JR, the parent of a ten year old who had not learned to read, observed a lesson with his daughter and described the result as "like turning a key". She graduated with a good degree from a Russell Group university some years ago. This posting and updates shows hot to find the key, after which turning it is as easy as the metaphor suggests. In the case of reading, it involves a move from the spontaneity of spoken language to getting and giving meaning by means of marks on paper, a process first described by Vygotsky in Ch. 6 of his great work, Thought and Language.
Barry, as we will call him, is eight, and his mother emailed me because he could not read and had delayed language development. He does not concentrate well, and tends to prolonged artificial laughter. An initial reading test, which Barry willingly undertook to give me an idea of what I need to teach him, is abandoned as he struggles with every word. It is not that people have not been trying to teach Barry. He tries to sound words out, suggesting that the teaching has involved some form of phonics. It simply hasn't worked.
As usual with a non-reader of this age, I start with the Ditties from Read, Write Inc. These are mildly amusing series of linked short phrases, each painting a picture or containing a mini-story such as dogs digging, yapping and ripping, with no irregular words at all in the first few. This presents a very clear series of tasks, allowing children to learn to use the information contained in letters, and to blend this into words, without having to try to puzzle out words where this is impossible. I explain to Barry that letters give us information that will usually help us to read each word, and that we need to use all of the information in the letters in order to read, and not to guess.
Progress in lesson 1 is very slow, as Barry tends to substitute a word that would make sense (looking at me in search of confirmation of his guess each time) rather than reading the word that is actually on the page. Having him pay attention to the letters and to get the meaning from them, rather than make it up, requires a big change in his thinking, and it takes us the whole lesson (30mins or so) to read the first two ditties. Barry finds it hard to distinguish the short voice (vowel) sounds i and e. When he misreads a word I use the technique of teaching him another one with the same pattern of letters at the end (eg, to teach red, I go to bed, fed, led etc) and then returning to the word after he has successfully read several others with the same pattern. I usually use plastic letters for this, but, as Barry is inclined to fidget with them, I jot the words down on paper instead, drawing attention to similarities at the end of words.
Technique. Mike Burton, my mentor at Beaufoy School in Lambeth, would follow a child's reading by running a pencil above the line being read (obviously taking care not to touch the page!) If the child misreads a word, simply stopping the pencil redirects his or her attention to it, so that they know they need to think about it. This is easier if you sit at right angles to the learner, and on their right. With a bit of practice, you can learn to read a text at right angles, and this makes it easy for the person to make eye contact with you - they have to turn their head 45% and not 90%, as they would if they were sitting beside you. Much more comfortable all round.
By the end of the lesson, Barry has successfully read the first two ditties, and then surprises me. He tells me he can read the word "skeleton". So, we talk about skeletons, bones, what they do, and how they prevent us from falling in a heap. Barry is interested and I make a mental note to use the Dorling Kindersley book of the human body at some point soon. This is an area on which Michael Rosen and I agree - conversation, and, as between adults, conversation works when we discuss shared interests.
Barry re-read the two ditties that had occupied the whole of the first lesson, without mistakes. He had not been able to practise them during the week as his mother did not have a copy of the text, and carefully read each word, so that it was clear that he had not simply remembered the ditties as a whole.The key had been turned.
Every weak reader I've ever met has had problems with using his or her memory. The used and development of memory has only recently begun to be properly researched, and the idea of "working memory" has developed as a result. Working memory needs to be considered in the context of the work. It does not operate in reading in the same way as in arithmetic, as the patterns in meaning are much more varied. A range of techniques are available to build up pupils' memory, and teachers need to know all of them.
Progress in lesson 2 was rapid - Barry successfully read the next ten ditties, five times as many as in the first lesson. When he misread a word, I used the same technique of moving to a word that with the same letters at the end (eg dress - mess, less etc), practising this and returning to the text. I would also change the subject, for example by returning to his interest in bones and bodies, before flashing straight back to the word he'd just learned, so as to speed up his identification of it. Professor Usha Goswami's work in the early nineties had shown that weak readers found it easier to recognise shared patterns at the ends (rimes) of words than at the beginning, and this finding allows us to integrate phonic work with the development of memory in a way that builds up what the beginning reader knows, and shows how it can be applied to other words with the same pattern. It takes time to construct a word from its letters, and fluent readers don't need to do this any more, because, having done the work, they store it in their memories and can then apply it. Getting a weak reader across this barrier is a key element in turning the key.
Barry continued to have problems discriminating between short vowel sounds, and we worked on these by using series of similar words as above. Putting consonants together at the beginning of words was harder, and "dress" held us up. I used the technique, derived from Professor Sue Buckley's work with children with Down Syndrome, of writing words on slips of paper, and having Barry hand them to me as I called them out. After we'd done this a couple of times, Barry was able to read the word. "It's so easy," said his mum. I risked a fit of giggles from Barry by asking him if he'd wear a dress, and was duly punished. Who would wear a dress? "Mum," he replied. I simply wanted him to use the word some more. Sip and shop caused problems. We talked about ships, and I brought out a large illustrated book, which we discussed. Barry's vocabulary is very limited, and the book provided a focal point for developing it through conversation.
It was after this lesson, which lasted around 35 minutes, that Barry's mother phoned me and kept repeating the word "amazing".
Lesson 3 - Barry remembers what he has learned, corrects his own error, and more on "twin-tracking".
We begin, as (nearly) always, by re-reading the texts from the last lesson, though this time just the last two, as they contain the key problems of misreading short vowels, and combining consonants at the start beginning of words. Barry has to work on drip and drop, but gets them right quickly. He then reads socks as soaks. The pencil stops, and after a long pause, he reads the word correctly, without a prompt. Next time we return to the dittie, he quickly corrects himself without much thought. He takes a long time over "dress" but reads it correctly. Giving him time to think has been a key factor.
We digress. Digression is important, to relieve pressure and extend understanding and vocabulary. I've started playing a game, and write it down. Golf. I get out a couple of clubs to show him, including my mighty driver and a putter. Underneath golf, I write gulf. Barry puts the letters together, and reads the word accurately. As we converse, I write down things that either of us says, and show him how the letters convey the sounds of the word, as well as pointing out anomalies and irregularities, to reinforce his understanding of the idea that we use what the letters tell us, without believing that they tell us everything.
I show Barry my putter, and explain how the lines on the top help me to line up the shot. He has a try, and picks up the club left-handed. Is he left-handed? Sometimes. Uncertainty as to which hand to use is a very common characteristic of people assessed as dyslexic. Barry's mother tells me he has problems with b and d reversal. We are tackling this by reinforcing the correct reading whenever he makes a mistake over one, without drawing attention to it, other than through praise, when he gets one right, which is much more often than not.
Barry's good retention of his previous work, his correction of his own error, his quicker learning of new material and his understanding of things we discuss make me think that his difficulties represent language delay rather than some form of disability. His mother is of course very pleased with this, as her hopes are pinned on it, so I think carefully before saying so. However, I think the evidence from these first three lessons is clear enough.