I get asked this question a lot. Most recently by commenter Vera on my post about Peter Høeg’s book Borderliners. "...at what point (what age and what reading level) do you think a teacher should give up trying to teach a struggling student to break the alphabetic code and instead have the student rely on technology to read to them for the rest of their lives?"
Let me make it a metaphor. "At what point should a teacher give up on trying to teach a struggling student to walk everywhere and instead have that student rely on technology to move them for the rest of their lives?"
I do this switch not to mock anyone, or to sound derisive, but to point out that we often forget that alphabetic decoding is one skill for the purpose of getting recorded information into our heads. It is a convenient, effective skill that is very helpful to most people, but it is just one skill in a whole "toolbelt" of skills we need, and depending on the person it will be used more or less or not at all.
Just as walking is one way for a human to move from place to place. There are lots of ways, and there are lots technologies that can (a) replace walking (cars, elevators, wheelchairs, bicycles, trains, buses, airplanes), (b) enhance walking (canes, walkers, skateboards, skates), or (c) combine with walking (escalators, moving sidewalks - even ramps and stairways). And if we are good "teachers" we help our students to pick the most effective way to move based on lots of criteria, beginning with the students' individual needs and capabilities.
For accessing information, "literacy" includes decoding voices as well as alphabetic texts, comprehending images, understanding films and television, making sense of graphs and charts and music. It involves the comprehension of lots of sensory inputs - aided and unaided by technology, delivered in person or delivered by technology (and books, print, the alphabet are all technologies).
So we teach what is appropriate and what is helpful. For your typical two-year-old we don't waste energy on alphabetics but they still take in a great deal of information - via sound and sight and touch and taste and smell, and they learn what a McDonald's sign looks like and what "home" looks like and what books sound like and what an electrical outlet looks like and maybe even about dangerous smells. But we don't say, "you can't eat and you can't be safe until you know how to read."
Just as, if we have a child who is learning to walk or who is having a problem with walking we don't leave them in the middle of a room. Sure, we keep helping them work on walking, we might even bring in technology such as an infant walker, but we also provide alternatives that make it possible for them to get from here to there. We don't leave them in the field - Christina style - and hope that they can drag themselves around.
So, there is no timeline. as long as we think a person can possibly learn to walk we keep the efforts up, we keep going with physical therapy. But we also get them a wheelchair or a walker if that's what they need. And even if they can walk, but, let's say it is hard for them to walk five miles to school, we drive them or provide a bus. We do that even if they live a half mile from school and the walk might be difficult. And we do that even if the walk wouldn't always be difficult - if it would be fine if it was a nice day and they had little to carry but today it is - raining, snowing, freezing, way too hot, or they have to lug in their science project.
With reading, we need to realize that we cannot lose by embracing technology. Text-to-Speech, especially the best Text-to-Speech systems which highlight the word being read (be they paid like WYNN, Read-and-Write, or Kurzweil 3000 or free like WordTalk or Microsoft Reader), can only improve sight-word recognition while demonstrating the value of reading. Text-to-Speech cannot hurt but it can help, and it can surely provide access - and providing access - proving that there is something in those books that the student will want or need - might be the only way to provide students with an incentive to keep trying to decode. After all, if you had no interest in moving from the couch, you wouldn't learn to walk either.
At some point, of course, you let your student judge his or her own progress. Reading via technology is slower - in most cases - than reading via ink-on-paper. It is typically more cumbersome as well. But if the student is not gaining on the decoding in a way which promises its utility, it is OK for them to stop, to use that time differently. To get better at using the technology which is useful, and to get better at making technology choices.
Want another metaphor? My father always told the story of how he went into the Army needing glasses. But after just a year of commanding a tank - and doing all that artillery spotting (essentially doing eye exercises all day) - he didn't need glasses at all. If the child in front of you needed glasses, but might benefit from eye exercises, you'd provide the technology (those eyeglasses) and you'd encourage the exercises. You probably wouldn't take the glasses away from her because she wasn't doing well enough with her exercises. And if, after, two or three years of doing the exercises there was no functional difference in her vision, you'd accept the fact that technology was the primary solution.
Because I've dealt with adult learners a great deal in my work, I meet hundreds of people who have worked on decoding for decades, with no appreciable result. Sometimes, whole years of their education have been devoted to doing nothing but working on decoding. And while they've been doing that they've never learned one thing that was in all those precious books, and they've never learned the information acquisition skills they need to survive. Do you doubt that? Go down to any employment centre in the US or UK, and you will find the place filled with these victims of an education system which refuses to "give up."
The solution, the way decisions are best made, lies in empowering teachers and students to make choices. Any systemic or institutional decision made for "all kids" or "most kids" or based on quantitative research will - guaranteed - be the wrong decision. Any decision based in "miracle narratives" ("I was blind but after taking these vitamins I can see!") will be at least as bad. We are not discussing "the average child" or "the average dyslexic" (neither of which exists), nor are we going to base policy on the exceptional case.
Instead, we will "solve this" by making individual decisions with individual students. We will help students get to the reading technologies they need, and we will stop forcing formulas on humans.
Because some school administrators can run marathons, and others need to drive to the shop six blocks from home, and a few might need some technological help to get from the kitchen to the bedroom. And the students in their schools? They are every bit as diverse in their needs.
- Ira Socol
Blog Round Up - Ewan McIntosh on Unleashing the Tribe. Unlocking the Classroom on Deficit Theory. Lon Thornburg on "the one." Prone to Laughter on student failure.
- About Ira David Socol
- Freedom Stick and Firefox Accessibility
- The Change.Org Posts
- IdeaChat 11 February 2012
- Counting the Origins of Failure
- Technology: The Wrong Questions and the Right Questions
- Today's "School Reformers" vs Real Change for Education - I
- Today’s “School Reformers” vs Real Change for Education - II
- The Toolbelt and Universal Design - Education For Everyone
- "Evaluate that!" - Schools for Children