Saturday, 13 June 2009

Is my child reading? Well enough?

Each child must LEARN to associate the written word with the spoken sound it makes. This is ultimately the code that needs to be cracked. Reading is NOT a natural ability, IT IS AN ACQUIRED SKILL.

For some it must be acquired painfully slowly or even not at all. This is sad because it is unnecessary. Every child can read. And if any child that enters a schooling system fails to do so, it is the failure of the teachers and the system, not the child. This requires a deep understanding of the process of reading, its developmental landmarks and its natural history. It also requires immense courage on the part of the teacher or the primary caretaker to admit that a system may not be working for a given child and switch to something that does work.

The 'Whole language' method of teaching language skills was how even I learned my language skills. I was lucky to be naturally endowed with the ability to decode. Some children may not be so lucky. The whole language method expects the children to 'work out' the words they do not know in the text from the clues in the text. This method relies on clues EXTERNAL to the word that needs to be decoded. Sometimes struggling readers, and even experienced readers unfamiliar with the text may not be able to 'work out' these words. This method of teaching or learning language does not equip the reader to tackle unknown words. It makes reading easier and faster IF the vocabulary is already strong enough...

My daughter was not so lucky... The systems at the time of her early schooling were neither decided completely FOR nor completely AGAINST this method of learning. .Her teachers did not make any special effort to make sure that children read. My daughter has a very strong auditory memory. And once her mind was exposed to spoken lesson, she could repeat it VERBATIM. Her teachers never realised that she was not reading at grade level. I kept pleading with them. I even suggested accomodation and special instruction so that she could catch up. She is brilliant! Her teachers would not have any of it! One even threatened to SHOOT me! That is if I ever mentioned the "D" word in relation to my own daughter. It is left to me to DIAGNOSE, 'MEDICATE', STRATEGISE, REMEDIATE and EDUCATE my extraordinarily gifted child whose brain is wired differently.

I set upon my own quest and came upon the Phonics method of teaching Language. Now this was FABULOUS even for a gifted adult reader like me. It gave me an anchor to peg my daughter and monitor her progress. It has been an uphill task, surely. The schools do not accommodate for borderline cases that can not be clearly labeled. They CANNOT! The doctors cannot make an unequivocal diagnosis. As a mother and a highly literate adult, I am left with no option but to find my own way in this stormy sea and teach my daughter to swim not only with the current but also sometimes hold her own against it.

SHE ABSOLUTELY REFUSED TO BE LABELED. SHE ABSOLUTELY REFUSED TO GO TO THE SCHOOL PSYCHOLOGIST. She is not like Darsheel, she retorts. Aamir Khan may have, infact, done a disservice by depicting a dyslexic in as bad a light as he did in TZP.

Dyslexia may not be as dramatic as depicted in that movie. It may be a hidden inability to develop reading skills as naturally as other age matched children. It may not be associated with attention deficit or with distractability or even with destructive behaviour.

In preschool, my daughter could not only memorise what was going on in her own class, but also what was being sung in the neighbouring class. It only needed to be loud enough to reach her ears. She learned nearly double the number of rhymes that her official class did. She was phenomenal. Even today, her learning is based majorly on being read to. Her ideas are remarkable, astounding, and ground-breakingly creative. She can say things better than she can write them. She has not yet started using the computer to her advantage. I am hoping she soon will. She loves Mathematics. Not because she has an extraodinary mathematical ability, though that may be part of why it is enjoyable for her- she loves Mathematics because "I do not have to write much in it!" She may be a borderline dysgraphic or someone who is lagging in a certain decoding skill, so she makes up in several other areas. This is not unusual. This often is more likely than the Darsheel story. Often these children are mistaken to be lazy/ simply uninterested. Far from it.

Teachers need to note that at some stage when the child is transiting from" learning to read" to "reading to learn", the gaps in reading skills can critically affect the performance and the self- esteem of the child.

Fortunately, now there are scientifically designed tests available that take less than five minutes and can be delivered with ease to your child even on a weekly basis. Unfortunately these tests have not become a part of Indian curriculum. It is extremely important for early educators, whether at home or at school to be watchful for the landmarks that reassure them that the child is on track or warn them that the child needs attention and to provide a nurturing and encouraging environment for the child to progress at an acceptable pace. This may factor in his or her natural learning (dis)ability or may provide that oft needed nudge to a struggler transforming him into an expert swimmer who will gracefully and easily cross the seas without drowning.

The Texas Education Agency has one such assessment availaible for early reading assessment- TPRI ( Texas Primary Reading Inventory) at This assessment takes less than five minutes and is easy to conduct. There are a few others which are all from the US and validated for the various states there in. These are the PALS from University of Virginia and DIBELS from Oregon.

The Reading Panel constituted in the US strongly recommends identifying those who are falling behind and remediating EARLY. This benefits ALL children irrespective of the nature if their learning disability. And additionally this provides the children with strategies to break what has now come to be called the reading code.

Unequivocally I would strongly recommend any parent or teacher to start the Phonics way and do it in a structured and explicit manner. The structure needs to be logical and incremental. It needs to expose the children to progressively more difficult words and equip the child to read even the words he does not know by using the understanding of sounds they develop from their Phonics instruction.

A suitable sequence would be
  1. English alphabet 'names'
  2. Reinforcing the consonant sounds
  3. Introducing the concept of vowels and the short vowel sounds- bat, beg, big, bog, bug
  4. Introducing the long vowel sounds and the concept of the silent 'e'. Mat-e, bit-e, cop-e, cut-e.
  5. Introducing common digraphs- a letter combination composed of two letters that say a single sound- sh(shoe, ship wish); ph(phone, photo), ch ( church, chirp, chill), th( thing, three, Beth), -ck( clock, black)
  6. Progress to trigraphs or even quadrigraphs (-dge as in ledge, -tch as in itch), (-eigh as in neigh, -ough as in roug, -augh as in laugh). From here clusters of words can be taught to the children involving bigger and bigger letter clusters- SHOULD, WOULD, OUGHT, NAUGHT etc.
  7. Specific emphasis on alliteration and rhyme. Introduce the concept of beginning sound and the terminal sound. Here it is helpful to use flash cards with printed letters and play with the child. Ask hin to make a word with the letter cards b, i, g beginning with the B sound. Now ask the child to replace teh BEGINNING sound with a P sound and ask what they get. Similarly with the terminal sounds, play replacement to get bit etc.
  8. Introduce the concept of syllables, create the awareness for sounds that go on to make the syllable- PHONEME. Start SPELLING GAMES.
  9. Introduce letter blends ( commonly occuring clusters where each consonat is pronounced- CLock, rOUnd,
  10. Practice writing.
If you notice, I have arrived at writing at the tenth step in the sequence. It is important to recognise that the cognitive skills required to read develop earlier than the motor skills needed to hold a stylus. Also, as a general rule in early reading and literacy programmes, it is preferrable to make a child spell only the words that he can read.

As an easy assessment, whenever a new rule is introduced in the Phonics based teaching, a child can be made to read nonsense letter combinations that do not really make words. This tests their ability to sound out the letter combinations even if these do not make sense to them.

Specific exercises will come next.