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Penguins, Ice Hockey, and Reluctant Readers

It’s not easy being 9 and knowing that reading is not your thing. Add to that the fact that kids learn to tease—and bully—incredibly early in life, and fourth grade can be downright brutal.

I was a graduate student in a reading program when I met “Zach.” His adoptive mom explained that he was behind in reading, and this made him really uncomfortable reading in class. Now flash back for a moment to your own memories of elementary school. Some of you are blocking those memories for very good reasons. If you weren’t a classic Hermione, you were likely a bit squeamish when the teacher called on you. I’ll be honest; I was the perpetual deer-in-headlights girl. I can’t imagine what it was like for Zach when the teacher called on him and uttered those dreaded words. “Would you read page 46?”

Flash back to my first meeting with Zach.

“So, what are your favorite things to learn about?”

There is no hesitation. “I like hockey.”

“Oh yeah? Have you been to some Penn State games?”

His eyes light up. “Yeah!”

“What else?

“Um, penguins?”


I can feel myself break into a wide grin. Penguins, eh?

“If you could pick out a book at the library, what kind of book would you pick?”

“Well, I like funny books.”

Sounds good to me, too! “What about poetry? Do you like poetry?” My fingers are crossed. The rhyming in poetry helps kids to recognize sound-spelling patterns.

He nods.

We chat for a bit longer before his mom returns. Flash forward a few weeks. I explain to his mom why we’re starting with books on familiar topics.

“Zach knows a lot about these topics, and he’s able to use his knowledge of spoken vocabulary to help him recognize the words in these books.”

“You mean he has a good vocabulary?” His mom was tickled pink to hear something so positive.

In the world of education, we use the term “prior knowledge” to refer to all that a student knows about a subject—including relevant vocabulary. For those first few months, I tapped heavily into Zach’s prior knowledge and brought him books that would allow him to capitalize on what he already knew. We also began to read humorous poetry and books, like Captain Underpants and How to Eat Fried Worms so that he could see just how fun books could be. We also capitalized on the topics he enjoyed to encourage him to write. He wrote about his books, and he wrote about experiences, like his very awesome spring vacation.

Flash forward to the end of the school year.

“Well, it looks like we won’t be needing you anymore. Zach loves reading!”

What a bittersweet moment! I was going to miss laughing with Zach over those Shel Silverstein poems, but my heart skipped a beat when I realized what this meant. Together, we had broken down a barrier and created a young bookworm.

Published inEducationReading


  1. Jean anne Jean anne

    Lisa, How true. Sometimes it takes just a little nudge in the right direction to break through a barrier like that. The real problems now are finding enough people who are willing to take the time and having those people be in tune with the individual needs of each child. It is a momentous job but I hope we all begin to realize its importance. thanks for sharing.

    • Lisa Hernbloom Lisa Hernbloom

      JeanAnne, I agree. While I love working with teachers, I really miss being the one to experience those light-bulb moments with kids. Best, Lisa

  2. Betsy Betsy

    Nice post, Lisa. It Brings back lots of memories of reading with kids. Helpful teaching tips and encouragement that tapping into an individual’s interests makes all the difference. Thanks for sharing.

    • Lisa Hernbloom Lisa Hernbloom

      Thanks for your post, Betsy. Sometimes I think I learn more from the kids than they do from me! This student certainly taught me a valuable lesson about my work with children. Lisa

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