Sunday, July 10, 2016

When Learning To Read Seems Impossible

My son has Dyslexia and learning to read has been a heartbreaking experience for him. I was a preschool teacher until he was almost five years old. Not only did he attend preschool every day, I worked with him at home. He was given the most literature rich environment a child could have. There was morning storytime, afternoon storytime and bedtime stories. There were books available to be handled by him in the classroom, the livingroom, his bedroom and the car. Not only was he read to, he was read good quality children's literature. The very best picture books, and then chapter books were read to him.

Teddy loved books and loved stories. His attention span was good when he was read to one-on-one. Since his nearest sibling was a teenager when he was a baby, that happened every day.

All of his senses were utilized in his exposure to the process of reading. We made an A with popcicle sticks, finger painting, in sand, in the air, with crayons, with chalk. We made a collage of things that started with the short A sound. We found things around the house with that sound. We made apple sauce and apple pie, and talked about the A sound. We circled the letter A in books. By the end of the day he "knew" letter A.

The following day I would hold up the letter A and ask what it was. After a pause, he would answer S or T, or G or X. It was a completely random guess, unrelated to anything he had "learned" the day before. That started at two and a half, and continued through kindergarten, during which he was homeschooled.

I wouldn't have worried, because I know from experience that some children are later learners when it comes to reading, but the plan was that he would go to school the following year.

In schools where we live, a child is expected to learn to read in kindergarten, and continue in first grade to develop fluency, comprehension and overall reading ability. Not only was Teddy not ready for first grade work, he wasn't showing signs that he was ready for beginning kindergarten work.

We found a small private school, with a small class and a fulltime aid, and enrolled him in kindergarten at six and a half years old. The teacher was experienced, the classroom environment was calm and nurturing, and he received a lot of extra help. By the end of the year, he knew the names and most sounds of the alphabet. That finally put him at a beginning kindergarten level for reading.

Needless to say, first grade was a struggle, as he was way behind starting out. He started going to a tutor who used a specialized method for children with Dyslexia called Ortin-Gillingham. The tutoring was twice a week afterschool and Teddy was resistant. He was tired after a day in school, and he had a bad attitude about reading. He was watching classmates surge ahead in reading almost effortlessly, while he made heroic effort and still couldn't read. With the tutoring he made some progress and began to read, but by the end of first grade Teddy was still a year behind in reading.

During second grade Teddy became sullen and moody. He didn't want to go to school and every morning was a battle. After school he didn't want to go to tutoring and frequently refused to work. In the evening he didn't want to do homework and there was another battle. By the end of the year he had made some progress in reading, but his classmates had made so much more that he was even farther behind. Teddy was at a mid-first grade level reading when he started third grade.

The third grade year was a nightmare for all of us. By then, Teddy had become angry at the world. He believed he was stupid and would never learn to read like his classmates. He felt increasing amounts of shame and didn't want to let others see how he couldn't do the work. Every subject was now almost impossible to do without help, because there was reading involved. The more help the school provided, the worse his shame got, because it made his lack of skills visible to everyone.

To cover up the fact he couldn't do the work, Teddy began refusing to do the work at school. The teachers tried everything. Rewards and consequences meant nothing, because he preferred to have the other students think that he was oppositional rather than stupid. In Teddy's mind, refusing to do the work made him look tough and bad, but accepting help in front of the other students made him look dumb and inferior to them.  He chose the first identity for himself.

Now he was getting in trouble, and the teachers and students labeled him as a behavior problem. He didn't do his work and he didn't learn. Every day there were phone calls and emails from the teachers and principal. The fear and sadness we felt were immense.

We took him to a psychologist who confirmed what I described above. His self-esteem was shot, he believed he couldn't do school and he would no longer try.

We took him to a psychiatrist and she diagnosed him with anxiety and depression along with his previous diagnoses of ADHD and Dyslexia. It was also clear that he had poor working memory and executive function. We resisted medicating the depression and anxiety, because we believed that those things could be resolved by not going to school.

Now over two months later, the signs of depression have lifted. The anxiety is less and his overall mood is lighter and happier. We know that it was the right decision to take him out of school when we did, and not to send him back in the fall. He will always have Dyslexia, and perhaps other learning disabilities. He definitely has ADHD, which makes life harder for him than for others. The anxiety he experiences could be hereditary and organic, or it could be from feeling so much stress for so long.

I've done a lot of research over the past five years and I think that I understand a lot of what the problem is, and what strategies will help. But so much about neurological differences is unknown, due to being un-researched. What we do know is that the Whole Language method (language rich environment, lots of exposure to books) with standard teaching methods does not work with children who have dyslexia. It's frustrating when people who do not understand Dyslexia suggest that you read to your child more, or just wait until he's ready to learn to read. That is good advice for other children, but not children with learning disabilities. They will not learn to read without intensive intervention with evidence based methods. It will take them two or three times the work (and time) to learn what an average learner does. On top of that, it's hard, frustrating and discouraging.

There is little chance that a child with Dyslexia will love to read. I hope that several years from now Teddy will have the skills to read without so much effort and he can begin to enjoy it. This will require both patience and diligence from both of us, and for a boy with ADHD who has learned to hate school work, that's a tall order.

What has always benefited Teddy is that he loved to listen to stories. I do believe that his early and constant exposure to good books has made a great difference in his life. He has a large vocabulary, and his comprehension when read to is excellent. We read books that are far above what the ordinary 10 year old reads or has read to him. During the past year I have read aloud 54 chapter books to him. In that way he is an "avid reader." As I write this, my daughter is reading one of the Percy Jackson books to Teddy.

The other thing that I know works for Teddy is a systematic, multi-sensory approach to teaching reading to Dyslexics, in a one-on-one setting.


We are using All About Reading this summer, and when I can get past his opposition I can see him learning during each lesson, and retaining what he has learned.

The reason that I am using the Charlotte Mason method to homeschool him is that I can read everything to him, and he can narrate orally. Teddy will have to learn to read and write, but it doesn't have to be incorporated into every subject at this point. I want him to be able to enjoy learning history, geography and science. If he had to do work sheets or take written tests, he would be unable to like learning any subject that would normally interest him. With this method, the whole of his learning experience does not have to be dreaded and feel "too hard."

This is a work in progress, and maybe it will be for a long time. We don't have everything figured out. But when I finally made the decision to stop the madness of sending him to school, where he was learning nothing except to hate himself and the rest of the world, I finally regained some sense of control and hope.

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