November 24, 2006
A Reader's Dilemma
When Hart was in first grade, his school psychologist told me that he would never read for pleasure. At the time, I was quite indignant. There are picture books, easy readers, adaptations, comic books, TV tie-ins. Anyone CAN read for fun. Her pronouncement seemed like that of the Bad Fairy at Sleeping Beauty's cradle.
Now years later, her prediction seems quaintly optimistic. It appears that Hart will never learn to read at all. It certainly isn't for lack of trying. There have been efforts with well-known curricula for learning disabled kids; Wilson Reading, Explode the Code, LiPS. Tutoring, reward systems, computer games. Periodically, his team gets together to re-evaluate his program. More phonics, sight words, less phonics, high-frequency word drills, creative writing, reading for comprehension, reading for fluency, high-interest texts, pre-reading texts and on and on.
It is a mystery. Children with much greater intellectual impairment than Hart learn to read. In fact, using all the efforts and strategies that educators have used with Hart, pods of dolphins could have been taught to read by now. What is very clear is this: nothing has been written to the hard drive in Hart's brain. There is faulty wiring somewhere.
Conventional wisdom has it that learning to read English is devilishly hard. But it cannot be that difficult because almost everyone from age seven on, with a bit of phonics training, some exposure to the basic conventions, and enough practice and familiarity with frequently-used words, can do it.
What Hart has learned in the past eight or nine years are cunning strategies. He has perfected the whisper, mumble and inhalation on the first syllable. He can "read" really fast in hopes that the mistakes are less noticeable. Even one of the first preschool strategies, looking at the illustrations, does not help. "Tom flies a kitten!" I recently shrieked. "Is that a kitten up there at the end of the string?" I know that trick--the oldest in the book--looking at the first letter and guessing wildly. That's why in Hartworld, “it,” “is,” “if,” and “in” are interchangeable. So are “and,” “a,” “at,” “as” and “are.” “Three,“ “there,” “tree,” take your pick.
There is also something amiss with his short-term memory.“The star of this story is Lucy. Look at this word for a minute. We are going to read about a girl named Lucy.” It didn’t help. Hart called her Lucky or worse, Louky, whenever he saw the word.
Homework is agonizing. Hart cannot be bothered to read the short paragraph before answering the comprehension questions. He guesses, he complains about how hard the work is, or he tries to discern a pattern in the answers. Having answered the first of three multiple choice questions A, the second is sure to be B, the third C.
I have significantly scaled back my expectations, of course. I would have loved Hart to be an avid reader, as I am. I have introduced him to graphic novels, the kind with no text at all. We have discovered the joys of listening to books on CD. (Jim Dale reads the HARRY POTTER series, Tim Curry narrates A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS. Magnificent.) Hart enjoys hearing poetry and I like reading it to him. Still, there is something to be said for the ability to read a menu, a street sign, a headline. That’s why we are still working on it, year after year.