Saturday, March 28, 2015

Stories Behind Dyslexia

I have just finished reading this beautifully written book, rich and full of much to think about.  In my specialist remedial tutoring with students with dyslexia I am so focussed on bringing the best of what we know about how to develop the neural processes so necessary to reading, that I sometimes overlook the experiences of the young people (due to their dyslexia), in their everyday familial and educational lives.  This book forced me to think about that a little more.
Phillip Shultz writes "Pain is always there, near the surface, ready to assert itself in demeaning, shameful memories ..."  He is writing about the pain that is spawned from all the demeaning and dispassionate comments and opinions proffered by uninformed and unthinking adults in the lives of children with dyslexia.  He asserts that 'dyslexics are conditioned by their environments to blame only themselves for their learning difficulties ...  For a child to know they're different and be branded as such from other children is always painful."  In his book he eloquently describes how the pain of knowing one is different and how the innocent self assessment as unintelligent, plays out in a child's life and how easily those scars can assert themselves. 
Every child with dyslexia and/or learning difficulties comes into remedial tutoring or the classroom with a lived story that has developed out of their specific experience.  And it is not just about how well they think they can read, spell and write.  At a deeper level it is a story about their brain, their thinking, their intelligence .... it is a story about themselves.  Phillip Shultz writes with heartfelt honesty about moments in which the scars from his story surfaced as a child and as an adult, and the strategies he developed and used to avoid circumstances in which his scars might "assert themselves".  To a child in a wheelchair, no one tells them they are lazy when they don't walk.  But for children with dyslexia or learning difficulties, they are told (way too often) that they are lazy, don't pay attention or write like a baby.  Phillip Schultz describes how his dyslexic thinking makes it impossible to respond to others in these moments.  He cannot gather his thoughts.  His experience is that others don't listen.  And he is unaware of the true culprit behind these words - the ignorance of others.
I am working with a number of high school students.  All of them have skilled, hardworking teachers who provide good quality feedback on how they can improve their writing, and also provide good information on what is required for specific writing tasks.  But in some of my students I see a look in their faces that says "I'm not touching it (the writing) no matter how much someone helps."  For them reading and writing is something to fear, and not just because of their skill deficits.  It is something to fear because the pain of thinking of themselves as stupid or alone is too much to bear.  Good writing is the result of so many factors, but not all of them are technical.  Skill development in writing techniques won't happen if writing tasks are simply platforms for painful scarring to assert itself.  Better to continually fudge the task than to actually give it a go and risk the shame all over again
So I wonder how to free up the story that binds them to isolation and restriction?  I wonder about the power of story and what might be released in telling a little of that story. Reading enables young people to gather information, to learn about the world.  This information, together with technical writing skills, is what the education system requires that they draw upon and put into their writing if they are to graduate from high school.  So if a young person is not reading, then their only other avenue is via life experience. But here again, difficulties with reading and writing, can curtail what a young person engages with.  Some activities become 'safer' than others.  It seems to me that if the surface validity of the negative and limiting story borne out of conditioning is somehow questioned and cracked open, then the scope of possibility in a child's life can also open up. 
So I am going to offer little windows of opportunity for some of my students to talk about their thoughts and feelings about their dyslexia.  And I am going to bring them stories and information that cracks open their isolation.   Maybe then a glimmer of interest can be ignited, and then we have the groundspace for the start of a new story.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Louisa Moats

For the past two days I have attended workshops conducted by the international expert, Dr. Louisa Moats.  Yesterday the focus was on reading comprehension, today it was on dyslexia.  Towards the conclusion of yesterday she made a brief comment along the lines that "there is no evidence of changing someone's reading competence in a short period of time.  It is only after 2 to 3 years of teaching (based on what we know from science) that change (learning) occurs."  It left me wondering whether school administrators and teachers really understand this very simple but powerful point.  Schools need to be doing the same thing over several years to have an impact on reading acquisition - it's as simple as that.
In today's workshop Dr Moats skilfully demonstrated how much we now know about what we have to do to impose reading on the brain. The brain does not have reading functions inbuilt in its design.  Other areas within the brain have to fire and coordinate to built neural pathways in quite separate areas of the brain in order for a child to read.  In a hundred years of mandated education (in the US) we have come a long way in knowing from research and science what is behind efficient coordination of inbuilt brain functions and what we need to do, as much as possible, to make that coordination happen.
So when we say that it is only after 2 to 3 years of good instruction to build reading in the brain, we are saying that it is only after 2 to 3 years of the very best of what we know from science that will build reading in the brain - not just a dabble here, a nice idea there, or some fun activities later on.  We are talking about very explicit practices, grounded in linguistics and our knowledge of linguistics, provided in a very systematic and cumulative way.
The implications of the very simple statement about there being no evidence showing that we can change someone's reading competence via a brief, short intervention, is that if a school is to effectively teach its students to read then it must be via a whole school, systematic, evidence based approach.  It means that all teachers must be thoroughly trained in the evidence based approach; and it means that all teachers must implement it with fidelity.  Then students would get the 2 to 3 years of evidence based instruction we know they need.
Louisa finished today's session with a comment about some of the teaching practices (taught in some Universities) that occur in many of our schools.  Some of these practices direct our children's attention away from the discrete elements in words (the letters) and the sounds they represent. When this is done children's neurological phonological processor is not engaged.  Learning to read requires the interaction and coordination of the phonological processor and the orthographic (letter) processor.  Distracting children's attention away from what they need to attend to is not a benign practice, it is not harmless.  If this type of conduct occurred in medicine it would rightfully be labelled malpractice.