Helping Foster Children Improve their Reading Skills


Sometimes it helps to convince people to try something if they know that you have actually done it yourself, so I have decided to tell you one of my many war stories about living in the special needs trenches for the past almost 50 years.

Our local Children’s Aid Society called my office to see if we could help them with children in care who were behind in reading. Like most foster children, the many disruptions in their lives, including changing schools frequently, had resulted in their being behind.

The Setup: Teaching A Small Group of Foster Children to Read

Here were the conditions under which they would be sponsored to attend:

  • We want you to teach them in groups of 5 or 6
  • They can only come for 2 hours, once a week because of transportation costs.
  • You will only have 16 weeks of tutoring.
  • They need to start at or before 6:00 p.m. and be done by 8:00 p.m.
  • They will mostly be 12 or older and in the 6th or 7th grade.
  • We think they are reading at a primary school level.
  • We expect them to improve their reading by at least one year.
  • Can you fix it?

So how would you like

  • a group of 12 & 13 year olds
  • who don’t want to be there,
  • have been at school all day
  • have got off the school bus,
  • given no free time,
  • been fed their dinner quickly,
  • been put into a car or taxi and driven to your centre.
  • And have no intention of doing very much

Prepping the Classroom

I knew what was likely to happen so

  • I placed 6 chocolate bars along the upper edge of the whiteboard.
  • I set out 6 chairs in a semi-circle with mine between theirs and the whiteboard.
  • I left almost no room between them, me and the board with the lesson written on it.
  • I assigned them a seat based on the body language they demonstrated on entering the classroom.
  • I put the biggest potential troublemaker directly in front of me.
  • I seated the shiest students on the ends of the semicircle.

In Come the Students…Time for a Game!

One of the students immediately noticed the chocolate bars and asked what they were for. I told him it was a secret until everyone was in their seat. They all sat down.

“I love chocolate and those are all mine” I said pointing to the chocolate. “I’d let you try to win them, but you could never beat me anyway”

“How do we beat you?”

“Ah! Good question. You just won two points for you guys.”

I drew a happy and a sad face on the board.

“You guys are the sad face because even with 2 points to start, you’ll never beat me”

“How do we get more points?”

“By following the rules,” I said awarding the sad face 2 more points.

“What are the rules?” – 2 more points

    1. Work quickly and quietly
    2. Bring you books to class
    3. Keep your hands and feet to yourself.
    4. Raise your hand to speak.
    5. Say only good things. When I see your team doing that I give points. When I see you break a rule I get points. Arguing about point costs double.

Nice sitting up – 2 more points.

Now That Everyone Is Paying Attention…

After an hour of learning sounds, sound combinations and blending skills, I called a break and added up the points. They were 3 points ahead. I took one of the chocolate bars and cut it into 6 pieces, giving each of them a tiny piece.

“Enjoy this because this is all that you are going to win. The rest are mine.”

“You get 5 minutes for the rest room. Remember the hands and feet rule. And also you need to know that I play my best in the second half. I’m a come-back team. I love to play from behind and crush you at the end.”

Do we have to take our break?

“No, you can work if you want to, and I’ll give you 5 bonus points if you all work through your break.”

They all sat down.

And the Winner Is…

At the end of the second hour they had completed 5 lessons which should have required twice as the time they actually used. They won by 2 points in the final minute when one student offered to read an entire list of 10 words from the board. They cheered and pumped their fists and gave high fives all around.

They each won a chocolate bar

As they were leaving, I said, “Stop!! Just a minute. You got lucky this time. Next week is the rematch. I never lose twice in a row. So here’s what I want you to do. Do not practice the word lists and stories. Got That? Do not practice. OK?”

You know who won Week 2. After 3 weeks, we switched from chocolate bars to giving points for gift certificates. Some bought fishing lures, some bought fast food, some saved all of their points for a larger purchase. One student asked for a gift certificate for a book store.

Motivating Challenging Students

Ultimately it wasn’t the points that drove them. At first, it was beating me. I did win one, but only one. They wanted the chocolate bars, but they wanted the win more. They really wanted to kick my butt.

Later, when they saw their fluency scores on lists of sounds, on word lists and on stories, they wanted to beat their last score. They wanted to try the timings again and again to see if they could become fluent. They wanted to get to the standard for each and every fluency check. They were justifiably proud of their work and of themselves. And we were proud of them.

According to the pre-and post standardized test, these students averaged 2 years of reading gains in 32 hours of tutoring. They also got back some confidence. Several were presented certificates at their schools for “most improved reader”.

Since then, we have been teaching numerous foster children to read, spell, write and do arithmetic. It’s pretty much the same story all over again. It’s a story anyone could write for themselves if they used our methods.

The training and first 10 lessons are free right here.


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