The legit fear behind “Please don’t call on me to read”
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Most of us can remember having to read out loud in class in school at some point. Maybe we felt shy or uncomfortable. But for the many students with reading issues like dyslexia, this experience can be downright scary. (No wonder they may conveniently opt for the bathroom pass during their turn.)
On this episode of In It, hosts Amanda Morin and Lexi Walters Wright dig into the legitimate fear of having an audience when you struggle with reading skills. They talk to a mom whose son stumbled over reading his own name in front of his class. They hear from other parents, too, and hockey champion Brent Sopel. Expert Bob Cunningham also weighs in with insight on whether kids really do need to read out loud, and how to make the experience better for kids who struggle with reading.
Amanda Morin: Hi. I'm Amanda Morin, a writer and parent advocate.
Lexi Walters Wright: And I'm Lexi Walters Wright, community manager for Understood.org.
Amanda: And we are "In It."
Lexi: "In It" is a podcast from Understood for Parents. On this show, we offer support and practical advice for families of kids who are struggling with reading, math, focus and other learning and thinking differences.
Amanda: And today we're talking about what kids with dyslexia go through when they have to read out loud in public, and how parents can help.
Brent Sopel: School was a nightmare for me. It was literally the last place I wanted to be. The only good thing for me is that at my school there was an outdoor rink.
Amanda: This is Brent Sopel, former Stanley Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Lexi: An awesome hockey player but not an awesome student, probably because Brent went through most of his school years without a diagnosis for what he later learned was pretty severe dyslexia. He talked about his experiences in a video for Understood.
Brent: I was in ninth grade English class and I was asked to read. You know, I panicked. In my mind I'm like, "How can I get out of this? What do I do?" Then I started sweating. You know I was guessing at words. And you hear kids laughing and snickering and trying to figure out what I'm reading or what is going on. It still plays in my head, you know, this many years later.
Lexi: The number of people that we hear from who have this exact issue where reading in public is terrifying. So many folks write into us about this. And Tina Turner writes about this in her autobiography. Governor Gavin Newsom has talked about his dyslexia making it hard for him to read in public.
Amanda: Half of the Shark Tank.
Amanda: Half of the people on Shark Tank.
Lexi: So, Amanda, let's back up for just a second. What is dyslexia and why is reading out loud an issue for kids who have it?
Amanda: So dyslexia is a language-based learning disability, because it can affect reading and other parts of language as well. And when it affects reading, it makes it really hard for kids to decode words to sound out what the words are to make sense of them and to read fluently.
Lexi: So what happens when a kid who already has trouble reading is now put in front of a group of his friends?
Amanda: I think probably the same thing that happens when any of us are put in front of a group of our friends having to do something that's really tough for us, right? And for parents I think it's a struggle, too, to see their kids have this.
Lexi: And why do you think that is?
Amanda: Well, I mean, Lexi, we're both parents, right? And we know that when our kids are struggling, it makes us struggle, too. And I don't know about you, but when my kids are anxious and uncertain and they're feeling embarrassed, I want to jump in and help them. Don't you?
Lexi: Right. I want to build a bunch of walls around him and protect him from everything.
Amanda: Yeah. And you can't solve it for them. And you're seeing their limits and you start wondering — at least I do. You know, I think about my own kids, and I start wondering, "What's the future going to look like?"
Lexi: Right. So we asked you to share your stories about times that your children were asked to read out loud in public. And here's what you had to say.
Parent: My son recently told me a story about him being in class and knowing that it was on his IEP that he did not have to read out loud. And the teacher asked him to read out loud anyway. And he said no, and she told him he had to. And he said no and just refused to read it out loud. I think it's pretty sad that it has to come to that — that there isn't an understanding that it makes some people very uncomfortable and unsure of themselves. And every student should have the opportunity to express themselves in a way that is comfortable for them, and they should be able to say no if they aren't comfortable with something.
Parent: So before the winter break, my son's class had a celebration that included an awesome celebration and all the parents were gathered. The kindergarten, first and second grades were all gathered in the auditorium and then they had about 12 of the first graders, who were probably the most advanced readers, each read a passage about this winter project the class had worked on. And you know, I don't think they really thought about what message would that send and how to include children who can demonstrate their abilities and passions in different ways.
Amanda: Hey Bob.
Bob Cunningham: Hi guys. How are you?
Amanda: Bob Cunningham is a learning and thinking differences expert at Understood. And he has a lot of experience working on this challenge with kids, their teachers and their parents.
Amanda: So reading out loud comes up a lot in a typical classroom. Why is that? And what's the value of it?
Bob Cunningham: There's a couple of reasons that teachers want kids to read aloud. One of the things is just for the sharing element of it, right? It's a way for you to participate together in an activity. Another reason is that it helps kids practice their fluency. Right? So it's not only kids with dyslexia who need to practice developing fluency in reading. All kids need that. Reading out loud is a good way to do that.
One of the other reasons that you'll have students read out loud is because it gives you, as the listener, an easy way to kind of critique their reading. Oh, this is what I'm noticing. I'm noticing this child has trouble with this or that element of reading. And the reason I know that is because I'm actually hearing what they're reading and saying to themselves. So it's an easier form of correcting.
Lexi: What is it about reading out loud in front of other people that is or can be so challenging for someone with dyslexia?
Bob: Yeah, so you actually hit on both parts of the issue. One is the "reading out loud," and the other one is the "in front of a bunch of people." And you really have to think about both of those things, right? So somebody with dyslexia is going to have issues with the reading itself. Usually that looks like less fluent reading. Right? So reading is more difficult. It's choppier for them.
Bob: The other part of the issue is that a lot of people do not find it fun at all to be speaking or reading in front of large groups of people anyway. And then if this is something that you know you have difficulty with going in, reading, you're going to have even more trouble with it probably. So it's both of those things.
Lexi: So it's not just stage fright. And it's not just fear of public speaking.
Bob: No, it's different from that, because you're actually asking someone to do something that is sort of most difficult for them. And you're asking them to do it in front of a large group of people. And usually that means you're asking them to do it in front of some people whose opinions they really care about.
Lexi: So as we're hearing, when a child is put on the spot, things can go really wrong. That's what happened to Kerry's son. Kerry, will you tell us about your son Cameron?
Kerry: Sure. Cameron is 12 years old. He's in sixth grade. He's a great kid. He loves Legos. He loves the drums. He has two older siblings and a dog. And he also has dyslexia and ADHD.
Amanda: Kerry had known since kindergarten that Cameron was dyslexic. But his classmates didn't know until one day in second grade.
Kerry: Yes. It was the middle of the school year, and his lovely teacher was leaving for maternity leave. So we were having a baby shower for her in the classroom, and the other students were gathered. Other teachers, his teacher, other parents. And we were all giving her gifts for her baby and her send-off. And Cameron had a book to give to her. And all the kids were going in a circle offering their gifts. And he opened the book and was trying to read the inscription he had written on it, which was "All the best, comma, Cameron." And actually I had written it because he couldn't write at that point either. And I did not go over it with him in advance — it was kind of a last-minute mom rush thing, to be honest.
Amanda: We've all been there.
Kerry: And he — it was his turn. And he struggled through "all the best," and then he couldn't read his name: Cameron. And it was obvious that that was going to be the next thing to read. And all the kids noticed, you know — he should be reading his name right now and he wasn't reading it. And one child said, "That's weird. Why can't you read your name?" I don't think the child said it to be mean or rude or to embarrass Cameron. I think this child just didn't have an awareness — it was just weird.
You know something they didn't understand and so they just kind of called it out. And Cameron — it was just abject humiliation. And he wasn't looking at anyone, and then I kind of looked, you know, met eyes with some of the teachers that I knew, and everyone was aware it was an uncomfortable, challenging, painful moment for Cameron. And so one of the teachers, you know, and one of the teachers just said, "OK, who's next?" And we just moved it along to change the attention and focus to the next kid and take it away from Cameron.
Lexi: Were you grateful for that?
Kerry: Yes, very grateful. And I kind of spun out into like an anxious place myself, you know, my mind just kind of started racing. And I also just felt really, really sad.
Lexi: After the incident in Cameron's classroom, Kerry decided she needed to do something about it. So she spoke to Cameron's teacher and asked if it was OK if she came in to teach the students about dyslexia.
Kerry: So, it was in the morning. It was probably after their circle time around 9 o'clock. So we were all sitting together, and I said, "So, I'm here to talk about how all of us are born on the planet. And some things are easy for us naturally. And some things are hard for us. I gave some examples for myself about how some things that come easily for me, like reading and writing, are great. But one thing that's hard for me for example is, you know, drumming or Legos. I'm terrible at both of those. And I opened the floor to Cameron, and Cameron said, "What comes easy for me is Legos and drumming."
Kerry: "But I also have dyslexia, so it makes reading and writing challenging for me." And then we spent a little bit of time discussing what dyslexia is, and maybe people have noticed that Cameron has had a hard time reading aloud in class, or that when he did a writing assignment for a history fair project, his writing assignment was a little bit shorter or may have taken him longer to finish. I did pass around some examples of famous people who have dyslexia, and I tried to come up with people that they would know or could engage with, like Alexander Graham Bell supposedly had dyslexia. And I brought a landline telephone, and most of these kids had never seen the landline telephone.
Kerry: That was really cool. There was an actor I talked about. I passed around his picture — Channing Tatum who was in "The Lego Movie" as one of the voices.
Lexi: Oh yeah.
Kerry: So then we went around the circle, and all the kids talked about things they knew for themselves that were challenging, and then things that were easy for them. And it went a lot deeper and was more poignant than I expected it to be. I thought they might say, "I'm good at soccer, but I'm not good at taking out the garbage." This little boy goes, "I'm a really good athlete, but I'm challenged because sometimes I get angry. I'm really working hard on my anger and being more patient." And it was really, really amazing to see all these kids trusting each other with their vulnerabilities.
Amanda: Kerry, you really, really thought this through. I mean, wow.
Lexi: So you finished this presentation. Did they clap?
Kerry: They did. Yeah. It was kind of like a big, warm, fuzzy celebration.
Lexi: Bob, is there some advice or strategies that you have that we could give a student who has major anxiety around the idea of reading out loud in public?
Bob: Yeah. So the couple things are, first of all, talk to the adult, right? So if you're a child and you have dyslexia, and you know that reading aloud is going to be challenging for you, and it makes you anxious even thinking about the fact that you may have to read out loud, talk to the adults who are involved and let them know that. Just say, "Look I am nervous about this. I'm more nervous than most people, because reading is difficult for me to begin with."
They will most likely do something about that, whether it's take time to practice it with you, whether it's give it to you in advance, whether it's allow you to listen to them read it out loud a few times so that you can use your really good memory to help you as you're reading it — there's a whole bunch of things that can be done. But I always encourage students or children to go ahead and talk about the fact that you know this is going to be hard.
Lexi: Can you think of a story or a time when a student who had reading issues or maybe dyslexia came up with a really creative or resourceful way to participate in an assignment that did involve reading out loud?
Bob: So, one of the things that I saw a teacher do that I thought was particularly kind of inventive and made everyone in the class feel good about it, was, there was a student who had real kind of reading issues. And it was really challenging for him, and he got really frustrated about and things like that. But he'd been working really hard with his parents and with the teacher and with the reading specialist, and he'd developed a pretty strong sight word vocabulary, actually.
Amanda: Tell me what a sight word is.
Bob: Sure. A sight word is a word that you recognize automatically without having to sound it out. So this boy developed a pretty good sight word vocabulary. And so the teacher was very familiar with the boy's sight word vocabulary. So she went and underlined in the book the words that she knew he knew.
Bob: So when he came up, he was a little choppy reading, until he got to those words or those series of words that he knew, and then he just kind of blew through it. So everybody was really kind of excited for him that he got up and did that, because everybody knew that it was a big deal.
The other thing that I saw, which is a little bit funnier story, is sometimes teachers will have kids read aloud in their groups, right? And then each group has to do a kind of a round robin reading, which is one kid reads a little bit and then the next kid picks up and reads a little bit and then the next kid picks up and reads a little bit. So the group that — actually it was three kids — and they had a girl who had dyslexia and was really not a fluid kind of reader.
Bob: And so what that group did was they gave her the part of reading that sort of repeated itself. So she got that one sort of group of two or three sentences down, and it occurred at the end of each — I'll call it paragraph. So as the one girl read, she would read a piece and then the kid with dyslexia would say that piece that she knew, and then the next kid would read a piece, and then the kid with dyslexia would say that piece that she knew. And then the third kid would read a piece, and the kid with dyslexia would say that piece she knew.
Bob: And so it was actually the way that it worked was really smooth and nice, and everybody really appreciated the creativity. And I don't even think that it dawned on the kids in the other groups that these girls, these three girls, had done that so that their friend with dyslexia could fully participate.
Lexi: That's such a good friend.
Bob: Yeah, it really was. And it wasn't an idea that the teacher gave them.
Amanda: What a canny solution, right?
Bob: Yeah, the kids came up with that on their own.
Lexi: Kerry, what did you do directly after this? Did you get back to your car and you know, punch the air?
Kerry: Yeah. And then I got really nice feedback from the teacher, who said that the kids really enjoyed it, and it really helped do exactly what we had hoped, which was just kind of heighten everyone's awareness and have a little more empathy for each other. So people will just be a little nicer.
Lexi: Thank you so much for your time.
Amanda: Thank you, Kerry.
Kerry: Thank you so much.
Amanda: A lot of you had your own success stories to share.
Student: I'm Eddie, and ways that I've been working on reading in public is that I have started taking an acting class to help me feel more comfortable just being in front of people.
Parent: As the mom of a daughter with a receptive and expressive language challenges, I find myself often exhausted, feeling like I need to protect her, to save her from embarrassment or challenges, and manage teachers and supports to ensure that she gets which she needs. And I had a moment when my daughter was doing a poetry slam unit for school. She had worked really hard to create this poem, and it was the final presentation in front of the whole school. Not every kid had to go up, and my daughter jumped up and volunteered.
And I — just the pit in my stomach of, "Oh my God, what's going to happen? I hope this goes OK. I hope she doesn't freeze. I hope she doesn't stumble on her words. Is she ready to do this?" And she got up and she owned that poetry. And I realized that her speech teacher had been practicing with her, had worked on the poem with her, and built the belief in her that of course she could get up in front of the school and do it.
And it was such an aha moment for me as a parent. We can become so protective and lose faith in everyone else involved, that sometimes I just need to trust my daughter. And that if she wants to take risks, it's not on me. And it's amazing and it's such a pivotal moment.
Amanda: Bob, do you think reading out loud should be optional?
Bob: So, I do think reading out loud in front of large groups should be optional. I think it's something that you should practice. I think it's something that you should build up to, right? And I do think it should be optional. I think it's perfectly fair and understandable for a teacher to ask a student to read aloud to them so that the teacher can identify errors and, you know, that kind of stuff. So if they're going to use it as a real teaching tool with this student, I can see having it not be optional. But reading aloud in front of a bunch of people I think should be optional.
Lexi: Bob, does it get easier to read out loud over time?
Bob: So, you know the saying is that success builds confidence, right? So as kids read aloud more and have success with it, they get more and more confident. I don't know if it becomes actually easier for kids, but it certainly becomes more comfortable.
Lexi: Got it.
Bob: If you prep them a little bit for, kind of, what's the worst that can happen.
Bob: The worst that can happen is you're going to stumble around when you're reading, you're going to misidentify words, you're going to read the wrong words. It's not going to be fluent as you're reading, all of that sort of stuff, right? So if you are working with a student or if your child is far enough along in understanding the challenge that he or she has with reading, that kind of work can be really, really helpful. Because once a child puts it in perspective, right?
That's what that's about. It's about putting it in perspective. Yes I might get up there, I might fumble, I might stumble. It's not a secret to me, to my teacher, or to my parents, or really to any of my classmates that reading is hard for me. So I'm going to get up there and I'm going to do it. And if I call out a wrong word and it ends up being funny or something, I'm going to laugh along with everyone, you know, because it's really not that big a deal.
Amanda: Such a good reminder.
Bob: So if your child is up for that, like if they're at that point of self-awareness, and if they're at that point of acceptance that this is hard, you can, in fact, apply some perspective to the situation. And then it just becomes something else that you're going to do. It also helps a lot if teachers don't make a huge deal out of it, like you know, it's not the Inquisition you're going up there in front of the class for. It's just to read a passage.
Lexi: That is totally awesome. It's not the Inquisition, huh?
Bob: No, but you don't want to — so the danger is, you don't want to diminish or minimize the anxiety or fear or challenge that this presents for a kid with dyslexia. So again, you have to do a lot of work to get a child to the place where they're willing and able to go up there and just sort of go with the flow. But it can be done.
Amanda: Bob's right. It's not the Inquisition. And you don't have to make a huge deal out of it. And as Kerry told us, she was able to go in and really tell cool stories about people who had dyslexia. And I just love that she wrote in a landline phone that nobody knew what a landline phone was.
Lexi: They're not as old as us.
Amanda: And I bet other parents had really creative solutions to these kinds of situations, too.
Lexi: Well, that makes me wonder. I would love to hear from our listeners what their creative experiences have been in sharing their child's learning and thinking differences, whether or not it was dyslexia or a different issue, with either a school or a family member or a friend. We'd love to hear.
Amanda: You've been listening to "In It," a podcast from Understood for Parents. Our website is Understood.org, where you can find all sorts of free resources for people raising kids with learning and thinking differences.
Lexi: We want to hear what you think of our show. "In It" is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Go to u.org/podcast to share your thoughts and also to find free resources. That's the letter "U" as in Understood.org/podcast. And if you like what you heard today, please tell somebody else about it.
Amanda: Maybe even your child's teacher.
Lexi: You can subscribe to "In It" on Apple podcasts. Follow us on Spotify. Or keep up with us however you listen. Between episodes, find Understood on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and YouTube, or visit our website u.org/podcast. That's the letter "U" dot org slash podcast.
Amanda: We hope you'll come back next episode. We'll be talking about when people choose to talk about their kids' learning and thinking differences — and when they keep it a secret.
Manju Banerjee: So at that stage, do I have to disclose well, you know, I have learning differences or I process information slowly, or I can take you out to a date but I need more time to calculate the tip? It can be really embarrassing.
Lexi: If you have stories about when you do or don't talk about your child's learning or thinking differences, you can call and leave a voice message that we just might use on the next episode of "In It." You'll find that number at u.org/podcast.
Amanda: And a big thanks to everyone who left messages about their experiences reading in public, including Kelly, Roxanne, Tara, Ryan, Kerry, Ayelet, Angela and John. Our show is produced by Blake Eskin of Noun and Verb Rodeo, Julie Subrin, and Julia Botero. Mike Errico wrote our theme music and Laura Kusnyer is our director of editorial content.
Lexi: "In It" is a production of Understood for Parents. Thanks for listening, everyone, and for being in it with us.
is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the “In It” podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.
is co-host of the “In It” podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents.