It is Saturday, the sun is shining, my flower beds are screaming my name, but rather than being out there encouraging my emerging perennials to be happy they are coming up at MY house instead of at a more fastidious gardener’s… I am sitting in my office (a dirty word for a sunny Saturday!) and I am at the computer (the second foul word in one sentence).
I love conversing with people about things that matter, and when we are talking about my particular passion, I really love it. So this week, although I enjoyed two lengthy conversations with really nice ladies about teaching reading to struggling kids, I came away very frustrated.Would probably benefit greatly from chopping firewood or tearing down a small building.
During both conversations, I asked questions about what the child did when trying to read, what is difficult for him/her, and other questions that usually reveal a lot about what is going on with the child. It sounded to me like we were talking about visual learners. Being strongly visual myself, and having worked extensively with visual learners, it is not hard to recognize them when they are described, so I launched forth comfortably talking about what visual learners need in order to succeed in reading. But both women glazed over at various points and looked at me quizzically, as though I was speaking a foreign language.
I’ve learned that you can sit two relatively articulate adults at the same table, introduce a topic, say reading difficulties, and though both people are using the same terminology, they might talk completely past each other. The first conversation I had was with a lady who tutors children; her brochure tagline acknowledges that kids learn in different ways. “Ah,” I breathed, “This is going to be an AMAZING conversation!” But what happened is that when I talked enthusiastically about visual learners and how they learn to read, the body language showed clearly that while she wanted to understand what I was talking about, she was just not getting it. What to me seemed simple and easy to understand was completely foreign to her. She did at one point say that she is very left-brained and just didn’t understand what I was describing. What we had was two women, roughly the same age, passionate, even sacrificial about helping kids who are struggling, ready to share solutions with anyone who needs help – but who were so polar opposite in their own viewpoint that communication was not happening.
The second conversation was with the mother of a seven year old boy who sounded to be far brighter than the average child, given her answers to my questions. He is repeating first grade, and now is approaching another end of year and is still not reading. His primary difficulty is in learning sight words and passing the reading tests. The more I listened to the mother talk about her child, the more I felt that if I could just give a wee hint or two, I felt pretty certain that a few tweaks would have her son rocketing into reading in no time. There were probably just a couple of little understanding gaps to help him with. Her focus was riveted, however, on where her son was in the standard process of learning to read, wondering how she was going to get him to master that one skill that had him repeating first grade – and no wonder! She was not able to even absorb another option because she was convinced that reading has to be done a certain way and with certain steps and each step has to be mastered before going on. Why? Because her son is part of a system that operates by those rules.
I think my inability to communicate what I could see so clearly in my head was very much like what happens when a teacher teaches reading in a way that is crystal clear to her, but the child she is teaching has no clue what to do with what he heard. The million dollar question is this: Where is the disconnect? Is it in the brain of the child, and in my case, is it the fault of the women with whom I was speaking? Were they just not able to understand? Or could it be that I failed to communicate in a way that they could receive and understand? The more convinced we are that we are doing a stellar job of communicating, the easier it is to just blame the hearer for not being smart enough to “get it.” Which is a massive cop-out.
These are not the only two conversations I’ve had that left me this frustrated and searching for better ways to communicate. Today, after a mini-rant to my long-suffering brother-in-law in which I was simply warming up for this blog post, the thoughts began to present themselves. Charles Richard Gray is an RN who has worked with kids in psychiatric wards for years. He witnesses what happens when kids just don’t quite make it, don’t quite fit in, are processed by the school system and fail, can’t succeed – you name it. Charles sees the pain behind the behaviors of the kids who are sent to his facility. He called me one evening to talk about finding SOMETHING to help these kids (many of them in high school) learn to read. He said that in many cases, failure to measure up was behind all the troubles they were having in school and at home and in their lives as a whole. The kids that he works with come with ready-made labels such as “oppositional defiance.” My heart breaks for the kids in Charles’ facility. He said the standard demand was for medication. Medicine that will miraculously turn a child with the label of Asperger's into a “normal” child! Medicine that will solve the tragedy of their being very bright, but not looking or acting like the other kids.
I think that Charles has a unique and informed viewpoint in the discussion about kids who can’t read. He sees what happens to kids who are labeled and who are not taught in a way that makes any sense to them.
Just before we got off the phone, Charles said, “Teaching a brain is a whole lot different than putting together a lawn mower.” He continued, “The brain has many entry points – the eyes, the ears, the sense of touch, the movement of the body – and for each child, there is one strongest entry point for learning.”
Of course what he was saying is that there might be one right way to put a lawnmower together, and usually that way is printed on a big sheet of paper in four languages, folded and inserted into every box that contains that model of lawnmower. We cannot, however, persist in assuming that there is one right way to teach a child to read and judging those who don’t succeed in learning that way.
Suddenly I understood him. The point Charles made is the core of the battle raging in our country over kids who are not learning to read. The problem is that someone over a century ago created the Steps to Assembling a Lawnmower, steps which have been revised from time to time over the decades, but that never vary too much from the original push mower model that first hit the market. (Just to be clear, the instructions for putting together the lawnmower in this instance is the accepted method used to teach a child to read.)
We have determined, we live by, we believe in, we choose to die on the hill that proclaims that there is one right way to teach reading. ALL else gives way before this belief including our kids. We destroy kids on a regular basis over this belief! Every child that is tested in this country is ranked according to how well he or she masters those steps for learning to read. The steps have become more and more intricate the more Ph.D.s are thrown into the mix. Each little step has been tweaked and added to so the steps have become more intricate and elaborate. I want to shout, “Stop! Let’s check our progress! Is this method successful with our kids?” Kids are failing at reading more now than they were 30 years ago. The “correct” sequence of steps for teaching reading, no matter how refined and how elaborate, is not working in hundreds of thousands of cases.
1. Reading must be taught in little steps. (A wholly left-brained approach). You have to learn this first step first, then the second one. If you get stuck on step number three, you have to stay on that step until you master it. (Fine print: If you stay on step three long enough, you will be tested and if you can’t pass the test, you will receive special helps in the form of a name to call what is the matter with you. For the rest of your life, you will carry and live up to that label.)
2. Reading is very complicated and requires many little doses of lessons sometimes called “explicit phonics instruction.” Words are broken into little tiny bits and kids everywhere have to practice reading, writing and saying these little bits. “What little bits?” you ask. A great example of the little bits I am talking about can be found in an “Explode the Code” box of cards. I got my hands on them in the learning center I visited last week and I could feel the blood draining from my face as I flipped through them. There was a card and picture for every possible combo of letters…for instance, SL, NT, SP, LT, oh, and I am bored already. More? GR, GL, ST, SL, oh I already did that one. Under the guise of providing explicit phonics instruction, this well meaning company had taken words and flogged them into myriad little fragments and expected kids to memorize all the fragments along with a sample word, claiming this will help struggling readers learn to read. If the non-sequential kids (those who can’t learn and remember little steps to follow) are failing at reading, our solution for them cannot be to add MORE learning steps to the series of steps they already couldn’t learn! Doing so is just like speaking to a person in a language they don’t understand, so we say the same thing again, a bit slower, a bit louder, with more describing words.
3. That the way to learn is to memorize what did not come easily at first glance, and then if memorization doesn’t work quickly, we practice and practice. Didn’t work the first time, but we are NOT going to give up; we are going to do the thing that failed again and again. And again. And if we are totally passionate about making that child read, we will do it scores more times. We’ll do it for years if necessary!
4. If one step is difficult, all the steps will be equally so. If a child is struggling…say he can’t sound out words… he must master this step if he ever hopes to read. If two years, three years, maybe four go by and the child is still having trouble sounding out words (and by now would rather burn down the school than have to expose his inability to read in front of his taunting peers) it is assumed that if the child could finally master that one skill, all the successive skills would be equally difficult for him. So the conclusion is he is learning disabled. It is this type of child my brother-in-law talks with regularly.
5. In order to read you MUST learn all the phonics rules. You must be able to do really interesting phonemic awareness activities such as reading nonsense words really fast and accurately with a stop watch in your peripheral vision clutched by a lady who came into your room, called your name and took you out for testing. In addition to reading nonsensical sequences of letters (for instance, “glaft” or “fripper” or “sloggen”) you also have to be able to rapidly take words apart into all their native sounds really fast. Say you have no trouble reading the real words on the page (might have done better without the stopwatch) but you can’t decipher the made-up words, nor can you break a word apart into its phonemes quickly… you will not score at grade level for reading. All of this will be determined about you in the handful of minutes it takes to administer the test.
6. Learning sight words is a hindrance. If a child memorizes the Dolch sight word list or some other compiled list of high-frequency words, it is widely believed that while she might be successful in learning those words, she will fail when those words are no longer the bulk of the content she has to read in school. For example, in third grade most of the texts she reads may be in other subjects such as science and math. The conviction is that once text includes other words NOT on the Dolch list of sight words, the child will completely flounder and will not be able to read past the second or third grade level. Many people therefore condemn the acquisition of sight words as detrimental to the child. There is actually a man posting videos on You Tube alliteratively titled Dolch =Dyslexia. If you are curious enough to listen, go check it out. He is a solid purist when it comes to memorizing phonics rules as the way to learn to read! According to him, what is wrong with America is the insistence by schools that children memorize sight words.
But the sun is going down, my elderly cat is snoring and I don’t have dinner on. I do feel better for having written, and thanks for reading. I also feel sure you will come rushing back for the next post in which I tell you my theories on how reading can be simplified for the very kids we believe cannot learn! So while I’m cooking dinner, cleaning up the kitchen, and gazing sadly in the twilight at my weedy flower beds, please keep one thought at the front of your mind: Reading is not a mystery. (Well two thoughts). Those kids who are having the most trouble now will learn more readily than "regular" kids if we abandon the instruction sheet for putting together the lawnmower we are clutching for dear life and try something radically different.