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Re:Don’t punish the kids because they can’t read

The following is in response to Pat Smith’s piece in the Columbus Dispatch, which I highly recommend.

With gratitude and respect, a couple of points:

1) A lot more than 1/3 of our kids are in danger. Every child that is reading below the proficiency level assumed by the written materials in his or her classes – who is reading below the level required for the brain work of reading to be transparent to the mind-work or learning from what they are reading – is in danger. It may not be as severe but they are still, to various degrees: a) struggling more with learning at their grade levels than they would be if their reading was transparent b) susceptible to blaming themselves for their reading compounded difficulties and developing mind-shameAccording to NAEP about 2/3 of our children are below proficiency. Yes, it’s debatable but not the inclusion of a lot more than 1/3 of our children when considering the scope and impact of learning to read difficulties.

2) Yes, it would be helpful if teachers better understood the neuroscience and if they learned to employ some of the better methods out there. However, I think, the root of the teaching side of the problem has less to do with scientifically persuading teachers ‘what to believe’ and/or ‘what to use’ and more to do with how they, 1st person, learn about reading through their own experience as readers and through their experience with their struggling readers. How do teachers connect their daily ‘learning through teaching’ with their models and understandings of what reading is, how and why it’s difficult, and where to ‘read’ their readers so as to meet them with what they need? Perhaps the most amazing thing to me, in my interviews with the ‘experts’ in this space is how impoverished their conceptions of reading can be. What I think reading is.

Do we want teachers to be robotic extensions of protocols (that machines can do better) or do we want them to be continually 1st person learning into stewarding the learning of their students? So, rather than stressing ‘what to believe’ or ‘what to do’ I think we have to start more basically and get teachers to authentically ask ‘what is reading?’ ‘what’s at stake?’ ‘what’s involved in learning to read’. There’s just no substitute for their learning. So, my point: we need to focus on how to ignite and resource teacher’s appetites and interests in learning into reading (not just having disconnected abstract knowledge about ‘it’).

3) I think we need to upgrade our understanding of what’s at stake. It’s not just the absence of the ability to read, it’s the collateral damage to the general health of learning. The reason reading difficulties have such a high correspondence with so many negative life outcomes is much more than the absence of the skill and what gets learned through it – it’s what the struggling learner learns about themselves. The entire system conspires (unintentionally but nonetheless pervasively) to cause them to blame themselves for their difficulties. This is a major source of mind-shame. Just as surely as people who are ashamed of their teeth tend to avoid smiling, people who become ashamed of their minds – ashamed of learning – tend to avoid learning.


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4 Responses to Re:Don’t punish the kids because they can’t read

  1. LynnMurray June 16, 2012 at 10:24 pm #

    I have been reading your site with great interest. My daughter is one of those struggling readers who is suffering mind shame due to her difficulties. She is autistic with dyslexia. We are working with Dr Jeffery Lewine at the the Mind Research Institute in Albuquerque to hopefully alleviate some of her difficulties. Her brain simply doesn’t process language quickly or efficiently enough for reading despite a very good vocabulary. I have been thinking for some time of redefining the purpose of reading. If the purpose of reading is to provide input then interactive books, audiobooks, and text-to-speech technologies should be helpful. I am far more concerned with the perpetuation of the mind shame. You and your colleagues have done a remarkable job of defining the problem, but what is to be done about a child who is caught in shame? It is certainly not her fault that her brain doesn’t work in the way expected.

  2. LearningActivist June 19, 2012 at 9:15 am #

    Thanks for commenting Lynn. Take heart that your daughter is fortunate enough to have a mom who is awake to her challenges and has found her some professional help. There are millions of other kids suffering reading difficulties and mind-shame (though necessarily for the same reasons) who don’t have a mom like you. 
    Some suggestions (in addition to what you are already doing): 1) get and play the “Simon” game with her (the one where you have to remember a sequence of sounds and press the right button in the order that corresponds with them 2) adopt a dual track strategy of getting her accomodation technologies in school while also (outside of the school context) finding the most interesting (to her) stories to read. When she is reading try using the strategies here: to meet her on the ‘edge’ of her confusions.
    As for the mind-shame… it’s tough to overcome. Try reframing her experience so she is not so quick to blame herself for her struggles.  With fable-like storytelling, try and help her understand that learning to read is like driving a car or running a dishwasher, it’s about learning to use a human invented machine – it is not a natural process.  A cartoonish history of writing is helpful, one in which cave men learn to make scratches on sticks to make ‘receipts’ – where clay pots hold tokens of agreements and later flatten to have little word-pictures scratched into them – where paper and pen take over for clay and scratching sticks and where the pictures become symbols of the sounds of words rather than simply images of the things words refer to.
    Along the storyline help her understand what a ‘code’ is, how our machines are run by codes, how spies use secret codes, how our bodies depend on biological codes and that reading is a process of learning to ‘decode’ a code. Most importantly, help her realize that this code of ours is confusing, that way back in the days before Robin Hood a way of talking and a way of writing were forced to fit together.  That, there were many mistakes in the way they were put together – mistakes that make learning to read unnaturally difficult.
    All this may seem too much for her but in my experience it’s not. By helping her have a sense of what it is she is learning to do, especially in understanding that if it’s hard for her it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with her, you provide her a way to ‘contextualize’ her frustrations in learning to read where they belong. Rather than blaming herself for her frustrations she can attribute her struggle to the ‘messed up code’.
    Play some of our shame videos for her – hearing other kid’s talk about their shame and difficulties might help her feel less alone.
    It’s a tricky business. She must feel reading is important enough to keep trying but that her difficulties with it are in no way her fault. Your job is to provide the ‘training wheels’ she needs to progressively get better while feeling emotionally at ease in the process. 

  3. LynnMurray June 25, 2012 at 11:04 am #

    Thank you. The link: is utter font mash up on Firefox. Perhaps there is a font I don’t have? It looks like symbols, not letters. It’s a good example of how my kid feels. 🙂

    • LearningActivist June 25, 2012 at 11:14 am #

       @LynnMurray Sorry about that. Yes, unfortunately, it’s a great example 🙂 I just tested it ( ) and it works fine as it is in Chrome but in Firefox you have to ‘right click’ the link and then ‘save as’ to download the file and run it. It’s a self-playing PowerPoint slide show. Thanks again for engaging. Good luck.  

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