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       Building Blocks to Reading

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Children at-risk

Materials from a workshop designed by Karen M. Potter.
All material copyrighted 1994 Karen M. Potter. red line


In these workshops there is usually much interaction among the workshop participants that is not included in these notes. There is however, information that may be of interest to many parents and professionals who care for young children. I hope you find this information useful.

The following is a list of typographical conventions used in this text: The symbol /b/ is used when referring to the sound made by a letter. This /b/ should be read as the letter sound not the letter name. The letter will be placed in quotes when referring to the letter name. The letter "b" makes the /b/ sound.

When there is an action to take place in the workshop the directions for the action is enclosed in brackets. An example may be (Select a volunteer to pass out paper and crayons.)

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Good morning! I'm Karen Potter and this is Sally.

This Sally was named after the younger sister of Dick and Jane found in the readers used in public schools in the U.S. 20 to 30 years ago.

(Select a volunteer to pass out paper and crayons. Those of you at home get your own crayons and paper.)

We will not be talking about one child. We'll be talking about thousands of children. There are some estimates that only one in four fourth grade children are reading at their grade level. The problem seems to be overwhelming our current system.

You now have crayons and paper. I want you to draw a child. Draw a picture to represent your child's self esteem. Don't draw just any child. I want you to find a way to make this picture personal. Try to find a way to help yourself feel the human side of the child you choose to draw.

My daughter draw this picture for me. You may want to model your drawing after your child, a child you know, a friend, or relative. You could even model your drawing after yourself or choose to let your child represent an entire group of children that you know or can relate to.

(As the drawing continues lead a discussion of different methods used to make their drawing of a child personal.)

As we continue our discussion, I would like you to place your drawing in front of you. Place this drawing where you can see it at all times. If possible, place it in full view of those sitting near you. Watch your child and those of your neighbors. Care about these children and realize that we could be talking about your child of those of your neighbors.

First, we are going to try to discover which children are at-risk. Next we may get a little depressed as we talk about the self esteem of children we have known who have a reading problem. Then we'll try to end with a happier note and the understanding that we can make a difference in the lives of the children around us.

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Reading and Children At-risk

What is a child at-risk? What are the factors that make a child at risk of having difficulties learning to read? A child at-risk is a child who is a member of a group who statistically have difficulties in school. Children at-risk have a situation or element in their lives that may cause them to miss some of their early childhood skills. There are many factors in a child's life that can cause them to be distracted and miss early learning skills. When early learning skills are missed, it increases the chance that the child will fall behind in school.

Who here feels that the child they drew could be a child at-risk? Why? How many of you have known children who had problems learning to read when they entered school? How many of you have or do know illiterate adults? How do you think this happened?

(Discussion) -- Here are a few of the possible factors that have been brought up in group discussions.

  1. Learning disability -- This can be diagnosed by an educational diagnostician. Special Education programs are available to help compensate for disabilities. NOTE: Although these children are at-risk they are not the primary focus of this workshop. We want to focus are the perfectly "normal" children who for some reason have trouble learning to read and as a result fall behind in school.
  2. Race -- In America it is said that Black, Hispanic, and White children have a greater chance of reading problems than Asian children.
  3. Social/economic position -- Parents worried about having enough money to feed their children are not going to spend much money on books.
  4. Chronic childhood illness -- Long-term sicknesses, such as asthma, ear infections, can result in poor study skills. A sick child doesn't feel like reading.
  5. Dysfunctional families -- Drug or alcohol abuse often results in dysfunctional families.
  6. Loss of a family member -- Losing a familiy member, either through death or by divorce, can be devastating to a child and place in a situation where learning is much more difficult.
  7. Low Quality Child Care -- Situations where children are warehoused while their parents are at work often results in poor study habits. There is little, if any, time spent reading to children.
  8. Parents with a reading problem -- If parents can't or don't like to read it is unlikely they will read to their children.
  9. Parents who place a low value on reading -- If parents don't place a high value on reading it is highly unlikely they will read to their children.
  10. Moving -- Constant relocation of a family can cause a child to concentrate so much on adapting to new environments that they miss out on early learning skills.
  11. Everyday stress -- There are a few children who do not handle everyday stress very well. A new baby in the family may cause enough stress that they miss some of their early learning skills.

Do all children at-risk develop a reading problem? No, most don't.


Because a child has one or more of the discussed factors that may place them at-risk does not necessarily mean that they will develop a reading problem. All it means is that statistically more children with these factors have trouble learning to read than children without these factors. It is not a reflection of capability, worth, or intelligence.

In fact, some children who have few or no signs of being at-risk may have problems and fall behind in school.


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Sally's Story

This exercise is designed to grab your attention and give you the desire to work, play, and most importantly, to read with every child that enters your home, classroom, or life.

Everyone hold up the picture of the child you drew. These smiling faces that we have drawn represent the self-esteem of our children. As I tell this story, I want you to hold the picture of the child you have drawn. Then crumple your picture as the self esteem of your child would be crumpled in similar situations. I want you to feel what this child must have felt.

Now on with "Sally's Story," a true example of the school years of a child at-risk.

First a little history and why Sally was at-risk. Sally was constantly ill. From less than six months of age, Sally had been severally asthmatic. In kindergarten and first grade she missed more school than she attended. Then her father passed away. Sally, her mother, and three siblings were forced to move across the country to live with grandparents. At this point Sally's self-esteem was okay, but she was a child at-risk of falling behind in school and a lot more.

(Discussion -- What factors put Sally at-risk? What is she at-risk of loosing?)

What were the factors that made Sally at-risk? 1) chronic illness, 2) missing School, 3) loss of a family member, 4) low family income, 5) single parent, and 6) poor school attendance. With all these factors together there was an increased possibility that Sally missed some of her early learning skills and would be starting school emotionally and developmentally behind other children.

In first grade a group of children was sitting around a table reading aloud to the teacher. Each child in-turn reads about Dick and Jane and the teacher smiles and says, "Good job." Then it's Sally's turn. Sally is reading the best that she can, when the teacher pulls her from her seat, slaps her on the hand, and as she drags her into the hall says, "Even an IDIOT can read better than that! When you're ready to read right, you can come back to class." Sally was left to sit alone in the hall and "Think about it." She concluded that: 1) She was doing the best that she could, 2) even an idiot can read better than she could (teachers don't lie), and 3) therefore, she must be dumber than an idiot.

In third grade, at a parent-teacher conference, Sally overheard her mother ask the teacher, "Do you think it's possible that she's mentally retarded?" The teacher responded, "No, I think she is just a slow learner." The answer really didn't matter. After having nightmares of people taking her away because there was something wrong with her, Sally knew she had to hide that she was not only dumber than an idiot, but that she was also mentally retarded.

Sally's family attended Bible classes every Sunday. In fifth grade the Sunday school teacher asked Sally to read from the Bible. Sally knew that if she couldn't read Dick and Jane, she certainly would be unable to read King James. With a shaking fearful voice Sally tried. The other children laughed. Sally stopped attending Bible Class. Now Sally's not only dumber than an idiot and mentally retarded, but she also thinks she is going to Hell.

In seventh grade a new fast food restaurant opened in Sally's town. On her first trip there with some friends Sally couldn't order anything she wished from the menu. Sally had to order the same thing as the person in front of her because she couldn't read "Big Mac."

The high school career counselor was to advise all students what path in life they should follow. Some students he referred to college counselors. For others he recommended trade schools or workshops on interviewing and proper work habits. For Sally the only advice he offered was to "Become a sailor and learn how to curse (referring to her poor language skills) or marry well."

Sally didn't want anyone to know that she was a bad person and a failure. She did everything she could to hide her problem. The good news is that Sally recovered. She learned to read. She is happy with her life and her husband reads to their children every night.

The important point is that this does not have to happen! (Smooth out the wrinkles in the picture of Sally.) It only takes one adult to make a difference. All it takes is a parent, child care provider, teacher, neighbor, or maybe you to make a difference that will last a life time. Don't take your child's education for granted. Get involved, visit school, and read with your child. Teach your child phonics and other word attack skills.

Write this down:
You will be remembered by children you meet in your life. What you say and do will determine how you are remembered.

Remember, you can make a difference!!

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