Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Parent's Journey to Support her Sons with Dyslexia

Come along to my next MeetUp.  Listen to Kay's story.  Kay is a florist and the mother of 3 children, two of them twins, now in Year 4, and both diagnosed with dyslexia.  Hear about how she made the decision to seek a diagnosis, the programs she has enrolled to teach them to read, what really helped to get her kids reading, and her experiences in liaising with schools.   Kay is a  remarkable mother and dedicated to supporting her sons.  Hear about her recent training in Sounds Write Phonics, her decision to become their tutor and what she now knows about how kids should be taught.

Friday, June 19, 2015


In recent weeks there has been a bit of debate going on in academic circles about diagnosis of Specific Learning Disabilities in Reading, what most would know as dyslexia.  It was put to me that diagnosis of dyslexia muddles the terrain a bit in that it implies something intrinsic in the child that needs remedying, as against implementing evidence based reading programs so that all children learn to read.  In my humble mind both elements are true.
We do need to implement evidence based phonics programs so that all children learn to read.  And we have the research that demonstrates if evidence based phonics programs are implemented then all children on the normal distribution curve shift to the right.  Alison Clarke, Speech Therapist from Melbourne demonstrated this in her recent YouTube video, and it was also demonstrated through the Sounds Write Report to Schools in August 2009.
But what is also true in my experience, is that children with dyslexia do have something inherent in them that needs to be acknowledged and which also informs how evidence based phonics is brought to them.  In the normal heterogeneity in human brain wiring for the processing of speech sounds, some brains, to greater and lesser degrees, don't do so well in this particular area.  I am not a neuroscientist and acknowledge that my knowledge about such scientific matters is poor, however, I see the manifestation of unstable processing of speech sounds in the children I work with every day . 
Although the hearing of these children is perfectly fine, the processing of those sound bytes can, and does, got a bit awry.  The brain of some of these children will simply process different sounds as the same.  In other children they can sound out the discrete sounds in a word but their brains jumble some of those sounds up so that the child experiences incredible difficulty in blending them all together.  It can often take up to ten attempts to blend the sounds together, and not because they aren't trying or not thinking, they are just manifesting what their brains have processed and cobbled together (or not).  And for many it will manifest in spelling.  Unless a child says the sounds as they write (and sometimes even when they do), then what actually gets written on the page can be a bit of a lottery.
But all of these manifestations of the processing difficulty that underpins dyslexia can be remedied, through the best of what we have learned from linguistics and science.  I also see this everyday.  Reading remediation through evidence based phonics is therapy, and working with it is truly an art.  But what is different for these kids in comparison to those in the normal curve who are not on the extremes of heterogeneity in phonological processing wiring, is the amount of overlearning required for the brain to build the neural pathways associated with correct processing of sounds; the amount of overlearning required to build correspondences between sounds and symbols (letters); and the amount of overlearning required for building correct images for whole words (via the previous two elements).
These kids need state of the art processes for learning.  And they need much, much, much, more exposure and practice than kids who don't have brains not organised for accurate phonological processing.  It takes more effort just to get the sound platforms right, and then it takes more effort to get the correct spellings associated with those sound platforms and then it takes more effort again to keep working with both enough for full images of words to be built.  Which is why academics such as Dr Sally Shaywitz emphasise the importance of additional time for these kids.  I also recommend that if they are required to learn class spelling lists then the lists need to be reduced.  Otherwise we are asking kids with a disability to expend way more energy and time than anyone else.  Do we ask that of any other disability group?
I think it is important that all students with dyslexia and their parents accept and understand the foundational issue in the child's brain in processing speech sounds.  Whilst the lack of neural wiring can be remedied through evidence based teaching of phonics, a trace of the issue always remains.  Reading will possibly remain slower than others throughout their lifetime; spelling will possibly always remain difficult and require ongoing use of strategies learned during phonics instruction; and the manifestations of dyslexia will absolutely surface during times of stress.  Children, and parents, need to understand this, and somewhere along the way children need to develop self management skills to reduce the impact of the 'dyslexia' and to cultivate awareness and strategies that calm a troubled mind. 
One bright young lady I work with commented on the difference she has observed between those kids who obtained their diagnosis early and those whose parents waited much longer before organising an assessment.  In her mind she has had time to accept, understand, accommodate and advocate on behalf of her dyslexia, whereas later diagnosed kids don't seem to have integrated their disability into their lives, and suffer.  I am not sure whether the timing of the diagnosis makes a difference to acceptance of a disability but it crossed my mind several weeks ago how difficult it must be for a child with dyslexia to accept that there is something intrinsically awry within.  But, my observation is that when ones 'accepts', things become easier, whilst denial is so much harder to maintain.  And so I hark back to my assessment in my introduction.  Implementation of evidence based phonics is vital, as is acceptance of inner machinations that create difficulties in skill areas in school and life.  Put them together and we get maturity on many levels.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Reasons for Reading

Whilst the primary focus of my work is to help kids struggling with reading, to learn the skills and knowledge of reading so that they can read ... I work with them not just so that they can do their school work, but because first and foremost reading is (or should be) a pleasure and because it can shift our mind in an instant ... if we immerse ourselves in reading.
Years ago, when my daughter was younger, she often experienced troubling nightmares which at times were difficult to shift her out of.  But with her increasing skills in reading, when she now has a difficult dream she can simply pick up a book from her childhood to read ... and it takes her back immediately to the feelings and experiences we have had in reading together.  Reading can be an instant 'pick me up' and she has utilised an important self care strategy.
Personally, my favourite part of my day is our reading aloud together at the end of each day.  Nowadays I am not the only one reading aloud.  She reads a book aloud at a level she is competent at reading and then I read aloud a more complex book.  We talk about both stories, about the different writing styles, about our feelings ... our levels of excitement, which book is engaging us more and why, words or phrases that 'catch us' and where we think the story might go.  And the stories we read often later become teaching points when real life situations emerge.  Reading aloud together nurtures our relationship.
In one of our conversations I mentioned that I enjoyed reading a good book more than I enjoyed movies.  I mentioned that they lasted longer and that the feeling is richer, to which she replied, "yes, in books you can make the story your own, whereas in films someone has made the content up for you."  She hit the nail on the head.  Reading engages the imagination way more than movies.  Oh, how I wish all our kids could read and reap the pleasures that come with that.
A colleague of mine is heavily involved in teaching kids from often traumatic backgrounds to read.  She is mindful that reading can be one of the few ways a child in trauma can escape what is going on around them (and rest the mind).  If these kids don't have reading, maybe it is no wonder they turn to other, less nurturing, outlets.
In my view the general population is ignorant of how big our illiteracy problem is.  Kids not being able to read or not being able to read text with greater complexity, does not amount to one or two, here and there.  By Year 9 we are looking at just over half the student population not able to read classroom text.  And as you can imagine by the time we get to this age, very few of them are involved in reading aloud in the home.  In fact, statistics tell us very few of them have been experiencing that for a very long time.  And particularly if a child is struggling to with how they are being taught to read, then the thrill and pleasure of stories and reading must be kept alive through reading aloud to them.  It takes time to learn to read (3 years with an evidence based program, the trajectory is much more elusive when not using an evidence based program), so during that time children's connection with reading must be maintained and enriched through other avenues i.e. reading aloud.
Reading aloud together is such a pleasure, and has so many health giving benefits.  If you recall fond memories of being read to as a child, or wishes you were read to as a child, then take up the call and read aloud to the young, old, sick, loved, people in your lives.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Meet Up - Parents Supporting Kids Struggling With Reading

I've taken my first step in creating a face to face community supporting parents who would like to do more than sit on the sidelines frustrated and unsure of what to do for their kids who may be struggling with reading.

Check it out.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Reading Support Toolbag - for Parents

If I had to create a toolbag of goodies for parents who are dedicated to supporting their children to learn to read (and I mean really read - decode - not just guess) I would include the following.
The first is a recently compiled YouTube presentation from Alison Clarke of Spelfabet  In this video clip Alison demonstrates the difference between teaching practices that teach guessing and the approach used in effective synthetic phonics programs.  She begins with a visual representation of a classroom of children, where they sit on the normal distribution curve and what happens to the little chap down the end with an undiagnosed language disorder.  She finishes with what happens to the normal curve when everyone in the classroom receives evidence based phonics instruction!  For those of you who don't know, Alison is a Speech Therapist in private practice in Melbourne and very active in promoting high quality information about reading and spelling.
The second item I would include in this toolbag are a couple of blog posts from one of the creators of the Sounds Write Phonics Program, John Walker''Should Key Words be Taught as Sight Words' is the first post.  The second is 'Linguistic Phonics:  A Practical Example".  Both these posts give clear examples to parents of how classroom spelling lists or 'sight' words should be worked with at home and how the reading and spelling of all words should be approached.  Approaching reading and spelling in this way teaches children about how the English Alphabet Code works, an important ingredient missing in most classrooms.  And if you are interested in why children don't seem to understand how the code works then perhaps this recent post from John 'Sound to Print: The Appliance of Science' will help.  

Next, I think every parent should have a copy of the Alphabet Code Sheet in their homes.  A free, and very useful one can be found on the Phonics International website of Debbie Hepplewhite.  Given how much instruction struggling students and children with dyslexia, need, in order to learn to read, it is imperative that practice is done at home.  Which is why I work in  partnership with parents (and teachers) - to maximise consistency and repetition in skills and conceptual understanding.  But one of the areas which most adults are deficit in, is in knowing the 44 sounds of the English language and the range of spellings for each sound.  Everyone needs guidance on this, and an English Alphabet Code Chart, displayed in the home and referred to often, is invaluable.

And two books which I think are first rate.  The first is 'Overcoming Dyslexia' by Dr. Sally Shaywitz.  Whilst it is written for parents of children with dyslexia, I found it very approachable in terms of understanding the sound basis to reading problems and why differentiation of speech sounds is so important to all else that comes thereafter.  A great resource. 

The second is Raising Kids Who Read by Dr. Daniel T Willingham.  He is criticized slightly in the post quoted above from John Walker for what he says about teaching the code, but the bulk of the book is about promoting reading, and I think he has some great things to say.  I am a person who loves books, has written in a journal for most of my life, and who birthed a child who struggles with reading and learned to dislike it, and writing, intensely.  Thankfully, we are well past this result of poor teaching and lack of understanding about reading.  Some of the suggestions about small initiatives that can be undertaken in the home to open children up again to reading, and to slowly engage them in the pleasure of reading, helped me turn a very stressful and disheartening situation around.  For his suggestions I am grateful.

All of the suggestions and resources noted above have played a powerful role in turning my experience of parenting a child with reading difficulties around.  Due to their suggestions (and her very open teachers) my daughter and I are increasing our experiences of fun with reading and writing every week!  I have been on a very steep but exceptionally rewarding learning curve.  May all parents of children struggling to read and write be blessed with the same end result.  That is my wish for all of them, and why I am passionate about involving parents in learning.   

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.