Sitting at my desk, I wait for my latest student to walk in. I know very little of his background, only references from fellow teachers informing me this fifteen-year-old is a non-reader and unable to read the simplest of sentences.
He arrives at the door with his head down, without making eye contact, and sucking the pointer finger of his left hand. At this point, his body language reads: “I would rather have the earth break apart and swallow me than walk between this door and that desk.”
I’ve seen this stance before.
It’s the cover for every child who, for many reasons, has fallen between the cracks. They have failed to learn to read.
The cost of being a non-reader is enormous.
How easily this young man’s story could have been that of my son.
My son, Nicholas, who now holds the title, Dr. Nicholas Letchford.
In 1994, at age six-and-half, Nicholas failed first grade.
Nicholas never looked “smart.” “Never looking smart,” hid Nicholas’s talents. He was excellent at doing puzzles; he had an incredible concentration for building, but no memory for words.
Entering first grade, he could not follow instructions, complete the work, or benefit from the learning activities.
Unfortunately, his classroom teacher did not like this “slow” child. Being particularly unkind, she shouted at him to “get his work done!”
I was aware of his bitten fingernails and his wet pants. I added to his pain by dressing and sending him to school every day.
At the end of the year, standardized IQ testing was administered.
This test revealed he could read ten words, displayed no strengths, and above all, had a low IQ.
“There’s nothing we can do,” the school diagnostician informed me. “Your child is slow.”
In 1995, an opportunity arose for our family to travel with my husband and his work. I used this time to home-school Nicholas for these six short months.
I prepared by buying books to teach Nicholas to read and began using them. I found Nicholas could not recall letters, sounds, or words. The books did not work. I was no better than his first-grade teacher as I, too, blamed him for his lack of progress.
In the depths of despair, it was my mother-in-law’s words that transformed my attitude and my teaching.
“Lois,” she said, “make learning fun.”
Faced with no excuses and limited knowledge, I began to write simple poetry. I read, he followed along, before we embarked on illustrations for our simple rhymes. Pain, replaced with laughter and enjoyment, transformed my teaching and his learning. Over time, and by daily writing of poetry, I did the unexpected. I tapped into his curiosity. It was a stunning bonus as Nicholas began making gains –small gains, but gains. I acknowledge I impacted two components of his learning during this time-I tapped into his curiosity and his imagination, and he learned that reading and writing were meaningful work.
Returning to our school and explaining my teaching success, I encountered Nicholas’s reading teacher. I asked how he was settling back into school. She commented, “He’s doing the best that he can.”
“Umm,” I thought.
But it was the school diagnostician’s comments which impacted me the most. I also told her of my engaging work with Nicholas.
She stood up, saying, “Well, he is the worst child I’ve seen in twenty years of teaching,” then added, “he may learn to read, but he will never write.”
What the diagnostician meant: “Your child is slow. He cannot learn. He has too many deficits.”
In other words, the problem lies within him, not in the teaching.
Working with Nicholas in an informal setting allowed me to see a different picture. It was the words of the diagnostician, which allowed me to return to school to say:
“If he is as you suggest, “the worst child ever, then don’t expect him to learn like everyone else.”
Her words helped me work with Nicholas after school to reimagine, to innovate, and find ways around all his “learning blocks.” And I did!
The reading teacher and the diagnostician reinforce prevailing attitudes that can limit our children and condemn them to a life of illiteracy. Such beliefs affect their learning and thus their ability to take full part in our world.
Nicholas has always had a brilliant brain, and now a Ph.D. holder, he’s proven that he is “smart” and can learn.
Recently, the full impact of his first-grade failure was brought home to me. Sometime after graduation, I asked innocently, “Can you tell me what happened in grade one?”
My confident, articulate, and successful son sat on the chair as tears rolled down his face, his tongue went around and around in his mouth, while not one word escaped.
He could not tell me about this devastating experience.
That’s when I realized the impact, the cost of failure. I cannot contemplate what could or would have happened if he had not succeeded early on.
Nicholas’ life and health depended upon his ability to learn to read.
Without an incredible set of circumstances, without our home-schooling experience—the center and catalyst for his young learning—I can so easily imagine a different life for Nicholas as the school held all the cards, while I was only the holder of anecdotal evidence.
How we send children to school every single day with the possibility of failure will severely impact their young lives—and their future mental health.
My son was one of the few lucky ones.