Why Can’t Ricky Read?

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.

Ricky is embarrassed as he tries to read aloud in social studies class.

“All right folks, sit down and listen up, because I’m only going to say this once.” As the sixth graders settled quickly into their seats, Mr. Thompson strode to the front of the room.

Mike Thompson

“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 6-foot 2 height, brushed his hair back, 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. My job is to teach social studies, and your job is to learn it.”

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.” Yep, 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, who jumped right into school—roll call, review of class rules, and distribution of textbooks. No fun games, not even questions about his likes and dislikes. No wonder he was considered the hardest teacher at Spencer Middle School.

“All right, folks, let’s get the show on the road,” Mr. Thompson continued. “Open your book to page 7. We are going to play a game called Bump.” Over the rustle of flipping pages, he informed them of the rules. “Cara, you will begin reading aloud the first paragraph. When you are done with 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.”

As Cara began reading, Ricky’s pulse raced and his palms became clammy. 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 a reading tutor in the summers.

“Bump to Georgia,” Cara said. Ricky breathed a sigh of relief and looked at the clock. Only ten minutes left! Maybe he wouldn’t have to read this class!

Nothing had really helped him catch up in reading. Last year, as a fifth-grader, Ricky had still stumbled over most of the longer words in the textbooks and had 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. 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 calling Ricky. Ricky’s mom had said not to worry, that this was a phase a lot of middle-schoolers went through. Ricky wasn’t sure about that—it seemed pretty clear that Joey didn’t want to be his friend any more. But those years of friendship had to count for something, didn’t they? Maybe Joey wouldn’t bump to him. Still, Ricky felt dread in the pit of his stomach.

“I bump tooooo . . . hmmmm . . . let me see,” Joey always had loved the spotlight, Ricky thought as he watched Joey scan the room. Mr. Thompson arched his eyebrows, a warning to Joey to dispense with the silliness. “RRRICKY!” he announced with an evil grin.

Oh no, Ricky thought. I don’t even know where we are. Frantically, he began searching in his textbook for the correct paragraph to read.

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

Ricky shook his head.

“Have you been following along?” Mr. Thompson sounded impatient.

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

“Then 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 fought back tears. This was far worse than any nightmare he had ever had about middle school. Ricky was mortified.

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 stalk him constantly. He made an attempt to sound it out, “Dem, dem, dem, oak, dem-oak…”

Ricky Harris

“It’s democracy, you retard,” Joey said in a stage whisper. 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 will not tolerate that type of behavior in here.” 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 and into the crowded hall, one of the boys who had been sitting in the back of the room sang out, “There goes the retard!”

Ricky and his mother, Joan, react to his social studies test grade.

Two weeks into the school year, Ricky knew he wouldn’t make it to seventh grade. He hated school, especially social studies. His mom helped him out at night, sat with him through hours of homework. But it didn’t matter. He just wasn’t making it in middle school.

Ricky and his mom

Before she left Ricky’s room, Joan dug Ricky’s test out of his back pack. Downstairs in the office, she smoothed out the crumpled pages on her desk. Her heart sank when she saw the big red ‘F’ printed neatly across the front. What was going on?

She felt a mixture of frustration, anger, and resentment. She shouldn’t have to remind the school of Ricky’s IEP requirements, shouldn’t have to meet with them yet again to get help for Ricky. But there it was, that big F. And she had to respond.

She turned on the computer, and began to write.

See Joan’s email to Ricky’s special education teacher below:

See Ricky’s social studies test below:

Janet Hardy, Ricky’s special education teacher, meets with Mike to discuss Ricky’s problems in social studies.

Janet Hardy

Janet hesitated outside of Mike’s classroom. The email from Ricky’s mother was fresh in her head. It was just so frustrating when general educators ignored IEP directives. It was illegal, too, but there wasn’t much enforcement as far as she could see. She took a deep breath, rapped twice on the door, and headed into the neatly arranged classroom. Janet doubted there was any way Mike was going to reverse Ricky’s F, but maybe, just maybe, she could get him to agree to a make-up test.

Click here to review Ricky’s IEP.

Janet pasted a smile on her face and said good-bye. Mike wasn’t a bad guy or a bad teacher, she reminded herself. He’s just overloaded like all of us. She’d wait to remind him of his legal requirements regarding IEP implementation another day, maybe send an email to the whole school.

Teachers and Joan Harris meet to discuss Ricky’s situation.

Joan rearranged her notepad and pen on the small conference table. She had to write everything down or else the details would blur. Janet bustled around gathering extra chairs to accommodate everyone. It was already 7:40 and school began in thirty-five minutes. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to meet before school? Joan caught Janet’s eye and looked pointedly at the clock.

“Okay,” Janet said. “We’re only missing Diane.” Joan recognized the PE teacher’s name. “So let’s get started. Does everybody know everybody?”

Joan was familiar with most of the teachers from orientation night, but she appreciated the reminder of who was whom, and she was really pleased to see the reading teacher was there. Maybe an expert in literacy rather than special education would be able to help Ricky.

Janet was obviously experienced at running these meetings. She kept things rolling, asking each teacher for a brief update on Ricky’s progress in their class. Joan listened to the familiar litany: Ricky is so polite, so organized, such a sweet boy. He really tries hard. And then Ms. Booker summarized Ricky’s results on reading tests.

See Ricky’s reading assessment results below:

See another one of Ricky’s reading assessments below:

See Ricky’s spelling assessment below:

Click here to see samples of Ricky’s writing.

“Obviously, anything that requires reading, and most subjects do, is going to be a struggle for Ricky,” Janet said after Ms. Booker finished. “What can we do to help him?”

Joan tried to maintain a positive attitude as teachers began debating ways to help Ricky. She listened to each proposal carefully, jotting notes on their recommendations, and tried to ignore the bleak pictures of Joey’s future that filled her head: Ricky bullied, Ricky failing, Ricky dropping out. She just wasn’t hearing anything to change that vision of his future. Would Ricky never learn to read well enough to survive middle school?

See Joan’s notes from the IEP meeting below: