Then and Now

The little boy sat at the table, hyperventilating, rocking back and forth, and scrubbing his hair frantically with his hands. It was the beginning of the year at a school that catered to bright and gifted students who didn’t necessarily fit inside the boxes we often try to put them in. I was the elementary school’s special education teacher, and my job consisted of about half academic intervention and half behavioral support for kids having difficulties. We started the school year with a lot of community-building and routine-setting activities before diving into beginning-of-year testing and academics, so I was spending my days popping into classrooms and reconnecting with students on my caseload and supporting the teachers. I carried a walkie-talkie and was on call for any kid having difficulty in a classroom.

It was the third time in as many days that I’d gotten a call to come to the second-grade classroom because Jacob, a boy new to our school, was having another meltdown. This time, it involved a chair getting knocked over and game pieces scattered across the room. I sat quietly with him chatting, until he was calmed down. I tried to ask questions that would give me a clue as to what was causing him to suddenly “go off” on a daily basis. Once he calmed down, he was smart and funny. I really liked this kid. 

I made a note to check in with his teacher during her plan time to get more information. My first question was “How is he doing academically?” The teacher really didn’t know since we had been doing a lot of cooperative learning and testing hadn’t started yet. She also told me that every time a task that involved any actual work came up, that was when he’d have a meltdown and he’d be out in the common area with me. So the next time, I grabbed a worksheet. Once he’d calmed down, we began to work, as best we could, on whatever was happening in the classroom.

It was quickly apparent that Jacob couldn’t read. At all. And he was angry about it. Really, really angry. 

I’d done my Associate level Orton-Gillingham training over the summer and was eager to begin my practicum so I could be certified. I immediately wanted to use Jacob as my practicum student. Over the next few weeks, he completed the beginning-of-year assessments and I did some diagnostic assessments from my OG training. I knew it would be difficult in my school setting to have time and consistency for one-on-one instruction, so I got permission to tutor him after school twice a week on a volunteer basis and got parental permission to work with him. My Fellow cautioned me that he was a complicated student and might be difficult, but that is my favorite kind of student and I dove right in.

The next time I was sitting with Jake, I wanted to get his buy-in on our plan, so I drew a picture of a brain and explained to him how the brain learns to read and how some people have brains that learn differently, but that with some specific activities, we can rewire the brain to read more efficiently. I assured him that even if some of the activities seemed babyish, it wasn’t because I thought he was a baby, but that multimodal activities were scientifically proven to change people’s brains. He sat up and began asking me questions about how brains work and agreed to try everything I asked him to do as a “science experiment” to see if we could grow his brain.

I worked with Jacob for several months and then, unfortunately, I had to leave that school midyear and so my sessions with Jacob ended. Over the next few years, I worked with a couple of other students who, for one reason or another, still had not worked out so that I could finish my practicum, which included at least 100 hours of supervised tutoring. I was getting discouraged about ever finishing my practicum, when Jacob’s mom got in touch with me and asked me to work with him again. He’d completed an evaluation with the local children’s hospital and had gotten a dyslexia diagnosis and they were on the waiting list to get tutoring through there, but she really wanted to get him help as soon as possible.

So I started working with Jacob again, and he was improving. I remember the first time I pulled out a decodable chapter book and he was so excited to read his first-ever chapter book. Jacob was a master at distraction, and keeping him on-task was a constant battle. He knew how to ask an interesting question that would derail the whole lesson. Or he’d argue a point and distract us. On the days I had to videotape the lesson for my mentor’s review, I bribed him with a king-sized candy bar kept just off camera as a reminder to “just do what I ask you without arguing –please.” 

Midsummer, Jacob’s mom informed me that he’d gotten a spot at the tutoring center that would be starting in a few weeks.  I had a number of lessons to finish to get my 50 recent lessons in with him and so I struck a bargain. After the two lessons per week we were already doing, I’d throw in any lessons we could fit in for free just to finish my hours with Jake and get my application in. So, Jacob and I spent a lot of time that summer and he made great progress. I was able to finish my hours and write my case study and–finally!–completed my practicum and I sent Jacob on his way to his next tutor. 

I’ve kept in touch with Jacob’s mom through Facebook all these years and watched as he played on the basketball team in high school and lettered in diesel mechanics three years in a row. He kept a high GPA throughout high school, and even got a 4.0 in the district’s technical education program. He became a student instructor for his diesel mechanics program and was inducted into the National Technical Honor Society in his junior year. He also completed ten years of martial arts training and completed community service as a financial education volunteer and with the United Way. He recently received a scholarship and will be attending Community College of Aurora and finishing his A.A.S. in Diesel Power Mechanics. 

This week, I received the graduation announcement for Jacob and I asked him if I could write about my experience teaching him. He gave me full permission to use his name and pictures. This is what quality intervention can do for kids. Jacob was not being taught in a way that worked for his brain, and respected his intellect. When the instruction changed, he began to learn. All his determination, humor, and curiosity helped him to overcome his difficulties and thrive in his endeavors. I am bursting with pride to have played a part in his education. I can’t wait to see where Jacob goes next.

Amazing Teachers: Anne Sullivan

Thank you @amightygirl  for sharing this post about Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller. This reminded me to share the little known fact that I wrote in my Boston College admission’s essay on Anne Sullivan. The tutors at Spiral Skills Tutoring @SpiralSkillsTutoring have been preparing to teach your students for more than 30 years!

“Anne Sullivan — Helen Keller’s teacher and close companion for 49 years, was born on this day in 1866. The child of poor Irish immigrants, Sullivan herself went blind as a child due to untreated trachoma and was sent to the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston. Though her vision was partially restored after surgery, she remained visually impaired throughout her life.
After Sullivan graduated as class valedictorian, the school director recommended the 20 year old for a position teaching 6-year-old Helen Keller in the small town of Tuscumbia, Alabama. Keller, who had been left blind and deaf due to disease as a toddler, had very limited means of communication but her young teacher soon helped her break out of, as Keller later described, the “silence and darkness that surrounded me.” Keller’s famous breakthrough in understanding that every object had a unique sign identifying it came when Sullivan ran cool water over her student’s hand while signing the word “water” with the other. After this realization, Keller became a vigorous learner, eager to learn the signs for all of the other objects in the world around her.
Sullivan stayed by her side for 49 years, helping Keller on her journey to become the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree and to later become world famous as a writer and advocate on behalf of women’s suffrage, labor rights, and disability rights. Together, they traveled to over 40 countries as Keller became the world’s most prominent voice speaking on behalf of the rights of people with disabilities. In describing the transformative impact Anne Sullivan had on her life, Keller once stated, “Once I knew only darkness and stillness… my life was without past or future… but a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness, and my heart leaped to the rapture of living.”
For children’s books about the special bond between Anne and Helen, we highly recommend the picture book “I Am Helen Keller” for ages 4 to 8 (, the graphic novel “Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller” for 9 and up (, and the historical fiction novel “Miss Spitfire” for ages 10 and up (
For more books to introduce Helen Keller to kids, we recommend the chapter book “Helen Keller: The World At Her Fingertips” for ages 4 to 7 (, the picture book “Helen’s Big World: The Life of Helen Keller” for ages 6 to 9 (, the classic children’s biography for ages 7 to 12 (, and the new graphic novel “Helen Keller: Inspiration to Everyone!” for ages 8 to 13 (
Helen Keller is also one of the role models featured in the Inspiring Women Doll series at
For adults, we recommend the fascinating biography “Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller” at
The Oscar-winning film “The Miracle Worker” also tells the story of Anne and Helen’s lifelong friendship, for ages 8 and up, at — or you can stream it online at
And for a variety of children’s books featuring Mighty Girls with disabilities, visit our blog post “Many Ways To Be Mighty: 35 Books Starring Mighty Girls with Disabilities” at″

Building Readers for Life

Diane is honored and excited to present for the second year at The Literacy Nest Conference. Her topic this year will be Systematizing Word Study into your Orton Gillingham Sequence.

You can sign up here:

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The Shallows

by Diane Talbot

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Recently, I reread the Shallows, by Nicholas Carr, which I first read when it came out in 2010. Ironically, this time I listened to it on audiobook – in just minutes, I was able to find it at my local library, download it onto my phone, and plug it into my car stereo to listen to on my commute. There are portions that are dated, of course, and ever newer social media platforms exist now, but the basic premise held up well.

When I read it the first time, I was militantly resisting ebooks for myself. When my son graduated from college, he bought me a Kindle PaperWhite for Mother’s Day, telling me if I hated it, he’d resell it. Today, I wouldn’t easily give up my Kindle. I love the instant gratification of being able to buy or check out a book, making fonts a comfortable size and being able to read anywhere without regard for good lighting. I like the portability of having a whole library in my purse, and I like that I can highlight passages and instantly share them on Goodreads, and that Goodreads automatically updates my progress on the book.

There are some downsides, of course: I don’t like not knowing physically where I am in a book. (Many books don’t have the progress percentage and even when they do, the type is so tiny that I have a hard time easily reading it.) I miss being able to easily close the book and stare at the cover art or reread the synopsis—and it’s harder to go back to reread a portion to remind myself of what happened. I tend to read a lot of sweeping historical novels that have maps and genealogical flowcharts, and miss being able to flip to them to refresh my memory.

For novels, a digital copy works fine. Yet I still read journal articles and informational texts on paper whenever possible, going to the trouble of printing whole textbooks when taking a course that only has an ebook. I need to physically make notes in the margins and highlight and flip back and forth. For comprehension, paper works best for me, and Carr cites the brain research that tells us why this is so.

Recently, I was working with a middle school student who struggles with comprehension. Reading one of his texts online—as almost all his schoolwork is assigned—he had a question about what something was, and before I could explain and get back to the text, he had a Google window open. Along with definitions, it included images that included barely on topic anime characters and he was laughing and changing his screen image to one of them. No wonder he struggles with comprehension!

As a Literacy Specialist, I still have many of the same reservations as Carr did then. I worry about comprehension and attention when students read online. I worry that they are being distracted by hyperlinks and the ability to follow those impulses. I worry that students are missing the tactile experience of a book, which I know is particularly important for kids with dyslexia and other learning differences. I worry that the information on the web is difficult to sort through for accuracy and relevance.

Yet, the move toward ebooks for education has many benefits both for the school and for kids. The costs for schools are lower, and updated information is as easy as an update to the webpage. The kids don’t have backbreaking backpacks. For kids with learning differences, in particular, textbooks can be read aloud, an important accommodation. The use of Google Read and Write allows students to simplify webpages, taking out videos and advertisements, so they can make notes and highlight online. Used thoughtfully, these tools are beneficial.

Technology isn’t going anywhere and we and our kids will have to adapt. Nicholas Carr gives some good insight and suggestions for how to navigate the good parts of the internet, and also keep the focus and depth we need to understand our world. For online work, I took Carr’s words to heart and try to keep distractions to a minimum when I need focus. I don’t allow pop-ups. I shut down social media and move my phone away from me.

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The Girl Who Drank the Moon

The Girl Who Drank the Moon

By Diane Talbot

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A student of mine could not stop talking about how much she loved this book, so I decided I needed to read it to see if it was as good as she thought. I am so glad I did. This book won the Newberry Award in 2017 and it is well-deserved. It is a lovely fairy tale with compelling characters. The use of language is just delicious; my student and I used words from the book for a series of word investigations. For older children and young adults–and adults– who love a well-told tale of magic and adventure, this is a wonderful choice. I loved it!

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Magicking Words

By Diane Talbot

My 8th grade student “Luna”* is obsessed with all things fantasy and so when I asked her what words she would like to investigate, the word magic was on the list.

We discussed what magic was and looked it up in the dictionary. We discovered that the word can be used as a noun, a verb, or an adjective. Luna worked to make a sentence of each type.

We brainstormed similar words and decided the base was probably <mage>. We began mapping out our thinking on the table top whiteboard in my office.

We used Word Searcher to find words that contained the same base, and ruled out words that, although seemed possibly promising, turned out to not be etymologically related. These words were image, imagination, and magistrate– along with their derivatives.

As you can see, the final, single, silent, non-syllabic <e> is replaced by a vowel suffix. This is shown with the red slash on the final <e>. In order to keep the /k/ sound when a vowel suffix is added, a <k> is added sometimes. We learned that at one time, long ago, the -<ic> ending was spelled <ick> and sometimes when someone wants the word magic to look more–well, magickal–it might be spelled with the old spelling.

Next we used the Mini-matrix Maker to make a matrix.

We explored the etymology of the word magic.

We also considered the pronunciation of the words and how unexpected changes happen in different related words.

mage /māj/

  • Long <a> because of single, silent, non-syllabic <e>
  • Soft g because it is followed by an <e>

magic /măj’-ĭk/

  • Soft <g> because it is followed by an <e>
  • Hard c because it has no vowel after and <-ic> at the end of a word is poronounced /ĭk/

magician /mə-jĭ’-shən/

  • First and third vowel sounds are schwas and middle syllable has stress.
  • Soft <g> because it is followed by an <e>
  • <c> has /sh/ sound when followed by <ian>

magicians /mə’-jĭ-shənz/

  • First and third vowel sounds are schwas and middle syllable has stress.
  • Soft <g> because it is followed by an <e>
  • <c> has /sh/ sound when followed by <ian>
  • Final <s> represents a /z/ sound.

Luna made the observation that in the Harry Potter universe “nomag” is American slang for non-magical people, the equivalent to “muggle” in the U.K. A fitting observation for this exploration.

Further discussion and investigation into the grammar of the words gave us this information. Luna made sentences to help her remember.

  • mage: noun “someone who performs magic”
  • magic: noun, verb, or adjective
  • magics: plural noun or third person inflectional ending (“She magics the moonbeans.”)
  • magical: adjective
  • magician: “Someone who performs magic”
  • magicked: past tense verb or adjective (“The magicked beans grew a bean-stock.”)
  • magically: adverb
  • magicians: plural of magician
  • magicking: present verb (“He is magicking the stones to turn them into bread.”) or noun (“She is an expert at magicking.”)
  • magic wand: a stick used to perform magic

While looking at the dictionary, we also noticed the link to the thesaurus and explored synonyms and antonyms.

Luna and I both agreed that being bewitching and charming was much more fun than being normal and unremarkable. Next up, Luna wants to investigate sorceress.

*Student names and details have been changed.

Sharp as a Knife

By Diane Talbot

During a math lesson on angles with my verbally-gifted fifth-grade student, Brandan*, I drew a picture of an acute angle and an obtuse angle and labeled them. He immediately said, in a high voice, “Ooooh it is such a cute angle.” I told him that was exactly how I always remembered it, but that wasn’t really what it meant. Of course, he wanted to know what it really meant, and I already had my fingers on the keyboard to look it up on

We found that acute is an adjective and came from the Proto-Indo European (PIE) root *ak, which means to “be sharp, rise (out) to a point, pierce.” The meaning was originally used for illness and fevers in the late 1400s. The meaning “ending in a sharp point” and “sharp or penetrating intellect” both came about around the late 1500s. As a descriptive term for intense or sharp pain it was used beginning in the early 1700s.

We talked about how the word could be used literally– like it is used in geometry or more figuratively such as when we talk of disease or pain.

And as it turned out—the adjective cute is related!

In 1731 it is attested as cute, meaning “clever, sharp, smart,” shortening of acute; informal sense of “pretty” is by 1834, It is American English colloquial and student slang.

Later, I followed up with a more indepth study of the word. In John Ayto’s Word I learned that it is related to the English word ague, which is an older word for flu. The Latin verb, acuere, was probably formed from Latin word for needle, acus. Other words that stem from the PIE root *ak are acid, acrid, acetic, oxygen and edge.

 With the information I had previously gathered, I used to compile a list of possible related words.

I looked up, and ruled out, the unrelated words, persecute, prosecute, execute and their derivitives because they have a different base. I noticed that cutey and cuteys was an unconventional spelling, so I looked up both cutie and cutey and found that they are alternate spellings with the same meaning.

Next,  I created a matrix in Mini Matrix Maker.

These are the word sums possible with this matrix:

cute (free base)

a + cute à acute

cute/ + er à cuter

cute/ +ey à cutey

cute + ly à cutely

cute/ + est à cutest

cute + sy à cutesy

cute/ + ey + s à cuteys

a + cute + ly à acutely

cute + ness à cuteness

a + cute + ness à acuteness

cute/ + ie à cutie

cute/ + ie + s à cuties

(The slash mark indicates that the letter is replaced by the vowel suffix which follows.)

As Brandan and I were talking, I looked up obtuse in I found that obtuse is from the early fifteenth century and means “dull, blunted, not sharp” It comes from the Latin obtusus, which had the same meaning as well as a more figurative meaning “to beat against, make dull” The morphemes are ob- (“in front of, against”) + tundere “to beat” from PIE root*(s)tud-e- “to beat strike, thrust from PIE root *(s)teu- “to push, stick, knock, beat. The sense of “stupid, not senstetive or perceptive is from the 1500s. In geometry, it became the name of an angle greater than a right angle in the 1560s.

I tried to elicit its meaning from Brandan, I asked “What is the opposite of sharp?” He had a puzzled look on his face and answered with “fluffy?” I laughed at the image already in my head and tried again, “I can have a sharp knife or a…” I waited for him to come up with a response. And I waited a second longer. Then he cocked his head and slowly said “fluffy knife?”

I laughed and drew a cloud-like blade and handle on the whiteboard table in front of him. We both burst out laughing.

I explained the meaning “dull, blunted, not sharp” to him and his eyes got big with understanding and discovery. I then explained that the word could be used to describe someone who is being stupid, or just clueless. He rubbed his hands together in glee, planning already to use the insult on his little sister.

We went back to our math problems with a game we call “splatball” (an impromptu game we made up, basically throwing Crayola Globbles at a target drawn on the whiteboard.) Every few minutes, Brandan said, “fluffy knife” and we burst out laughing again.

Tutoring bright funny kids makes my job the best!

I continued the research the word obtuse later and found related words and made a matrix. From John Ayto’s Word Origins, I found that the word is related to contusion and toil. I searched words in using the search <tuse>

Again, I ruled out any words that were not related, and then I did an additional search for <tus> which yielded the related words: contused, contuses, contusing, contusion, and contusive.

ob + tuse à obtuse

ob + tuse + ly à obtusely

ob + tuse + ness à obtuseness

con + tuse/ + ion à contusion

con + tuse/ + ive à contusive

con + tuse/ + ed à contused

con + tuse/ + es à contused

con + tuse/ + ing à contusing

obtund (does not fit in matrix but is related.)

Brandan’s drawing of a “fluffy knife”

*names and details changed but be sure to look up the meaning of the name “Brandan.”

Resources used:

Word Origins, second ed. John ayto

Minimatrix Maker