Children Don’t Learn When They’re in Pain

This is the remarkable story of a mother and son who never gave up. Once in a while, I get to meet someone who is so inspiring, so tenacious, and so filled with hope that it takes my breath away. Lois Letchford and her son Nicholas are two such people. Theirs is a modern-day Hellen Keller-type story you may not have heard of, and it’s going to affect you as deeply as it did me. Why? Because it involves not just a young man overcoming overwhelming challenges, but a loving, creative mother who never gave up in fighting for effective educational opportunities for her son, all despite a broken educational system and difficulties caused by her own dyslexia (which was undiagnosed until well into adulthood).

In many ways it’s a familiar story both to me personally and to readers of my blog: boy starts school, boy is overwhelmed by school, has trouble reading, writing, following instructions, and grasping the spoken word. School tests child, but fails to effectively accommodate him. The child’s stress and anxieties escalate. But the poignancy of this particular experience is not to be missed—how does a child once deemed by his teachers to be unteachable go on to graduate from Oxford with a PhD in applied mathematics?

I am so happy to introduce you to Lois Letchford, author of Reversed, a Memoir. Lois has graciously agreed to share some highlights of the book with you today.

1) Before your son Nicholas began school, what observations did you make about his gifts and abilities?

Nicholas was always a quiet baby and a great little boy. My eldest son, Nathanael, was quick, impulsive, and “wild.” He did everything at top speed. Nicholas, two-and-a-half years younger, was the opposite.

Nicholas also had ear infections from 8-18 months. I felt like I lived at the doctor’s office with him. What I did not know at the time was that ear infections at such a young age have a tremendous impact on a child’s language development. So Nicholas was slow with speech and language and slow with walking, although he always loved books and was excellent at doing puzzles. I recall him doing a complicated puzzle in front of an “expert.” The man shook his head and said, “He’s two and doing those puzzles. That’s amazing.” Nicholas just enjoyed doing them.

2) Please tell readers about your first taste of being on the outside of the education system. Was it when Nicholas failed the first grade?

I was concerned about Nicholas from the moment he entered kindergarten. In our system, children go from kindergarten to preschool to school between the ages of three to five. I thought something wasn’t quite right. However, I was assured that he would be fine. Being an outsider to the system really began when Nicholas entered first grade. It took his teacher one week before she spoke to me and said, “He’s so far behind! He cannot do anything!” That was the beginning of our disastrous year.

What still concerns me today is that no one from the school contacted me. The school permitted Nicholas to fail, his teacher screamed at him in frustration, and Nicholas started biting his fingernails and wetting his pants every day. I sent him to school—every day. Why did I do that? Why didn’t I take him out? Why didn’t someone suggest something? I really didn’t know his year at school was so bad until recently—many years later—when I questioned Nicholas about this year of first grade, and he couldn’t talk about it at all.

3) I lived every moment of your account of Nicholas excitedly reciting the story of “The Enormous Turnip” to you. I could just imagine what you felt as a parent of a struggling child to see such potential in your son! His teacher had read the play to the class, and Nicholas’ brain was positively engaged by the story in a way that nothing in school had ever engaged him before. After he finished giving you a verbatim account of the play, you wrote, “He has a memory.” What was that moment like for you and why was it important?

I can still recall that moment. I was sitting on our back patio in the heat of the afternoon, just listening to Nicholas recite this story. It is interesting how events, especially like this one, stick with me. At that moment, I was amazed at his accomplishment, but when I first began teaching him, I forgot about this strength. I didn’t question what brought it about because I focused solely on teaching decoding. But looking back, I realized that this experience also told me that repetition of a story along with actions aided his memory.

4) Shortly on the heels of this success, Nicholas underwent evaluation. You were informed of a list of learning deficits—a devastating blow! It appeared as if even experienced teachers despaired of ever being able to teach Nicholas anything. Yet how did your conclusions about adaptive teaching as modeled by famous Australian swimming teacher Rob Cusack offer hope that Nicholas could learn?

I find this quite a challenging question, as hindsight plays a part here too.

Nicholas was given an IQ test at the end of grade one. The results were devastating for me. My one ray of hope came from my husband. He’s an academic and a researcher. I’ll never forget his words: “That test is a lower bound. Nicholas can look like that on any given day.” In other words, the testing methods only pointed out his weaknesses, rather than identifying his strengths. In spite of the fairly exhaustive nature of the testing, Nicholas’ dyslexia wasn’t recognized for a number of years.

After receiving these sobering test results, we happened to enroll Nicholas in a short swimming class taught by Rob Cusack during the summer. Mr. Cusack’s patience was truly a benefit to Nicholas, and we saw Nicholas thriving in a learning situation for the first time under Mr. Cusack’s methods of instruction. Nicholas really learned to swim very well for his age.

Mr. Cusack’s teaching happened over six weeks. His success was huge, and at the time, it was one massive moment of relief. Although it was a bright spot in our lives at the time, the practical value of his approach to teaching didn’t translate instantly to me as a parent and teacher. During this time, I really felt overwhelmed by the size and depth of Nicholas’ challenges.

Only recently, my eldest son, while talking to me about my book and our story, emphasized how important it was for Mr. Cusack to break down Nicholas’ barriers. Cusack had, by example, taught us that when a child encounters a barrier to learning, the material can be taught or approached another way, as many times as necessary, until Nicholas could grasp the concept. It’s about finding ways around a challenge, rather than giving up on the child.

5) During Nicholas’ second year in school, you observed that he was unable to write. So you offered him clay with which to learn to form his letters. Why was this such an effective tactic?

Clay was an incredibly effective strategy for Nicholas, as it took away all pain from learning and slowed it down to a snail’s pace—the pace Nicholas needed to learn these abstract letters and sounds. Using clay allowed me to model how to shape a letter. We rolled a ball of clay into a long sausage, then broke it into pieces to form a letter shape. Only once I completed the shape did we talk about the sound. This sound-symbol learning is a critical part, and as Nicholas’ didn’t yet understand what he was supposed to have learned in first grade, I was clutching at straws to assist him.

What still amazes me is that as a six-year-old, Nicholas worked with me for close to ninety minutes a day for three or four afternoons in a row to learn these basic lessons. He was desperate to learn and feel “normal.”

Nicholas graduates from Oxford University with a PhD in applied mathematics.

6) When your family temporarily left Australia during your husband’s six-month tenure at Oxford, you began homeschooling Nicholas, but things got off to a rough start. Nicholas was in the last few months of second grade. At one point, you felt that the problem was that Nicholas wasn’t working hard enough. How were you both able to move forward?

My memory of “blaming” Nicholas still upsets me. As we were traveling, my in-laws visited and stayed with us. I taught Nicholas every morning, and my mother-in-law heard my frustration. She said to me, “Lois, put away what isn’t working, and make learning fun.”

That made me change my approach. When teaching reading, everyone knows we must teach children to decode. And I had books which were supposed to solve this problem. However, the standard “help all kids to read” books only work if a child has the necessary background knowledge. Nicholas didn’t have that knowledge. My mother-in-law’s words were a godsend. She helped me stop, think, and try something new.

7) How was your own educational experience of learning anatomy helpful when teaching your son?

When I was a university student, the first time I attempted to learn anatomy, the teacher stood at the front of the class and rattled off names. I was lost and I failed the subject, despite all my hard work. When I took the class a second time, the professor brought in a box of bones, handled them, and let the students touch and play with them. He pointed and named the places on the bones. I learned with ease, and I recall thinking, “I can do this stuff.” Learning went from abstract to concrete.

The difference in my learning was astonishing. It took me some time to translate my personal learning experiences such as these to use to help Nicholas.

8) How did simple poetry help Nicholas understand how words work?

I need to write a complete article on this topic! The poems I wrote were incredibly simple—between four and six lines using rhyming words.

Poetry is repetitive, but it is also easy to find the rhyming words, and then it’s easier to hear the sounds. The poetry gave us both “whole language” and “phonemic awareness” activities in one. Poetry, even simple poetry, does not use conversational language, “book language” is used, so the use of unusual words also helped build both decoding and vocabulary skills.

As we walked around the city (we had no car), we recited my poems, which meant we were working with his recall. This was a fun game for both of us. Connecting the real world with poems was also great fun.

9) Would you briefly share how you helped Nicholas learn to decode written language, a task previously fraught with fear and failure?

This was another fantastic coincidence. An acquaintance had a dyslexic son and she brought me some books to try. One series I particularly remember was called Hear it, See it, Say it, Do it! by Mary Atkinson.

These books broke learning down to the most basic levels and left no stone unturned!

For example, children often confuse consonant digraphs and consonant blends. These sounds are difficult for children to hear, so I focused on helping Nicholas build skills in recognizing a few basic principles of reading, such as the idea that two letters can equal one sound (ch, sh, th) and that one letter can also equal one sound (consonants). These consistent sounds are the building blocks of decoding. We spent about eight weeks just with digraphs, consonant blends, and short vowel sounds.

The Mary Atkinson books made the learning multisensory. I spent time cutting cereal boxes into strips, splitting words into beginning and end sounds, and creating puzzles. It was a multisensory activity, which again, slowed the learning down to meet Nicholas’ needs, but this also gave us time to talk about word meaning. Nicholas’s learning was slow, but it was pain free. I taught at a pace that suited him and provided an emotionally safe space. Every learning activity was now enjoyable. This was critical.

A family visit to Christchurch.

10) How did learning about dyslexia help you both?

With all the testing and evaluation Nicholas had had in Australia, everyone missed his dyslexia. I would never have discovered it and been able to address it without connecting a friend’s experience with her son to mine with Nicholas. Learning about others who lived with dyslexia gave me role models and reminded me that we were not alone on this journey. That was huge to me, because as I was teaching Nicholas, I had no idea what his future held or how he was going to cope with life. Our role model was Lord Richard Rogers, the famous dyslexic architect. It was encouraging to know someone else has been down this road.

11) After six months in Oxford, your family returned to Australia, where it was suggested that Nicholas repeat second grade. I was positively livid on your behalf when I read that Nicholas’ teacher “Susan” said that Nicholas was the worst child she had seen in 20 years of teaching. She even implied that the school wasn’t responsible for teaching every child, because some—such as Nicholas—could never be taught. How did your personal epiphany with the sentence “I saw a cat climb up a tree,” begin to open his teacher’s eyes to what teaching Nicholas would really involve? (Briefly, you realized that although the word “saw” in that sentence actually means the past tense of the word see, to a child who is thinking visually, it could mean a cutting tool, giving them the image of a cat being sawn in half.)

First, let me say that after teaching Nicholas in Oxford for six months, I saw him through new eyes. I saw his thinking, his engagement, and even utter excitement for learning. I needed to see this and believe in him. Without my belief in him, the story would have been different.

Second, Nicholas’s latest second-grade classroom teacher was fantastic. Loving and caring, she accepted Nicholas as he was. On the other hand, Nicholas’ reading teacher, “Susan,” (name has been changed) the person with whom he spent thirty minutes per day, four days a week in a one-on-one setting, was (in my view) very casual in her approach toward working with my son.

But I have to thank “Susan” for her words, because it was the combination of “worst kid ever,” followed by “I saw a cat,” that shaped my teaching process and built my fighting spirit.

I always sat with Nicholas to do his homework. If I noticed something he couldn’t do, I would spend the next day thinking up related activities we could do at home to help him overcome any bumps in this learning. It worked, and I stayed away from the reading teacher.

When I studied to become a reading specialist, I read an academic paper by Professor Brian Cambourne titled, “Beyond the Deficit Theory.” His paper left me depressed, because I had lived the words he wrote—we blame the child for their lack of success by saying such things as, “He’s the worst kid ever,” and then follow it up with poor teaching such as, “I saw a cat,” and by doing this, we destroy children’s early years. Depressing. Frustrating. Infuriating. If I can teach a child as “slow” as Nicholas, too many children are being left behind because we, as teachers, make assumptions about children’s knowledge.

To answer your question, I didn’t change the reading teacher’s mind at all. My experience impacted me, not her!

12) How would you define the diagnosis of Auditory Processing Disorder and how did having APD affect Nicholas?

Auditory Processing Disorder doesn’t disappear with time. This is how I interpret Nicholas’s challenges:

A teacher gives a direction. Eventually, Nicholas hears his name and realizes he has to do or say something. The teacher repeats her instructions. He has heard the instructions through his ears. The message then goes to the brain for interpretation. He knows he has to respond. For a verbal response, he now has to search his mind for the correct words, put them in the right order, then coordinate the tongue, the muscles of the mouth, swallowing, and breathing in order to respond.

The length of time it takes a reader to read this sentence is Nicholas’s response time.

His brain response worked like the old-fashioned dial-up internet access, and sometimes it dropped out if the process overloaded his brain or was just too slow. I can understand how frustrating it was for his early teachers. He lives with his condition, and it still impacts his life today.

A KNEX sculpture built by Nicholas as a child.

13) You learned from teaching Nicholas that readers often have a hard time managing and comprehending abstract words. Can you give us an example of how you would help a student with this?

Another great question! I teach children (age 6 onwards) who are left behind in reading.

The first lesson I present to all my students is MY BOX LESSON which is available on my website as a free download. Using words—could, should, and would, I show how exciting teaching can be. (Think about a bottle of apple juice, minus a label. What could it be?) My lessons are multisensory, showing my students that learning is exciting, and that they can learn.

My second exercise is to ask my students to read some sight words: the, of, to, you, for, a, is, that, and, it. (These are all abstract words, which means they cannot be touched, felt, or seen. There are several other challenges with these words in addition to them being abstract. For instance, a number of these words have multiple meanings.)

Most students read these words.

Next, I ask the student to give me a sentence that uses the word to.

My students often respond with a sentence like, “I have two hands.”

When using the word for, they frequently respond with “A dog has four legs.”

Such children have not yet worked out how words work. Teachers have been happy for the student to read words without recognizing that these words sound the same when we speak, but when we write, the way these words are written on paper matters! Skilled readers work this out. Those who struggle to see language and words “concretely” often do not understand this without having a teacher explicitly explain this concept to them and provide examples. Without such explanations, the student believes the word to has the same meaning as two, and they don’t “get the second meaning.”

Once students are taught this is the word two, and it means the number 2, and to means we go to school, etc., I tell my students, “This is what happens when we talk, and this is what happens when we write. This is how written language works.”

And in my book, I emphasize the word it, because finding meaning for this word is extremely difficult and is dependent on the surrounding text.

As for a word like of, I create pictures using sentences, such as, “Can I have a piece of pizza?” (I include a picture of pizza with my sentence.)

14) Midway through Nicholas’ education, you began tutoring other students. I appreciated your account of working with Christian. You mentioned that there is a big difference between decoding words and creating meaning. How did you help Christian with this transition?

This was so much fun! When a student fails for so long, the teacher’s work is much more challenging. I knew that I needed to find a task that engaged the student, helped him enjoy working with me, and taught him to read.

I found a fantastic short story and turned it into a play. It ticked every box!

Now, when my student is reading, he is not just “reading words.” Every sentence leads to an action, an expression, or a response.

Plays function as stepping-stones in reading. Skilled readers can read words and then visualize the dialog and action in their heads, but less-experienced readers often have difficulty doing this. Learning through reading plays teaches a student how to “play a movie” in their mind later when reading independently.

It also allows me to identify when a student is comprehending what they read or just regurgitating words. When a student doesn’t read a word correctly, I stop and ask myself, “What’s going on here? What is stopping him from reading this word?”

The problem is far more significant than he “cannot decode.” It’s about the student’s memory for language. How do I improve this? Acting something out, touching, seeing, or playing with a related object aids a person’s memory. It’s a method of teaching that goes back to understanding how children learn best, rather than repeatedly telling them, “you just have to learn it.”

I continually ask my students, “How would you act that out?” Through turning short stories into short plays, I turn students into active learners. That’s the goal each time.

15) Two other students you worked with were in high school, and between them they could only read ten sight words. You broke down the statistics for your readers, revealing that by ninth grade, all students have had 1,620 days of education. What observations could you share about utilizing more effective teaching methods so that children could learn more than five sight words in this amount of time, not to speak of comprehension?

The longer a student has failed in the classroom, the more challenging it is to break down their barriers and beliefs that they “cannot learn” and work on turning them around.

My students were never actively involved in their learning until they met me. Up until this time, they only completed tasks. Critical to reading success is active engagement in reading.

When a child is not attending or learning, my first question is always, “What do I have to do to engage this child in learning?” This question comes before “I have to teach this child to decode.”

Learning must be child-centered. We (as teachers) tend to think that if we keep teaching, a child will eventually get it. Then we rely on standardized reading programs (which fail to consider a child’s background experience and knowledge), confident that they will do the trick, given enough time. Both ideas are misconceptions.

The teaching must be more comprehensive than simply teaching to decode. Remember that students who struggle take longer to learn the basics. Here are a few suggestions I’ve found useful when working with students who struggle:

  • Use poetry—have a teacher read and write poetry with her students. Write about what students experience in the classroom. In this way, a teacher creates a community of learners.
  • Break down the decoding process.
  • Use small groups.
  • Allow extra time.
  • Use multisensory teaching materials.
  • Teach the sight words in a multisensory, meaningful way. Also show the students that they speak the words they are reading.
  • Talk to the principal. Acknowledge the student’s lack of progress and push for additional resources.

For teachers to engage students like my Pedro and Twayne, the teacher needs additional knowledge of the reading process. Search for those resources, but above all, believe that these students can be taught to read, and you can do it.

16) What hope and encouragement would you like to offer today’s parents of struggling readers?

Believe in your child and believe that they can be taught to read and write effectively. Encourage learning—all learning—which includes learning beyond reading and decoding. The overemphasis on what a child cannot do or learn with ease is painful for all involved. Yes, all children do have to be taught to decode effectively and efficiently; however, there is more involved in reading than just decoding.

If a parent or guardian has time, take a favorite book and turn it into a play or drama. Make or find props and costumes. Write sentences to connect the words with the objects.

Practice the play.

Record it. Listen to it. Send it to relatives and friends for their response.

Write poems for and with your child.

Find multisensory ways to teach decoding. Slow the learning down. This type of learning takes longer.

Create scrapbooks. Fill them with pictures, drawings, and objects. Write about everything placed in them.

Use technology to assist students with writing. Record ideas on the iPhone before attempting to write.

Build expertise.

This is not a complete list of ideas, just a few to help parents believe in their child.

Every day, enjoy learning.

17) Is there anything I’ve failed to ask that you’d like to address?

Nicholas’ story bears out that learning to read is a two-step process. Step one is the actual “learning to read and learn” part.

Part two of Nicholas’ story was going from the bottom to the top. The work that Nicholas put in from grades four to six was enormous and laid the foundation for later achievements.

Nicholas, from second grade onwards, was actively involved in his learning. When children are actively engaged in their education, they will succeed.

I can now reflect on our lives and our journeys.

The most important lesson I could pass on would be that children don’t learn when they are in pain. Take the pain out of learning, and in my mother-in-law’s words, “make learning fun.” Be proud of the small steps achieved today.

Conclusion:

Lois, thank you so much for sharing your inspiring story! I know my readers will be moved to persevere with their own children and students because of your example. You and Nicholas truly demonstrate that with enough love, hard work, and creativity, anything is possible. We are so much more than the labels we receive.

For more information, visit Lois’ website at: https://www.loisletchford.com/

And don’t miss Nicholas’ video, “Advice to my Younger Dyslexic Self.”

For additional resources that describe how all kids learn to read best, see Faith Borkowsky’s book Failing Students or Failing Schools: A Parent’s Guide To Reading Instruction and Intervention. If your child or student is struggling to read, write, do math, or manage school in general, learn how to support them and discover how to meet their educational needs in my book Raising a Child With Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know. You are not alone!

About Lois Letchford

Lois Letchford’s dyslexia came to light at the age of 39, when she faced the prospect of teaching her seven-year-old non-reading son, Nicholas. Examining her personal reading failure caused her to adapt and change her approach to creating lessons for her son. The results were dramatic. Later, Lois qualified as a reading specialist to use her nontraditional background, multi-continental experience, and passion for learning to assist other failing students. Her teaching and learning have equipped her with a unique skill set and perspective. As a teacher she considers herself a “literacy problem solver.”

Reversed: A Memoir is her first book. In this story, she details the journey of her son’s dramatic failure in first grade, the twists and turns that promoted her passion, and her son’s dramatic academic turnaround.

Originally a physical education teacher, Ms. Lechtford later completed a master’s degree in literacy and reading from the State University of New York at Albany. Lois has been a speaker at SPELD in Australia, Millersville University, the Kentucky Council for Exceptional Children, the Spring Festival of Children’s Literature in Maryland, and the Ireland International Conference on Education. She is a member of the International Literacy Association, the International Dyslexia Association, and the Australian College of Education.

Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the new CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators.