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.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

PINK (Parents Involved iN Kids) Literacy Groups

NAPLAN results are out.  If, like me, you have a child with learning difficulties, the natural comparisons that occur between children in the classroom can lead to a crestfallen youngster at the end of the day.  "What does it mean?" was the question I was asked.  She had already had conversations with other children in her class and she knew what they scored.  So why were her 'black dots' so different?
Her initial response was one of anger.  She had assumed that her classroom teacher (who is not her literacy teacher) had marked her NAPLAN.  She felt she had put in a big effort (for her) to improve in literacy, and the person she assumed had marked her NAPLAN hadn't even been present in the classroom to SEE the effort she had been making.  Her indignation hid her hurt - she loves her classroom teacher.
In her experience (and mine) she has also made huge progress in the two terms since the NAPLAN testing was conducted (but how to convey the time lapse?).  Literacy instruction at her school has become much more focussed, she has been working with a tutor and short literacy activities are integrated into our daily routines during the week.  I KNOW she has made progress, I am within listening distance of her home tutoring lessons, I see her desire (something I have never seen before) to write, and I hear her read.  She has made so much progress!
But her results are not within the average range of the normal distribution curve.  My daughter's literacy is in the 'red flag' zone, whilst the school, on average is not.  So what happens for these kids?
From my experience in working with children with dyslexia and other learning difficulties (usually attention) my view is that it is a big ask of schools to come to grips with the nuances of each child's learning difficulties; to find the funds to hire people to do the individual remediation required (of both the original difficulty plus the resultant poor habits developed in response to an inability to perform classroom tasks); and to find people skilled in doing the work required (which at times can be very demanding).  What choices therefore do parents of children with learning difficulties have if they want to support their children in continuing to put in effort and to make gains?
The first factor parents need to consider is relationship.  Learning only occurs in the context of a fabulous relationship.  Fabulous relationships create a feeling of being supported.  Anxiety is the biggest impediment to learning - it knocks out the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain necessary to new learning.  Fabulous relationships are the antidote to anxiety.  In a fabulous relationship the person working with the child is attuned to what is going on and is able to shift and move in response to their observations.  In a fabulous relationship, self awareness is supported, the core of the child is enticed into discussions about what is being learned, where work needs to be improved and how they think they are going.  Parents need to think about where they want their child to experience that fabulous relationship.  Solely with a tutor?  Shared between a tutor and themselves, or solely with themselves?  (My daughter's learning difficulties have been the impetus for much of my learning in recent years and the resultant decisions I have made.  Whilst I have learnt a lot technically, it is our relationship that has really blossomed.  Our relationship enervates her mental health (and learning) and mine.)
The next question pertains to financial resources.  Tutoring is not inexpensive.  Research tells us that for the 'unnatural' task of reading, in neurologically typical children at least 2 hours per week is required if learning is to  have a chance of being transferred into long term memory and automaticity.   For neurologically 'atypical' children the time required to be invested in effortful engagement in the learning of a concept is longer, i.e. we need to be spending more time with children actively and effortfully deepening their experience of what is being taught. 
In a nutshell, where do you want the fabulous relationship with your child to occur?  And do you have the resources to finance the decision you make?  And if you don't have the resources to 'pay someone else', what do you do?  Our children with learning difficulties and learning disabilities need all the support and encouragement they can get.  It's tough for them being in a 'NAPLAN red flag' zone in a school.   If you ever want to have a look at what your child is expected to achieve in literacy go to the Australian Curriculum website, scroll down, and open the links to work samples.   But don't lose heart, I believe that collectively, we, as parents, can bring much to the literacy lives of our children - and we don't have to do it alone.  Which is why I am creating the PINK (Parents Involved iN Kids) LITERACY support program.
My intention is to run 4 sessions on consecutive Sunday afternoons on:
  • A Simple (but powerful) Approach to Literacy with your children.
  • Resources that can be used as the framework in a Simple Approach.
  • How to work with those Spelling Lists from a Simple Approach perspective.
  • What you need to know from your child's school.
  • Games and activities for 10 - 20 minute relationship (and Literacy) building sessions in the home.
  • What we can do to facilitate the development of writing.
These four sessions will be run as a program and are suitable for parents who wish to support their children's literacy on their own, and those parents who wish to support their children's literacy in partnership with a skilled tutor.
Following the program I am offering the opportunity for interested parents  to work together throughout the year, supporting their children, working with resources, sharing their learning and learning from each other and myself.   These learning sessions will be held once a month on Sunday afternoons.  Scheduling of the initial four afternoon sessions is yet to be finalised.  Anyone interested is welcome to contact me on 0417 949 179 for further information and costs.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

How Parents Can Help Their Struggling Reader

Parents of struggling readers can have a hard time, particularly if they are not flush with resources to access good expertise that can offer research based information, guidance and support.  When I was working in schools it was heartbreaking to find parents accessing (and paying substantial amounts for) snake oil, particularly in some of our less resourced suburbs.  To pay for ineffective services and products when the parent is already stressed trying to understand and help, is not good.  The relationship becomes another area that needs remediating if the child is eventually to learn to read.

Having been through that experience myself, this is my list of recommendations to parents wishing to help their struggling reader.

1.  Relax and focus on connection rather than achievement.  Your relationship with your child is the factor that makes the most difference if you are going to try and bring understanding and reading skills to them.  You have probably been struggling for months or maybe years, taking another month to relax and just focus on having quality meaningful time with your child is not going to do more harm - it will help!  If you bring stress to their experience of words then you are exacerbating what they experience at school.  When tutoring I am aware that our one hour per week may be the only time the student gets to enjoy being around words.  This experience is important.  As  a parent you are in a powerful position to bring more of a good feeling to their experience of words, so work on the feeling in your relationship first, then engage in words.

2.  Look for ways to relax have fun with your child/children around words.  For years whilst my daughter was young I read to her every night.  Grimm's fairy tales mostly, I found they had a different feeling in comparison to the majority of modern day authors.  (Thankfully there are some wonderful exceptions.)  But when she got older, homework became the focus of my attention and I let go of our precious time each day in which to enter another world.  Instead I worked with her on her reading skills. She has improved, a lot, but something was missing from our relationship (and my own enjoyment).  So I reignited reading at night.  I started off with books she really loved when she was little and have moved into books from the library which I know she could read but which I read.  She now makes sure I am reading each night ... and with her growth in reading skills and development, our reading time is enriched.  I know she is following as I read, she tells me she could read what I am reading, we talk about where the story might be going, she recaps the story each night before I begin, and we talk about whether a book is 'grabbing' us or not.  We discard it if it isn't!  As per my recent blog I have also found a couple of community events around story writing and illustration.  Once upon a time my girl wouldn't have been interested in the slightest about attending, now she's quite keen.

3.  Learn about how literacy should be taught.  Attend Dyslexia Speld Foundation (South Perth) parent film nights and information sessions.  Look up government funded literacy resources (libraries often have flyers) and access them if you are eligible.  Learn about how you can help your child via incidental (in the moment or when they make mistakes) teaching.  Learn about the power of 'saying the sounds and reading the word'.  Learn about the power of your pointer finger!  Borrow books from the library at DSF (or buy them) or better still write your own with your child, that they have the skills and alphabet code knowledge to read.  Don't read books with words in them that have sounds and their corresponding spellings they haven't covered yet. 

4.  Don't interact with them in ways that suggest you are looking for whether they have advanced or not.  In other words, don't test them all the time.  If you know there are words in what they will read that they don't know, play with it beforehand.  If they still have difficulty provide it form them.  Have blank paper and pens on hand, to tease out the sounds of words.  Don't jump in too quickly.  Once they start to blend sounds together they want to see if they can succeed and become annoyed if we jump in too quickly because of our need to have them reading words.  This is what happens in schools.  We rush and cram them so that they look like they are reading. Lots of sight words, reading for meaning, cueing from pictures, all so it looks like children are reading.  And our testing in schools can look like children are progressing.  But they aren't really reading, they aren't using the skills of reading, and then when we test them again in High School (when words are more complex) we wonder why they have dropped behind again? They were never at level in the first place. 

5.  Hire a good remediation tutor.  Make sure they are using a well researched evidence based literacy program.  Can they articulate the deficits in your child's reading skills and how they are going to turn them around?  Have they provided you with a plan that explicitly lays out what they will be doing and when?  Are they available to guide you when you have questions?  Is it possible at all to have them and your child's teacher talking?  Based on questions you have put to the tutor and the information they have provided in remediation plans and reports are you feeling confident about what they are doing?

6.  Ask questions of your school. What literacy program are they using?  Is it one included in the DSF catalogue (which means it has some research and evidence behind it) or is it one without the research?  What is the sequence of sounds and spellings that will be taught?  Where is your child up to?   Are they using Look, Say, Cover, Write, Check?  Why?  (It is not recommended for children with reading difficulties - or most of the others.)

7.  Develop your own literacy skills.  A significant number of children with dyslexia also a parent with dyslexia.  If you don't know how to read, then learn to read, model learning to read for your child.  Not only will you go up in their esteem but you will be a powerful influence over their engagement with learning to read.

For any parent searching for information and guidance, there is an information session in my home (Spearwood) this Sunday 1.30 to 3.30 pm.  The cost is $35, if you would like to come along, give me a call on 0417 949 179.

Fun With Words

There is something about winter that must bring out the desire to go within and draw out words and drawings that give expression to our creativity.  In the last two days I have come across a couple of enticing events to engage children in literacy.

I first fell in love with Balingup 30 years ago ... the amazing smells when you walked through the door of The Tinderbox, camping by the Blackwood river, interesting country shops and cafes, fruit wine, a wonderful array of bed and breakfast establishments.  I pictured myself living there in years to come.  That didn't quite come to fruition but I still enjoy my visits to this beautiful town.  And over the years it has developed some notable events to attract people far and wide.  I came across the flyer for the Telling Tales in Balingup in my local library.  2 days of workshops for children from children's authors and illustrators, all nestled within the businesses of Balingup.  The program looks fantastic.  I am in the process of booking accommodation and intend to be there bright and early on Saturday 12 July to feast my eyes and senses on the books and workshops on offer.  Not to mention enjoying the offerings of the various locations throughout the town in which the workshops will be conducted.  I just hope my daughter is as excited as I am!

This next workshop first appeared in the Fremantle Arts Centre's courses for young people in Term II of this year.  The July holiday program is now out and it features two literacy based workshops.  The workshop on Concrete Poetry will be conducted during the holidays whilst the Creative Writing workshop will be conducted during school term.  It's great to see the definition of the 'arts' in the young people's programs extended into the realm of words and how they can be used to give expression to creativity and imagination.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Reigniting a Love of Words

How to reengage children with words when their relationship with them has been damaged?  This is a question I ponder often.  Three things seem pertinent:
  1. A consistent, safe, playful, structured, (and probably lots more) relationship with at least one other - around words.
  2. A solid structured, cumulative, explicit phonics program through which to learn.  One that makes sense, and on this last point I put linguistic phonics' programs at the top of the list.
  3. Opportunities to play with words, learn about words, not be afraid to express words, put words into sentences .... immerse in imagination through words.

The second point is evidence based, that is, research over time has demonstrated the high correlation between this type of literacy program and performance on reading, spelling and writing.  I am also aware of research into programs which aim to make a difference at children's understanding of emotions and social interactions and the pivotal influence of the relationship in which this learning is supported.  On the last point, maybe there is a bank of research on this too but at this point in time I haven't started to explore it - at this point in time it just remains an important part of my passion.

Pie Corbett on the talk4writing website talks about activities in which "... a strong link is made with home playing an invaluable role in developing a love of words and gradually building the bank of language."  As a parent (who loves books) of a child who has developed reading difficulties, watching the  impact of their contaminated relationship with the written word play out at home (no reading) and at school (difficulty reading and reluctance to write) is soul saddening - particularly when she has the most wonderful gifted imagination.  Success with a solid phonics program really helps to boost a child's motivation to reengage with words.  But before success comes effort.  In that phase I try to ignite hope - hope that a child can understand words before them and hope that they can one day express all the wonderful ideas, stories and expressions that sit with latent potency inside them.  From my days in managing community markets, I have learned the value of images to hope and creativity.  In my remediation tuition this is where IT comes in.

In the 'igniting hope' phase I am experimenting.  With one boy I have gone to the library to find larger print, diary/comic type books on this favourite sport - I thank all those wonderful authors who write for a very varied audience!  With another I use post it notes to demonstrate how she has to hold information in her head whilst she reads and what needs to be done (lots of practice) to move the post it notes from working memory to long term memory.  She gets it.  And with parents I alert them to the voice to text and text to voice features on their iphones and ipads.  Eyes light up ... hope.

In the sounds write lessons we have the opportunity for children to generate silly sentences. Those who have been particularly damaged by their school experience with words clam up.  I look for ways to ease their reentry.  In the free resources section of the talk4writing website, Maria Richards, the talk4writing primary expert, gives a wonderful overview of apps that can be used to ignite creativity in children.  Somewhere on the site Pie Corbett makes the statement "Fear is the enemy of creativity."  I absolutely agree, and there is no bigger impediment to writing creativity than fear of words and the written word. 

I experimented with a few of the Apps over the weekend.  In particular I zoomed in on those that would support a selection of the learning objectives I have for the children:
  • Improve their feelings towards words.
  • Reinforce their understanding that letters are simply a code for sounds of speech in words, so play with the letters, move them around, see what new words emerge.
  • Increase their vocabulary by learning new words.
  • Give expression to their imagination.
  • Practice spelling, learning more about how different combinations of letters represent different sounds and how the same combinations can represent different sounds depending on the words.

I am not an English teacher and nor do I want to be teaching about formal elements of writing.  I leave that to the experts. But I can help kids reconnect with words, have fun and learn.  I can build a bridge which children can later develop through formal classroom instruction from the experts.  In SW units we have children build silly sentences and they can also build silly stories.  I thought that if I explored poetry it might be less threatening.

Here are some of the incidental learning fun things my 10 year old daughter and I did over the weekend.  The first is a poem we put to writing using the pages app.  Together we made up the sentences and one by one my daughter dictated them into her ipad mini using the voice to text button.  I mailed it through to my word processor (and the app converted to Word format) then I tizzied it up on publisher.  Later I will print it up and paste it into a small book she has made over the years.  The poem was inspired by her meanderings whilst delivering our local paper.  She notices every little interesting thing along the way and they all end up in her pockets waiting to be carefully extracted to show and tell of her 'treasures'.  Earlier in the week I had found some of Pie Corbett's books for kids in the Kwinana library.  I am not a poet so these children's books on writing poetry served me well.  "Use powerful verbs, precise nouns and expressive adjectives."  (Poem-Maker, Word-Shaker, by Pie Corbett, 2005.)  As an added bonus, this little exercise made me look at my own language and how what I say sets the scene for my daughter's use of language and vocabulary development.  I am determined to at least become a better word shaker.

Next, we played with one  of the apps - Visual Poetry.  For $2.99 children can create their own poems, draw their own picture and the poem transitions into the picture.  Many of the girls I work with like to draw, so the combination of drawing and writing is a good one.  The poem began with an imaginative comment my daughter made about the night time antics of her teddy bears.  We quickly penned a poem into the ipad, she drew a picture of a bear and this is the end result. The next morning I realised I could take a photo, so I took one of one of the bears and the picture below is the end result of that one.  
I'm not sure it adds anything to the poem but again for a child wishing to put on paper what they see and feel, the photograph gives another avenue for expression.

There are other apps on the previously mentioned article on the talk4writing website.  I will blog them another time.  One creates stories using nouns, adjectives and verbs the child inputs.  I am going to use these with SW Extended Code Word lists.  Another creates silly sentences with an option to learn the meaning of words used.  I could use this in story creation, add the words to our sound dictionary, use Lesson 15 to explore the tricky bits in words and just show kids that people have fun with words - it doesn't always have to be serious.  

Another app allows the teacher to create their own spelling list for kids to play with and use in a version of hangman.  If I can only find the time to insert the spelling list this app will be invaluable for reinforcement of speech sounds and spelling patterns during wrap around at home sessions.

So now I am happy, a brilliant phonics program and an emerging comfort in using technology to playfully reengage children with words.  May their imaginations flourish like a village square fountain (I finally used a simile!).

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Parent Information Session

I know what it's like to be the parent of a child with reading difficulties!  My personal experience was really the start of my journey in developing my understanding and igniting my passion to make a difference to children with learning difficulties and/or dyslexia.  In the beginning though I struggled to understand anything.  I spent money on seminars and interventions that were never going to support my child learning to read - learning to read, write and spell would only come through a great teaching relationship and an evidence based intervention program.  But in the beginning I was looking for a quick fix that didn't require my time - because as a working mother, time was something I was very short of.

When my early endeavours didn't bear any fruit, I then decided that I simply had to take the plunge and tutor my daughter myself.  I attended a substantial amount of training and started working with her at home. The training involved learning lots of steps and procedures, sure, grounded in what we know about dyslexia and how to remediate it, but it didn't provide me with an overall understanding that pulled our knowledge together.  I felt panicky most of the time and in this state I really wasn't going to make a positive difference for my daughter.

And then I attended the Sounds Write training .... I had read related research by Diane McGuinness, a psychologist who conducted extensive work on understanding our language system.  Finally I found information that brought coherence to the work that needed to be done with children.  Everything fell into place - and I was properly trained in how to teach!  I have heard and read of teachers with 30 plus years of experience in attempting to make a difference with children with reading difficulties/dyslexia but who had previously had limited impact - until they too came across some form of program originating out of the D. McGuinness material.  They commented that it was only when they came across the simple understanding that linguistic phonics offers were they able to relax and feel assured that they could achieve what they set out to do.

So I breathed again, and set about working with students and my daughter.  Something that felt stressful overnight became a pleasure, fun, something to be enjoyed with children.  My relationship with my daughter changed, and it continues to grow in richness as I learn more about bringing curiosity with words and language and reading to her.  John Walker (Sounds Write Co Founder) and Mary Gladstone (Sounds Write Australia) brought amazing enthusiasm and expertise to their training sessions and follow up support.  Thank you to DSF for being the conduit - I have benefited enormously from the trainings they have offered.  Through my exploration of many, many, websites I have also made a connection with Fiona Nevola (Sound Reading System UK) and have benefited from the material she has developed and graciously allowed me to bring into Australia.  I continue to read work by Diane McGuinness and the internet now makes it possible to be networked into conversations about the day to day issues of working with children and in schools.  But of course my biggest teachers are the children I am privileged to work with.  My understanding and interest has come a long way - and now I would like to share it with other parents so that they too can hope to move on from confusion and distress.

I am running a 2 hour information session for parents on Sunday 15 June, 1.30 to 3.30 in my home in Spearwood. The cost is $35.  If anyone is interested in coming along please contact me via email on  Places are very limited so get in early.  I look forward to seeing you there and connecting with other parents compelled to make a difference to the literacy lives of their children.