One of my first teaching jobs was as a reading remediation tutor for a local first grader. My student was a bright little boy who was clearly trying hard but who appeared to be unable to remember the sounds of most of the letters. He wasn’t dyslexic, he simply was unable to remember which sound went with which symbol on the page. He also was nearly incomprehensible when he spoke and was receiving speech a couple of times a week. His parents gave me a copy of his speech plan and after looking at the number of letters that he couldn’t pronounce correctly I realized that his “reading problem” wasn’t a reading issue at all! His speech evaluation showed that not only did he not pronounce 50% of the letters correctly but that he was also unable to distinguish between the sounds if said correctly by someone else. In most cases he also could not tell that there was a difference between the way he said something and the way the speech therapist said them. No wonder, he couldn’t keep the letters straight when reading! His brain did not distinguish between “R”, “W” and “L” either with his auditorily or visually so it made no sense to him when a reading teacher would say “No” to whatever sound he was applying to the symbol in front of him. Additionally when he spoke he tended to run his words together and had trouble grasping the concept that he needed to begin and end his sounding out of a word in a particular place. Once we understood the reading problem stemmed from his speech his parents, other teachers and I were able to increase his speech and to focus on pronunciation and enunciation in his reading practice as well. By the time he entered third grade he was doing quite well and was on grade level for reading and related subjects.
I learned some things in that encounter that have proven themselves with other students
- A special needs problem does not always have an obvious cause. Reading may be effected by vision, auditory issues, or learning style. It is important to look at the whole child.
- The way a problem presents can sometimes be confusing. In many ways my student appeared dyslexic ( trouble with sounding out, confusing letters etc.) but he wasn’t.
- Early intervention is very important especially when vision or speech/communication are effected. By the time he reached first grade my student had 5 years of bad speech habits to overcome. If he had received speech services as a three year old the reading problem would have been minimized and may never have appeared.
- Environment matters: my student’s father was from a family that had been in our rural, somewhat isolated county for over 100 years and he still spoke with the accent of the old people in the county. In addition my student had been babysat by his great-grandmother (who remembered the first cars in our county and whose county accent combined with the effects of old age to be a very strong accent) and those auditory influences along with whatever issues he already had combined.
- It is very hard for parents and other primary caregivers to evaluate their child’s speech. They are used to the way the child speaks, they understand them, and the unconsciously compensate for the child’s communication difficulty. Homeschool parents need to be particularly careful to solicit feedback about their children’s speech capabilities from people who see them less frequently such as Sunday School teachers in order to be sure they are not compensating for a difficulty that they are accustomed to.
- Hard work and coordination from all involved leads to better outcomes. The Speech Therapist, the parents, the classroom teacher and I all had to focus on the same pieces of the problem at the same time in order to make progress. In this case that meant focusing on one group of letters at a time. The Speech Teacher chose them and the rest of us tailored our interactions to reinforce the same sounds. Spelling and reading words contained them, the parents practiced them daily and watched their own pronunciation carefully and so on. The common effort meant that the student found it easier to reset many years of auditory and vocal patterning and learn to speak and read correctly and fluently.
- Finally learning disabilities or difficulties even when profound are not a sign of poor parenting. My student and his parents needed additional assistance in order to move past his speech and reading issues. That didn’t mean they were poor parents, he was a poor student or his classroom teacher wasn’t a good teacher. It just meant that brokenness of the world had manifested in a particular way in their lives and they needed the help of the community to deal with it. Other judgement was beyond the scope of the case and did not need to be considered.
I think of these things whenever I work with students, especially those who have difficulties in reading or communication. The reminder of to examine things closely and not make assumptions as to causes has been very important and I would encourage you to keep these things in mind as you work through special needs difficulties yourselves.