“It would be so nice if something made sense for a change.”
Imagine that you’re concerned about color-blind children. Committed to reversing their difficulties, you decide to study what people with top abilities in this realm do when they see colors. Whom do you select? Artists, of course. Through careful research, you find out that they perform in an amazing fashion on a range of color perception activities. You dutifully make a list of their abilities. Then, empowered with solid research findings, you return to the color-blind children and arrange to “teach” them as many color tasks as possible. You are certain that with sufficient training, their color perception will blossom.
Is this Alice in Wonderland scenario believable? It’s so far-fetched that it seems foolish to even ask the question. But wait a moment. Let’s revisit the idea — this time, with a change in the subject.
Imagine that you’re concerned about dyslexic children. Committed to reversing their difficulties, you decide to study what people with top abilities in this realm do when they see words. Whom do you select? Skilled readers, of course. Through careful research, you find out that they perform in an amazing fashion on a range of sound (“phonological”) analysis tasks. You dutifully make a list of their abilities. Then, empowered with solid research findings, you return to the dyslexic children and arrange to “teach” them as many sound analysis tasks as possible. You are certain that with sufficient training, their reading will blossom.
A change in subject, but a fantasy that no one takes seriously has been transformed into the reality of reading instruction for dyslexic children. What has allowed this to happen?
Establishing the patterns
For a start, individual components in the scenario are reasonable. Just as color perception in artists is something worthy of legitimate study, so, too, is auditory processing in skilled readers. (Those skills involve a range of tasks, such as the ability to rhyme words and the ability to blend isolated sounds to form words). Furthermore, when comparisons are carried out, the evidence is overwhelming that children with dyslexia have inordinate problems in the sound analysis skills that come so easily to effective readers. So far, so good.
Where the system goes awry is in concluding that the solution for dyslexics is to be found in sound analysis training. Indeed, it is seen not simply as a route to success, but as the route to success. Nary a question is raised about the wisdom of compelling children to deal exhaustively in their area of greatest weakness.
Parents know only too well the futility of this approach. They regularly witness the tension, anger and resistance that result. Their hearts break and their hopes sink as they hear their children vent their frustration with pronouncements such as “I HATE reading.”
The good news is that it does not have to be this way. What we need to do is consider ideas that the current system has consistently overlooked. Some of these ideas become apparent simply by viewing the world of reading through the children’s eyes.
From their perspective, the situation is one of sheer drudgery. Though designed with the best of intentions, every activity forces them to confront demands that are difficult and even insurmountable. For example, in an activity aimed at fostering sound analysis, they might be told a word such as sand and asked, “If we took off the first sound, what word would we hear?” This task is considered to be one of the “easier” items since it uses only spoken language and makes no demands for actual reading.
That, of course, is not how the children see it. Even when they know that the word “sand” has to be changed to something else, they have no clue as to what that something else is. Not uncommonly, as the lesson continues and tasks like these mount up, the number of times the children are “wrong” equals, and even exceeds, the number of times they are “right”.
After months of trying, the children reach the (eminently reasonable) conclusion that even their most intense effort yields limited success. So why bother? The logical answer is to rush through the activities so that at least the pain is shortened, or to execute the activities in a slapdash manner so that at least the effort is minimized. In other words, in fairly short order, their problems in reading are compounded by ineffective but powerful patterns that take firm hold. For a reading system to be successful, it must be designed to recognize, deal with, and overcome these patterns.
Yet no major instructional system gives any thought to this critical, and ubiquitous, problem. If you want to “see” just how invisible it is, simply open a book on teaching reading and search the index for entries such as “handling error”, “overcoming mistakes”, “dealing with wrong responses”. They are nowhere to be found. The entire focus is on the skills that the children need to learn. The assumption is that once the identified skills are made “available”, the children will acquire them. Observation of any lesson with a dyslexic child should instantly shred that assumption. But somehow that does not happen, leaving instructional systems plagued with a fatal weakness. Progress cannot occur until error is recognized, controlled and overcome.
To see how an effective system might work, let’s consider how we might handle one of the counterproductive patterns that lead children to continuing errors. Given the way errors have been neglected, it’s not surprising that the pattern has never been identified by a name. But once you start looking, it’s impossible to miss it. It is what children do when, rather than endure the tedious process of “sounding out”, they look at the first letter and then guess as to what the complete word might be.
Rarely is the “first letter guessing” strategy taken as a sign of avoidance. Consistent with the Alice in Wonderland approach that governs the teaching, the behavior is interpreted as additional proof that the children need further training in sound analysis. The remedy? Steep them further in the very skills they were trying to avoid! While under the watchful eye of the adult, the children have little choice other than to try to meet the demand. On their own, however, they feel no such obligation and so the “first letter guessing” strategy can flourish. So in addition to breeding error, the teaching does nothing to develop the child’s ability to read independently. As long as the true nature of this and other similar strategies are neither recognized nor treated, effective reading is doomed.
To overcome the pattern, the intervention must provide activities that simultaneously:
(i) show, to the child’s satisfaction, the ineffectiveness of using the ineffective strategies that have been put in place;
(ii) foster successful reading skills that the child is willing and able to use that will lead to new, more effective, patterns.
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