading specialist, held personal meaning, motivated by my motherly anxiety over yet another struggler. (If you haven’t read part 1 of this interview, I highly recommend that you do so.)

In my last post Dr Bill had left us with an educational rhema (something that the Holy Spirit brings to our attention with application to a current situation or need for direction). Remember, there are 5 non-negotiables in which a person must be proficient in order for him or her to read. The non-negotiable which tops the list, the thing I’d never even heard of before in my life, in order to be a proficient reader is…

Phonemic Awareness. 

Reading Level 1 Complete!

In celebration, Caleb destroys and wallows in his level 1 phonics book once it was completed.

Phonemic Awareness is at the top of the list. The truth is, to put it bluntly, if your child isn’t proficient in phonemic awareness, he will be a struggling reader. Before we unpack phonemic awareness, let me give you the full list of non-negotiables:

  • Phonemic awareness
  • Phonics
  • Vocabulary
  • Fluency
  • Comprehension

But phonemic awareness? What on earth is that? Of course I had to know.

“Okay, Bill, what exactly is phonemic awareness?

Dr. Bill leaned back in his chair, grinning, and responded, “I had hoped you’d ask me that. Phonemic awareness precedes reading print. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and distinguish the sounds of our language, manipulate them in your mind, and reproduce them with your mouth.”

Okay, so I’m obviously not a rocket scientist, and this sounded suspiciously like phonics to me. Dr Bill reassured me they are two very different things. Remember, phonemic awareness precedes print. Before your child recognizes letters and words on the printed page, he has to be able to hear the different sounds.

I’m sure you’ve been homeschooling long enough to know that the best method to teach anything is by doing…so I became Dr Bill’s student, and he proceeded to demonstrate his phonemic awareness test on me:

Monica reading to her nephew...

Older kids reading to younger kids…

“I’m going to say a word: bat. What is the first sound you hear?…not the first letter, but the first sound?”


“…and the last sound you hear?”


“…and the middle sound?”


“Now take the ‘buh’ sound at the beginning of the word – bat – and replace it with the ‘puh’ sound. What word do you have?”


“Now I’m going to give you three separate syllables. You string them together and tell me what word it makes: Com…Pu…Ter.”


At this point the proverbial light bulbs were literally blazing in my brain. Phonemic awareness. The ability to hear and distinguish the sounds of our language AND manipulate them in our minds If your child can’t pass these seemingly simple audio/oral tests, he will struggle. The good news is that phonemic awareness is something that can be/should be taught, even before you teach reading.

Now, I know you and I are a lot alike, and you’re wondering, “Fine, how do I teach phonemic awareness?” That’s where Dr Bill comes in. When this astounding research was released, Dr Bill realized there was no curriculum out there to teach this concept. Not one to be deterred by something as simple as a lack of curriculum, Dr Bill proceeded to develop his own phonemic awareness curriculum. He used this curriculum in his college classes, teaching those future teachers how to implement phonemic awareness training in the classroom.

Siblings reading together.

Older brother Ben reading to his younger siblings.

Somewhere around this time, Dr Bill fell in love, got married and started a family. He and his wife made the decision to homeschool their boys and they quickly got involved in local homeschool groups and co-ops. It wasn’t long before word got out that there were not one, but two reading specialists in the homeschool group….and people started seeking them out.

“Dr Bill, my son is in 4th grade, but is only reading on a first grade reading level…”

“Kristen, I don’t know what to do! I’ve tried these 3 popular reading programs and they just don’t work…”

“Dr Bill, I’m a failure! I’ve tried everything, and it’s just not working. What am I doing wrong…”

“Kristen, I know we need a reading specialist, but to be honest, there is no way we can afford one. I don’t know what to do, but I know God is calling me to homeschool…”

Both Bill and Kristen have a deep love for the homeschool community and found their hearts going out to these hurting moms and struggling students. They began to mull it over. Was it possible to take his college course and develop it into an easy-to-use curriculum that would turn any mom into a reading specialist in just 20 minutes?…and thus was born The Struggling Reader.

I’ll leave you at this point to do your happy dance. Yes, this is an answer to prayer. Yes, it does help. Yes, it is successful. I’m looking forward to telling you more about it in my next post. In the meantime, enjoy your happy dance!

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