By Lois Letchford

My son failed first grade. The year was beyond terrible. Due to family circumstances, he moved on to second grade, with the thought that he would repeat this grade the following year. He was so far behind. I had spoken to his second-grade teacher. I found her to be delightful and caring.

Within the first week, Nicholas brought home his spelling list- a list of
cat, hat, rat, bat, sat, mat, pat, fat, and one final word, is.

One memory remains tattooed on my mind.

“Can you help me with my spelling words,” Nicholas quietly requested as he handed me his list.

“Of course,” I replied. “Let’s get started.”

He collected a piece of paper and a pencil. I asked him to write the first word.

He sat, shoulders hunched to his ears, his pencil hovering and eyes piercing the paper, desperate for inspiration. As I watched, it became evident that he didn’t even know where to begin this task. He could not do the simplest thing – that of connecting a word to write a letter.

“Let’s go outside and write these words in clay,” I said. For the next ninety minutes, Nicholas and I rolled clay around, shaped letters, found rhyming patterns and eventually, made connections. Using clay and changing the mode of learning and was my first experience of finding his strengths. Every day for the next six weeks or so, he practiced his spelling words using clay. He learned to shape the letters, recall their sounds, and passed every spelling test with a grade of 90 or 100%.

During the second half of this year, I homeschooled Nicholas. It began with failure, as I tried traditional approaches to reading. Faced with a blank slate and my mother-in-law’s words “make learning fun,” my search for alternative solutions arose. The spelling experienced taught me Nicholas could do two things: he could rhyme words, and he could see patterns. With that knowledge, I set about writing simple poetry. Very simple poems using consonant, short vowel, consonant words. (CVC words)

The transformation in our little classroom was astounding. No longer did I expect Nicholas to read or remember anything! I read to him. We checked out rhyming words; we illustrated the poem, all the time chatting about the meaning. It wasn’t long before we were reciting our little rhymes together as we walked everywhere. Writing poems and sharing them with Nicholas became a daily routine. One success led to another. It wasn’t long before the poems became more complex. Working with the “OO” sounds in words: Cook, look, and book became transformative.

These words led me to explore the world’s great explorers – Captain James Cook and his completing the mapping of the east coast of Australia. As we talked about Captain Cook and his map, we explored and found old maps in museums and libraries, finding a map printed in 1550. Australia was not on this map.

“Who came before Captain Cook?” Nicholas asked me.

“Oh, that would have been Christopher Columbus,” I replied confidently, thinking that’s was the end of the conversation.

“And who came before Christopher Columbus?” Nicholas continued.

His question stopped me.

He was asking questions that I had never even thought about. His thinking showed me he did not have a low IQ.

The second component of learning about Captain Cook was the excitement. Nicholas’s questions led us on a quest! Together we were excited to find the answers and through finding solutions, asked more questions.

Here was my seven-year-old asking questions about people who were unknown by most. Connecting both the writing of poems with the real world was a critical step.

It has taken me quite some time to appreciate the impact our inquiry project had on Nicholas and his outlook on learning. Our focus shifted from learning “letters and sounds” to “understanding and exploring the changing world of maps.” Letters and sounds came along for the ride! The content drove the instruction and passion for learning.
I had unwittingly tapped into Nicholas’s curiosity, his imagination, and, thus, his strengths. Looking at the changing world maps began a life-long love of mapping and learning.

Then Nicholas returned to school the following year. He had two teachers: a classroom teacher and a reading specialist. The reading specialist sent Nicholas home with a list of “sight words” to learn. Each word was paired with two sentences to provide examples of use. The teacher gave the same two sentences to every child in her care.
One day, Nicholas had the word ‘saw’ to learn with the sentences: Nicholas began reading the first sentence:
“‘I saw a cat. No,’ he said. ‘I was a cat.No.’ he repeated.” Followed by, “I sa” and “I as.” With a look of total confusion on his face, he stopped reading and handed me the paper.

I read the sentences, silently:

I saw a cat climb up a tree. I saw a man rob a bank.

It took me time to see the challenges Nicholas faced. When Nicholas read the words ‘I saw a cat,’ I felt confident he had a mental image of a cat “being cut” in half, which is why he’d said, “no, that’s not right.”
He tried every way to read and make meaning from that sentence and came up short. Why?

Firstly, children who struggle with reading see the concrete example, either the physical object or the action, yet fail to see the abstract meaning. The sentences given did not give provide comprehensive examples of the different meanings full comprehension of the word “saw.”
During our homeschooling, we discussed world mapping, but ‘a cat climbing up a tree’ was not within his knowledge or experience.
The problem was in the teaching. The teacher failed to show Nicholas that the word “saw” has three meanings, and she was unable to use examples from his life or use pictures! If she had talked with him and built upon his background knowledge, her sentences would have changed.

I can be incredibly thankful for learning mishaps, as I gained so much in my knowledge about or perspective of teaching. Teaching and learning must be centered around the child. Teachers cannot make assumptions about a child’s knowledge, background, or experience.
As a result, in my teaching, I use more pictures, more hands-on activities, and walk and talk and read and write to ensure that both my students and I have the same image in our minds!

It was building on Nicholas’s strengths that helped turn his life around.
“Build on a child’s strengths” and anything is possible!