The first time I met Astrid, I asked her to tell me something special that I should know about her. She looked up at me through her half-inch thick glasses, her long eyelashes widening as she smiled broadly, and I could see she was missing two front teeth. Her face shone as she said to me passionately, “I love Harry Potter. I know everything about Harry, although Hermoine is my favorite. What House are you?”

Stock image of Hogwarts castle from the Harry Potter series.

Astrid had just started the second grade, so her obsession with J.K. Rowling’s popular World of Wizardry would seem unremarkable. Except Astrid couldn’t read books yet. She wasn’t stable with identifying individual sounds in the alphabet, and she couldn’t spell her name without including capital and backwards letters. She knew about five basic sight words. So how did she come to love Harry Potter so much?

As the Learning Specialist tasked to help her catch up, I wanted to find out.

The interesting thing about Astrid was that her entire identity was based around a book she couldn’t read but still somehow knew backwards and forwards. Every conversation we had over many months was about the specific trivia she knew about every character, and why she was “such a Ravenclaw.” It was mind-boggling to me that she accessed all of this information without reading the books.

During this time, also, she was diagnosed as having a Reading Impairment and an IEP (Individualized Educational Program) was set up for her. The school assessment showed she was significantly behind, and only starting the second grade.

When working with Astrid in the beginning of the year, I asked her to read Harry Potter for me. She hesitated, and then with the saddest puppy-dog eyes, sheepishly sighed that she could not read her favorite book.

“Of course you can read it!” I said. I had her open the book to any page. I pointed to words that I knew she had mastered and asked her to read them. She stumbled on some but solidly landed a couple, with a smile breaking on one side of her mouth. I had her do a little more for me, and after more successes I declared it positively ridiculous that she said claimed she couldn’t read Harry Potter. She had just proven that wrong.

Stock image of vintage-looking books with a magic wand and magic wand trailers.

It was that she couldn’t read it fast.

I asked Astrid if she’d be willing to put in the hard work to make her brain work faster, noting that this would mean that she’d have to try some new things for a while. I made it clear that she did a lot of things well, but that speed was our specific goal. I explicitly identified her current strengths, and then explained that to accomplish her goal, we needed to work on developing an area of her brain that helps her quickly remember shapes, symbols, and words, which was called Visual Processing.

In my opinion, Visual Processing and Visual Memory development are more necessary to work on than we typically do, especially for students in grades K-3.

Visual Processing is required in math, as both reading and math are based out of quickly making meaning from orthographic symbols. Often this was referred to as slow processing. After working with struggling readers specifically for almost twenty years, Visual Processing weaknesses are far more common than I think educators know.

I observed that Astrid recognized the names of the Hogwarts Houses by sight, but only main-characters’ names. Some high-frequency patterns she could recall were non-phonetic and multisyllabic in nature, (such as ‘Hermoine’) which was positive to see. Her ability to show mastery in how to consistently and correctly write lower-case letters and number symbols seemed very unstable, however, as if she couldn’t tell if it was backwards or not when I asked her to check. To me, all of this evidence meant that we needed to work on the parts of the English language that didn’t sound out phonetically.

All of these symptoms are indicative of weak visual processing:

  • Struggles to consistently recognize or spell sight words, especially non-phonetic in nature
  • Difficulty switching to lower-case in writing
  • Phonetic spelling
  • Doesn’t recognize a sight word they just read, may decode each word
  • Slow processing
  • Distracted by too much visual information
  • Challenges with pattern recognition
  • Poor reading and writing fluency
  • Not able to read and understand simultaneously, although verbal comprehension is
    a strength

To get started, though, I needed to clean up her mastery of complex vowels, since many of her miscalls were with the vowel’s identity. I also needed her to pick up patterns in words, such as Word Families which would help her begin to speed up her reading fluency.

Here are two exercises I used with Astrid at the beginning of her instruction to boost her recognition and automaticity with individual phonemes, vowels, and word families. After these have reached some stability we add a daily flashcard drill to build her sight word recognition.

To be continued….
Please watch for Part 2-3 of Astrid’s Path to Potter because I’ll be continuing with more of how we were able to get her reading Harry Potter (slowly) in 10 months from a first-grade reading level, including more Multi-Sensory based exercises to try with your students!

Glitter Cards – small group or 1:1 format

Supplies: 3×5 cards and glitter glue. I often get mine at Walgreens, CVS, or Dollar Stores.

Cognitive Target: speeding up recognition of symbolic information such as letters, numbers, or words

Great For: Strengthening phoneme mastery, helping students recognize when two letters make one sound together, develops letter formation skills in writing

Important Tip: Students can’t see the cards—only their fingers feel this one! This develops visual memory in reversal, which helps many students get faster and they love the format.

Word Families – full class, small groups, or 1:1 formats

Supplies: 3×5 cards, Sharpie, and colored markers, word family list;

In a full class format, consider using standard sized paper for each word.

Cognitive Target: Speeding up recognition of both phonetic and non-phonetic symbolic patterns used in high frequency English words

Great For: Students who struggle with blending words or sound out each phoneme in a word, for students who can’t remember non-phonetic sight word patterns, for students needing some more speed in their reading processing

Important Tip: Students cannot decode any words here- they need to recognize them. It takes some students a while to be automatic, so be vigilant for automaticity and not quick decoding. Subvocalization, slow sounding out under the breath, and behavioral distractions to buy more processing time are common with students that may be weak in visual memory skills.

Here it is with a different student:

What have you tried that works well for building Visual Processing? Feel free to share your successes or frustrations in the comments.