This morning I woke up to another winter wonderland.
I’m searching for concrete. I need something hard to run on because I’m sick of feeling like I’m running on sand, sheets of ice or running backwards. I want to wake up in the morning and know what the surface beneath my feet is going to be like. I don’t want to guess anymore. Do I wear spikes? How many snow drifts will I have to hurdle? Are there hidden sheets of ice under the 4 inches of snow? The thing with running on smooth concrete is that you can go fast because you aren’t guessing and wondering about every step. Running is automatic, and you don’t need to think while you are putting one foot in front of the other. You can enjoy the beautiful scenery and a wonderful conversation with your friends while getting exercise.
A dyslexic reader is also searching for concrete. Before they are taught the mechanics and system of the English language, English is just a jumble of symbols that don’t seem to make sense. The letters are not reliable. The letters sometimes have different sounds based on……what? It’s very confusing for many people, but particularly someone with dyslexia. Concrete concepts in reading and spelling are something that don’t come natural to a dyslexic, and their brain isn’t wired for this. Rules need to be taught in a very systematic, concrete, repetitive way with a lot of guided practice. You actually need to rewire the brain and train it to accept the concrete rules.
Try reading with a young dyslexic child. When #2 was in first grade he would pick up the book Go, Dog, Go! during his read aloud time after school. He would look at the picture, put his finger under the words and say, “The two dogs rode their scooters toward each other and waved hello. They were happy because they had on very interesting hats. The big dog took the feather and that was OK.” Here is the page:
The letters and words didn’t matter, he knew there was a rule about getting the clue from the picture and that has something to do with these letters on the page. Because the letters made no sense, he would give his best guess. This reading strategy, when in absence of any phonics skills, doesn’t get a reader very far.
Imagine how exhausting it would be if you were asked to read and write for much of the day and you could only guess, hope for the best, and pray you weren’t absolutely humiliated at some point when you are asked to read aloud or write something. Guessing wouldn’t get you very far and would be incredibly frustrating if everyone around you seems to know some secret code and you don’t. Until I started teaching #2 with the Wilson Reading System I had always been confused by spelling and syllables and phonics. Very quickly I realized how easy it is to spell when you understand there are concrete rules for spelling and syllable division. Closed syllables, open syllables, vowel-consonant-e, etc. Rules when there are double letters. Rules when there is a schwa sound (a vowel that has an unexpected sound). Rules for exactly where one syllable ends and the next one begins. I had gone through my life thinking everyone was constantly guessing at this confusing thing called spelling and I just had a real knack for constantly guessing wrong….little did I know there was a concrete system! Guessing is no way to go through life.
Dyslexics innately rely on higher level thinking skills to understand the world, not concrete rules. Dyslexics can take a lot of random ideas and put them all together in one thought must faster and easier than a non-dyslexic (such as talking about the weather, running, phonics, reading, spelling and a little life history all in one thought. If you don’t at all understand this post…perhaps its because you aren’t dyslexic!) Phonics, spelling and multiplication tables are concrete and systematic. At first these rules are seemingly random to a dyslexic and must be memorized with repeated practice….lots and lots of practice. Spelling and reading need to be taught with concrete rules where the students divide words into syllables, label the syllable type, mark vowels, locate blends and digraphs, and ultimately read or spell the word.
After these skills are practiced over and over with a teacher reminding the student of the steps the student slowly gains automaticity. Automaticity is when you don’t need to constantly think of the rules. The goal is for a dyslexic child to eventually write the word “dependable” without needing to go through all the concrete steps each time:
- How many syllables are in the word? 3
- Is there a suffix? Yes. I’ve memorized suffixes and I hear -able
- What is the base word? depend
- Ok, spell the base word first. Remember the suffix at the end of the baseword steps.
- What is the first syllable? de
- What kind of syllable is it? Let me think.
- I know its an open syllable because I hear a long vowel sound at the end and its not closed in by a consonant.
- How many sounds are in the first syllable? /d/ and long e.
- Now I’m going to write the first syllable.
- Stop…there is a /d/ sound. Every time I hear that sound I need to think….donut door. OK, I know how to write that.
- What was I doing? (working memory getting overloaded)
- Oh yes, the first syllable….what was the word? Oh yeah, dependable.
- Write the d…..e….because its an open syllable.
- And, the next syllable…..what was the word? Dependable.
- OK, second syllable. pend. I know its pend because “able” is at the end and that’s a suffix. Remember, only the base.
- spell base word first, then add the suffix.
- second syllable. Its closed. I heard a blend. how many sounds. write the sounds.
- p….e…..n…..STOP!!!! WHICH WAY DO I MAKE THE D???? DONUT DOOR!!! OK, ……d.
- I’ve got the base. Now the suffix. able. that was the one with the schwa sound that I had to memorize….its spelled a…b…l….e.
- OK, finally I have one word down….dependable.
Made it! (Now try writing a paragraph!) With constant guided practice, eventually a person with dyslexia can look at the word and read it quickly (reading fluency) and write the word automatically. Gaining automaticity is vital to reading enjoyment, reading to learn and written expression. Without it, the student will go back to guessing because, in a sense, that is infinitely easier than constantly remembering all the steps for each word you face. With automaticity, working memory is not overloaded, the deep meaning of text can be appreciated and reading and writing become enjoyable and not a slog. The student is confident they KNOW what the word is, there is no more guessing, they understand the concrete rules of language.
The goal is to be sure of your footing and run as fast as you can down the concrete, covering as much ground as you can….and loving every minute of it.