I spent at least 20 minutes today working one-on-one with a student (and trying really hard not to have my head explode). It began with a guided reading group discussion. We were reading a non-fiction book and I was asking the boys to look at the table of contents and tell me about each part of the book. This boy was confusing two parts and I was trying to guide him to clear up the confusion. My prompt ended up with me asking him to read a specific sentence and he could not identify where it began.
I realized he had no idea what clues show where a sentence begins and ends. I have noted that he uses upper and lower-case letters randomly in his writing but I hadn't identified the cause being a lack of understanding as to the nature of a sentence. So, I asked the other boys to identify the beginning of sentences, just to check. They were fine. I had them explain how to identify the beginning of a sentence and then sent them on their way. My little friend still couldn't tell me so we kept working.
I gave up on that specific sentence and just asked him to show me where any sentence started. We struggled through this for a while. I grabbed highlighter tape and marked the beginning of sentences when he would finally identify one. Each time I had him tell me how he knew it was the beginning of a sentence (I asked the same even when it wasn't so he had to justify any choice).
This is clearly not something he understands still. We will keep working on it.
I was so surprised. This student passed the end-of-first-grade benchmark for our reading assessment. This involved reading a text (fiction or non-fiction depending) with at least 90% accuracy with a certain read rate and retelling and reflecting upon it. He did well. But he doesn't understand what a sentence is. To be honest, I'm not sure now if he truly knows what a word or a letter is. We'll have to check on that.
Once I got past my shock and frustration I began to wonder how often we miss these gaps and/or misconceptions. I would have said this student had made fabulous academic progress this year. I was actually thrilled. I feel as though I've been shot down.