Dear ministers for education, dear principals, dear teachers… My name is Trisha and I’m a writer and editor, which, looking back, is no bi...

Trisha's Red Letter

18:53:00 Dyslexia Australia 0 Comments

Dear ministers for education, dear principals, dear teachers…

My name is Trisha and I’m a writer and editor, which, looking back, is no big surprise. School was a breeze for me and I loved reading, writing and learning. All through primary school I was that annoying goodie-goodie girl in the front row with her hand always up, busting a gut to answer the teacher’s question, because I knew the answer. I finished my tasks quickly – spelling, writing, maths, science – and then got to do fun extension activities. I took pride in making my title pages enticing, my margins straight and my handwriting neat. I understood the apostrophe – and I got As for everything. High school was more challenging because of the volume of work, but I was in the top group in most subjects. I was the first member of my family – my extended family – to go to university.

My first proper job was as a library assistant in a public library. Imagine being paid to be around all those books! (And all those people who loved books and wanted to talk about books!) My dream job got even better when I started working with children – telling stories, singing with the kids, organising school holiday and Book Week activities. I was never a Shhhh kind of librarian; I loved firing the kids up and getting them excited about the stories we read and performed together. 

In my mid-twenties, I returned to Uni and moved into a part-time role in our Toy Library, where I supported families with sourcing all kinds of child development and play resources. When our reps came in with their catalogues of puzzles, games, puppets and books, I started buying the best ones, for myself, but also for that hazy ‘someday’. That someday when I’d have my own children and would share with them my love of books – of reading, writing and creating – and of disappearing into imagined worlds.

That someday came much, much later than we’d hoped, but it did come, and never was a child more wanted, more welcomed or more loved. And never was a child more read to or sung to or stimulated with games, puzzles and resources. 

As a baby and toddler, my son Riley showed every sign of being an intelligent, inquisitive, talented little learner. He started speaking early on and his vocabulary quickly grew. He had a sharp, cheeky sense of humour and loved to make us laugh. He began to mimic different accents and voices and try out sound effects. People remarked on it and I felt proud of my sweet, smart, intelligent little chap. (And maybe, secretly, pretty smug about the job I was doing in building a strong foundation in literacy.)

I instinctively did the things all the experts suggest – immersing Riley in language. We did cuddly lap reading and singing. We read books full of repetition and rhyme. Books with engaging pictures and humour. Books with surprise endings. Books with things you could look for and find (now, where’s that little mousey?). Books with lists. Naming books. Tactile books. Bath books. Books with moving parts. Books on all kinds of topics. (And plenty of car books, because Riley lived and breathed cars.) I read with lots of expression – made funny voices, left pauses at the ends of familiar phrases so that he could anticipate the words to come and finish them off and feel proud of himself. We had a ball together with our books and puzzles and toys and games. And amongst our outings to parks and playgrounds, we enjoyed regular playgroup sessions and library visits.  

But something started to change around the time he turned four and began going to kindy. It’s hard to even explain what the change was, but I noticed it. He seemed to get fidgety and restless around books. His attention waned really quickly. He decided the ‘little kid’ books were too babyish for him, but he wouldn’t or couldn’t concentrate on the longer stories. He was no longer ‘with you’ when you read to him.

Then he started getting in trouble at kindy, mostly for ‘not listening’. But often for doing something he’d been asked not to do or for not doing the things he had been asked to do. He finished kindy without reaching some of the developmental milestones around reading, writing and comprehension. People gave me the ‘boys will be boys’ talk and assured me that this was typical. “He’s a boy. One day he’ll just take off, you’ll see.”

He started school with a group of kindy friends, so the transition was happy and easy. Our local public school has a great reputation and is a feeder school for our excellent public high school, so we were delighted at our good fortune. We made friends with Riley’s friends’ parents and soon there were playdates and weekend catch-ups and sleepovers. He was confident, funny, active and popular, and had lots of friends. And, because he was a winter baby, he got to do six terms of reception – with the reception teacher everybody wanted. So, again, I thanked our good fortune: this would give him time to settle and just enjoy the social aspects of school (and box craft) before he had to knuckle down a bit more and ‘take off’.

The first term went well but by the second term his teacher was expressing concern over the listening issue. Again, he was starting to get in trouble for doing things he’d been asked not to do, and for not doing the things he had been asked to do. School takes a lot out of a little boy and he was tired at the end of the day. Too tired for reading at home. Too tired straight after school, just before dinner, just after dinner or at bedtime. And when he did agree to read, he wanted us to do the actual reading for him. If we left a gap for him to say a word or contribute, or suggest he try some of the simple words or have a go at a sentence, he’d get really annoyed and want to stop reading at all. 

By about the middle of his fourth term in reception he was a bit too familiar with the school’s time out area. He was not concentrating, not listening and constantly ‘distracting the other children’. His reception teacher had a simple reward system – green smiley faces stamped in your child’s communication book if they’d had a good day (been cooperative, tried hard, completed their tasks, modelled the agreed classroom behaviours); orange neutral faces for a so-so day; and a red frowny face when they ‘could do better’. We had a lot of conversations with the teacher about how Riley had almost got a smiley face and she was so excited for him, but then this or that or the other thing had happened and, oh dear: a red frowny face. Again.

At home, he started acting out whenever we’d try to work with him on his home reader or practice his handwriting. He would go to elaborate lengths to distract us, to put us off the task, to invent reasons why he couldn’t do the work – no matter how hard we tried to make it fun or make it easier or to explain that we could help if he’d just let us. And it was frustrating and we would lose our tempers with him and everyone would get upset. But he’d rather the tears and the yelling than the reading. I noticed that when he did try, he had to spell out each word each time. We’d make ‘the’ together: “remember Riley, t and h together make ‘th’ and t-h-e makes ‘the’.” “Oh yeah. That’s right: ‘the’.” Then ‘the’ would appear again, just a few words later, and he wouldn’t recognise it. We’d have to re-spell it, re-learn it. And I knew this wasn’t as it should be. I raised it with his teacher but she didn’t seem terribly concerned. And people told me ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘boys develop later’. “You watch, he’ll suddenly take off.”

Like most kids, he was fascinated with computers, so I invested in the ABC’s Reading Eggs program. That was a real hit. I watched the entertaining way it built the concepts and rewarded the learner for their efforts, and I was delighted. This could turn things around. We made fabulous progress and Riley was really, really happy to work through all the lessons, until the program introduced timed exercises and tests. The very first time he was confronted with a timed test, he panicked. And, in tears, he threw in the towel. I was able to coax him back to it but as soon as he was expected to complete a timed exercise with the ticking clock sound effect, he would get terribly upset. Eventually he refused to ever do it again.

By the end of his six terms in reception, the principal knew Riley’s name, because he’d had a few visits to the office for time out. He wasn’t listening. He wasn’t doing what he was asked to do. He was doing things he was asked not to do. He was not doing his work. And he was distracting the other children – trying to make them laugh and stopping them from focussing on their work. 

At home, he was pushing books away. Try reading a bedtime story and he would put his hand across his face and turn towards the wall. 

Dear ministers for education, dear principals, dear teachers…

I love words and I can usually do a fair bit with them, but I can’t find the words to express to you how unexpected and awful this all was. How sad and wretched, for all of us. We could see that our smart little learner was using every ounce of his energy and intelligence to find ways to avoid reading. By the end of reception – at the age of six – he had already decided it was too hard. He had already learned that he couldn’t do it. And, because the other kids – his classmates and friends – could do it, he already come to the conclusion that he was dumb.

And the other kids who could do it were beginning to believe that he was dumb. And that he wasn’t trying hard enough. And that he was naughty. And that if they hung around him that they’d get into trouble... so maybe it wasn’t a good idea to be his friend.

Year 1 began. And about halfway through the second week, before we’d had the planned ‘about Riley’ chat, Riley’s new teacher bailed up my husband, and with her pointer finger aimed at his chest, she said, “Your son’s got an audio processing problem, I’m sure of it. You need to get him tested.” She was no-nonsense, this teacher, but she was action-oriented. We sat down with her and discussed the story so far. While we looked into how you test a child for audio-processing issues, she spoke with the principal and plugged Riley into some school-based one-on-one assistance with his hand-writing. The principal suggested we have an assessment done through our state education department, although this could take some time. Meanwhile, he started working with Riley on raising his self-esteem and turning his behaviour around. He gave Riley some responsible jobs to do and praised him when he did them. He checked in with Riley in the classroom and gave him a smile and a thumbs up when he caught him working well. His teacher, although very no-nonsense (and not very smiley), modified her teaching to accommodate the as-yet-unproven audio-processing problem. No lengthy, descriptive instructions; short, sharp, shiny orders delivered one at a time: “Riley, green book. Riley, pencils.” She frequently checked that he’d understood what he needed to do, and she acknowledged him when he did them and played it down a bit when he hadn’t. 

My manager at work was sympathetic: her son had a similar issue. She suggested Townsend House, a resource for children with hearing issues. We were about to organise a private assessment with them when we were notified that the department’s psychologist could see Riley sooner than expected. She came to the school and observed him in the class and did a one-on-one assessment with him. Weeks later, the much anticipated meeting came and my husband and I sat down with her, and the principal – eagerly, hopefully, hungrily – and we went through her report together. Her finding? “Your child is a right-brain thinker in a world that rewards left-brain thinkers.” No need to worry. Nothing to see here. Move along, folks. Resources? We don’t need to allocate school-based resources to right-brain thinkers in a world that rewards left-brain thinkers. After all, some of the world’s most successful people are right-brain thinkers. (They just have to wait to be successful. Until after school. After 13-odd years of failing at kindy, primary school and high school – you probably won’t have to worry about TAFE or university. They just have to get over the feeling that they are dumb – a feeling that their friends and classmates and, quite likely, many of their teachers will reinforce – and bide their time… because, one day, the moment may quite possibly come when they dazzle the world with their (right-brain) ability to think outside the square.)

Dear ministers for education, dear principals, dear teachers… 

This (pardon my French) is bollocks. 

And if I was upset and worried and beginning to despair before this meeting, I won’t tell you what I thought and felt in the days and weeks that followed. 

Fortunately a colleague at work referred me to a private educational psychologist who had helped his daughter, whose dyslexia was not picked up until she had reached Year 9 at high school. And here I have to be grateful that Riley chose to mask his learning problems by being disruptive. My colleague’s good little girl masked hers by developing strategies to fit in. She used every ounce of her energy and intelligence to find ways to fly under the radar. She carefully watched what the other kids were doing and copied them. And her despair and shame and anxiety went unnoticed until the problem became overwhelming.

There was a long wait to see the private educational psychologist, and we had Riley’s ears tested in the meantime. Perfect hearing. We had his eyes tested, and bought an expensive pair of glasses to assist him with ‘eye tiredness’. Maybe it would help. That, and ‘brain gym’ to strengthen right-brain/left-brain connectivity. Anything seemed worth a try.

The private educational psychologist saw Riley just before the end of term 2 in Year 1. Over two sessions she tested his reading, comprehension and capacity to respond to instructions and tasks. And this was the turning point. It cost about almost $1,000 but it resulted in a weighty, well-written report that not only explained Riley’s learning disability but provided specific recommendations that would assist him with coping at school and with learning to read.

Riley’s learning disability was explained as a combination of a mild audio-processing disorder and a working memory issue. It means that he can’t grasp, file and retrieve information – especially heard information – as quickly as most kids his age. When you explain a complex task to him, he is busy grappling with the first bit of information as you’re moving on to the next bit. In the struggle to keep up he’ll drop what he’s trying to absorb and try to grasp the next bit, and the next bit. As a result he misses whole chunks of information, which is particularly problematic if the information needs to be understood in sequence (do this, then this, then that). It leaves him confused and frustrated or despondent. (His Year 1 teacher was spot-on with breaking down the instructions and giving him only one piece of information at a time.) When you throw in classroom noise and distractions and the pressure of a time limit, it makes absorbing information even more difficult. 

Riley’s learning disabilities fall within the spectrum of dyslexia. He is dyslexic.

The psychologist recommended that Riley would need one-on-one assistance to learn to read and write. And that he would always need this. He wasn’t a kid who, with a bit of reading recovery, would catch up and be on his merry way. He wouldn’t learn to read by being surrounded by language and books and seeing and remembering whole words; he would need to be taught the specific tools that help you crack the reading code – to get to know letters, letter combinations and the sounds they make and the rules they (sometimes, in English) follow. One-on-one sessions would give him time to absorb, repeat and review the information, and to ask questions when he was unsure. (I understand that the evidence suggests that this is a good way to teach just about anyone to read and write.)
Armed with this report, we did successfully lobby for school-based, one-on-one support with reading recovery and for continued assistance with handwriting. It helped enormously, mainly because his reading recovery teacher did that fabulous trick of finding out what interested him, and incorporating those things into her lessons. She made the effort worth it for him. But this wonderful assistance dried up in the middle of Year 2. Our highly regarded local public school with the sympathetic principal doesn’t have the funding to provide my son with the support he needed, and still needs.

Riley is now in Year 4, and still attending the same school. Because, at this stage, his friendships are everything to him and we’re not sure that ripping him out of that school and sending him to a private school would be the better option. So he’s still there and we’re doing our best to plug in some of the gaps on the side. During Years 2 and 3 he went to a private tutor after school and did their homework on top of his school homework. He grumbled a bit, but they deliberately made the work easy and rewarded his efforts with tangible things (gift cards at the local game shop etc) because they understood that building and reinforcing a sense of achievement was critical. He had to unlearn that he was a failure before he could start to learn to read. To want to try. And he did start to try. He began to read. He began not to push books away. Reading was still a big chore for him, but it was no longer impossible. For the first time, when faced with a large word, he’d have a try at it, making the sounds and seeing the syllables. When faced with a big block of text, he’d have a go.

This year, we’ve dropped the after-school tutor and we’re investing in a private maths tutor, because maths was completely getting away from him. If you don’t have the foundations – if you can’t understand rainbow maths and number values and the basic difference between addition and multiplication because you got left behind long ago – you don’t have a hope of grasping fractions and long division, but fractions and long division are being taught in Riley’s classroom right now. His private maths tutor is the same wonderful woman who took him for reading recovery, and they are making a lot of progress together. So much so that we decided to add a second session each week. The school, however, would only let her work with him on campus for one half-hour session per week, at our expense. So she comes to our home before school one morning a week for the second session. 

With reading, we are consoled by the fact that he can read words now. But he is still learning to read; he is not yet reading to learn. His effort goes into making words out of the letters – not into understanding the strings of words and absorbing the meaning of the text. So, this coming term, armed with an updated expert reading level assessment, we will start working with an additional private tutor, one who is specifically trained in teaching dyslexic children to read and write. We had to seek permission from the school for this to happen during school time: the school has only allowed this arrangement because of the work that other dyslexia advocates have done in our school ahead of us.

Where to from here? I just don’t know. It’s well after midnight and I’ve been writing since 8.30pm. I’m tired. After writing this, I’m emotional. I work in a demanding job, and I lose sleep over my son and his education, his self-esteem, his friendships, his future and the quandary of whether or not we should change schools. I’m an editor, but I don’t have the time and energy to edit this and ensure that there are no grammatical blunders or spelling errors. And, frankly, I’ve learned not to judge people on those errors and to just be grateful to the people who take the time to stand up and speak or sit down and write when they have something important to say.

And this, dear ministers of education, principals and teachers – is terribly important:

Please, don’t let any more children learn by the time they are six years old that they are dumb ¬– and to carry that heartbreaking lesson in their heads and in their hearts until they somehow manage to unlearn it and overcome it. (If they ever truly can.)

Don’t let them face a life of disadvantage because they learn differently – and because the way reading was taught in their school didn’t work for them, and for the one-in-five children like them.
And don’t let their basic, fundamental literacy – the critical skill on which so many other life skills depend – hang on their parents’ capacity to pay for the diagnosis and the necessary help.

Not when there are better ways to teach and learn reading and writing. Proven ways to teach and learn reading and writing. Ways that you can choose to implement in your schools now.
Please speak with the dyslexia advocates in your state and work with them to make your schools better places to teach and learn reading and writing.

One-in-five Australian school children are counting on you.

I am grateful that I have the skills to write this red letter, and that you have chosen to read it. 
I hope that Riley will one day have the capacity and confidence to write you a red letter. But that he won’t need to.

Yours sincerely,