Lois Letchford is my guest today. Lois recognized her “learning difference” at the age of 39 when teaching her son with autism to read. She then trained to become a literacy specialist, and encourages learning through experience and context. Lois is the cofounder of the Teaching Students with Dyslexia Writing & Reading Program.
Reversed: A Memoir is Lois' first book. In this story, she details the journey of her son’s dramatic failure in first grade. The story tells the twists and turns that promoted her passion and her son’s dramatic academic turn-a-round.
Lois and I have a wide-ranging, enthusiastic conversation about her experience teaching her son and other autistic children to read, the psychology behind how children learn, and how schooling and education can cause trauma when approached from the wrong mindset.
🎧 Want to listen? This post is based off of Episode 35 of the Neurodiverging Podcast! Listen on Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify
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- Lois Letchford's home page: https://www.loisletchford.com/
- Learn more about the amazing "When Learning Is Trauma" series
- Find Lois on Twitter | Instagram | Facebook | Youtube
- Check out Reversed: A Memoir: Bookshop: https://bookshop.org/a/4824/9780684830780 | Amazon: https://amzn.to/2YIqkY2 (Affiliate Link)
- Jake Downs' interview with Pamela Snow: SOLAR: Science of Language and Reading with Dr. Pamela C. Snow on the Teaching Literacy Podcast
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Transcript of Ep. 35 / How Educator Mindset Can Traumatize Our Children with Lois Letchford
Introduction to Lois
Danielle: [00:01:03] Hello, friends, and welcome back to Neurodiverging. Danielle Sullivan here, and I’m your host! Today, my guest is Lois Letchford. Lois is a well-known literary specialist who recognized her learning difference at the age of 39 while teaching her second son to read. She then trained to become a literary specialist and encourages learning through experience and context. Lois is the cofounder of the Teaching Students with Dyslexia Writing and Reading Program, and her first book, Reversed, a Memoir, is out, telling the story of her son’s dramatic failure is first grade, and how she and he together turned it around so that he’s now got his PhD.
Lois and I had a wide-ranging, enthusiastic conversation about teaching her son to read, the psychology behind how children learn, and how schooling and education can cause trauma when it’s approached from the wrong mindset. We got along famously, and I had so much fun recording this interview. I learned so much, and I hope you will, too.
Want special access to the patrons-only after show and many other perks? Consider pledging a $1, $5, or $10 a month to fund the Neurodiverging podcast. Find out more and pledge today at patreon.com/Neurodiverging.
Danielle: [00:02:15] Hello, Lois, and thank you for joining us on Neurodiverging! I’m really excited to meet you, and thanks for being here today!
Lois: Danielle, I’m delighted to be here! I love talking about all sorts of things with neurodiversity, and particularly related to literacy.
Danielle: Yes! And Lois and I have been talking back and forth online for a little bit, and I’ll just plug it right away: she’s got a fantastic series on YouTube, [When] Learning is Trauma, right? I’m putting it in the description below. You have to go watch it! It’s so good! She has so many good things. We’re gonna talk about so many good things today. I’m really excited.
Did I get the title of that right? Learning is Trauma?
Danielle: Learning is Trauma.
Lois' Literacy Story
So, Lois, can you start off a little bit by telling us what got you into literacy in the first place? It’s a really good story, I think.
Lois: Children. Children is the quick answer. You know, I grew up reading words, not comprehending. And not for one moment did anyone ever say to me, “You’re dyslexic.” Despite that, I married a man who – I married very well.
Danielle: [laughter] Congratulations.
Lois: I married a man who has a PhD. Or, he got his PhD after we were married. So, he’s been at the top of the academic world. So, you don’t think anything about it. You have these children; the first one is quick, he can do anything. Speaks at the speed of light, thinks at the speed of light, boom – off he goes, he’s fine. The second one comes along, and he’s the absolute opposite. And, in fact, he had ear infections from the ages of 8-18 months, and I didn’t realize the implications.
Danielle: [00:04:04] My son also had ear infections during that time, and we are still dealing with it. Yeah. No one tells you.
Lois: Yes. There are brain implications. The way the brain grows because it’s not hearing normally. So, that’s an interruption there. And we didn’t know that I would be dyslexic. We only discovered that when I was starting to work with Nicholas. Nicholas goes to school in 1994, and he fails. On the sixth day of school, the teacher – I said, “How’s he doing?” And she throws up her hands and says, “Well, I don’t know how I’m going to work with him this year.” And Nicholas is biting his fingernails, wetting his pants, and staring into space.
End of the year, we get him tested. After a year of this. And, he can read ten words, he’s got no strength, and he’s got a low IQ. Disaster.
Because my husband’s a professor, he has study leave in the summer of 1995, and he goes to Oxford for six months, and of course, we tag along. We take Nicholas out of school, because he’s in a foreign country, the people speak differently. I asked if he wanted to go to school, and the blood just dropped from his face.
Lois: We’re not doing it. So, I was prepared for that, and I took a series of isolated words on a page. He’s meant to decode the word, say the word. We’d do that at the beginning, by the time we got to the end of the page, forget. No diction. No sentences, no context.
And my mother-in-law’s with me, and she said, “Lois, put away what’s not working and make learning fun.”
And I’m there. You know, there’s no Internet.
[00:06:00] You can’t get to the library because you’ve got three children. So what do you do? And I thought, “What can I do?” And I thought, Nicholas could see patterns, and he could write words – I’ll write a little poem. A little rhyming poem about mugs and bugs, and tug and lug. It was transformative.
I read it to him. We had fun reading it together. We found the rhyme. And because I write one poem, then we had the next, and the next, and the next, and it was just amazing. And Nicholas, instead of being stressful – instead of me being, “Ah! He can’t remember anything!” – he’s excited to learn. His shoulders are down. He’s relaxed, he’s loving it. And then, I wrote a poem about Captain Cook, because you’ve got cook, look, and book as rhyming words. And I wrote this poem about Captain Cook:
Captain Cook had a look.
Captain Cook had a notion,
There’s a gap in the map
In the great big ocean.
He took a look,
Without help of any book,
Hoping to find a quiet little nook.
And, with that little poem, you’ve got this small number of words, but phenomenal ideas.
Danielle: Lots of options for learning, just in that couple of lines!
Lois: And, I wanted Nicholas to walk with Captain Cook, as Captain Cook started seeing a brand new world – unlike how ours had taught him. And while we were looking at something around all of this, Nicholas said to me, “Who came before Captain Cook?”
And I said, “Nicholas, that’s easy, that was Christopher Columbus.”
“And who came before Columbus?” he says.
And my mouth hits the ground, because I’ve never though about that. And here’s this kid, this supposedly low IQ, asking these phenomenal thinking questions. And the moment he said that, I thought, “I know he doesn’t have a low IQ.” And I needed to see that.
[00:08:03] And because we were in Oxford, we actually found the book of maps that Columbus had, and they were printed in 250 A.D. So, the excitement of learning, and the learning not just in our classroom, but to the streets, to everything we were seeing – it was just mind-boggling, what happened in that short time.
Anyway, we returned to Australia, our home. Nicholas was born in Australia. And I meet the lady who [inaudible]. And I said, “I’m just so excited about all that Nicholas has learned.” And she puts her hands on her hips, and she says, “Well, I’ve spoken to the reading teacher, and he’s got it backwards. And in fact, he’s the worst child I’ve seen in twenty years of teaching.”
Lois: And, I can laugh now.
Danielle: How can you get – I just want to know how you can become a teacher and think of children in such a limited –
Lois: The diagnostician wasn’t teaching, but even the reading teacher was saying he’d gone backwards. I left because I don’t think quickly. I can’t say anything –
Danielle: Oh, no, you come back later and you have all the ideas in your head of what you should have said, but in the moment…
Lois: And I did go back to the school, and I said, “I don’t care what you call it, but if he is the worst child you’ve seen in twenty years of teaching, don’t expect him to learn like everyone else.”
Lois: And that really – her words, as hurtful as they were, gave me the power to continually change the teaching. And this is the part I wanted to talk to you about.
Autism and Literacy
[00:10:02] And that there, in the afternoon, the reading teacher sends Nicholas home with his sight words, you know, the words that –
Lois: She’s now giving him ten words, not twenty. She’d been giving him twenty, once. And, he knows eight words out of the ten words. But, he doesn’t know the word now, and he doesn’t know the word saw. And, she’s giving him the same two sentences she gives every other child in her care. No differentiation.
Lois: For the word saw, she wrote, “I saw a cat climb up a tree.” And the second sentence was even better, “I saw a man rob a bank.” Nicholas read, “I saw a cat.” He said, “No,” and he handed me the paper. Took me a while to work out what was going on – but this became the driver for me to become a reading teacher.
I’ll tell you what happened next, I became a reading specialist. I go back and do my studies. One of the papers that was given to us, in our box, was called, Beyond the Deficit Theory. And the deficit theory is when a child fails, we say, “Look at that child. Look at their IQ. Look at their home background. Look at their socioeconomic background. Look at, look at” – and we fail to look at the teacher.
And this is exactly what happened with Nicholas. “Look at him. He’s not a very smart kid, that’s why he can’t get it,” and they failed to look at the teacher. What is wrong with the sentence, “I saw a cat climb up a tree.”? “I saw” – the word saw has three meanings. The teacher has only given the abstract meaning.
[00:11:53] Children on the autism spectrum see concretely. What was he doing? “I saw the cat – I cut the cat.” No, doesn’t make any sense. And he doesn’t read, “up a tree,” because you’ve got to read a sentence and make sense of it. “I saw a cat-” he can’t go on, that doesn’t make sense.
Lois: And, “I never was a cat.” And this is where I get upset. We, as a family, had spent six months in another country. Every day we were seeing new things. And that teacher could not be bothered writing the sentences from Nicholas’ own experience. How do we fail? We fail because we fail to look at the teacher, and then we give children [inaudible].
Danielle: For sure. I think your point about concrete learning is really important, too. I was just reading a book the other day about how neurotypical people can better communicate with neurodivergent people, especially autistic people. One of the things they were harping on is that, whether that language you’re using is concrete or not, because there are so many words, just like saw, that mean multiple things. And I am not dyslexic. I am autistic. I am relatively intelligent, I have degrees – I still get stuck on words that have multiple meanings sometimes! And I’m an adult! So, for a child, who’s struggling in other ways, it’s just amazing, how inflexible some educators and some administrations can be with changing and giving us different opportunities to learn. And working with us, specifically.
Lois: It’s in being aware that these words cause a problem. A mother of a 16-year-old came to me twelve months ago. They had spent $100,000 on education, and her son was not reading.
Lois: [00:14:00] What do I do? The first thing I do is, say to the boy, give me a sentence with the word, t-o. It’s one of the ten first sight words. And he says, “I’ve got two visits the same.” That’s the number, two, he’s given me. Give me a sentence with the word, for. F-o-r. “I’ve got four great shark’s teeth,” he says to me. Why can’t this child read? Because the foundations of understanding language, of understand concrete versus abstract, has not been taught. Even though he was in a school for learning disabilities.
Danielle: Yeah. Ah.
Lois: I get cranky.
Danielle: No, I’m with you! You’re not alone! I mean, you said so many things I want to talk about just in the beginning of it, but we should keep moving on.
Children Need to Know 'Why': Reading In Context
Lois: That is fine, let’s talk about that! Because this is the start of the story. This is where it all happens. Forget the rest, this is critical. What are you going to say? I don’t want to talk anymore.
Danielle: Oh, just as a parent who has struggled with so many things, I’m like, where do I even start? So, I’ve had a similar experience with the school systems. Not with diagnosticians, or educators who were so lacking child-centeredness, and I feel like they really did want to teach to the best of their abilities, and it sounds like your school wasn’t. But still, this idea that everybody should learn the same way, and that when we modify our education for students, we make it… Like you said, changing the sight word list from 20 to 10. So, still giving them the same work, but just making it smaller, or giving it more time.
[00:15:59] So, the accommodations are there to some degree, and I’m sure they help some students, but they don’t change the work based on the students’ point of view. Which is literally, just exactly what you just said. I’m just repeating what you just said, but it just struck such a chord in me, because I have struggled as an adult – I struggled in school with this, and didn’t realize for years that it was the school’s problem, not my problem! Like, I’m a capable, intelligent person. But I do need less abstract information. I have to ask a lot of clarifying questions sometimes. I do need people to give me time to think, and to process, and then to respond.
And that’s not something that schools tend to – and, I’m only familiar with United States schools – I wish it were different in other countries, but maybe it’s not – it’s not something that schools tend to promote. They don’t teach for the child. And, especially now, in our very test-driven culture, where we’re supposed to be memorizing facts instead of learning skills. Yes, I see you nodding.
Lois: Which is what I was aiming to do with Nicholas. There’s a podcast by Professor Pam Snow, talking to a guy called… I’m gonna say Jake, I can’t remember. Jake Downs.
Danielle: I’ll find it and put it in the notes for the folks listening.
Lois: Yes. It’s phenomenal. Pamela Snow, she’s a speech-language-pathologist. That’s her background. And she said, “Children need to know why.” Why are we doing this? And that’s what I gave Nicholas in Oxford. We’re not learning letters and sounds. We’re learning about Captain Cook! Because if I read to Nicholas, I lost him! And I had to take all that information and put it into poetry form.
Lois: And he could get those things.
Danielle: [00:18:00] Yeah. I homeschool now. I started because of the pandemic, but it’s now become more like unschooling, because I want the kids to follow their own interests and their own projects. And they both do so much better. And just the small amount of trauma that my eight-year-old went through with two years in public school, with great educators who had his best interest at heart – he was still traumatized, especially around reading, because he – I don’t think he’s dyslexic. We’re considering evaluation, but I think he’s just one of those kids whose gonna pop a little bit later. Bu the noticed that he was behind most of the girls in his classroom. I think he’s at the same level as most of the boys in his classroom, but he felt like he wasn’t a “good reader.”
And he would say this to me, and he would get upset, and he would cry. And from my perspective, as – obviously, not an educator, but someone who can do research and figure out what’s normal for his age group – he seemed like he was reading fine, honestly. He was doing what he needed to do. But he wasn’t as good as the more advanced readers in his class, and he had just internalized that to be a bad reader, instead of a totally average – intelligent, but totally average first-grade reader.
And that was so frustrating, as a parent, that “I’m just not smart” rhetoric that you were talking about before. So, yeah.
Sorry, we’re just gonna be all over the place in this podcast, and it’s okay, because we’re both very strongly opinionated people.
Lois: My suggestion is to take a book that you love, at a little bit higher level than he’s reading now. Turn it into a play.
Danielle: Yes! Maybe we’ll try that. He’s – yeah. He’s very nature-driven. We do a lot, trying to – that’s what he says, he doesn’t like fiction. He mostly likes to watch and read nonfiction.
[00:20:00] So we do a lot of things around mountains and volcanos, and geographical features. I can tell you so much about –
Lois: You write your own stories!
Lois: You got ‘em.
Danielle: There’s so many things you can do! And make it – yeah, like you said, really creative and really fun. And not about memorizing what the “-ing” does at the end. If, when they’re older, they want to learn grammatical terms and past participles and gerunds, that’s great, they can learn the names of those things. But I feel like, at the beginning, it shouldn’t be about phonics necessarily – if it works for some kids, that’s great. But I don’t want him just sitting there memorizing what groups of letters are supposed to do. Because they don’t do that all the time in English, anyway. I would rather that he had fun and learn things and felt that he –
Lois: And for group words – I put the words in context.
Lois: In context, and write about them. You know, volcano, lava. Whatever you can. And then get kids to do the thinking. Use lots of pictures. Lots of pictures.
Danielle: So many.
Autistic Literacy and Slow Processing Speed
Lois: And that was interesting about Nicholas’ learning. The reading teacher was seeing this snail’s paced growth of reading and decoding, and what I was seeing. When Nicholas was seven, I actually thought I was teaching a 12-year-old from his thinking.
Lois: You know, Nicholas has a problem, like you said. Nicholas’ brain is like rocks. And it’s thinking, it’s rattling. You can see it. You know something’s going on, but you can only see it through the few words that are coming out.
[00:22:00] And they spin around, the thoughts spin around, and you’ve got to get those thoughts into order, into language, and put them in the right order so someone else can understand them. And that’s how long it takes to answer a question.
Danielle: It’s a lot of work.
Lois: It’s a lot of work! And even today, fascinating, he’s studying boats. He said, “I was on a two-person boat. And I found the communication really hard.” Then he said, “I went out by myself. And I had so much fun.” And it’s the communication issue. The thoughts, the thinking, “How do I say it? What do I have to say?” And you can’t be slow in those sort of circumstances.
So that’s our problem.
Danielle: It’s really hard for autistics. And I think I often come off as – a lot of people don’t know I’m autistic from looking at me. Which – I guess, allows me to pass sometimes and offer some privilege – but it also means that people expect I’m going to be able to communicate all the time just like a neurotypical or allistic person would, and sometimes I can, but it takes so much energy, and I fail so hard sometimes. Or it’s so exhausting sometimes, and I need so much alone time and recuperative time.
And that’s another thing schools don’t offer that to our kids. Kids who need more processing time or recuperative time. So, yeah, I have many thoughts about schools –
Lois: And other ways of doing things, other than answering this question. Particularly when they’re so young.
Danielle: Yep. And they can’t communicate – I can barely communicate what I need in terms of support. What I need other people to help me with. And, for kids, it’s like – I was surprised my 8 year-old could even really tell me about what he was feeling around reading, and what he was feeling around comparing himself to other students.
[00:23:57] Because most kids, I don’t think, have – many kids don’t have the emotional intelligence or verbal ability to string that kind of high – it’s high-effort, it’s highly emotional. It’s that meta-cognition piece is tough for adults, much less 8-year-olds, so. Yeah.
Lois: Oh, I totally agree. Totally agree.
How Lois Began Teaching Literacy
Danielle: Yeah. So, you obviously got somewhere with Nicholas, and now you work coaching literacy. How do you frame what you do? I feel like you do a lot.
Lois: I do! Well, what happened to me… you know, I’m teaching Nicholas, and people eventually got to the label of second-percentile speech and language impaired developmental language delay. Our family moved from Brisbane, Australia, to Lubbock, Texas, when Nicholas was 11. Nicholas went from bottom to top when we were in Lubbock. And in my report, I identify 9 factors that helped him that would not have happened in Brisbane, Australia. In Lubbock, one of the first people I meet is a mother whose 13-year-old is non-reading.
Articulate, but non-reading. So, way better than Nicholas. Had spent four years on a phonics-only reading program.
Lois: And every day, the mother took him out of school to this place, and back again, for an hour and a half, and came out non-reading. Disgraceful. The school district paid for it. And I said, “I think I know what to do.”
The school district paid me to teach him over the summer. I taught him to read. At the end of the summer, he’s reading. The mother writes to the school district, “You employ this woman right here.”
I get employed. I’m now in touch, in the school district, with other children who have failed reading programs, and it allowed me – I’m teaching under ideal circumstances.
[00:26:06] I’m teaching children who come to me from ages 7-16 with nothing. Teach them to read, Lois. That’s your job. Okay, so that’s what I did. So, I build up my philosophy through that. Practical work. Realize that many of the pieces that are involved, teach the most vulnerable students. I like to say “vulnerable,” I don’t like to say, “struggling students.” But they are vulnerable. And they’re vulnerable to a whole variety of tests. And I was a diagnostic teacher.
So, then we move again, with my husband and his work. So now, I’m in upstate New York. What do I do? I do my Master’s. I can’t teach up here, so I wrote my book, Reversed: A Memoir, and Nicholas’ story, to me, was always good. Because he failed first grade. We got it documented. He graduates high school in the top of his class. He graduates with two undergraduate degrees, one in mathematics and one in engineering. And then he has a scholarship to do a PhD in applied mathematics.
“What do you want to do, Lois?” I want to write a story.
I can’t write.
So I start writing, and I start going to writing classes, and I meet a young lady, my son’s age, and she says, “Lois, I’ll help you.” And she was affordable, and she helped me write my book and get it published. And it was published when Nicholas graduated with his Phd.
Danielle: Wow, that’s so fantastic!
Lois: Yeah. And, it’s my story as well as his story, because I’m reflecting on my life, my learning, and then my teaching. And so, that’s how it happened, and now, I’ve connected with other people.
[00:28:02] And, I’ve been able to do – I didn’t ever think I’d be able to do a reading program, because I individualize it. But I met with this guy who does writing, and now I’ve got a reading-writing program that we’re working on, and I’m delighted with it.
Because it’s for older kids. And, you know, engagement is critical. Letters and sounds are minor. I’ll tell you what you’ve got to do.
Next Monday, on When Learning is Trauma, we’re talking to a lady called Doctor Mary Helen Immordino Yang. She talks about emotions and learning, and how emotions are a critical component of learning. So, what you’re doing with your boys, building volcanoes and talking about whatever you’re talking about, the children are relaxed.
Lois: The children are engaged. And that part often doesn’t happen in literacy programs. We forget that emotional engagement, and that’s what turned Nicholas around.
And now, that’s what I was going to tell you, blah blah blah –
How did this When Learning is Trauma come about? I mean, you can read by book, Reversed: A Memoir. It tells you most of the things, and you can email me, talk to me any time.
Nicholas graduated with his PhD from Oxford University. No one’s interested in my story. Anyway.
And I said to Nicholas. I’m thinking, now I can talk to Nicholas. “What happened in first grade?”
Nicholas is confident, he’s articulate, he talks to anyone.
My son cried. And not a word emerged from his mouth. And for the very first time, I recognized this as trauma. We hadn’t dealt with it. And I know I’m guilty. I didn’t deal with it because I thought I was over. I didn’t have the skills or the knowledge to deal with whatever.
[00:30:01] And then, I thought, I can’t deal with that now. I said, “Nicholas, well, tell me what happened when you and I learned together in Oxford.”
And it was a transformation! The sad face went, and he was laughing! And he said, “I remember the poems you wrote me.” And he named the poems!
Danielle: They really stuck.
Lois: Yes! You know, it was a transformation. And he was relaxed, and he was happy. And he named the poems, and then he said, “And the mapping. The mapping about Captain Cook. That’s where I learned to love learning. And I never want to stop learning.” And then he started to giggle. And he said, “And you wrote a poem about a witch’s spell, and I wrote the witch’s ingredients!
He was laughing and laughing! He said, “I don’t remember what they were, I just remember it being so funny!”
And now, it’s all starting to click in my brain, because I didn’t write about the witch’s spell in my book, because I didn’t deem my poem good enough. And I ignored the implications of him, and the excitement of writing the witch’s ingredients. And it was, you know, bird poo, three drops. Blood of the devil. Alien’s eyeballs! I mean. And, what matters is that he was emotionally engaged and connected. And that learning has lasted him a lifetime, and I didn’t know that.
Danielle: Yeah. That connection is such a big piece, and I feel like that was what was missing for my kids in some of their public-school efforts. They get tired, they can’t take breaks.
[00:32:00] The teachers are trying, but there’s twenty other students there. How are they supposed to, yeah, feel connected to the material and the people? How can you feel connected to phonics? Like, there’s no emotional engagement in phonics. Someone else can yell at me about it, but –
Lois: You’ve got to do it in a way that, it’s connected.
Danielle: Ah, look!
Lois: I read a book – no, I didn’t. I waded through a book [inaudible]. And, on about page 130-something, I’ve got it here – she says, “What do children remember? You don’t remember, you struggle memory when things are isolated, abstract, and irrelevant. Hard to recall. Difficult to recall. Impossible to remember. Takes an inordinate amount of attention to be learned.” So, think about it. What do you remember? You remember what’s relevant, connected, and related. And if it’s surprising, funny, interesting, remembering it is no effort at all.
Lois: That’s how I teach.
Phonics by flash cards? Forget it.
Lois: And I think of it like a bird’s nest. You’ve got to find an image for those words. For those sounds. It’s easier to remember a sentence than it is a word. It’s easier to remember a word than a sound. So you’ve got to have it all. You’ve got to have – that’s where the poetry comes in. Create the poems. And then, you’ve got the vocabulary included in. And you’ve got the rhyming words included in, where you’re repeating that sound.
[00:34:00] It’s connected, it’s relatable, it’s relevant.
Danielle: It’s perfect.
Lois: It’s what you have to do when you’re teaching children who are struggling. You cannot alienate them, saying, “You just have to learn it.”
Danielle: No, that won’t get you anywhere.
Lois: That’s what we do!
Danielle: That’s a more shut down child.
Lois: And the poetry, like my poetry – it takes on a world of its own. Because we forget that engagement is critical in learning to read. Critical. If we don't have engagement, and with engagement, you're having motion. And Nicholas, 25 years later, you're starting laughing about something we did when he was seven.
Danielle: It’s really amazing. Yeah.
Lois: And I've talked to a number of my students as adults. And you know, my students, they were old 13 and 14 and failed. And my first student here said, “You know, she doesn't know what she's getting, I don't think she'll be able to do it. No one else can. Why is she going to make a difference?”
Danielle: I think there's a real lack of interest in making reading fun. I feel like a lot of teachers say, “Well, once you're reading, then you have access to all these books, and isn't that exciting, and all this stuff.” But if you don't have the perspective of someone who's struggling, then you can't… a lot of people aren't creative enough to come up with a way to make it interesting and fun and exciting for the child.
Lois: Because the average child learns to read with relative ease. We try and just do more of that into down the bottom and it doesn't work. And they have that philosophy of in grades 1, 2, 3, you learn to read in from grade three on when you read to learn. That is fallacy. The moment children are learning to read is the moment they are reading to learn.
Danielle: [00:36:09] Absolutely.
Lois: And words are connected to meaning. Words are meaningful. And if we don't connect it with meaning, we're talking foreign language.
Danielle: Absolutely. Yeah. I think that for my – especially for my non nonfiction – he is not a reader yet. He is working on it. But his idea – and there’s that autistic straightforwardness again. But for him, words have to be linked to real life practical things. He doesn't want to read about dragons and unicorns and magic. And that's just him. He wants to read about Kilimanjaro. He wants to read about his favorite mountain. He wants real practical things. And that's what words are for, for him. Words are for knowing the universe better. And if he can't do that with them, then what's the point? There's no point? He won't do it.
Lois: I'm sure you always have a map.
Danielle: Yeah, yes, yes, yes. He's very interested in geography. And we live in Colorado, we're right by the Front Range of the mountains. He's memorized the names of the mountains, he can recognize dfficultly-named mountains, and still doesn't know a lot of sight words, because he's much more motivated, which is fine. That's not a judgment. He's much more motivated to learn the names of the mountains, they mean something to him, it's valuable to him. You know, of course, he's going to remember those. We have very similar viewpoints.
Lois: [00:38:52] You know, I just move heaven and earth. I really try hard to teach my kids to read. Sometimes sometimes I'm more successful than others. I rarely fail. But when I do, I'm hurt. I failed.
Danielle: Reading is so valuable, it can give you so much. It's, of course we want our kids to learn if they can, you know, and most kids can. So yeah, it's a struggle. Yeah.
Lois: Well, my big deal – and I was looking here at what I said was, how mindset impacts so much. And that's the critical part with – that child's autistic, or that child's this or that or the other – we have to give our kids more time. And we have to believe they're teachable.
It tells you when with Nicholas, in particular. “Worst job I've seen in 20 years of teaching.” That's the mindset.
I took her words, and I thought one day, those words will come back to bite you. I didn't say that. I certainly thought I didn't know now, how. And no way in the world, did I expect Nicholas to get a PhD.
Danielle: Yes. That's a huge achievement. Yeah.
Lois: Yeah! To read and to write and what you were saying before about was slowing thinking. Nicholas had accommodations, but the accommodation was to give him support with writing. And in Oxford, they do an oral examination. And he had support to do that, in that he was given practice. Yes. What they did was said, this is the question, Nicholas, and when they ask you a question, you have to repeat back. Is this what you mean? And so he practiced that skill. And that was another huge component.
[00:40:00] But people still judge him today. Because he is slow with his thinking. And his wife – he's now married – his wife says, “You can see, people just think, oh, that man's dumb.” Because he's slow with some responses.
Lois: But you know, Nicholas, his knowledge is wide range of knowledge just astonishes me. And I don't know where he's picked it up or who's got it. But you know, he's got it, he can do it. Amazing.
Danielle: I think that people who communicate quickly and easily don't realize what a struggle it is, for those of us who just don't have that talent or ability, it just takes so much work. So I really hear that.
Yeah, I think what I was thinking was that, earlier in the interview you were talking about, and I can't remember how you worded it now. But you were talking about the framing between – oh, you said “deficit”. You said, whether we are looking at “the child is failing” due to something about the child or whether this teacher is failing, or the educational system is failing, due to something about the way that they're approaching the child.
And I was thinking about that in terms of autism, too, and other neurodivergences, because we often talk about a very similar issue where, often in the disability world, a disabled person is looked at as a person who is failing, but actually, what is usually happening is that the society is failing us in some way, right?
We don't have the accommodations we need. And that's sort of what's happening, maybe with Nicholas as well is that, if this was an inclusive, accessible world, people would be aware of and have more knowledge around, people communicating in different ways, people taking more time to process. And instead, what's happening is that individuals like me, or maybe like your son, and others, are seen as less intelligent or at fault in some way.
[00:42:06] But it's just the lack of, it's just ableism it's just a lack of inclusivity around our abilities, because we are often just as able with accommodations with supports. It's just, we don't do it the same way as a traditional person does.
And that's so frustrating. It's so frustrating. I don’t know.
Lois: My mother in law was in a wheelchair. She was a smart as a whip. She's in a wheelchair, and we had to get on a bus. And we were asking about the bus. The bus driver ignored her and talked to me.
Danielle: Yes, and if –
Lois: It goes across multiple spectrums.
Danielle: Yes, yes, yes. Ableism hurts on lots of different people in lots of different ways. But I feel like reading is maybe not – like, the wheelchair example is a really great example of very obvious ageism and ableism.
Whereas, the literacy example – a lot of people wouldn't immediately pin that to ableism, thinking somebody cannot do something like that.
It's harder to see, it's a little sneakier, almost. So yeah, just to point it out as a way of… the framing is so important. And that that has to do with your comment about mindset, right? That in a bigger way, we need to be bringing a mindset of inclusivity and diversity.
Lois: When I speak to teachers, I say to them, “Instead of seeing that child as learning disabled, see them as future rocket scientists.”
Lois: And say that to the child. And it switches your mindset just a bit.
Lois: [00:44:04] Because many people, even right up until third or fourth, third grade in Australia – we had wonderful classroom teachers in second grade and third grade, wonderful.
But he was still seen as slow. Nick always says to me, “I wasn't good at anything, in primary school, elementary school, I wasn't good at anything.” And it took him till Lubbock to really shine, and to find his niche, and to find things that he was better at than anyone else.
But, you know, it sticks with you. And then there's your trauma.
Lois: And you have to deal with it as an adult. We have to deal with it.
Danielle: Absolutely. I think that education in the early years really needs to be much more about building skills, and less about memorizing. Because I think so many kids are building their self-esteem in those early years. So, that’s where your root of your self-esteem, and your knowledge of yourself, and your trust in yourself comes from.
And if you're in a situation, in school, or in your family, where you're being told, or people around you are thinking that you're not capable, then of course you're going to internalize that. And of course, you're going to be traumatized from it. And it's going to affect the whole rest of your life, in lots of ways.
And I feel like you can always catch up on memorizing facts. And even with reading, you have 16-year-olds who can learn to read right? You can catch up on that stuff. It's not ideal, but you can do it. But rebuilding broken self-esteem is something that's so much harder to do in my experience.
Lois: It’s vital. So yeah, it doesn't take much to trigger. Something else that had happened earlier on, that hadn’t been acknowledged.
I think we've got to do more writing. I think that those early years, and pushing kids to speed up and get to this level, by the time you're age eight or nine, why?
Daniele: [00:46:06] I don't know.
I'm not the person who can defend that. I just don't think it makes any sense at all. From when I was in school to educating my children now, as an odd schooler, I really don't understand the rush on a lot of that stuff. I think there's other things that are more important.
Lois: And build background knowledge. Building up towards a love of learning. You know, whatever that be. Connect experience. Because, you know, learning is built on experiences, what you're seeing, what you're hearing. And we know children from low socio-economic backgrounds have a lower experience; we've got to expand that.
Danielle: Yeah, that's what schools could be doing instead of the drills and the –
Danielle: Yep. I completely agree.
Lois: That's what I did. That's what we did with Nicholas, and I didn't realize that's what we were doing. And I've got to write about another bit. I'll never forget him. I was in the kitchen. And Nicholas got out of our lessons for about half an hour earlier, one day, and he was in the lounge room, and he switched on the TV to BBC Two.
And it was a history channel he had on. We were in England. And then the next thing I heard, “Mum, mum! You gotta come, you gotta come.”
Nicholas was calling!
And it was a picture of a place that we had visited. And it was the history of the place and the scribes that were writing there and what they were doing, and then it went into showing the printing of the Bible. Of the Gutenberg Bible.
And Nicholas's mind just went, oh!
And how that all interacted with the mapping. The mapping required printing to bring the tatami mat to life in the 1450’s. And they needed things to print. Oh, we got to print this. And that's how Columbus got home.
Danielle: [00:48:08] Yeah.
Lois: I mean, it was just so intricate. It was staggering. All these interconnections that happen.
And once children start to see that, the lights start to go on all directions.
Danielle: There's so many skills associated with that. And one of the main comments I hear from people who worry about unschooling is, “Well, how will they learn language arts, if they're only interested in volcanoes or whatever? How can you connect this thing to this other thing?”
There's always a way to connect one thing to the other thing. Everything is interconnected. In ways you could never even imagine. The more you learn about a topic, the more you realize how intertwined it is, with everything else going on. And I think sharing that with our kids and bringing that to light and just, helping them notice that, will do so much in the way of education just by itself. You don't have to be sitting there drilling with most kids. They'll get it. It's there in the world.
Lois: Doling out worksheets.
Danielle: Yes. Oh, no, let's just go – we went apple picking the other day. Do you know how much we could talk about seasonality? How plants grow? About weather, about genetics, about – you could do anything with that. So yeah, I get very excited.
Lois: And the language you’re using with the children. You know, and that is all that is so critical. That is so important.
Lois: Widening their world. And again, you’re connecting it.
Danielle: I think, the more experiential stuff you do, the more likely you are as an adult to use broader language, right?
[00:49:59] If you're in the classroom every day, of course, you're going to be talking about the same things. And there's something to be said for routine. But if you're going out into the world and experiencing things, your vocabulary is going to be broad. And so, your children are going to develop better vocabulary as well. And, make more connections among things.
I feel very passionately about experiential learning.
Lois: And, you've got them in a relaxed state of mind. Ryan is ready to learn.
Danielle: They're much more likely to actually take it in and remember it later. And, you know, like you said, I'm really excited, in 20 years to ask my kids, “What do you remember about this?” Because I expect it will be completely different from the things that I've happened to hang onto. And it’s funny, what they catch and what I feel is most important, versus what they feel is the most important.
Even when we debrief, after a field trip, figuring out, they thought this was really interesting, but I was completely over here, with this other thing. It's so cool.
Lois: Yeah, no, it was such a relief to see Nicholas doing well, because the prognosis was so bad. But when you look at what he can do, and what he did you realize that's the brain they left behind. They just assumed he wouldn't be able to. Yeah.
Now he can do things with mathematics, that the vast majority of these people on the planet haven't got a clue about.
Danielle: Mhmm. I'm one of them. So I can –
Lois: Oh, me too. That’s why we have to teach children to read from all backgrounds, because we don't know what we're leaving behind.
Daniele: Thank you so so, so much for being here. I really enjoyed our conversation. And I'm so excited to get this out to folks.
Lois: Thank you for having me, Danielle, I’m delighted to be here.
You can find me on Twitter, @letchfordlois, on Facebook, on LinkedIn. And I’m doing a little bit more on Instagram. Please buy my book, Reversed: A Memoir. Read it, write a review, share it with others, particularly with educators.
Danielle: Yes, thank you so much. Go buy her book. I'm gonna buy it. I didn't yet because I was stuck on the YouTube channel. But that's next on my list. Because it's gonna be good. I know it. I'm really excited.