My cry for help to Debbie came last year when my son and I found ourselves in what seemed like a big black hole. At the beginning of my son’s grade 3 year his teacher told me that my son was a year behind in spelling. This came as a complete and total shock. I had confidence in that teacher and he said that he would work on it and maybe send some words home once a week. At the end of the year he seemed to have made a slight improvement. My real dilemma began when my son was put into his grade 4 class with the same teacher whom he had had for grades 1 and 2. I, as well as other parents were most unhappy, I particularly, as she had never mentioned to me that Sean was struggling at all. I went to see her at the beginning of last year with the belief that my son was struggling with spelling and she was very reluctant to agree, she felt that “he may be dragging his feet just a little”. Shortly after this my son brought his writing book home for me to look at and I was appalled. He had done a piece of writing that was full of spelling mistakes (the word “frome”(from) was ticked as being correct), had little punctuation and one particular sentence made no sense. The teacher made three spelling corrections, ticked the page and wrote “Keep up the good word” and that was the limit of her marking. Sean and I worked through the writing together. When we had finished it was very clear that Sean had tried really hard with his writing and with minimal changes was able to make sense of it. I was furious and presented the book to the principal of the school. The principal and teacher asked that we attend a meeting and so began our spiral down into the big black hole.
The following months were filled with stress, anxiety, and urgency. We began by working through the Spalding method and this did help substantially. We then tried working through Reading Reflex. We seemed to continually be on a roller coaster. My first goals were to teach my son to proofread and to improve his handwriting. The more I learnt about the “Whole Language” theory the clearer my son’s coping strategies became. I soon learnt that his poor handwriting was his way of having a 50/50 guess at spelling. His messy “a” could be an “o” or even a “u”. We would do some dictation and after he had written it down I would make him read his piece of writing back to me. It was here I realised that he wasn’t reading to me, he was remembering the dictation and re-telling it. Often he would read the piece of dictation back to me perfectly but when I actually looked at what he had written it did not match. It was at this point I realised that my son’s main literacy skills were remembering and guessing. It was no wonder our sessions were highly stressful situations. I finally understood why he would come up with every excuse to avoid dictation, why he would cause a distraction at every opportunity and why he would see-saw between anger and tears. The worst part of our learning sessions was that he would not interact with me. I think this comes back to school where children are set a task, perform that task regardless of the quality and move on. As long as the child makes some effort, however little it was, then that was ok and no follow up was required. We continued on, with me trying to instill in my son that writing and reading required precision. I did an activity with him which started with a word like “arm” and then tried to show him that by adding just one letter the word changed and so on. (Arm, arms, harms, harmful, harmony, pharmacy)
My son’s name is Sean and whenever he would spell a word incorrectly by putting the letters in the wrong order, I would try to point out how significant this was by spelling his name as Sena. It made him realise that it was significant when letters were in the wrong place.
We continued on our roller coaster until one day both of our frustrations erupted into a massive inferno. I told him that I would not waste my time helping him anymore because he did not want to be helped. But from this eruption came a lifeline. Sean voiced all his negative feelings about himself but at the end said “the only thing I am good at is problem solving”. It was a horrible time and I regret a lot of what I said. With hindsight, I can now see that I brought a lot of the urgency and anxiety into the situation. My feelings of guilt in not helping Sean in his first years of school really plagued me. I had returned to work and did not have the time that I had been able to take with my other 2 children. I had helped my daughter, and actually taught my other son to read in kindergarten, but did not realise just how important my help had been. I was helping Sean now but constantly wondered if it was too late.
After a week of cooling down Sean wrote me a note asking me to start helping him again. We gave it another go, this time using his problem solving approach. I feel approaching it from another angle really made a difference. I told him spelling was problem solving which slowly made him start to interact with me when trying to spell a word. This helped immensely because he would now tell me why he had or hadn’t done something and I knew his reasoning behind it. I would also question spellings of words that he had spelt correctly, to test his confidence and to have him consolidate why he has spelt it that way. Also, to help Sean in spelling a word, I would encourage him to take off the ending first and then break it into syllables and then sounds. I found, with the word “talk” for example, that he would spell it correctly on its own but if I said “talked” or “talking” he would often write “torked” . I also invented stickers to put on his head, one with a “save” button and the other a “delete” button just like on the computer. Whenever we would come across a word that concerned him we would analyse it and then decide if it was a word that he needed to save because it was difficult, or if it was a word that he did not need to store in his memory because all the sounds were there. I made quite a few references to his brain being like our computer and if he continued to store unnecessary files on it then it would become full and no longer work.
I think it is safe to say that Sean and I have finally turned the corner. All the pieces of the puzzle now fit together properly in his mind and probably most importantly he is channelling his energy into his spelling instead of trying to avoid the situation. He now interacts with me freely about why he put “er” instead of “ ur ”. I make him grade his effort, whether the mistakes he has made are allowable or silly and his grading is more realistic and accurate than before. He now proofreads well and without so much concentration on his handwriting it has improved as well. I would say his handwriting has improved at the same rate as his confidence in spelling. Sean has also shown a renewed interest in reading and last year read all 5 of the Harry Potter books, as well as others and viewed this as a pastime instead of a chore.
Last year was spent catching up and I hope that this year will be spent trying to make extra ground. We have had a big rest since before Christmas but will get back into it soon. It has been a long and lonely road, which we have travelled without any assistance from school. My goal now for Sean is to make all the skills I have taught him become an automatic reflex. His first tendency is still to guess. With time and perseverance I am sure we shall succeed.
Tasmania , Australia