09 June 2008

When to "give up"

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.

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

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Karen Janowski said...


vera said...

i'm afriad some teachers will give up too easily, not because they are lazy, but because they don't know effective methods for teaching dyslexic students. i'm in the process of filming a video/burning a dvd for use by some of my students over the summer. the video is specifically for students who have trouble with processing sound. i use visual and kinesthetic clues to sound. it looks pretty rough, but i've had success with this method during the school year, where other teachers haven't been able to help these students. after the summer when i see if the dvd was a good review (or bored the kids to death) i'll decide whether to post it to teachtube/youtube.

the way it works at my school's spec ed classes, the teacher spends some time on word attack skills and some time on reading stories to the kids, which they talk about. i don't know the time ratio (they do other stuff, too; i'm not in the class the whole time). again, the problem is that the teachers haven't been successful reaching some of the kids- but they aren't knowledgeable about reading methods like orton-gillingham or the wilson method either. maybe if they were, there would be more success. you can't figure out a time ratio of how much to work on word attack/concepts/reading strategies unless you use proven methods to teach word attack/concepts/reading strategies first.

narrator said...


The problem with "reading stories to the kids" as I think you mean it here is that the teacher is building dependence and forcing group instruction (no matter how small the group) and is, once again, separating the reading itself from the skills of reading. Using technology would allow the kids to do their own reading, would allow them to choose their own reading, would allow them to use actual strategies (choosing/adjusting reading speed, using the dictionary, using the spelling function, [in WYNN] making voice notes, highlighting) and while they were doing that they'd be building their sight-word vocabulary, which is how - and I know Orton-Gillingham somewhat disagrees but it is still true - everybody actually reads.

But I think it is important to realize that using technology appears to improve reading in every child whose reading is going to improve. In fact, I've found it to be a predictor. If the technology improves the ink-on-paper reading it is worth pursuing other ways to strengthen those skills. If it does not it seems to suggest those connections are never going to work comfortably.

vera said...

i'm for using technology to reinforce all kinds of literacy skills. but i don't think that reading is mostly based on memorizing the 'look' of words for most people; first the sound is processed and then automaticity is reached after repeated, slower readings. the 'look' of the word is how chinese people learn to read chinese characters, which i can read at the intermediate level. even though most chinese characters contain clues to their pronunciation and meaning within the character, they are traditionally taught using the rote method and most chinese/taiwan tv shows have character subtitles underneath to help with reinforcing reading skills. the thing with chinese characters is that many of the same characters are used to make many words (eg fei ji/plane, fei die/ufo, qi fei/take-off/fei/fly)- you have to memorize fewer chinese characters to remember the same amount of english vocab (in the above non-exhaustive example, one chinese character fei is found in 4 different english words). so i have used both sight word method (memorizing chinese characters) and the phonetic method (english), and the phonetic method is tons easier for me. to someone incapable of storing/blending sounds, maybe their only default method is sight word, but how do we know who these individuals are until we give methods like orton-gillingham a try? i've already said i've had success with students who others thought couldn't learn to blend sounds. we need to try these methods because from my own experience learning to read in which the sight word method was used, i was totally frustrated. if all chinese newspapers were printed using their phonetic alphabet (which chinese kindergartners learn), my chinese reading level would be excellent and not just intermediate.

narrator said...


When I first began working in this field I worked with a professor whose specialty was the comparison of dyslexia in Chinese "native readers" and alphabetic "native readers." And the evidence from that, and the research since, suggests the individual natures of these issues. (A person dyslexic in a symbol-based language is often not in an alphabetic and vise-versa, which indicates that this is a brain structure issue and suggests why "group solutions" do not typically work.)

"People suffering from dyslexia may find that their problems evaporate when they learn a new language, especially one that works with symbols very different from their native one. A study released yesterday reveals that brain abnormalities in English-speakers with dyslexia are quite different from those in people who speak Chinese. So it's very possible that a person who is dyslexic in Chinese wouldn't be in English, and vice versa."
- http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2008/04/08/dyslexia-language.html

The issue of "sounding things out" - is a funny one. Sure, I've seen the students I meet with doing that. 90% of the time their engagement with that process wipes out their comprehension of the sentence - their short term memory slots are all used in the "sounding out" process and if I ask them for what they've just read they stare blankly. Anyway, there's a reason those silly emails where every word is misspelled but the word shapes are all correct "work."

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, olny taht the frist and lsat ltteres are at the rghit pcleas. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by ilstef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

But the issue seems to be that you want a menu to try. You do not want to give up. I'm not against that. Try anything and everything, but (a) don't use your need to "try everything" as a reason to deprive your students of other educational experiences - consider what they are missing by investing their time in your efforts, and (b) ask yourself if it is important to you that all students read the way you do. Why couldn't 90% or 95% of their reading be done through technology? (that's true for me, and I'm surviving)

- Ira Socol

vera said...

so we are in agreement. try but don't depri--ve. almost a rhyme. another tangent: teens even in poor homes seem to have cell phones and ipods, but the younger kids must depend on the parents or the schools for technology. if the schools have it, great. NCLB reauthorization has UDL in it. but when the kid comes home, do they have a computer or some other nice gadget to help them read? many of my esl/ells don't. lots live in cramped living quarters, let alone having a computer with internet. the closest i can come to helping a kid like that with severe reading problems is to give them a dvd with review lessons on it since even the poor i work with seem to all have dvd players, but not a computer with the internet. so for this group that doesn't have access to gadgets at home, and right now don't have access at school, it is even more critical that i try to get them reading, as they will be deprived of the technology at home, if not in school.

narrator said...


I love the rhyme. Absolutely. On access - absolutely as well. This is an important reason why we need to embrace mobile phones in and out of schools. Two billion more people on earth have mobiles than have computers. And mobiles have fabulous technologies such as Word Prediction for writing (iTap), and the ability to convert speech into text (through systems such as Jott.com (US) or SpinVox (UK)), and very soon, effective text-to-speech (numerous developers are working to empower this, should arrive cheaply or free very soon). Plus, you can download whole books to your phone if you want.

This is a gigantic chance to help solve the equity issues which computer systems have often exacerbated.

- Ira Socol

The Goldfish said...

It has always struck me as very odd that people imagine that a person can only cope with one method of doing a thing. My wee nephew did baby-signing, where he learnt to sign for some concepts, like being hungry, thirsty or having a full nappy, when he was too young to talk.

One family member disapproves. Alex isn't speaking very confidently yet - maybe the baby-signing held him back, provided a disincentive to learn to speak? An idea I considered highly amusing - especially as Alex is a very noisy child who talks and sings incessantly, just thusfar incomprehensively.

But this idea of giving up is prevalent when it comes to any kind of assistive tech. The first time I used a wheelchair I was told I was giving up and would depend on it for life. Then I got better and stopped needing one for a couple of years. Then I got worse and was told exactly the same thing. All I wanted to do was get out of the house.

Anonymous said...

the goldfish gave excellent anecdotes related to this discussion. S' far as when to "give-up" on walking, 'tis the parent making the decision, with reference to whomever she trusts....physician, therapist, family members.

No need this to be an all or nothing decision. Early use of power mobility will not prevent a child from learning to walk, but will give him important access to his environment for cognitive and social growth.

However, if he is placed in a wheelchair and pushed without benefit of any more opportunities to learn to walk, well, yes, that defines giving-up.

loonyhiker said...

I think we need to remember that by using technology we are not giving up anything. My husband was a horrible speller and writer. He was embarrassed by how he spelled and wrote but after learning to use a computer and the tools which helped him write better, he is no longer embarrassed. He writes more on his own (I used to have to write everything he dictated before he gave this rough draft into to one of his 8 secretaries). He learned to spell better (thanks to spell check) and to look at sentence structure (thanks to the grammar check). It is amazing how technology has improved his life (and mine!)