Breaking the Code

Assuming you were successful, you get an A+ and a sticker!  (It’s a scratch and sniff, but you will have to take my word for it.)  How does that make you feel?  Successful?  Smart? Maybe even brilliant?  Confident.

For a child who has difficulty reading, the letters may have little or no meaning; they are simply what they are – symbols on a page.

For example, take Reading Test #2.

Unless you’re fluent in Wingdings 3 (or you cheated by changing the font), you failed.  Maybe you recognized that this was a reading test.  Maybe you only knew because I told you it was.  Maybe you figured the part in bold with the colon after it said “Instructions,” but what were you being asked to do? What if you’re wrong? What if I told you that you’re supposed to be able to read these symbols without hesitation?  Everyone else in your class had no problem reading this sentence.  What if everything you had to read was written like this?  You wouldn’t do very well in your classes.  You may wonder why you should continue to go to school at all.

Reading isn’t quantum physics; it is a skill that’s necessary to have if you want to survive in the modern world.  However, for most children with a language learning disability (LLD), reading may as well be quantum physics, and the letters may as well be Wingdings.

The Windward School is a place where teachers are trained in language-based instruction techniques. We provide LLD students with a kind of Rosetta Stone for the English language.  At Windward, before taking Reading Test #2, you would have been directly taught the sounds attributed to each symbol.  And you would have been able to read the sentence (a quote from Frank Lloyd Wright) automatically.

A teacher who doesn’t understand that you may just learn differently from the way s/he teaches may ask you in front of the class if you even studied for the test.  When you say you did, s/he may tell you to study harder next time.  Your parent may wonder why your younger brother or sister can do your homework, while you get so frustrated that you tear it into pieces and cry.  Recently, I heard a story of a teacher writing “LAZY” on the top of a test that a student with undiagnosed LLD performed poorly on.  How would that make you feel?  Dumb?  Like a failure?  Frustrated?  Different.

As a Windward trained teacher, I will always teach to a child’s specific needs using our research-based method called direct instruction.  We teach that while letters are symbols, these symbols stand for sounds.  Through small class sizes organized by ability and skill, we teach LLD students how to read letter-by-letter, sound-by-sound, rule-by-rule.  We don’t make assumptions about a child’s skillset, and we don’t move on to the next skill until understanding is achieved.

Before becoming Windward teachers, we received extensive education in child learning development, differences in learning styles and how to teach to facilitate learning.  This training creates a consistency that underlies everything we do as teachers.  This structure is extremely important to a child with LLD, as it helps them get into a learning routine.  When the child knows what to expect next, they’re busy learning and not adjusting to something new.

While we have an amazing mission statement, fantastic training and the most understanding and patient group of teachers you will ever find, there is one area where we fell short: the specials.  The specials are the classes outside of what are referred to as “content classes,” (e.g. reading and math).  They are classes like science, art, music and gym.  The teachers of these subjects have not been trained in the Windward method of teaching our population of students.  I suppose it wasn’t seen as necessary since these teachers weren’t teaching content classes.  On the contrary, science in particular is a very content-based subject.  Reading, writing and the understanding of concepts are as inherent in science as they are in content classes.

Our population of LLD students, who thrive on consistency and structure, were being asked to learn in two different ways.  In reading and math, they were taught how to break down instructions and stories into understandable segments, how to recognize and underline key words so they could perform the task at hand and how one word can have multiple meanings (for example, think of all the different ways the word ‘trunk’ can be used: trunk of a car, an elephant trunk or something you can put clothes in).

Science teaches us how the world around us works.  It is full of concepts and creatures that are somehow all linked together in harmony.  Helpful background knowledge is typically limited in elementary science.  Learning new concepts can only be cultivated through teaching in a way the child can comprehend.  A scientific article, while age-appropriate as defined by the state and public school system, may be incomprehensible to a child with LLD.  Even when read aloud, a reference to an elephant trunk may be mistaken to mean that the elephant drives a car (this is actually quite possible for some young children).  Meaning is lost from that point on.  A science teacher trained in the same methods as the content class teachers would know to pause after the word ‘trunk.’  They would make sure everyone understood that an elephant does not own, nor drive a car, regardless of what Babar may do or say.

As a specially-trained teacher with an academic background in the sciences, I proposed that I create a science curriculum tuned for our population of students.  Each lesson was outlined the same way a reading lesson was – there was an aim or goal of the lesson and a multisensory component (typically involving a SMARTBoard presentation, video and/or hands-on activities).  Most importantly, the lesson had a language component.  This would include specific vocabulary and concepts categorized as simple and complex questions and comments.

The new science curriculum was really just the old curriculum with some Hulk-like muscles.  The language component was emphasized and really clicked for students.  Presentations and experiments provided visual, auditory and hands-on activities, just like the other content courses (but with more F-U-N in my opinion).  It was great to hear even the most language-impaired students call out “Ohhhhh, I get it!” (I allowed that kind of calling out.)  Information was being presented to them the same way it was being presented in their other classes.  They didn’t enter the science lab to be thrown into a sink or swim environment.  The language was their own.  They “got it.”  Even the tough-to-crack kids ended up liking science by the end of the year.

As a result of the success of the science curriculum I created, the next science teacher Windward hired was trained in the same way any content class teacher was trained.  The level of structure and consistency detailed in our mission statement was on its way to being realized.  Value was seen in what I was bringing to the science department, and the specialized lesson planning and presentations I had been trained to create for other classes made the leap into the specials quite smoothly.  I saw a problem and brought my enthusiasm for science, Windward training and problem-solving skills to bear in solving it.