Leapfrogging to literacy

Morag MacMartin

Morag MacMartin reveals how, over seven years, a child whose eyes played tricks on him tackled the learning hurdles.

Kenneth, (not his real name), may or may not be dyslexic. So far a diagnosis would have been of no interest to him. He has faced many problems with reading and writing and has gradually overcome most of them. When sitting standard grades or other Scottish examinations a diagnosis of dyslexia might be helpful to Kenneth - in obtaining an extra-time allowance, for example. On the other hand he may never need such a concession and the classification might damage his self-esteem. So far, the sleeping dogs of the dyslexia debate have lain peacefully and there has been no need to disturb them.

Kenneth, during his seven years of primary education, has been too busily occupied in clearing the hurdles on the route towards literacy to spend much time wondering why there were so many obstacles in his path. He knows that his eyes play tricks on him, and that his best way of learning is through his ears and his hands. Kenneth has also learned to distinguish between the quality of the work he produces and the secretarial skills required to set it legibly on paper. He attends to the former without interruption to his flow of thought and then goes over the exercise again, checking the spelling.

The hurdles Kenneth encountered would have intimidated many a less-determined pupil, but he arrived at his single-teacher school eager to get down to the business of learning to read and write. He did not expect to meet with undue difficulty in reaching his targets, as his elder brother had progressed steadily through the syllabus. Books had a high profile in the family (they did not have a television) and Kenneth looked forward to being able to read them for himself. He was delighted to find so many books in the classroom and pored over them in "choosing" time.

It soon became clear that Kenneth had severe problems with visual memory and was failing to make any progress with Look and Say methods. Although he could discriminate and match fairly successfully, he could not remember a word from one line to the next or recall, unless prompted, that he had recently seen it. Moreover, he had difficulty in distinguishing certain colours, had an unusual accent derived from his parents, who are of different European nationalities, and a vocabulary consisting of words from both parental languages as well as English. This made for complications when Kenneth tried to learn sounds, as his words for pictures shown on cards were not necessarily those of his teachers. He also had a quick temper and low frustration threshold.

It so happened that Kenneth spent his entire seven years in the same classroom with the same teacher. Throughout that time I visited the school weekly, for about an hour and a half, as learning support teacher, and was privileged to work with and observe Kenneth as he progressed. For 18 months only - during his final two years in which we paid special attention to spelling - was that time extended to a second visit of an hour per week.

To help him in his educational quest, Kenneth had a quick intelligence, motivation, determination, artistic, musical and verbal ability, good health, imagination, confidence, a sense of humour, and ability to work independently. In addition, he had supportive but non-judgmental parents, and a classroom environment where children of all ages worked together at their own daily tasks and co-operated in other class activities according to their individual abilities. He also had a teacher who based her curriculum largely on the expressive arts, which allowed Kenneth to achieve success through use of his individual talents and offered other means of communication. Gradually, Kenneth became, to a large extent, self-pacing in his reading and writing, deciding in year 4 that he was going to "write a book about pirates" and, from early year 5, reading voraciously.

Kenneth tackled his problems with resourcefulness and common sense, using a mixture of mnemonics, repetitive writing and context. "If it isn't an 'n' it must be a 'u'," he reasoned when his difficulties with orientation produced puzzling results. He ranked 'p', 'b' and 'd' as enemies waiting to trap him and sometimes kept the score of the errors involving these letters. In mathematics Kenneth adopted strategies such as running totals and diagrams to help him hold material in memory. The computer was not used much, as the flickering screen seemed to add to his visual confusion.

Now that Kenneth has settled into the first year of secondary school and is showing considerable promise in creative writing for which he has a particular flair, I look back and try to work out how this has been achieved.

The major factor, perhaps, has been expectation on the part of teachers, parents and pupil. Ultimate failure was never really contemplated by Kenneth and any adult misgivings were well suppressed in his presence.

Another factor was teacher observation and willingness to be led by the child even when it was counter-intuitive to do so, and to abandon the usual carefully structured programme of the pupil with specific learning difficulties. Kenneth's zig-zag, leap-frog path towards literacy used any material, ancient or modern, that served his immediate needs and interests.

He benefited greatly from access to the whole curriculum in a lively, secure environment where learning was viewed as a collaborative process and each child's personal contribution and talents were valued and used.

There is no single method or material which will answer the needs of a pupil with literacy difficulties. Through his attitude and determination Kenneth did it his way and we have all learned much from his achievements.

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