A recent and captivating BBC podcast, both heartbreaking and hopeful, tells the story of John Corcoran, a teacher who secretly suffered from illiteracy but managed to hide it from everyone. In the interview, he talks about his childhood and adolescence in the 1940s and ’50s, explaining in detail how he managed to fool everyone and hide the fact that he couldn’t read or write. By the time Corcoran was in third grade, frustration led to acting out, and he got into trouble at school until he figured out how to use his math skills, sports abilities, and charisma to keep his secret hidden. Corcoran did “whatever it took to never get caught” and eventually went to college and became a high school teacher for 17 years. Hard to believe! Later on in life, when he fell in love and got married, he decided to be truthful with his wife. For the very first time, he shared the secret he had been shamefully holding onto since elementary school.
How did he eventually escape the demoralizing experience of illiteracy? The turning point came when his daughter asked him to read her the book “Rumpelstiltskin,” and as much as he desperately wanted to, he couldn’t. This devastated Corcoran, and he decided to give literacy another try. He learned about adult literacy classes and worked with a volunteer coach from the library. “For 48 years I was in the dark. I finally got the monkey off my back and I finally buried the ghost of my past.”
Because he believes that all children and adults should have every opportunity to learn to read, Corcoran has dedicated himself to the cause of ending illiteracy. The mission of the John Corcoran Foundation, Inc., established in 2017, is to “facilitate the prevention and eradication of illiteracy and sub-literacy in adults and children across America, through public awareness, creation and dissemination of resources, and training and mentoring through existing literacy organizations and educational programs.” Its main activity is to train teachers and tutors how to use Evidence Based Literacy Instruction (EBLI). Corcoran optimistically claims, on the title page of his website, that “reading can be second nature” (JohnCorcoranFoundation.org).
What made it so difficult for Corcoran to learn how to read? He had an undiagnosed learning disorder called CAPD (Central Auditory Processing Disorder), in which the ears and brain aren’t able to coordinate properly, a problem that was unrecognized back then. The story of his painful journey toward achieving literacy later in life emphasizes the importance of proper reading instruction and assessment early on, which didn’t happen for him. He slipped through the cracks, which is possible even now, given large class sizes in many public schools.
Many educators agree that if a child doesn’t learn to read well by the third grade, it will likely have a negative effect on his or her ability to perform at the highest potential in most subjects throughout the remaining time in school. So how can teachers and parents provide the very best reading education in our public and private schools? Can reading truly become second nature for all students as Corcoran suggests?
There are two elements essential to a school’s reading program: the implementation of effective curricula for students at all levels (taught by skillful teachers), and partnership with parents. Early childhood educators agree that most children need encouragement in the home environment in order to become good readers. Consequently, teachers assign daily reading as homework and meet with parents when they have concerns. Communication between home and school is essential to success. Obviously, Corcoran was good at hiding his struggle from his parents, and his teachers failed to provide the adaptations and the one-on-one instruction he desperately needed.
Elementary school teachers, especially those who teach first and second grades, need reading curricula that cover the needs of all students, those who have special needs as well as the advanced readers. At my school, the Principled Academy in San Leandro, California, we used a phonics-based curriculum, “Saxon Phonics,” which came with sets of books for students to advance through during the school year. Because effective teaching of literacy is so important in these grades, instructors depend on additional resources and teacher trainings to enrich our knowledge of reading instruction.
When I was a second grade teacher, I attended an intense one-on-one training with Cliff Ponder, the founder of Academic Associates International, headquartered in Southern California. He developed a phonics-based system of teaching reading that is very practical, thorough, and insightful. Through my training with him, I learned things I never knew about the English language and how the reading brain functions. Did you know that 5,000 years ago, the ancient Phoenicians invented the first-known alphabet with one letter for each sound? English language would be easier to learn if everything was based on one sound for each letter, but that is not the case. In the Academic Associates teacher’s guide, it’s explained that the letter “a” can make nine different sounds! Students learn how to identify when “a” copies the short “u” sound, as in the word “America” and when it makes its own short sound, as in the word “rat.” The letter “e” at the end of the word is called “magic e” because it has the power to transform the word “rat” into “rate.” The letter “e” talks to the “a” and says: “You say your name, and I’ll be quiet.” This creative approach to teaching phonics rules is captivating and interesting to students. They tend not to forget when it’s presented so clearly. Any language is teachable and easier to learn once students grasp the rules for pronunciation.
Letter combinations, like “o-u-g-h” are addressed very clearly in this curriculum. Take a look at this sentence: Have you thought how tough it is to go through a drought with a bad cough and no dough? The “o-u-g-h” spelling can make six different sounds! This would be confusing if it weren’t for the fact that we commonly use only 25 words that have this combination of letters, and the rest are obsolete. The Academic Associates student workbook provides a list so that students can memorize them.
In the computing world, practitioners learn codes that are essential for successful performance. Learning to read well begins with understanding that the English language has a code, or set of rules that need to be memorized and applied. Successful readers know how to decode words. The assumption may be that all schools teach these rules, but that is not always the case. That’s why parents need to get involved in their kids’ schools and find out about what methods are used for teaching reading. Is the curriculum phonics-based, and are the teachers providing a rich literacy environment in the classroom?
I recently interviewed a former co-worker, Mrs. Teresa Holstein, the first grade teacher for several years at the Principled Academy. I admired this seasoned reading specialist and learned a lot as we collaborated to create our first/second grade reading instruction program. She summed her approach up in one sentence: it is extremely important to make reading fun, and anyone can learn to read when given the right tools that fit his or her learning style. The job of the teacher is to figure out what works best for each student. Her first grade classroom was filled with literacy stations for all types of learners. The ideal classroom for this grade level should be well-supplied with different stations for diverse learning styles because kids gain skills according to their strengths. The kinesthetic child enjoys arranging block letters to form words. The musical student uses headphones in order to listen to songs and follow along with a song sheet. The visually inclined draws pictures and writes words. Books are everywhere. When parents walk into this classroom, it is quickly apparent that love of reading and writing is promoted for all students.
Parents can be creatively supportive in so many ways. Ideally, we want our children to observe us with books more than they see us on the computer screen or phone. We should limit their screen time and require them to read at home, joining them if they’re resistant. Reading together with our children can be fun. We can take turns reading the pages, and talk about what’s happening in the book, the characters, plot, setting, and what we do and don’t like about the book. Listening to them read gives us the opportunity to check and correct pronunciation of individual letters and blends. Parents can introduce their kids to entertaining online educational games that teach phonics. Love of reading can and should be passed down the generations!
If families and schools work together, we can improve. When schools prioritize reading, making sure all students have the basic skills for decoding words, kids like John Corcoran won’t be left behind and will be given a better chance at success.
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.