Posted on 31st January, 2014 by
"Itâs been 31 days of laureateship so far: nine interviews, five articles, juggling the next two yearâs time table with Geri and Justine of the ACLA office, plus had the extraordinary joy of reading offerings like Samâs.
Have also given away 29 books (the last one is for my Mum, a historical thriller I loved over the holidays and suspect sheâll adore as well); written 89,000 words of a novel; begun work on three of the laureate projects; made 8 jars of peach and grapefruit jam for the CBCA conference visit down here in May (to be served with kumera scones and selections of soups); picked tomatoes and zucchini; and mooched with the wombats.
The wombats are not impressed with the laureateship. Or maybe they are. Itâs hard to tell with wombats. As long as it doesnât interfere with their carrot supply they are probably okay with it. (Have deputised Bryan to do the carrot delivery.)
And now, down to the nitty gritty of the next two yearâs laureateshipâŚ
Every Child in Every School
One in eleven kids in Australia is not deemed worthy of professional education. Instead their most important teaching is done by amateur volunteers, or even byÂ volunteer students. They are the abandoned ones. Worse, so many accept without question that these kids donât deserve the gift of the professional teaching other kids get.
These kids donât belong to an easily identified minority. If red-haired kids were denied professional teaching thereâd be an outcry.
Sometimes they are labelled âdyslexicâ which is a handy all-in-one term for a wide range of learning differences and difficulties. But many of the kids Iâve met in âsupported learningâ classes in the last five years have suffered simply from uninspired teaching.
Apologies: if youâre reading this then you are almost certainly a teacher of the âmagicâ variety, who loves kids and inspires them and does the extra slog to read this blog. Iâm thinking of the teachers I met in a staff room last year. To quote part of a conversation I overheard:
âI donât know why we bother turning up. Hopeless the lot of themâ
âYeah. Should just lock them in a room and let them out at eighteen.â
No teacher at the table bothered to disagree.
Kidâs reading problems usually begin in the first year of school, a child a little or a lot slower at picking up the basics than the rest of the class. These kids may be slow leaners generally. More often, they simply need to be taught in different ways.
If they are lucky, in their first few years at school they may be offered an afternoon or two a week of âassisted readingâ by a volunteer parent or a âbuddyâ â an older kid whoâll help. Often, this is enough. Other times, it isnât.
The brighter kids â and often these kids are very intelligent indeed â learn how to cover up their inability to read and to write. In all too many cases the kids are progressed up the school, despite not knowing the basics of literacy. By the time they are between twelve and fifteen they are categorised as âunteachableâ. Or in the words of Teacher X, âWhy do we bother?â
I am dyslexic. Iâm not sure what my âproblemâ is, but I do know the symptoms: it is difficult, sometimes impossible, to distinguish individual letters and, especially, numbers. I read in the way I gather speed readers do, scan an entire page, sometimes from bottom to the top starting at the right-hand side: when you scan as I do thereâs not much difference where you begin on the page. Itâs not a tracking problem, nor a coordination problem nor does it really matter: my âdisabilityâ seems to be linked to an ability to read, absorb and collate data quickly. If any one has a cure Iâd rather they kept it to themselves.
Mine is one of the most common forms of dyslexia. Â It canât be cured (thank goodness) but it can be accommodated: teach kids with my form of dyslexia to touch type, and theyâll learn to read by writing, as when you touch type you donât need to look at what youâre writing. Other reading difficulties can be overcome, by exercises supervised by a specialist ophthalmologist, speech therapy, with physical co-ordination training, even by being taught to use Braille and dozen of other interventions that target the root problem.
Often kids have missed the vital time to learn with their peer group because they donât learn well while sitting down or staying quiet. If teachers had let these kids talk in class, getting help from the kid next to them, theyâd probably have been okay. If the teacher had taken the class out once a day, taught them to write with water pistols on a concrete wall, while moving, or âflownâ from written word to written word across the playground, thereâd be no gap to close.
There is no âone best wayâ to teach every child. Be wary of any approach that says it works for everyone.
This isnât an essay on the many forms and causes of reading problems. Instead it is a plea: let every child, in every school, be taught to read and write by a professional teacher.
If kids fall back â especially if they fall back â donât consign them to the help of volunteers, then wash your hands of them.
This is not to disparage the services of volunteers â especially where the scheme involves specific training in the delivery of a well-researched program. Volunteers can perform magic, creating eager confident readers and bringing them up to the norm â or far past it â in literacy skills. The âbuddy systemâ, where older kids help younger ones, can also be extraordinarily successful.
But it should not HAVE to be like this. Volunteer amateur medical help can save kidsâ lives, too, but we expect that all Australian children will have accessÂ to trained doctors and nurses when needed. It should be the same with literacy.
Why do we assume that kids with âreading difficultiesâ deserve no more?
So what is needed? Mostly a change in priorities: every teacher and every parent, must accept responsibility for every child in their care, to make sure all get the professional tuition necessary for their acquisition of the literacy skills necessary to be a fully engaged and participating student. The longer a child- or young adult- spends unable to read fluently, the more techniques and knowledge they need to learn to catch up.
Every teacher needs to vary their teaching methods so that all kids get a chance to learn. ASK the kids how they like learning: the answers may surprise you.
We need to fund and provide more specialist teachers. More referrals to specialist ophthalmologists,Â speech pathologists,Â occupational therapists, specialist hearing tests that check not just what kids hear but what words and sounds they can distinguish. Doctorâs visits for kids with sleep apnoea.
But we need mostly a willingness to work out WHY a kid isnât keeping up or fulfilling their potential, and an even greater acceptance of the need to work out HOW this can be corrected.
Keep up the wonderful volunteer programs, but accept that they are helpers â not load them up with the sole responsibility for making good the gaps in the regular school system.
There is no single greater duty for any school than to teach its students to read. Not excursions to Canberra, not grass on the oval. If any school, no matter how brilliantly some of its students are performing, has any child who has been at that school a year and cannot read as well as the rest of their age group, or is in a regular programme to ensure theyâll soon do so, then that school fails.
There is no greater social duty than caring for our children, not Olympic medals, nor fireworks, nor operas, much as I love the latter.
Every child. In every school. Or we have all failed our duty to our children."