Why Can’t Ricky Read? (Wiley Demo)

Ricky is a sixth grader reading on the third grade level. He has an IEP and is really struggling with content area reading, particularly in Social Studies. His mother can't understand what's happening. His teachers don't know what to do, and his principal is faced with educational challenges.
Chapter 7: Teaching Students with Disabilities
Does Labeling Students with Disabilities Help or Hinder a Teacher’s Work?
After reading this case and the above section in your Introduction to Teaching textbook, respond to the following prompts in your journal:

  1. Describe the difficulties that Ricky is having in school. Does he have a high incidence disability or a low incidence disability? Provide a brief description for each category.
  2. After reading this case, do you think that Ricky’s special education label leads to inequities? Why or why not?
  3. How does Ricky’s disability affect his learning in the classroom? How does it affect his social acceptance?
  4. How can Ricky’s teachers build a general education classroom in which Ricky is fully included? Provide three examples.

Chapter 7: Teaching Students with Disabilities Does Labeling Students with Disabilities Help or Hinder a Teacher’s Work? After reading this case and the above section in your Introduction to Teaching textbook, respond to the following prompts in your journal: 1) Describe the difficulties that Ricky is having in school. Does he have a high incidence disability or a low incidence disability? Provide a brief description for each category. 2) After reading this case, do you think that Ricky’s special education label leads to inequities? Why or why not? 3) How does Ricky’s disability affect his leaning in the classroom? How does it affect his social acceptance? 4) How can Ricky’s teachers build a general education classroom in which Ricky is fully included? Provide three examples.

Ricky is embarrassed as he reads aloud in social studies class.

“All right folks, sit down and listen up, because I’m only going to say this once.” The bell rang, and the newly minted 6th graders quickly scattered toward their seats and began arming themselves with pens, pencils, and notebooks from their backpacks. Mr. Thompson, their first period social studies teacher, strode confidently to the front of the room.

“In case you folks haven’t figured it out yet, you’re not in Kansas anymore. This is middle school now.” Mr. Thompson’s baritone voice boomed from the front of the classroom. He pulled himself up to his full, imposing, 6-foot 2 height, brushed his military “high and tight” haircut back with his left hand, and continued. “I don’t believe in wasting time on any ‘getting to know you’ activities, I’m not interested in making you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, and I’m not here to baby sit you.

Mr. Thompson

“My job is to teach social studies, and your job is to learn it.” Mr. Thompson drove his point home with an emphatic punch on his spotless desktop.

This isn’t like elementary school at all, Ricky thought. It wasn’t just the difference of having six teachers instead of one, or of having three times as many kids in one building, or the fact that you could buy soda at lunch. No, it just felt different, somehow. Different in a way that he didn’t have the words to explain. What was the word his mom had used? “Business.” Yes, middle school was more like a business than elementary school. Actually, right now it seemed more like the Army, and Mr. Thompson seemed like a drill sergeant. Of all the teachers to get on the first day of the first period of his middle-school career, it was Ricky’s luck to get Mr. Thompson – generally acknowledged as the toughest teacher at Spencer Middle School.

Mr. Thompson continued with the normal classroom routines of taking roll, stating class rules, and previewing the year’s curriculum. “All right folks, let’s get the show on the road. Open your social studies textbooks to page 7,” Mr. Thompson instructed. “We are going to play a little game I like to call ‘BUMP.’ Cara, you will begin reading aloud the first paragraph. When you are done that paragraph, say ‘Bump to…’ and name another student in class. No one knows who you will bump to next, so every student had better be paying attention. That student will read the second paragraph and then bump to a third student, and so on. Make sure you bump to someone who has not yet read so that everyone gets a chance.”

Ricky’s pulse began racing a mile a minute, his palms became clammy, and his face went ash white. Ricky was not a good reader. No, that was an understatement. Ricky flat out stunk at reading, and he knew it. He had been aware of his reading problems ever since kindergarten when the rest of the class had mastered the entire alphabet before Ricky had learned even six letters. It had been catch up ever since: special education teachers since second grade, untimed tests throughout elementary school, extra reading practice at night, and even an individual reading tutor one summer hadn’t really helped him make up any ground. Last year, as a fifth-grader, Ricky had still stumbled over most of the longer words in the textbooks and had experienced trouble answering those terrible comprehension questions at the end of each lesson. His only hope of not being embarrassed during this “BUMP” game was to lay low and hope that no one called on him before the end of the period.

“I bump to Joey,” said Georgia, a pretty girl who had flashed a brilliant smile at Ricky when he walked in. Joey Wells had been Ricky’s best friend at Miller Elementary School. They’d been like brothers since the first grade – sleepovers, baseball games, swimming. You name it, they did it together. In fact, Ricky thought, Joey was the only one in this class who knew how truly awful he was at reading.

Unfortunately, over the summer, Joey had begun hanging out with the “cool crowd” and had stopped returning Ricky’s calls. Ricky’s mom had said not to worry – that this was a phase a lot of middle-schoolers went through. Ricky didn’t know anything about phases, but he was hoping that, being old friends, Joey wouldn’t bump to him. However, deep down, Ricky had an unsettled feeling that something bad was about to happen.

“I Bump tooooo . . . hmmmm let me see,” Joey always had loved the spotlight, Ricky thought. Mr. Thompson arched his eyebrows, a warning to Joey to dispense with the silliness.

“RRRICKY!” he announced quickly with a sneer and an evil grin.

Oh my god, Ricky thought. I don’t even know where we are. Frantically, Ricky began searching in his textbook for the correct paragraph to read. He had been so anxious about reading out loud that he hadn’t kept up with the class. Ricky buried his head deeper into the textbook as heads began to turn.

“Ricky, what’s the problem, son? Don’t you know where we are?” asked Mr. Thompson.

“No, I can’t find it, Mr. Thompson.”

“Have you been following along?”

“No, I . . . I mean, I mean, well, I’ve been trying to, yes,” Ricky stumbled.

“Well then, if you have been following along, you shouldn’t have any problem finding your place, should you?” Mr. Thompson continued. Chuckles began to break out around the room.

“No,” Ricky muttered. Ricky bent his face farther down and balled up his fists under the desk as he began to fight back the tears. This was far worse than any nightmare he had ever had about middle school. Ricky was mortified. He felt like burying his head in the textbook and disappearing.

Georgia, the girl with the pretty smile, leaned over and pointed, “We’re right here.”

Ricky looked at the word—it was one of those long ones that seemed to constantly stalk him. He made an attempt to sound it out, “Dem, dem, dem, oak, dem-oak…”

“It’s democracy, you idiot,” whispered Joey. A group of boys in the back erupted in laughter.

“Joey, get out of my room and go directly to the office!” commanded Mr. Thompson. “I’ll expect to

Ricky Harris

see you sitting outside of Dr. Barnett’s office after class. I will not tolerate that type of behavior in here. Susan, why don’t you start at the next paragraph.” Joey slowly got up and sauntered toward the door, obviously relishing the “bad boy” image he had been so carefully cultivating since summer.

With a supreme effort of pure will, Ricky made it through the remainder of the period without crying. When the bell rang to end class, he tried to slink out of the room without being noticed. But, as he furtively made his way through the throng of students bottlenecked at the door, one of the boys who had been sitting in the back of the room brushed past him and, with a sneer and chuckle, whispered, “Retard.”

Ricky’s mom, after seeing the F on Ricky’s social studies test, e-mails the special education teacher, Mrs. Hardy.

(Two weeks later at Ricky’s home)

Watch “Why Can’t Ricky Read?” Scene Two

Ricky silently turned the key, opened the door, slid the key slowly back out of the lock, and gently tiptoed up the stairs.

“Ricky, is that you, honey? How was school?” Mrs. Harris’s perky voice broke the silence.

Ignoring his mom’s inquiries, Ricky sprinted upstairs, launched his backpack across the room, slammed his bedroom door shut, and flung himself onto his bed.

A moment later, Ricky heard a knock at the door. “Ricky honey, can I come in?”


“What’s wrong, Ricky? Is there anything I can do?”

“You wanna know what’s wrong, mom? I’m stupid, that’s what’s wrong. I’m a retard. I got an F on the test that we studied for all week. An F! If I get an F when I try my best, why bother trying at all?”

Ricky’s mom cautiously opened the door, walked over, and sat down on the bed next to him. “Ricky, I don’t ever want to hear you say that you are stupid again. We’ve talked about this with your teachers and the school psychologists before. You’ve got a higher IQ than most kids your age. Some kids aren’t great at art, some have difficulties in music, some in sports, and you just happen to have a difficulty in reading.”

Ricky and his mom

“Yeah, well the difference is that if you stink at art and music in middle school you don’t have to take them, mom. They’re electives. But in everything else that I get graded on, even math, I need to be able to read – and I can’t!!”

“But you need to understand that this isn’t your fault, Ricky.”

“Why don’t you try explaining that to Joey and the other kids, mom? I’m sure they’ll totally understand and stop calling me retard.

Mrs. Harris became visibly angry. “Are they doing that again? I thought Mr. Thompson took care of that on the first day of school.” A note of concern rose in Mrs. Harris’s voice.

“Oh, they know how to do it without getting caught.”

“I’m going to call Joey’s mom about . . .”

“No, mom! Don’t you see? That will only make it worse. Then I’ll be a momma’s boy and a retard. I prefer just being a regular old retard.” Ricky’s attempt at humor was not lost on Mrs. Harris.

“Well . . . OK Ricky. But I don’t like it. If this happens again I’m going to call Joey’s mom straightaway—with or without your permission. Now let’s see that test. Maybe Mr. Thompson will let you do a makeup.”

Ricky immediately shoved the test at his mom, and said, “See, you raised a moron.”

An F had been boldly scrawled across the top of the test. Underneath, a terse note from Mr. Thompson said simply, “Ricky, did you do the reading?”

Before Mrs. Harris could say anything, Ricky said, “Mom, can we talk about this later? I just don’t want to think about it right now.”

Mrs. Harris’s eyes softened. “OK we’ll talk about it after dinner. I need to go pick up your sister from soccer practice. Can you start the water boiling and put the spaghetti in at 5:00?”

“Sure, Mom.”

Late that night, long after Ricky had gone to bed, Mrs. Harris sat down at the computer and wrote a long e-mail to Janet Hardy, Ricky’s special education teacher.

See Ricky’s social studies test below:

Mrs. Hardy, the special education teacher, and Mr. Thompson, the social studies teacher, discuss Ricky’s problems.

Watch “Why Can’t Ricky Read?” Scene Three

“Hey Mike, can I come in for a sec?” asked Janet Hardy as she leaned in the doorway to Mike Thompson’s room.

“Oh, hey Janet. Yeah, what’s up? Where have you been hiding?” Mike Thompson looked up from the pile of social studies homework he was grading.

“You know special ed, Mike, its paperwork, paperwork, and more paperwork. I feel like I’ve barely gotten to see any of my kids this year. And it gets worse every year. Anyway, I’ve come about Ricky Harris, from your first period. I got an e-mail from his mom this morning. She said Ricky is devastated about his F on last week’s social studies test. She also said a bunch of former “friends” have taken to calling him “retard” and “idiot” in the hallways. He’s crushed and doesn’t want to come to school anymore. God, how can middle-schoolers be so cruel at times?”

“It’s the nature of the beast, Janet. Kids this age can be horribly cruel. But I thought that I had nipped that “retard” business in the bud. I’ll keep a closer eye out for it now.”

“What can we do about his F, Mike? Would you consider a make-up?” asked Janet hopefully.

“Janet, we’ve been working together for three years now. You know my policy – no make-ups. If you look at Ricky’s test, it’s like he didn’t do one page of the reading. He needs to study harder next time.” Mike’s brow furrowed as it always did when he was making a point.

“Well, Mrs. Harris said Ricky has spent an average of an hour a night trying to read the social studies textbook since school began. An hour a night just on social studies, Mike! You know the kid’s in LD in reading, right?”

“What? No, Janet, I didn’t. And frankly, with all the other paperwork I have to do around here, I don’t have the time to read every file on every kid that I teach – I’ve got over 150 kids this year! Why didn’t you tell me before?”

Janet Hardy

“Wait a minute, I flagged all of the students who had an IEP and put the list in your box last week. I haven’t had a second to come talk to you until now.”

Mike Thompson let out a big sigh. “Well, I must have missed it what with all of the other junk we get sent from the front office. But what could I do anyway? I’m not a special ed teacher or a reading teacher. It seems every year I get more kids who don’t have the basic reading and writing skills required in middle school. We keep socially promoting these kids and lowering our standards.”

“Mike, this kid’s drowning in here. His mom said he was mortified when he tried to read out loud in your class. He needs support. He shouldn’t be reading out loud, for one.” Janet looked accusingly at Mike.

“Look, Janet, I felt really bad about that. I didn’t want to embarrass the kid, but how did he get to middle school without being able to read? I mean, I know a lot of folks think I’m an old-school, hard-nosed teacher who doesn’t care about the kids because I don’t give make-up tests and I don’t give out all As. But, I’ve worked in the real world, Janet. We’re doing these kids a real disservice by spoon feeding them until they graduate and then letting them fall on their faces when they hit reality. I believe that the more teachers expect of kids, the higher they will achieve. There’s research to back that up, too. You know, that self-fulfilling prophecy called the Pygmalion effect. Anyway, Ricky should have never been promoted to middle school with his reading skills. Don’t they have a special program for kids like him?”

“Actually, no, Mike. The trend is toward total inclusion nowadays. Every kid that can possibly be instructed in the general education setting should be. There’s also research out there showing that kids who get pulled out of their regular classes for special ed fall even farther behind. Anyway, Mrs. Harris asked me to set up a child-study meeting with all of his teachers for next week. How’s Tuesday morning at 7:30 for you?”

“I’ll be there,” Mike responded in a weary voice.

Click here to see Ricky’s IEP

A child study meeting is held. Everyone offers a different solution.

It’s 7:40 a.m. in the school’s office conference room. The following people are present for the Child Study meeting: Mrs. Harris, Ricky’s mom; Mr. Thompson, the social studies teacher; Mrs. Hardy, Ricky’s special education teacher; and Ms. Booker, the reading teacher.

Mrs. Hardy: Thank you for coming, everyone. I know Ricky’s mom has to be at work by nine, so let’s get this meeting started. Mrs. Harris, why don’t you begin by telling us about your present concerns?

Mrs. Harris: (a little nervously) Well, I guess I’ve been concerned about Ricky’s reading ever since the first grade. But all through elementary school Ricky’s teachers told me he was doing fine. They said he was well liked by his friends and teachers, he was a hard worker, and he was pretty organized. And because of all of his strengths, he was able to compensate for his reading problems. They told me he would probably always be behind in reading, but that other kids were much worse off than him. His grades were always good. The social studies test is the first “F” he ever received. He feels just awful about it.

Mr. Thompson: Well, Mrs. Hardy, I understand your concerns. Ricky is a really nice boy and he tries very hard in my class, but I don’t think he’s ever been challenged until now. I get kids every year that have been spoon-fed throughout elementary school, and then when they get to middle school, they don’t have the skills necessary to do middle school work. We can’t lower our standards. If we don’t challenge Ricky now, he will really suffer in high school. Believe me, Mrs. Harris, it’s sink or swim there.

Mrs. Hardy: Well, Mike. I agree that we can’t lower our standards, but we also need to give our students with learning needs a ladder to reach those standards. I think Ricky needs to learn some comprehension strategies and study skills. If we can get him using these strategies independently, he will be able to comprehend what he is reading. And, like you said Mrs. Harris, he’s got so many other strengths that he can use to compensate for his reading difficulties.

Mrs. Harris: (a bit irritated) But that’s just it. I’m not an educator, but that’s exactly what I’ve been hearing for seven years now. Ricky’s got a lot going for him. Ricky has excellent behavior. Ricky will be fine. But, I am the one staying up with Ricky every night until eleven o’clock doing homework, and let me tell you, Ricky can not read that textbook. I don’t care how much compensating he does, my boy simply can’t read!

Mrs. Hardy: Mrs. Harris, I understand the frustration you must feel. Susan Booker, our school literacy specialist, has given Ricky some reading, writing, and spelling assessments. Susan, can you tell us what you found?

Mrs. Booker: Sure, Janet. Mrs. Harris, I have been assessing Ricky in language arts since he got here. According to these tests, you are right. Ricky is not a sixth grade reader. His difficulty with fluency and decoding simply prevent him from understanding the material. My recommendation is for Ricky to begin intensive, one-on-one remedial reading instruction. He needs to firm up his knowledge of basic spelling patterns, learn how to decode multisyllabic words, and improve his overall reading fluency. The good news is Ricky has excellent listening comprehension. When I read passages aloud to him, his comprehension was over 90% through the seventh grade level. You’ve got a bright boy, Mrs. Harris. I think that the reason Ricky can’t comprehend what he is reading is because he can’t decode the words. Frankly, I’m wondering about dyslexia.

The meeting goes on for the next 45 minutes, everyone offering up differing opinions about what to do with Ricky. However, nothing is decided and the committee decides to reconvene next week.

Click here to see Ricky’s reading assessment results

Click here to see another one of Ricky’s reading assessments

Click here to see Ricky’s spelling assessment

Click here to see samples of Ricky’s writing

Mrs. Harris drives home that night full of questions. “If professional educators can’t agree on a solution for Ricky, then who can?”

Mrs. Harris was confused, frustrated and angry. Visions of Ricky failing the state mandated tests, of not being able to play sports, of being teased in the school hallways, and of struggling through reading assignments haunt her on the drive home from work. Who is right? Should Ricky be held to higher standards, or taught study skills strategies, or does he need remedial reading? Or all of the above? And if professional educators can’t agree on what to do with Ricky, then who can?