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  • Writer's pictureThe Dyslexia Initiative

"Well, he's the worst kid ever!"

by Lois Letchford

"Learning and learning problems dwell in activities and cultural practices rather than in the heads of individual students."

-Curt Dudley-Marling

Quick synopsis:

The Beginning

In 1994, Nicholas failed first grade. Testing showed he could read ten words, displayed no strengths, and held a low IQ.

Exploring Learning

In July 1995, our family followed my husband and his work to live in Oxford, England. I homeschooled Nicholas for this time, and I learned that he could learn.

"Well, he's the worst kid- ever!"

It was 1996, and our family was back in our home in Brisbane, Australia. Nicholas returned to repeat the second grade. He settled into school.

One morning, I walked past the office of the diagnostician, the lady who tested Nicholas at the end of first grade.

I was aware of Nicholas's enormous challenges with learning to read, but I was also excited about his progress in England. He enjoyed learning and loved so many aspects of history.

"Hello," I said to the diagnostician, "I thought you might like to know we had such a wonderful time in England."

"Oh," she replied in a low voice.

"I used poetry to work with Nicholas," I stammered, "Nicholas learned about Captain Cook, and he loved it."

"Well," the diagnostician stood up, "I've spoken to the reading teacher, and she told me he had gone backward."

I jolted, not comprehending.

"Nicholas asked to see Captain Cook's original maps," I replied, my smile now completely gone.

"Well, he's the worst child I've seen in twenty years of teaching!" she retorted.

Shocked, I turned and left the room, with her words buried in my heart.

I drove home, lost in thought - devastated.

Luckily, I was the one in charge of working with Nicholas over the last six months. I ruminated, and I stewed.

In the car, I turned into a NASCAR driver doing a U-turn in the middle of the narrow street.

Returning to the diagnostician's office, I fumed.

"If he is the 'worst kid ever,'" I said, "then don't expect him to learn like everyone else."

We agreed upon a meeting with all of Nicholas's teachers set for the following morning.

I spent the remainder of the day unsure of the best way to prepare for that meeting.

Nicholas returned home from school.

"Mummy, can you help me read these sight words?" he asked.

"Sight-words." Those nasty little words which are essential for learning to read.

"Yes, of course," I answered, as Nicholas pulled out his little packet of words, held together with a paperclip.

He began reading both the words and the sentences. He knew all of the words until he came to the word "saw."

"I saw a cat," he stopped, shook his head and tried again.

"I was a cat." Again, he stopped.

"I as a cat," followed immediately by "I sa a cat."

I silently read the sentences:

I saw a cat climb up a tree.

I saw a man rob a bank.

Nicholas shook his head one more time before he handed me his note cards.

Again, I contemplated this scenario.

"Nicholas," I began. "Do you remember visiting Windsor Castle?"

"Oh, yes," he said, his eyes wide with excitement.

"When we went to Windsor, did we put a saw in our bags?" he squinted, looking confused.

"When we got to Windsor, did we take that saw out and say, "Quick! No guards are looking, let's cut a brick out of the wall?"

"No!" he said, his eyes now wide open.

"What did we do when we saw Windsor?"

"We looked at it!"

"Yes!" I continued, "the word saw has many meanings. Firstly, a saw is an object. Secondly, it means to cut - like sawing a tree, and finally, saw also means 'to look.'"

"So, in the sentence, "I saw a cat" means to look at the cat."

"Yes, Nicholas, it does."

In reality, what has taken two-hundred words to write, took one hour of talk for Nicholas to comprehend, but now my preparation for the morning meeting was complete. Curt Dudley-Marling's words "learning and learning problems dwell in activities and cultural practices rather than in the heads of the individual student," was my reality.

This story built my passion for teaching reading.

The teacher's sentence 'I saw a cat climb up a tree," was an exceptionally poor one to give to a child who had traveled overseas.

Firstly, the word "saw" has four meanings, and the teacher has only provided the abstract sense of the word.

As Dudley-Marling states, the failure lies in the teaching.

The teacher failed to provide an adequate demonstration of an abstract word. Yet, when a child fails to recall "the word," the teacher can quickly and easily fall back upon the testing, "your child has a low IQ."

Rather than placing teaching under the microscope and ask: What else do I have to do to teach this child to read? We blame the child for their lack of progress. This is known as the "deficit theory."

The meeting the following morning went far more smoothly than I expected, as I could pin-point precise failure in teaching. Much of my learning with Nicholas set me on a path to study literacy instruction.


Lois Letchford is a wife, mother and teacher. She is the published author of Reversed: A Memoir which tells the story of her journey with Nicholas through his struggle learning to read.

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