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THE GREAT DIVIDE

When even text messaging is a struggle: The pain of being a teenager who can’t read well

A 17-year old who asked to be identified by her initial, T., spends time on her phone in her apartment in Charlestown. She reads at about a prekindergarten level and feels the Boston Public Schools have given up on her.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The Globe recorded this article in audio form to make it more accessible to people with reading challenges. Listen here:

CHICOPEE — Sterling’s phone buzzed. The lanky 17-year-old, sitting on his family’s brown sofa, opened his buddy’s text and scanned the letters on the screen. Something about a car. Like always, though, he couldn’t decipher some of the words, which made the whole thing a confusing blob.

If Sterling were alone, he would have his phone read the hard words aloud. But his stepdad was nearby, so Sterling turned to him with the question he has to ask so often — at home, in classrooms, and in his high school’s auto shop: What does this say?

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“I’m disappointed in myself,” said Sterling, who requested the Globe use only his middle name to protect his privacy. “It makes me feel weird. It makes me feel like I don’t fit in.”

This is reading failure, when poor reading skills become an obstacle to full participation in daily life. It’s the experience of likely thousands of teenagers across Massachusetts each year, students who not only are failed by schools in early elementary years, but who are allowed to slide to the end of their public school experience without becoming competent readers. Sterling is in the 10th grade but reads like a third-grader, jeopardizing even his modest hopes for the future — graduating high school, joining the Marines, becoming a mechanic.

Sara Kidd and her husband, Donald Trottier, have long worked to get reading help for their son, Sterling. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Every teen who cannot read is a failure of the Massachusetts education system, which, like the rest of America, has allowed flawed teaching methods and shoddy reading interventions to prevail for decades.

“You don’t get to ninth, 10th, 11th, even 12th grade with a third-grade reading level, or lower sometimes, without being neglected — academically neglected,” said Cathy Mason, an education specialist who helps struggling readers.

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Teaching teens to read can be harder than teaching a young child, educators say, in part because the searing shame they typically feel makes them reluctant to try. Education policymakers in Massachusetts and around the country have not focused much on reading failure in older students. Even now, with literacy an ascendant education issue, the discussion is centered on early elementary instruction.

But teaching these older students is not only possible — it’s a final, crucial opportunity for schools to rescue them from life on the margins of society, before they approach a dangerous tipping point when their lives are no longer set up around school. The stakes could not be higher. Teens who cannot read become adults who are excluded from vast realms of contemporary life — people who can’t understand a news article, parse a ballot or a lease, and who have little hope of getting a well-paying job. They may not even be able to pass the written driving test. Worse, they are at higher risk of falling into crime and ending up on welfare.

“Do we want to produce people who graduate our schools who are illiterate?” said Joan Sedita, founder of Keys to Literacy, which trains teachers. “If we believe that one of the basic things we should be making sure our kids leave our school system with is the ability to read, then we’ve got to do more.”

Here’s what these students need: high-quality assessments to pinpoint weak skills and intensive help from highly trained specialists, with either tutorials or classes of no more than three students. They also need understanding, engaging teachers, and books for beginning readers that don’t feel babyish.

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Sterling, 17, greeted his dog in the window of his home. "It makes me feel like I don’t fit in,” he said of his struggles to read. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

But many middle and high schools often struggle to meet these demands. They’re not set up to teach reading, and they haven’t always thought through the particular needs of these students.

“It’s the art and the science. The science is that they definitely need these skills, but the art is convincing them why, and keeping them motivated,” said Sarah Fennelly, a Stoneham middle-school reading specialist and president of the Massachusetts chapter of the Reading League, a nationwide group promoting evidence-based reading instruction. She has successfully taught students using newly published “Storyshares” books, written for adolescents learning to read.

Massachusetts Secretary of Education Patrick Tutwiler said in a statement the state is prioritizing improving literacy instruction for elementary students in order to maximize its impact, though he said the state is also boosting support for older students through funds targeted to districts with large numbers of low-income students.

“The earlier we intervene, the bigger the impact we can have on a student’s ability to read, according to the data,” Tutwiler said.

For Sterling, who has dyslexia and mild autism, the clock is ticking. The school has already mailed him a letter asking if he’ll make his own education decisions when he turns 18 next November and becomes an adult in the eyes of the school system. He can’t read it.

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His parents fear he’ll follow the path of his older brother, who dropped out of school at 18, unable to read well, and now ekes out a living as a gas station cashier. In a last-ditch effort to help, they spent the fall trying to compel Chicopee Public Schools to give Sterling the one-on-one specialized tutoring the district’s own outside evaluator said he needed, and to increase the time he spent learning to read each day. Take him out of his English literature class, they argued; what’s he doing there in the first place, if he can’t read?

As they waited for a Zoom meeting to argue their case to the school administration in November, his parents felt a creeping sense of despondency. They had met countless times with the district over the years and more frequently since getting a special-education lawyer in 2022.

“It’s probably gonna go the same way it always does,” said Sterling’s mother, Sara Kidd, lighting a cigarette in the cold sunshine outside her office just before the meeting. “They run you in circles, you get confused, and nothing will happen.”


A small illustration of a children's book

Reading failure is a bigger problem than you’d think in Massachusetts, which leads the country in most indicators of educational quality.

Nearly 40 percent of students who took the 10th grade English Language Arts MCAS exam last spring did not meet the proficiency benchmark, falling in the two lowest categories of performance. Eleven percent, or about 8,000 young people, scored in the lowest category.

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The MCAS doesn’t measure whether a student is literate; it assesses higher-order reading and writing skills, such as analyzing themes, ideas, and plot in provided passages. Still, it’s the only statewide indicator of how students fare in reading, and the group of students who score in the lowest category — “not meeting expectations” — undoubtedly includes teens who cannot even sound out words.

Who are these students? The vast majority — nearly 80 percent — are poor, according to state data. About half are not native English speakers.

And half have a disability. This group includes students with dyslexia, a language-based learning disability affecting 5 to 20 percent of students that can make learning to read extremely difficult without specialized instruction.

Elizabeth Levitan, an attorney with the EdLaw Project, which represents low-income students with disabilities at risk of becoming incarcerated, sees racism in schools as an underappreciated factor at play when young children struggle with reading and act out in frustration.

“My default client is … a boy of color usually who has not been properly identified as having a reading disability and was stereotyped into being a kid with a behavior problem,” she said.

A teenaged student in Boston Public Schools who asked to be identified only by his middle initial, M., was once an inquisitive fourth-grader who wanted to be a mathematician when he grew up, his school records show. After he began bolting out of his classroom to hide his humiliation, his elementary school suspended him repeatedly, but did not give him an evidence-based reading intervention.

His lawyer fought to have the boy assessed; finally, when he was in seventh grade, he was diagnosed with dyslexia.

BPS then offered M. small-group remedial instruction in a method shown to work for dyslexic children. But he was embarrassed to read with other kids and wouldn’t participate.

M.’s case shows how damaging it can be for schools to delay the right help for too long: Though the brain can learn to read at any age, students may fall so far behind, and become so discouraged, that they can lose the will to learn. By the time M. got a tutor, after three more years of legal wrangling, he refused to go to school at all because he was so ashamed of not being able to read, and because he’d been traumatized by an incident that made him feel unsafe, his mother said.

Now 17 and reading on a second-grade level, M. is “just lost and broken and sad,” his mother said. “He doesn’t think he’ll ever get it.”

Her son is repeating ninth grade for the third time, but he mostly stays home to play video games and cook. He dreams of driving a food truck around America and eventually opening a soul food restaurant. But his mother knows he’ll need to be able to read to do any of that.

For immigrant students who haven’t learned to read in their native language, schools often struggle to distinguish English deficits from reading deficits. Tests for pinpointing the issue are often flawed, said Kathleen Boundy, an attorney who has represented many immigrant students with reading disabilities, and school districts have too few bilingual staff to administer them, resulting in some improperly administered tests with invalid results. Teachers’ low expectations for English language learners with disabilities are another obstacle, she said.

“They end up getting stuck in these classes where they’re not challenged,” Boundy said.

A 17-year old Boston Public Schools student who asked to be identified by her initial, T., looked at her phone at home. When she moved to Boston six years ago, she could not speak English or read in Cape Verdean Creole. She read at around a prekindergarten level last year.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

T., 17, a Cape Verdean immigrant who lives in Charlestown, read at a prekindergarten level last year, an evaluation said. At an icebreaker activity for a community youth group not long ago, she cried because she was so embarrassed she couldn’t write down facts about other kids she’d learned, as the others could.

T., who asked to be identified by her first initial, could not speak English or read in Cape Verdean Creole when she moved to Boston at 11. A Massachusetts General Hospital evaluation said that she had a low IQ and “mild intellectual impairment,” but that she should still be able to learn to read with specialized daily one-on-one tutoring for her dyslexia. The district never gave her that help, according to T. and her neighbor, who has acted as her advocate, and it placed her in a program for students with severe disabilities who can’t be expected to pass the MCAS. She won’t receive a diploma.

She believes the school system has given up on her.

“I try, but it’s so hard when you try, try, try, and it’s still too frustrating,” she said.

Boston Public Schools declined to comment on M.’s and T.’s cases, but district leaders said in an interview that, as part of a major literacy overhaul, all schools, including high schools, are now required to screen students’ reading skills three times per year and provide support to those who’ve fallen behind. The district, they said, has also established a new commitment to following research-based best practices.

“For us, this is a civil rights issue,” said Drew Echelson, chief of schools and accountability. For too long, he said, the district allowed inconsistent reading instruction, and “it is not acceptable.”

Middle-class kids who see themselves as college-bound can also struggle with reading. I., a 16-year-old honors student at North Middlesex Regional High School who asked to be identified by her middle initial, plans to become a psychologist, but fears her reading problems will get in the way.

She says that her school failed to identify her dyslexia until eighth grade and that until that time she had spent years agonizing over why everyone else seemed so much smarter. She had turned to harming herself, pulling her hair out, even contemplating suicide. Therapy helped, as did some dyslexia services. She can read her English class novels and science textbooks now, just very slowly. She’s in one Advanced Placement class this year, but opted against more because she feared the reading load, which she believes she could have handled had she received dyslexia services earlier.

She looks ahead to college, and its mountains of reading, with trepidation.

“I’m dreading it,” she said.


A small illustration of a children's book

Inside his parents’ low-slung yellow house on a tidy street in Chicopee, Sterling often sits with phone in hand, doing what he can to practice reading on his own. One recent evening, he Googled articles about vintage cars, his favorite topic.

The article began: “The Galaxie nameplate first appeared on Ford’s far-out looking dream car dubbed LaGalaxie.”

Tapping his thumb against his chin as he scrolled on the screen, Sterling read aloud in a choppy, monotonous voice, changing the word “Galaxie” to “Galaxer” and misreading the words “appeared” and “dubbed.” “The Galaxer nameplate is first approved on Ford far-out looking dream car due le-Galaxers.”

He continued, reading most words accurately but misreading enough of them — “contribution” as “contribulation,” “collection” as “collective,” and “associate” as “assume” — to foil his understanding.

Stumbling over “hierarchy” — he pronounced it “fenreach” — Sterling highlighted the word, swiped up, and found an option to have his phone read it aloud. A male voice intoned: “Hierarchy.”

He uses this crutch at school, too. As students reach adolescence, schools often give struggling readers audio books and headphones with devices that can read aloud for them. These innovations can help poor readers keep up in math, science, and other subjects, but they can also become literacy impediments when they’re not supplemented with high-quality reading instruction.

Sterling’s parents can’t help looking in the rearview mirror, wishing Sterling’s school would have done more when there was still a chance for him to thrive. His stepdad, Donald Trottier, said he repeatedly asked whether Sterling could be tested for dyslexia when he was in early elementary school, but his parents and lawyer say the school never tested him, even his third-grade year, when his teachers wrote that he “displays dyslexic characteristics,” according to school records.

The school’s failure to provide him with appropriate services at a young age seemed like a tragic mistake to an independent evaluator reviewing Sterling’s records last March.

“I am alarmed!” the evaluator wrote. “If he had an intensive reading program administered early on, he would have had enough skill building with reading to probably read on his own.”

Trottier hired a reading tutor when Sterling was younger, but he couldn’t afford more than a few sessions. He took Sterling to the public library for a free reading program, but the boy was too embarrassed to read in front of other kids.

Throughout middle school, other kids bullied Sterling, pushing him down the stairs, throwing him off his bike, and calling him “sped,” “idiot,” and “stupid,” Sterling said. Trottier visited the middle school at least 10 times to seek help for the bullying between November 2021 and June 2022. The family’s lawyer later wrote in a complaint filed with the state that there was no evidence administrators took action to stop the bullying.

The district declined to respond to detailed questions about Sterling’s case, saying doing so “could be detrimental to the working relationship between parents and school that is most beneficial for students.”

In eighth grade, Sterling said, he took the MCAS, which is administered annually in grades 3 to 8 and grade 10, for the first time without a teacher reading him the questions aloud, an accommodation for his reading problems allowed under state rules for certain students with disabilities. He failed.

That summer, Sterling unraveled. Having bottled his emotions in his attempts to ignore the bullies, Trottier said, he suddenly became wild and hard to control, brimming with anger and ready to erupt at any second. One night, after a blow-up, he disappeared and went on a crime spree, stealing vehicles, crashing one, and leaving the scene of the accident. In all, he piled up 11 charges and landed in juvenile detention for two months. The family’s lawyer connected Sterling’s parents with Trish Hasper, a special-education lawyer, who was so outraged by Sterling’s case, she started representing the family, who couldn’t afford her services, for free.

Last year, Hasper secured an evaluation that showed Sterling has dyslexia and mild autism. The expert recommended Sterling receive an hour of specialized one-on-one tutoring at least three days per week, Hasper said. But the one-on-one tutoring only happened that summer. That fall, he was put in sessions with four other students. The teacher assigned to help them was clearly inexperienced with the specialized instruction and relied on prompts from another teacher who coached her by way of Zoom. Sterling estimated he was only reading for 10 minutes of each 45-minute session.

Sterling feels like he made little progress, and he knows where that could lead. He doesn’t want to end up like his 20-year-old brother, Johnathan.

Johnathan, the older brother of Sterling, never learned to read well in the public school system. He dropped out of school and now regrets it. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Like Sterling’s experience, Johnathan’s elementary school never tested him for dyslexia, despite his severe reading problems. And like Sterling, Johnathan never learned to read well and was bullied. Shortly after his 18th birthday, he dropped out of school. Now, he lives in a mobile home that, until recently, lacked running water. His $15-an-hour part-time job as a gas station cashier doesn’t cover his food and housing costs. His parents, struggling to keep food on their own table, support him financially. But they can’t do it forever, and they worry how he’ll manage in the long run.

Johnathan would love to join the Marines, but the thought of trying for his GED, a requirement for boot camp, feels overwhelming. He regrets dropping out of school, but back then it felt like the only choice.

“It was this big maze,” he said.

Inside his darkened trailer, military patches and a BB gun hang on the wall. He turns on “Call of Duty,” the video game he plays at all hours these days. In the game, he is a shooter rounding corners, blasting zombies and other soldiers. High-adrenaline rock music blares, punctuated by the sounds of gunfire.

“It’s an escape,” he said. “It’s easy to get lost in.”

Johnathan needed his mother’s help filling out online forms for MassHealth, fuel assistance, and food stamps. At the end, he needed to sign his name on her computer’s touch screen. He wrote the first three letters and gave up. He erased them and tried again. Finally she did it for him.

It had been so long since he’d written anything, he said, it felt like his brain had forgotten how.

Sterling can sign his own name. He gets by in school with mostly Bs and Cs, finding ways to make up for his reading problems with good behavior and extra credit. School administrators have argued to his parents that Sterling can read to himself better than he can read out loud, Kidd said. And the school claimed, based on an evaluation a teacher gave Sterling in July, that after he attended 10 intervention sessions, he jumped three years in reading ability, to the equivalent of a typical 12-year-old. But Kidd and Sterling thought that seemed like just another excuse to skimp on the more intensive help he needed.

In November, after the Globe asked to attend a meeting between district officials and Sterling’s family, Chicopee finally agreed to fund the extensive reading evaluation recommended for Sterling by the district’s outside evaluator seven months earlier. It found he had the reading ability of a third grader.

This month, the district agreed to provide the one-on-one sessions. Sterling will spend three hours daily with an online tutor under the district’s plan.

The prospect of intensive tutoring gives Sterling hope that one day he will live a fuller, more independent life. But until that day comes, he finds himself overwhelmed by the avalanche of words that come at him.

He struggles in auto, his favorite class, with reading schematic diagrams for repairing cars.

At his former weekend job at Wendy’s, he tried working the cash register but could manage only to read the simple menu that appeared on the screen, not the more complicated words that appeared about allergens and food safety.

Other kids his age text each other constantly. Sterling prefers to call, or just walk over to his friends’ houses to talk in person.

On Instagram, he reveals a profound grief he cannot quite articulate himself, posting somber images of himself looking into the camera over audio clips of voices he’s found online. In a recent post, a man’s matter-of-fact voice speaks as Sterling stares into his phone camera’s cold eye.

“Some of us,” the voice says, “have been brutally broken by life.”

The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to thegreatdivide@globe.com.


Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.