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Every Child Needs Someone to Believe in Them

In 1994, my son Nicholas failed first grade. Every day I saw signs of stress—his fingernails bitten to the quick, the smell of urine in his pants, and every day, I dressed him for school, not knowing it was reinforcing a level of unforgettable pain.

BY Lois Letchford | March 2022 | Category: Schools, Camps & Residences

Every Child Needs Someone to Believe in Them

On one occasion, his teacher spoke with me. Her words were not comforting. “He stares into space all the time,” she confided, frustrated. “And he struggles to do the most basic tasks.” What she didn't mention was his total isolation in and out of the classroom. It took me years to figure this out.

At the end of the year, I requested testing. The results were devastating. They showed Nicholas could only read ten words, including “on” and “no” reversals, displayed no strengths, and above all, he had a low IQ.

An Unexpected Opportunity

It was during this time I contemplated homeschooling. My husband was offered an opportunity to take study leave for six months resulting in our family living in Oxford, UK for this time. I wanted to try working with Nicholas one-on-one in the hope of turning his fortunes around.

Beginning with a series of decoding books and limited knowledge, I set about implementing the teaching, as suggested in these books. But I was no better than his first-grade teacher.

“Nicholas has no memory for words, letters, or sounds!” I told my mother-in-law. It was her hearing my frustration with Nicholas’s lack of progress that helped me change my approach. She offered the most invaluable advice. “Lois,” she said, “put away what is not working and make learning fun.” Her words pushed me to change those worthless strategies from a book and re-imagine possibilities.

Poetry

I contemplated Nicholas’s strengths. I knew he could rhyme words and see patterns. Having a blank slate and using this simple knowledge with few resources, I began to write simple poems just for Nicholas.

The poetry immediately transformed our classroom. No longer did I expect Nicholas to read anything, as I read the poem aloud to him. We laughed as we recited the poem, again and again, searching for meaning, finding rhyming words, and illustrating the ideas. Nicholas giggled. Every day Nicholas built his language knowledge, learning to make essential connections with each illustrated poem.

Changing Teaching of Decoding

Unexpectedly, a new friend asked about Nicholas and his learning. “I have some books for you.” She told me and stopped by with a series of books to assist Nicholas to decode words. “Wow,” I said as I ogled the pictures and the layout, “these books look amazing!” And they were. This series, titled Hear it, See it, Say it, Do it by Mary Atkinson, became my bible.

The poetry continued as I had new poems ready for Nicholas each day. With such progress, I was about to tackle the “oo” sounds, as found in the words cook, look, and book. I immediately thought about Captain Cook, the last of the great explorers and his sailing along the east coast of Australia, thus creating history. My poem “A Gap in the Map” was born. 

Experiences Impact Learning

But it was seeing a map published in the 1550s which tapped into Nicholas’ curiosity and caused an enormous change. Searching such maps and discussing the poems, Nicholas asked questions I will never forget.

“Who came before Captain Cook?” he asked innocently. “Oh, that's easy,” I replied, “that was Christopher Columbus.”

“And who came before Christopher Columbus?” Nicholas shot back. His question stopped me. His thinking was new to me. I had never even thought about “who came before Columbus.”

Nicholas, who struggled so much with learning to read and recalling of letters and sounds, displayed thinking way beyond expectations. His questions amazed me.

We continued to explore the changing maps of the world, as learning turned from boring to exciting, exploring the inquiry project of the Changing Map of the World –is not a typical subject for a seven-year-old.

Returning to School

After those six months, Nicholas returned apprehensively to school. It wasn’t too long before I met with the school diagnostician who had completed the testing one year earlier. I was delighted to tell her about Nicholas's learning and his questions.

“Well,” she stood there and said, “he’s the worst child I’ve seen in twenty years of teaching.”

Defeated, deflated, and feeling as if I'd been run over by a bus, I fled from her room. It was on the drive home that another response consumed me. Helen Keller was blind and deaf she learned to read and write. Nicolas can too. Possessed by an inner racecar driver, I performed a U-turn in the middle of the street. Screeching back into that same diagnostician’s office, I banged my fists on her table. “If he is the worst kid ever, don't expect him to learn like everyone else. We must change how we teach.”

The Reading Teacher

That very afternoon, the reading teacher sent Nicholas home his “sight word” list. This list was ten words long, having two sentences for each word, with no pictures. He knew eight of the ten words. He did not know the word saw or the word now.

I listened as he read the sentences provided for the word “saw.” “I saw a cat,” he read. “No,” he said.

“I was a cat. No,” he said. Trying again, “I as a cat, I sa a cat.”

He handed me the paper containing his frustrations. I silently read the sentences: I saw a cat climb up a tree. I saw a man rob a bank.

The Problem Lies in the Teaching

It took me some time to realize where the problem lay. The teacher has only provided the abstract meaning of the word saw.

Nicholas has the concrete meaning of the word saw – meaning to cut. Nicholas tried every combination to read the sentences, yet he failed to make meaning. I pulled out the photo albums from our travels. Seeing pictures and connecting our experiences allowed Nicholas to recognize this word has multiple meanings. We saw a Gutenberg Bible and we saw Captain Cook’s maps.

He learned that as the reader, we have to find the correct meaning of words to make sense of the sentence.

That day, I learned, that the failure lies in the teaching. Nicholas had the correct picture for every word he stumbled over. Even so, the school diagnostician's eleven words changed my life. She pushed me not to accept labels. She drove me to re-think, and I found the answers lay in how we teach. Nicholas’s positive learning aided me to adapt the teaching.

Nicholas stayed in school. I used my days to think about any challenges he faced and worked with him after school to ensure he was always comprehending and recalling all he needed. I worked with his classroom teachers to have him successful both at home and in the classroom. With all the work of the previous six months, and now learning both in school and at home, he was learning to read independently.

Success

Very early one morning, I heard a small voice coming from our sitting room. It surprised me, as it sounded like a fluent voice – not a conversation, but the sound of reading. I quietly tiptoed out of bed and down the hallway, before poking my head into the sitting room. That’s when I saw Nicholas, sitting cross-legged, dressed for school, and reading a book. Tears ran down my face as I watched him achieve something that once appeared impossible.

Over the next months and years in school, Nicholas improved his reading and gained in confidence. He had some incredible classroom teachers who found his strengths and fed his love of learning, allowing him to take his place alongside his peers.

Reading independently was his very first step to graduating in the top twenty percent of high school at Lubbock High School, Texas and won the Council for Exceptional Children’s 2007 “Yes, I Can” award for academics. He went on to complete two undergraduate degrees, in Engineering and in Applied Mathematics.

His last academic achievement came in May 2018, when he graduated with his DPhil (Ph.D.) in Applied Mathematics from Oxford University.

When we change the teaching for children, we also change the outcomes.I took my belief in Nicolas to become a reading specialist, teaching children who had also been left behind.  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Lois Letchford’s dyslexia came to light at the age of 39, when she faced teaching her son, Nicholas. Examining her reading failure caused her to adapt and change lessons. Lois retrained as a literacy specialist, studying firstly in Australia, then Texas, and finally received her Master's degree in Literacy from SUNY (Albany).  Lois spent seven years as the District Reading Specialist in Lubbock, Texas, focusing on teaching children aged 7-16 who failed to learn to read. Lois has specialized in teaching children who fall into categories of Dyslexia, Developmental Language Disorder, Hyperlexic, and Learning Disabled.

Read the article here.