Still Learning: Learning Differently
by Julia Sneden
We do not bind the feet of our babies so that all will fit into one, universal shoe size. Why do we try to wrestle their minds into one educational box?
Most children are able to perform adequately in school, some with great ease and some with a slower pace and lots of hard work. But what of perfectly intelligent students who cannot fit our educational molds? Referred to by many confusing terms like dyslexic,learning disabled, ADD or ADHD, or even the intimidating strephosymbolic, these children can be infuriating to teach. They seem unable to concentrate on what is being presented. They can be highly distractible. They appear to be unable to remember more than one instruction at a time. When they do get the right answers, they seem to receive them direct from heaven, because as far as we can tell, their reasoning processes are nothing like ours. Not only are those processes hard to follow: the students themselves often can’t describe them.
In math class, they may be the only ones to offer a correct answer to a sophisticated problem, but when asked to demonstrate on the board how they reached it, they can’t do it. The teacher may suspect back-of-the-book cheating from the answer page. Teachers often are annoyed by such students because their intelligence is obvious, and surely if only they had more discipline, or more sleep, or more patience, or better support from home, they could reach answers in a more organized fashion…
Well, no. They are divergent learners, and our world is full of them. Their scores on IQ tests may range from average to highly gifted. Sometimes, with prescriptive teaching on a 1:1 basis, they can be taught to learn in traditional ways. More frequently, they simply hunker down and make do until they can get away from school and take on real life, where they often do just fine, or even excel in their chosen fields.
Our schools are all too rarely set up to accommodate these kids. When I taught kindergarten, I was actively involved in identifying children with learning differences. In my class, we looked for children who were at high risk for having difficulty in learning to read, so that in first grade, they could enter a special program designed to prevent failure. The following observations and conclusions come from my experiences with those children during my teaching years.
The first three years of grammar school are really all about learning to read, and those children who have problems with it often suffer serious crises of confidence, no matter how bright they are. You can’t watch everyone around you catching on to something that you yourself can’t understand, without being shaken mightily. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for many children is the fact that our alphabet consists of two-dimensional symbols for a series of sounds. In their world up to this point, two-dimensional symbols (such as drawings) represent three dimensional objects. I know of one nearly adult student of technical theatre who could read nothing but his own name, and yet he was able to wire an entire theatre building from a schematic drawing. The drawing, of course, was a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional concept.
One reason why the study of music can often help school performance is that, in addition to its obvious relationships to math, musical notes are also two-dimensional symbols for sounds. Grasp that concept, and you grasp the basis of reading, either words or music.
Some children don’t seem to be able to “fasten down” the letters. One child said to me: “They just dance up and down!” In most cases, however, children find abstract symbols incomprehensible because the symbols actually lack plasticity. The static nature of letters is inconsistent with the way the mind works.
For a very young child, any visual aspect of a letter is valid. Think of it this way: We live in a three-dimensional world. Our brains are wired to recognize and make sense of things no matter which aspect we see. We can observe a bird with wings extended in flight, and yet still recognize it as a bird if we see it sitting on a nest, or bending down to peck grain. When we present children with the alphabet, we go against their own experience of the world, because suddenly a b is only a b if you don’t rotate it. Turn it around, and it’s a d. Upside down, it is a p. Turn p around, and you have q.
The child who inverts or reverses letters as he writes is simply showing a different aspect of the form we see. An A upside down, for instance, becomes a V with a line across it, and on its side, it resembles an arrowhead. Once a child in my class drew something that consisted of two little boxes with a line between them: “It’s an A if you’re looking at it from the bottom (i.e. from underneath, looking up),” he said. I later found out that his parents had a glass-topped coffee table, and he delighted in crawling under it to look at objects that were sitting on it, a new view of reality for sure.
Children have to master the concept of letters as two-dimensional objects only, not as representations of something three-dimensional. That’s why I dislike blocks made in the shape of letters. They can be manipulated and turned all sorts of ways, which confuses the issue.
Add to this problem of dimensionality the need to teach children how to:
— approach decoding a word by sounding out the letters from left to right
— understand that the space between groups of letters denotes a word unit
— begin at the proper place on the page and proceed from top left to bottom right
and you begin to understand just the physical complexity of reading. The business of moving the eye from left to right, top to bottom, is a learned behavior, not something one knows instinctively. If we were teaching Hebrew, we’d move right to left, and if we taught Chinese, we’d start at the bottom of the page and scan vertically, not horizontally.
Along with the physical aspects of reading, children must master the rules of phonics, learning a sound or several sounds for each letter and a few digraphs like th or wh. Vowels are really tricky. For instance, there are more than a dozen ways to spell the long sound of “e” (ee, ie, ea, y, ei ... etc.) Once learned, a child must then apply the sounds in left/right order as they come up in each word, never mind memorizing all the “outlaw words” that break those selfsame rules. And if you think there aren’t too many of those, consider the inconsistencies evident in spellings like home/comb/foam or for that matter, home/come.