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Julia Clouter, Head of Education at Scanning Pens and a consultant SENCo, explains how she helped a struggling student access the joy of reading.
One of my previous students, let’s call him Stuart, loved telling stories. His imagination was fantastic, his language was rich and he could tell me how people were feeling and what their motivations were without pausing for breath. In fact, he had a back story for everything. “You see”, he would say with eyes sparkling, “the reason that she is so sad, is because her auntie is on holiday, and she always makes the dinner, so mum has to cook and she burns everything.” Stuart could make all the correct connections with good reasoning and flights of fantasy. He was in his element when describing and sharing ideas and looking at the pictures in his reading book.
I soon realised that Stuart was always chatting, and mostly avoiding getting to the business of reading aloud. During paired reading time he would look at the pictures, skip through the text, take a reasonably good guess at what was happening, and then, he would start talking as fast as he could.
The dynamic changed from enjoyment to frustration as soon as I started to unpick what he was doing. I pointed to the text and said, “Okay, let’s start with this line here and use a piece of paper to hide the words underneath.” His reaction was to fidget and squirm. Then, when I hid the picture, Stuart ran out of the room.
By the age of seven, Stuart had already constructed coping strategies to avoid reading, which were very effective. He was praised for his imagination and enthusiasm; he could explain what was happening by looking at the pictures and guessing the content. He could charm anyone into a conversation that would last for the whole of his paired reading time. At home his love of stories was supported with audiobooks. He was confident with the content of the whole class reading book because he had already listened to it at home and he could put his extensive vocabulary to good use.
As time went on Stuart developed a bladder problem. His mum had told us, “If he asks, he really needs to go!” Toilet breaks were frequent and often coincided with the challenge of reading.
I wonder if this story sounds familiar to you. If so, this is my advice. Keep sharing reading time and allow stories to be shared and imaginative journeys to happen. Make some notes about any avoidance tactics that you have observed. Keep a close eye on self-esteem. This can be a time when self-defeating behaviours emerge, like negative self talk, hiding, perfectionism, quitting half way through a task, and aggression.
How can we help children like Stuart? Share what you are seeing with friends and professionals. Have you all noticed the same patterns of avoidance? A Google search for visual stress disorders will give you some indicators about how some people struggle to see printed words. You could try asking Stuart to compare sound patterns with letter patterns to see if he is making the connection between the letter and the sound.
-a as in apple - o as in orange - i as in ink - u as in umbrella - e as in egg
These short vowel sounds are important building blocks and may give you a clue as to whether Stuart has processed these properly or at all.
Try to keep learning activities fun for Stuart and ask for some advice from the school SENCo. We don’t want him to lose his self-esteem or confidence. He already delights in using language verbally. Continue to encourage him and consider using resources like cards that match pictures and sounds like Letterland Reading Flashcards and Letterland Phonics Touch and Spell Flashcards. I have had lots of success with these cards (and they are not expensive).
At a later stage, or if you can’t spare the time to make these smaller changes, you may want to investigate assistive technology like the user-friendly, discreet, Scanning Pens. They scan text and read individual words or sections aloud or through personal headphones.
The important thing is to recognise that Stuart has a reading difficulty, but that he can be helped. We don’t want his avoidance strategies to escalate or become a barrier to his learning. But we also don’t want to stifle his confidence and creativity. Keep your communication with him positive and start each learning episode by celebrating his strengths. You may have experienced a student just like him.