* Warning signs

Without doubt, early intervention is key to identifying dyslexia and providing the specialized instruction that creates new neural pathways. This spelling test is the work of a second grader who is struggling mightily. She has had ‘guided reading’ out the wazoo but nothing to address her phonological and phonetic weaknesses. She would certainly qualify as twice exceptional, with abundant signs of above average intelligence and desperate signs of being in distress.

Certainly, there is much more evidence of her disability than this test, but an analysis of her errors is quite telling. Sadly, by the time she may receive support, her self-confidence and behavior will likely be in the tank.

I have had limited success convincing parents who are in strongly emotional denial that their child has a disability. In my 49 years of teaching, I’ve noticed that even if they support appropriate interventions, it is hard for them to accept a special education label. And without that label, such students are not usually going to receive the help they need. Public schools receive funds for special ed teachers because those students qualify under state and federal guidelines.

What to do?

  • Wait. Many parents have accepted this ‘loss’ after a few more years of agonizing over it. Educational struggles truly are a matter of grieving for most families, especially for children on the autism spectrum. Sometimes parents admit to having similar struggles at school or refer to relatives with a similar profile.
  • Work to reduce stigmatization. The more we routinely show students and parents that everyone has learning differences, the less likely they are to freak out.
  • Provide info about and cool examples of brain-friendly teaching in back-to-school events and teacher conferences. Learning challenges are no fun but they are not the end of the world.
  • Don’t gloss over significant signs of struggle just because there is push- back from classroom teachers or parents. Collect data and do your best to provide the right kind of support, even if the label is incorrect (or, more ‘politically correct’).

* Early concerns, part 4

My dear Stacey, a kindergartner at risk for reading and language disabilities as well as autism, always triggers my special education radar when she speaks.  Or doesn’t speak.  Or just makes noises.  Granted, she has suffered serious emotional trauma, which can lead to regression in social interactions.  She also has an older autistic sibling.  On the other hand, she has older siblings who are excellent communicators and role models for appropriate language.

Stacey has been using an app to create her own “movies.”  The Disney Princess Story Theater app allows kids to create scenes and then add their own voice to three-part stories.  I thought this would be a good opportunity for Stacey to practice sequencing events, using her beloved Disney characters.

Disney Princess Story Theater

Once Stacey learned how to record her voice, her first recordings were predictably filled with shrieks and other oddball expressions.  After giving her time to  exhaust the Silly Factor, I recorded a model of a simple story with her.  We listened to the British voice give us a brief overview of each scene and we then recorded an appropriate follow-up sentence.  She can add words that logically describe what is happening in that scene or what might happen next.

After listening to all her recorded stories and scenes (my phone is full of princess videos!), the following features are consistent:

  • Stacey has difficulty recalling character names.  Despite her love of all things princess, Stacey has demonstrated consistent word finding problems, often recording, “Who is that?”
  • SInce she never knew how to begin any story, I modeled, “I am Ariel.”  Stacey continues to copy that phrase, with lots of “I am…. Who is that?”
  • She has not yet created any coherent story in sequence.  Her recordings are a jumble of words, with a lot of the repetitive phrases she’s heard from her autistic brother (“And blow your nose!”).

Conclusions:  The task is too difficult for her, although it has not diminished her thrill of recording “stories.”  Stacey remembers what she has heard and that overrides the pictures she’s seeing.  For instance, one of the stories describes Ariel hiding from some eels.  Stacey adds a part of that sentence to all stories about Ariel, even though the pictures are quite different.  Once she has “mastered” (memorized) a sentence, it seems to become her default sentence, regardless of the context.

Next informal step:  Purchase a sequence game of Princess cards (Tell Tale Disney Princess Game).   We can still record her stories from picture cards, if she prefers, but this should give her an opportunity to practice with more support from me and more time to think through her ideas.

* Early concerns, part 3

How do we know if a child would benefit from early intervention?   I’ve already described my concerns about this kindergartner’s possible delays in reading, language, and social development (see parts one and two).  Not only does she have a strong family history of those issues, but has also experienced significant emotional trauma, which can lead to delays and regressions, as well.  I have not yet completed a systematic informal evaluation, but I keep gathering clues.  I was thrilled when Stacey grabbed a marker and wanted to write.

Stacey writing

We were doing some roleplaying, with Stacey creating signs that identified her as a doctor and dentist.  The paper above, if rotated, says, “I am a dentist.”  She wrote “I am a” without any assistance and left decent spacing, too.  Without lines.  Stacey got bored with that activity and turned most of the letters into happy faces.  While she was in a writing mode, I decided to check out rhyming again.  Without any graphemes, Stacy had typically become anxious about rhyming, even in a game format.  But when I asked her to use letters for rhyming, she was intrigued.  We started with cat and bat, both of which I modeled for her.  Stacey smiled and wrote my prompt, then created her own rhyme!  She was able to segment phonemes and identified three out of five short vowel sounds.  I did tell her to add a k after the c in ‘back’ and ‘black.’  Eventually, Stacey ran out of interest and said, “Period!” as she added punctuation after the word ‘hit.’  I asked, “What does that mean?” and she answered, “You are done… the….”  I suggested, “Sentence?” and she nodded.

Other observations: Stacey recognized individual one-syllable words in a sentence, blended phonemes without distortions (“k-æ-t” instead of “cuh-ah-tuh”), and demonstrated confidence and pleasure at her ability to write!  Woohoo!

Does this mean I can pack up my reading concerns?  Not until I’ve done more systematic work with her.   However, I am very encouraged with these skills!

* AlphaBooks Blogging C: Classic Cat and Cheeky Monkey

 The Cat in the Hat                                  Curious George

AlphaBooks Blogging today features two books starting with C: That would be The Cat  in the Hat by the beloved Dr. Seuss and Curious George by H. A. Rey.  It’s a scientific wonder, or perhaps advertising genius, that both authors, long since dead, continue to write more books.  These two appealing characters have their own TV shows and websites with tons of games, books to order, movies, and videos.

Personal notes: I dislike any movies with people dressed up as fictional animals.  (My dear widower hates any animal movies at all, but I think my tastes are more discriminating.)  Also, The Man with the Yellow Hat was actually a pipe-smoking animal poacher, but has now become politically correct.  It was a different world in 1941.

I do prefer the original books by far.  I believe “The Cat in the Hat” has particular value for developing readers.  All of Dr. Seuss’ books have delightful rhyming.  They provide parents (and grandparents) a terrific opportunity for word play, which is actually phonological awareness.  One of the early warning signs of dyslexia is an inability to rhyme and manipulate sounds.  If your child does not “get” rhyming by kindergarten age, assuming he or she has had lots of exposure to fun books and activities, I’d be a bit concerned.  Check to see if your child can identify discrete words in short sentences (you could clap the words, for instance).  I would also explore whether your child can add or delete syllables, again in a playful context.  For example, if you say the two syllables of  “mo-ther” slowly, can your child hear the word “mother?”  You might say “eyelids” (from “And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street”) and then ask your child to say that word without the last syllable (so the word becomes “eye”).  No need to use the word “syllables”; you can say “parts” of a word.  For most kids, these phonological skills are acquired naturally.  But if you or close family members have a reading disability, and your child can’t perform these simple sound manipulations, consider an evaluation to rule out dyslexia.  Early intervention is crucial.