This week I started a volunteer job, teaching an adult to read. This man is the same age as the first class of students that I taught — oh, dear — twenty-nine years ago. Thus though my brain concedes that he is in his early 40s, he still seems like a kid to me. A kid with five o’clock shadow.
This man (let’s call him Tim) went through school with two strikes against him. First, he is severely dyslexic. Second, as a student in the late 1970s he became a victim of what has been called the Reading Wars.
I know quite a lot about the Reading Wars because in 1993 our son was also diagnosed with severe dyslexia, when the educational battle was at its height.
The conflict was between two different methods of teaching children to read, Whole Language vs. Phonics. The best overview was written by Nicholas Lehmann for The Atlantic Monthly in 1997:
Whole-language theory holds that learning to read and write English is analogous to learning to speak it — a natural, unconscious process best fostered by unstructured immersion. In an atmosphere rich in simple printed texts and in reading aloud, small children make a wondrous associative leap from knowing the alphabet to being able to read whole words. Their minds receive print as if each word were a Chinese ideogram. If a word is unfamiliar it can be skipped, guessed at, or picked up from context.
Phonics theory takes exactly the opposite position: the proper analogy for learning to read is learning music notation, or Morse code, or Braille, in which mastery of a set of symbols comes first. Children should first learn the letters and letter combinations that convey the English language’s forty-four sounds; then they can read whole words by decoding them from their component phonemes. “Sounding out” words is a phonics, rather than a whole-language, technique.
The Whole Language camp (no more drills! So much easier for teachers, so much more fun for kids) took over the country. Due to a lack of testing, it took a while to notice the result: reading scores plummeted.
The drop was especially drastic among dyslexic children. A child with dyslexia has a brain-wiring problem that makes decoding language difficult. Depending on the severity of the case, this difficulty may affect written language, spoken language, math language, or all of the above. For a dyslexic child, not teaching the code spelled doom. Eventually the educational tide would turn against Whole Language, but not before many children had been left hopelessly at sea.
We were very lucky. When Jon was six, a brilliant teacher noticed that his language skills lagged far behind his evident intelligence. He was tested and found to be severely dyslexic. However even his teacher was astonished to learn that Jon could not read at all.
How could this be? He always raised his hand and “read” the daily schedule on the blackboard!
A bright boy, Jon had learned to guess words from their shapes. He had memorized the weekly schedule and knew that a short word starting with m was likely to be music. Unfortunately, being dyslexic, he could not always recognize the word in a different context, nor could he easily see the difference between music and math. And let’s just forget spelling.
We hired a reading specialist to teach Jon phonics, and I spent the next few years as his reading taskmaster. I myself read every book on dyslexia and reading theory in print at the time.
To be born with dyslexia is like being born with blue eyes — it never goes away. However the brain can be trained to use different pathways, and with enough practice (my taskmaster role), reading fluency is possible. Today Jon is a voracious reader with a degree in journalism.
Unfortunately, Tim, with the same level of dyslexia, received no intervention.
Never taught phonics, Tim grew up completely reliant on guesswork. He eventually built a vocabulary of several thousand sight-words (words he recognized by shape). Though an impressive feat of memory, functionally it meant he could decode only on a second-grade level. Moreover he was not reading, per se, he was guessing. Quite often he would find himself at the end of a sentence that made no sense and would have to start over, trying and discarding new guesses. (To someone who is guessing words from their shape, pat, pet, pit, pot, and put are almost indistinguishable. So are horse and house and many others.) Meanwhile writing — putting his thoughts into code — was much, much harder, as he had never been systematically taught the sounds of individual letters. Vowels in particular were a mystery.
Naturally, growing older in school, sitting in a classroom for eight hours a day, ten years in a row, not understanding what was going on, Tim absorbed the idea he was stupid.
This is heartbreakingly common. I’ve seen it over and over in my students. Some dyslexic children are athletically gifted and can get through these crushing school years by becoming stars on the playing fields, thereby to some extent rescuing their self-esteem. Quite a few, however, become behavioral problems. Better to disrupt the class than be humiliated. This was Tim.
He was punished. He was given counseling. He was put on an experimental course of Ritalin (“hyper pills,” he called them) though he was not hyperactive. Unfortunately he was never taught to read. As soon as he was old enough to work, he dropped out of school.
When I got to know Tim, I recognized his severe dyslexia in his speech patterns, so similar to my son’s before tutoring. “That’s an auditory processing problem,” I observed to him once. He just looked at me. But gradually he revealed more and more of his struggles. They were all familiar to me; the main difference between my son and Tim was that Tim had received no help and so had suffered for decades. I mentioned the word dyslexia. Tim had never heard of it. I was indignant on his behalf.
This week we started reading lessons, going back to the phonics Tim was never taught in elementary school. I am not a reading specialist; in this subject I am mostly a mother with good intentions. However I pray that I’m better than nothing.
It takes real courage for Tim to tackle this after so many years. I don’t want to let him down.