Every child in every school
*This article was published on the Children's Laureate Website January 2014. You can find the original article here.*
One in eleven kids in Australia is not deemed worthy of professional education. Instead their most important teaching is done by amateur volunteers, or even by volunteer students. They are the abandoned ones. Worse, so many accept without question that these kids don’t deserve the gift of the professional teaching other kids get.
These kids don’t belong to an easily identified minority. If red-haired kids were denied professional teaching there’d be an outcry.
Sometimes they are labelled ‘dyslexic’ which is a handy all-in-one term for a wide range of learning differences and difficulties. But many of the kids I’ve met in ‘supported learning’ classes in the last five years have suffered simply from uninspired teaching.
Apologies: if you’re reading this then you are almost certainly a teacher of the ‘magic’ variety, who loves kids and inspires them and does the extra slog to read this blog. I’m thinking of the teachers I met in a staff room last year. To quote part of a conversation I overheard:
“I don’t know why we bother turning up. Hopeless the lot of them"
"Yeah. Should just lock them in a room and let them out at eighteen."
No teacher at the table bothered to disagree.
Kid’s reading problems usually begin in the first year of school, a child a little or a lot slower at picking up the basics than the rest of the class. These kids may be slow learners generally. More often, they simply need to be taught in different ways.
If they are lucky, in their first few years at school they may be offered an afternoon or two a week of ‘assisted reading’ by a volunteer parent or a ‘buddy’ – an older kid who’ll help. Often, this is enough. Other times, it isn’t.
The brighter kids – and often these kids are very intelligent indeed – learn how to cover up their inability to read and to write. In all too many cases the kids are progressed up the school, despite not knowing the basics of literacy. By the time they are between twelve and fifteen they are categorised as ‘unteachable’. Or in the words of Teacher X, Why do we bother?
I am dyslexic. I’m not sure what my “problem” is, but I do know the symptoms: it is difficult, sometimes impossible, to distinguish individual letters and, especially, numbers. I read in the way I gather speed readers do, scan an entire page, sometimes from bottom to the top starting at the right-hand side: when you scan as I do there’s not much difference where you begin on the page. It’s not a tracking problem, nor a coordination problem nor does it really matter: my ‘disability’ seems to be linked to an ability to read, absorb and collate data quickly. If any one has a cure I’d rather they kept it to themselves.
Mine is one of the most common forms of dyslexia. It can’t be cured (thank goodness) but it can be accommodated: teach kids with my form of dyslexia to touch type, and they’ll learn to read by writing, as when you touch type you don’t need to look at what you’re writing. Other reading difficulties can be overcome, by exercises supervised by a specialist ophthalmologist, speech therapy, with physical co-ordination training, even by being taught to use Braille and dozen of other interventions that target the root problem.
Often kids have missed the vital time to learn with their peer group because they don’t learn well while sitting down or staying quiet. If teachers had let these kids talk in class, getting help from the kid next to them, they’d probably have been okay. If the teacher had taken the class out once a day, taught them to write with water pistols on a concrete wall, while moving, or ‘flown’ from written word to written word across the playground, there’d be no gap to close.
There is no ‘one best way’ to teach every child. Be wary of any approach that says it works for everyone.
This isn’t an essay on the many forms and causes of reading problems. Instead it is a plea: let every child, in every school, be taught to read and write by a professional teacher.
If kids fall back – especially if they fall back – don’t consign them to the help of volunteers, then wash your hands of them.
This is not to disparage the services of volunteers – especially where the scheme involves specific training in the delivery of a well-researched program. Volunteers can perform magic, creating eager confident readers and bringing them up to the norm – or far past it – in literacy skills. The ‘buddy system’, where older kids help younger ones, can also be extraordinarily successful.
But it should not HAVE to be like this. Volunteer amateur medical help can save kids’ lives, too, but we expect that all Australian children will have access to trained doctors and nurses when needed. It should be the same with literacy.
Why do we assume that kids with ‘reading difficulties’ deserve no more?
So what is needed? Mostly a change in priorities: every teacher and every parent, must accept responsibility for every child in their care, to make sure all get the professional tuition necessary for their acquisition of the literacy skills necessary to be a fully engaged and participating student. The longer a child- or young adult- spends unable to read fluently, the more techniques and knowledge they need to learn to catch up.
Every teacher needs to vary their teaching methods so that all kids get a chance to learn. ASK the kids how they like learning: the answers may surprise you.
We need to fund and provide more specialist teachers. More referrals to specialist ophthalmologists, speech pathologists, occupational therapists, specialist hearing tests that check not just what kids hear but what words and sounds they can distinguish. Doctor’s visits for kids with sleep apnoea.
But we need mostly a willingness to work out WHY a kid isn’t keeping up or fulfilling their potential, and an even greater acceptance of the need to work out HOW this can be corrected.
Keep up the wonderful volunteer programs, but accept that they are helpers – not load them up with the sole responsibility for making good the gaps in the regular school system.
There is no single greater duty for any school than to teach its students to read. Not excursions to Canberra, not grass on the oval. If any school, no matter how brilliantly some of its students are performing, has any child who has been at that school a year and cannot read as well as the rest of their age group, or is in a regular programme to ensure they’ll soon do so, then that school fails.
There is no greater social duty than caring for our children, not Olympic medals, nor fireworks, nor operas, much as I love the latter.
Every child. In every school. Or we have all failed our duty to our children