A calling ...

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims."

"Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

- Buckminster Fuller

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Case Study

Student:                     Johnny Smith
Evaluator:                    Daniel Kurland
Dates of Evaluation:   2-14-12, 2-1612
Student’s Birthdate:   5-6-2003
School:                        Dog Star
Elementary School
123 Any Street, Columbia Forest, VA
Grade:                         3
Parents:                       James Smith *(lives with father), Juana Smith
Phone:                         757-575-9999             


Johnny Smith, age 8 years 9 months, a well-liked 3rd grade student with a specific learning disability, is a typical boy in many ways. He is an engaging conversationalist. He considers P.E. and recess to be fun activities. He thrives in after school Tae Kwon Do. He complains with a twinkle, almost giggling, that school work is “boring!” Johnny finds Sponge Bob to be “hysterical” – his words. He enjoys watching football with his father, who is raising Johnny as a single parent, possibly through divorce or separation. A typical boy in many ways, Johnny’s apparent lack of motivation in reading and writing, frankly, annoys his teachers; more than anything, some have concluded, Johnny simply needs to put more effort into his work. However, Johnny’s motivational issues may stem more from an inability to automatically recognize blends, diphthongs, and digraphs, more from an inability to apply word recognition strategies to multisyllabic words, more from a lack of strategies and effective practice, than from a lack of effort.

Interests and Attitude Inventory

Johnny’s responses to initial reading attitude surveys cry out for an alternative to a work harder hypothesis: maybe Johnny does not want to read because of how he has been instructed. A well-intended data-driven accountability-oriented instructional climate may have contributed to Johnny’s work avoidance behaviors. When asked to explain why he circled so many frowning Garfield pictures on his Elementary Reading Attitude Survey, Johnny explains, reading is boring because it “takes a long time and you get words you don’t know.” Despite Johnny’s specific learning disabilities, as documented in his Individualized Education Plan (IEP), accountability mandates force teachers to routinely assess developing readers like Johnny above the students’ independent reading levels.

Generally lacking in Johnny’s responses were intrinsic reasons for why he should care about reading; instead, Johnny cited extrinsic factors such as money, social status, and approval by adult role models:

“If they read a dictionary they can learn more that exists. If you read a dictionary you can learn the words so we can know everything. It’s important to learn everything that we get rich.”

(So, you like to read nonfiction?)

“No, I actually like fiction better than any book.”

(What fiction books do you like best?”)

Mr. Putter and Tabby, it’s a J book. I’m supposed to read L books.

(Do you know what I’ve been having you read? It’s an M Book.)

“M? Is that a lower one? A, B, C, D, … L, M … Ahhh! I’ve been reading an M book the whole time I thought it was an L book.”

(Now do you think you are a good reader?)

“I’m going to tell my dad tonight that I’ve been reading an M book instead of an L book!” (Interview, 2012)

Performance-based social validation was a powerful contextual factor shaping Johnny’s negative reading attitudes.

Missing from Johnny’s initial responses was any sense that the words, which had caused him so much frustration, might be rich with meaning and worth the effort to be understood. That misconception may partially explain Johnny’s habit of not stopping at the moment of miscue, and of filling in the blanks with nonsense words instead, which led directly to comprehension problems. Words were not seen as keys to unlocking entire worlds, as touchstones to exciting adventures. At school reading had been presented to him, not as something fun, but as something dull, as bitter medicine, as something Johnny had to do:

“You have to practice the reading if you want to get to the next level.” (Interview, 2012)

Johnny was self-aware enough to understand the relationship between effort and results. Perhaps, in circling the frowning Garfields, Johnny had been led to question whether the results were worth the effort. When asked what made reading boring, Johnny replied:

“The words, a bunch of words! Sometimes it doesn’t make sense.” (Interview, 2012)

(What a brilliant statement! Yes, Johnny, reading is boring when you don’t understand the words. That was such an intelligent observation! Later, I’m going to show you some ways to help you become a more efficient reader.)

A shift in Johnny’s attitudes began to occur during the course of the assessment and tutoring window. Given personalized selections tailored just for Johnny, given direct teaching informed by developmentally appropriate, evidence-based assessments of Johnny’s strengths and needs, given heroic characters like the “sneaky guy,” Odysseus of Ithica, Johnny found reasons to get excited about reading that did not involve just a bunch of empty words, or the admonition of adults to work harder. In the process, Johnny made a shocking discovery, reading can actually be fun!

At the end of Johnny’s final tutoring session, after five days of hurried assessment and 1:1 instruction in a noisy hallway, Johnny was offered a selection of books on The Trojan War, Midas, and Johnny Appleseed. Not surprisingly, when presented an alternative view of reading, Johnny, the boy who loved to share with anyone who would listen that reading is boring, decided that the next book that he wanted to read was the one about the Trojan War (a level L book) because it had “the sneaky guy,” Odysseus of Ithica. Johnny began to see the possibility that reading can actually be fun!

Informal Reading Inventory
(Report Limitations)

 Errors in protocol occurred when testing was discontinued before Johnny completed sections. Johnny displayed a pattern of shutting down at the point of frustration throughout the testing window. Due to severe limitations on time and access to Johnny by the testing administrator, Johnny was never given an opportunity to continue sections on another day. Thus, key opportunities were lost to obtain a more complete picture of Johnny’s strengths and weaknesses from the IRI. A pattern did, however, emerge.

On one end of the spectrum for Johnny were Pre-Primer, Primer, and Grade 1 sight words, which were on his Independent Level. Johnny confidently identified all 20 words on the pre-primer sight word on sight, an indication of automaticity with high frequency words sight words. At the Primer Word Level (sight words), miscues, though limited in number, began to provide a window into Johnny’s thinking. Johnny miscued “wagon” as “wrong.” Initial consonants were strengths, whereas he substituted visually similar words, occasionally reversed letters, and struggled with syllabication. On the Grade 1 Word List, strengths included initial and ending consonant sounds. Johnny continued the pattern of substituting visually similar words. Difficulties with within word vowel patterns surfaced: the long /ā/ vowel sound was overlooked in –ay chunk, and he did not recognize the digraph /oa/ makes the long /ō/ sound.

On the Grade 2 List, Johnny’s Instructional Level, Johnny identified all two-syllable words and the one three-syllable word on this list. He identified “thought,” a Dolch sight word containing the digraph /th/. He appropriately identified the beginning sound of the /qu/ diphthong in “quiet.” He identified the /ch/ digraph in the word ending for “such.” On the other hand, Johnny substituted the visually similar “switch” for “such,” overlooking the vowel. Oddly, Johnny substituted “quiz” for “chase,” which looks like an outlier. His error was probably more a reflection of end of testing fatigue than anything else.

A rich source of information came on the other end of the spectrum from Johnny’s Grade 3 Word List, where he “hit a wall.” Johnny’s score was 7 of 20 at this level. Unlike the other sections, Johnny reached frustration quickly and made no attempt to self-correct when given the opportunity during the untimed analysis section. He made it abundantly clear that he did not want to go on, so we discontinued testing on the Graded Word Lists Section. Despite the premature shut-down, Johnny’s performance revealed a pattern of syllabication difficulties, beginning and ending consonant sounds, plus initial and final consonant blends.

Johnny identified the rime –ail, but he missed the onset /tr/, in “trail,” perhaps because he lacked recallable syllabication strategies. He identified most beginning and ending consonant sounds in the word list. He also identified some initial and final consonant blends, albeit inconsistently, including initial /st/, /bl/, /gl/, /sh/ sounds. Johnny identified familiar words that contain long vowel patterns with digraphs including “beach,” “snake,” and “rooster;” through analogy, these could form a basis for constructing word families.

Johnny was able to identify some impressive multisyllabic words including “hero” and “impossible,” but also displayed a pattern of misconception. Johnny was unable to identify the /tr/ pattern in “trail” and “stream.” Although Johnny knew “beach” and “teacher,” he did not recognize the /ea/ digraph in “stream,” substituting instead the visually similar “storm.” He substituted the incorrect short /ĕ/ vowel sound for the short /ĭ/ vowel sound in “lift.” He substituted the incorrect short /ĭ/ vowel sound for the short vowel /ĕ/ sound in “bless.” He substituted the visually similar “mortgage” for “manage.”

Running Records Assessment

Johnny was administered a running record to help guide his literacy instruction. Hercules and other Greek Legends became Johnny’s reading selection for three reasons. First, Hercules was level M, the instructional reading level listed for him on school records; second, it was matched to Johnny’s preference for action; and third, the Standard of Learning for the coming unit involved Traditional Literature. On a “blind read,” Johnny successfully recognized words 91% of the time, which falls in the Instructional Range, so it remained the anchor text for the study.

Johnny’s overreliance on visual cues when he came to words that he did not know, and habit of choosing graphically similar words that did not fit the context over half of the time led to breakdowns in meaning, e.g., “blest” was substituted inappropriately for “belt.” His comprehension of grade level materials was adversely affected by this habit. His rate of self-correction, about 1:10, indicates that Johnny needs help in developing self-monitoring strategies.

Johnny’s individualized word study practice might focus on blends and long vowel patterns to help him develop greater automaticity of word recognition. His word-by-word 44 WPM (40 WCPM) rate makes it difficult for him to maintain a train of thought, despite the sophisticated choice of words he uses in normal conversation

Spelling Inventory (Report Limitations)

Errors in protocol occurred when testing was discontinued before Johnny completed this section. Although only two of the first nine words were spelled correctly, Johnny got beginning and ending consonants, as well as short vowels. He consistently missed long vowel patterns and consonant blends features.

While Johnny added an “e” inappropriately to fan, he had the initial consonant, the short vowel, and the correct ending consonant.  For “sled,”Johnny missed the initial consonant blend, got the initial and final consonants, as well as the short vowel in “seid,” which was visually similar, with a reversal. For “rob,” Johnny changed the b to a d. Despite prematurely aborting protocol over concern that the student was getting frustrated, the sample provided further confirmation of Johnny’s continued struggle with blends, digraphs, and diphthongs.

Writing Sample

            In his assessed writing sample, Johnny benefited from the scaffolding of a poetry frame and his teacher’s direct teaching of how to write an ode, or an expression of love. The use of poetry frames and sentence starters, and invented spelling on early drafts enabled Johnny to focus on key descriptions and demonstrate emerging voice, fluency, word choice, conventions, handwriting, and other writing behaviors. Johnny had special motivation for that his writing and drawing be meaningful: he wanted to give his Poetry Portfolio to his father as a Valentine’s Day present. Properly motivated and properly scaffolded, Johnny was able to produce a socially valid product, according to the rubric including important writing traits from Gunning. (Gunning, p. 145, 2010)

Ideas and Organization – 3: Johnny was able to share his ideas in a unified way on three of five stronger stanzas, with two stanzas that needed further elaboration.

Voice – 4: Johnny constructed his own rhythm, maintaining a three beat meter throughout the first two stanzas, a four beat meter in the third, a three beat meter in the fourth, and a four beat meter in the fifth. He described things his own way, comparing a milkshake to “mountens of pillows.” A point was deducted because, in the third stanza, he was unable to describe how cookies felt in his mouth.

Word Choice – 4: a third grader, Johnny described milkshakes are “tasty and scrumptious;” demonstrating an effective use of imagery in the second stanza, he described the smell of a milkshake as like “cookies and cream.”

Conventions – 3: Johnny’s understanding of capitalization, spelling, punctuation, and grammar rules is developing. Although the “mountains” was partially spelled phonetically, Johnny paid attention to letter-sound relationships.

Handwriting – 4: most letters were formed appropriately, although Johnny had difficulty keeping a five-line poem to an 8-1/2 x 11 sheet of paper.

Writing Behavior – 3: While Johnny became excited as his finished poem took form, he had difficulty getting started and needed to be reminded to use invented spelling during the drafting stage.

Developmental Stage – Stage 3 (Focusing): Although the topic is clear, overall development is incomplete in two of five stanzas, which were not nearly as unique or varied as the other three stanzas. Johnny continues to require more scaffolding and prompting throughout the process than typical students.

Instructional Recommendations Based on Overall Analysis

            What is being called for here is a paradigm shift in education. Under the accountability framework, third graders like Johnny typically receive state-mandated assessments that employ reading passages that may or may not be developmentally appropriate. Held accountable to performance standards on summative assessments under penalty of lost educational funding and a failed school label, every day, schools across America funnel pressure downhill to the most vulnerable, to students like Johnny. Pressured to work students harder and stick to curriculum pacing guides, teachers can be frequently heard haranguing students like Johnny to do their job. 8 and 9 year old boys, whose minds are wired for play and silliness, cannot fail to notice that their recess time is replaced by remediation time. Bright boys like Johnny are telling teachers, “Reading is boring,” but their voices are hushed, because such attitudes do not mesh well with the “work harder paradigm.” The findings here are presented as a minority report, against an educational establishment that claims to value reflection, yet provides neither time, nor space for reflection, that claims to value development, but routinely assesses people with developmentally inappropriate materials, that claims to value evidence based methods, but is too busy testing people to actually teach them. Johnny’s responses will, hopefully, provoke deep level questioning.

            The following are personalized recommendations just for Johnny, based on his assessed needs, with assessments done imperfectly, but with clinical supervision and review.

Balanced Literacy Framework

Oral Reading (fluency & rate, prosody)
Assessed need:  Johnny’s winter reading rate, based on a passage written at an instructional reading level M, was 44 WPM. According to Gunning, the Median Oral Reading Rage during the winter for a typical 3rd grade student is 100 WPM.

Activity OBJECTIVE(s): Johnny will
  1. read 100 word instructional level passages from “Hercules” at a rate of 85 WPM with two errors or fewer;
  2. develop automaticity through practice;
  3. measure his progress!

Activity: Timed Repeated Reading (Gunning, pp. 288-290, 2010)
Using leveled 100 word passages at their instructional reading level, students will work with partners to reread, time, and chart progress in their reading rate (WCPM).
·         First, a baseline reading rate must be determined for the passage. (Procedure done once per passage selection.)
o   Before proceeding in pairs or working independently, students must digitally record their initial reading, so that the teacher or assistant can evaluate the baseline rate and identify miscues immediately after the initial reading.
o   If it takes more than 120 seconds to read the passage and/or the students make more than 5 errors per 100 words, an easier passage should be selected.
o   If the student reads at a rate of 85 WPM with two errors or fewer, a more difficult passage should be selected.
·         Next, students should work with partners to monitor and record progress and errors. (Daily routines).
Strategy: Charted progress of WPM (Gunning, p. 290, 2010)
  • Student folder (charts, current 100 word passage)
  • Leveled 100 word passages from “Hercules”
  • Charts
    • Time in 10 second blocks (range)
    • Number of times I read the story (domain)
    • Number of miscues
  • Pencils
  • Stopwatches
  • Audacity or other recording device

Word Study
Assessed need: Johnny, who often substitutes visually similar words, might benefit from high-motivation activities involving syllabication.

Activity OBJECTIVE(s): Johnny will syllabicate, identify word chunks, and connect auditory to visual aspects of words.

Activity: Reintroduce concept of syllables (Gunning, p. 300, 2010)
·         Auditory: Students will identify the number of parts in the following animal names (students clap the number of syllables as they say cat, monkey, yak, lizard, ostrich, elephant, hippopotamus
·         Visual:  (progress from two syllable names)
o   Write the names
o   Point to each syllable (use spot and dot, scooping)
o   students say syllables with teacher
·         Practice using animal word generalizations, with “approximate division,” by reading, as opposed to counting syllables
o   Students identify animal word patterns in songs
o   Students sort words according to patterns
o   Students match up syllable pairs
Strategy: Animal words care used as memory pegs
·         pictures of animals, lists of “catbird,” “anteater,” “rabbit,” “tiger,” and “turtle” words.
·         song lyrics
·         word sorts

Assessed need: Johnny is able to achieve success in getting started, remaining on topic, and developing ideas in writing when provided scaffolding.

Activity OBJECTIVE(s): Johnny will write a framed paragraph

Activity: Johnny will write a framed Paragraph (Gunning, p. 474, 2010). The structure of the topic sentence is provided:
If you want to ____________________, follow these steps.
Then, ____
Next, ____
Finally, ___
Once you have __________, _______________________.
Strategy: teach Johnny how to use the frame; slowly remove the frame as Johnny masters the frame – just like training wheels!

Comprehension &/or Vocabulary:
Assessed need: Imaging, as described in Gunning, might help Johnny to build vocabulary as he builds his self-collected “tricky word” list. (Gunning, p. 370, 2010)

Activity: Introduce imaging to reinforce self-collected “tricky word list”– see syllabication.  (Gunning, p. 370, 2010)
·         Introduce imaging as a comprehension strategy
·         Model the process of visualizing (start with sentences or short paragraphs from Johnny’s book box)
·         Focusing: students visualize as they listen to a concrete passage.
·         Students draw images to associate with the passage
·         Note that people see things different ways / probe for detail
·         Review steps: Use mnemonic RUG (read, use mind, get details)
·         Johnny will use the imaging strategy to build a context for “tricky words.”
Strategy: Imaging
Materials: drawing paper, crayons, colored pencils, markers, 100 word passages

Spelling: Johnny will sort words according to animal categories (analogy)
Assessed need:  Johnny will syllabicate, identify word chunks, and connect auditory to visual aspects of words.

Lesson OBJECTIVE(s): Johnny will practice within word patterns

Activity: Word Sorts (Gunning, p. 343, 2010)

Strategy: Word Sorts

Materials: Pictures of animals from syllabication lesson, tricky words, word lists from Gunning

Case Study Connections

Morris found that Brett, a rising 7th grader with a grade level reading equivalent of 2.8 had lost the support of his 6th grade Special Education teacher, who had stopped providing direct reading instruction. The teacher had begun limiting support to providing support to “helping him understand and complete assignments in his academic subjects.” (Morris, D., Ervin, C., & Conrad, p. 369, 1996). In 3rd grade, a shift from learning to read to reading to learn is said to occur. Even for 3rd grade students like Johnny who have decoding goals on their IEPs, particularly those mainstreamed in a general education setting, accountability and data-driven priorities force teachers to focus on the mastery of content level standards, i.e., a single performance measurement. Thus, an entire generation of students has been herded through the slaughterhouse of accountability. Untold students who have been processed through high school literature classes lacking basic reading skills are getting ready to hit our streets lacking a full high school diploma. Lacking basic reading skills, the prospects of nonreaders are frightening.

McCormick used an interactive model of reading to understand Peter, and examined the internal and external factors that interacted to affect his reading ability. (McCormick, S., p. 15, 2001). McCormick found that a lack of automaticity was a significant factor in Peter’s development as a reader. Like Peter, when reading, Johnny had difficulty tapping into the vast store of words in his head because of decoding problems. The gap between listening capacity, (which unfortunately was not assessed here), and automatic word recognition ability was possibly a significant source of frustration for Johnny, who had a bad habit of miscuing words without stopping, because he lacked the expectation that reading is supposed to be a meaningful activity.

Klenk learned the importance of valuing and validating the words and sentences that students construct on their own, i.e., inviting invented spelling. In order to help students like Katrice, for whom reading and writing had become aversive tasks, Klenk found that she needed to make the student an equal partner in the process and that she had “unlearn” the traditional teacher’s role. (Klenk, L., 1994) For Johnny, who told anyone who would listen, “reading is boring,” where was the partnership? There seemed little prospect that the personalized instruction that Johnny needed to get over the hump would be forthcoming. Given the inordinate amount of time invested in ranking Johnny according to some arbitrary standard, using materials that were above his independent reading level, where was the investment in tailoring instruction to address his personal literacy strengths and needs?


Gunning, T. (2010). Assessing and correcting reading and writing difficulties, 4th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Hookings, E. (1999). Hercules and other greek legends: Wildcats tiger set. New York: Wright Group

Klenk, L. (1994). Case study in reading disability: An emergent literacy perspective. Learning Disability Quarterly, 17, 33-56

McCormick, S. (1994). A nonreader becomes a reader: A case study of literacy acquisition by a severely disabled reader. Reading Research Quarterly, 29/2

Morris, D., Ervin, C., Conrad, K. (1996). A case study of a middle school reading disability. The Reading Teacher, 49:5, 369-377.