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Do You Read Me?

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A fascinating and compelling exploration of the learning process for parents, teachers, and anyone with an interest in education.Reading and writing are fundamentally about the communication of meaning. Yet, when a child has difficulty in learning to read and write, the one area that is never seen as having any relevance is the child's life experiences. The author's contention is that the concept of dyslexia is something that has been invented, rather than discovered, in order to evade the question of meaning and the understanding of the individual. This is examined as part of a culture in which child-rearing and education are increasingly depersonalising, and children are viewed as assets or commodities rather than individuals.Based on the author's thirty years' experience of both educational psychology and analytical therapy, the book sets out a radical approach to learning difficulties in which the primary assumption is that there will usually be underlying emotional conflicts, tensions, and anxieties. Any learning disability is thus more likely to be the symptom of less-evident, personal difficulties, rather than a problem in itself.The book examines, with examples, typical patterns of personal and emotional difficulty that give rise to learning problems. There is also a section dedicated to diagnostic procedures and special teaching approaches which can be employed by the non-specialist.

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Chapter One: The Dyslexia Muddle

ePub

Literacy has always been equated with education, knowledge, and intelligence. In the days before even printing had been invented, it is not difficult to see how this could have come about. People could learn trades, skills, and crafts from their parents or through an apprenticeship, but the only way of acquiring knowledge built up by previous generations, like history, philosophy, literature, and mathematics was by learning to read and write.

Just before the Norman Conquest, England had a Saxon king called Aethelred who was known as “the unred” or “the unready” meaning he was not very educated—or, as we might say today “not very well read”. Historians still seem to be divided as to whether this title simply meant that he had not acquired the skills of literacy or whether it describes the general view that he was not a very wise ruler. Whatever the truth of the matter, even in those days it must have been the case that there were many highly intelligent and gifted people whose abilities were never developed or recognised because circumstances prevented them from becoming literate. Consequently, they neither had access to all the available culture and learning in the world around them, nor were they able to communicate and disseminate their own ideas and discoveries. As the poet Thomas Gray mused about the graves of humble villagers in a country churchyard:

 

Chapter Two: Acronyms, Non-science, and Nonsense

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Jargon is the word used to describe the specialist vocabulary used by people working in a particular discipline or activity to describe technical aspects of their work. It is a sort of shorthand. Perhaps the most familiar examples of this are from medical jargon which finds its way into everyday language. Someone sitting for a long period in cramped conditions and without taking exercise is in danger of a blood clot forming in their legs. This is technically known as a deep vein thrombosis or DVT. In long-haul airline flights the accompanying danger of this problem is so common that the term is familiar to most educated, non-medical people. In every area of life, sport, music, business, and particularly in highly specialised areas of activity, jargon develops. The obvious advantage of this is that it saves time and streamlines communication. Everyone is familiar with the way in which DNA from a person or organism can be used to identify them or details about them. Most people outside of the field of medicine and biochemistry are unaware that this is an acronym for deoxyribonucleic acid, much less would be able to remember or spell the term.

 

Chapter Three: “Those who can't…”: The Emperor's New Clothes

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Education, based on the fundamental processes of learning to read and write, has two main requirements: an understanding of the process of teaching (which in the case of reading entails a sound, scientific understanding of what every child needs to learn and how to teach it) and an understanding of the student. This second part has two quite different components. The teacher needs to know about how children in general at a particular stage or age-range tend to think and learn, but more importantly the teacher needs to be able to empathise with and understand the individual child's world view. In other words, teachers needs to have a very clear idea of what enables any child to read, while at the same time being willing and able themselves to “read” each child.

Our main focus in this book is on how signally teachers and the educational system go out of their way not to “read” the child and to explore the ways in which they could and should be doing it. Before that, however, we need to examine the other main part of the equation with the basic question of literacy and that is the teaching of reading.

 

Chapter Four: First Base

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Most people nowadays are familiar with the concept of hardware and software in computers. Once a computer has been assembled it cannot be used to perform tasks until it has had the software of an operating system installed. The third requirement is for the person using the computer to know how to operate it. In this way, our experience of computers confronts us with something fairly fundamental about almost any complex system or operation in life.

If the nuts and bolts—the “hardware” of any process are faulty, the operation is bound to fail regardless of how good the system or how skilled the user. Perhaps the most familiar example of this is where a technician spends ages doing sophisticated tests to identify the fault in the system (of a domestic appliance, a television for example) and discovers that the problem is that something has simply not been plugged in or switched on.

Secondly, if there is a problem with the system—particularly if it is an inappropriate or incompatible system—it will fail regardless of the quality of the hardware or the skill of the operator.

 

Chapter Five: Feeding, Reading, and Mental Anorexia

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Early life, as every mother knows, is largely dominated by feeding. Problems in breastfeeding occur so frequently, and are recognised to be of such importance that specialist nurses are considered necessary in large hospitals to enable feeding problems to be overcome. From the point of view of the baby, although a good feed must be one of the most pleasurable and satisfying of experiences, hunger, wind, and colic often claim more of the baby's waking hours. Even the successful activity of feeding involves the baby in a great deal of hard work—something which is overlooked when we indulge in idealistic fantasies of the blissful Garden of Eden experience of babyhood.

It is essential to recognise the relevance of this first experience at both a general and a personal level.

At a general level, the principles which applied to successful feeding where it concerns the intake of actual food also apply to any subsequent feeding-like experiences—receiving, consuming, browsing, being deprived, being satisfied, and so on.

 

Chapter Six: Emotional Health and Fitness

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For decades now, fitness has been a central part of life. From gyms and sports centres to government concerns about improving the nation's health, we are familiar with the idea of degrees of health and fitness. From the “super fit” sportsmen and the health fanatic to the “couch-potato”, everyone is used to the idea that lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise radically affect people's general health and can even influence how long they live. A few years ago the BBC constructed a comprehensive health quiz designed to provide an assessment of a person's general health and fitness. The score, which was calculated on a wide range of information yielded a “medical age” which reflected how much younger or older than their chronological age the subject might be. As might have been expected, most of the young women celebrities who took the quiz—who had an extremely healthy lifestyle with regular exercise, good diet, and minimal addictions—showed up as having the physique of women several years younger than their actual age. Men did not do so well, with exercise-averse, heavy drinkers and smokers being considerably older than their years.

 

Chapter Seven: Family Matters: The Inner Story

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By the age of about three, most children get into a stage where they are endlessly asking questions and wanting to explore. This is often a stage which can be quite exhausting for adults as the child's curiosity seems to be insatiable. Why this? Why that? Why does so-and-so happen? Each answer only seems to trigger another question: Why is that? These early years are ones of rapid development, and as a result, the normal child does not waste a second to cram everything in. The attitude of a healthy child at this stage was summed up by behaviour of a three-year-old girl I knew who ran into the bedroom of her exhausted and sleep-befuddled parents just before five a.m. on a June morning calling out impatiently, “Wake up! Its summer time and you're missing it!”

It has often been observed that this stage of asking questions seems to slow down and stop between the ages of five and six. Since this used to coincide with the start of formal schooling in the UK, it has given rise to the speculation amongst less traditional psychologists and educationalists that the reason for this is that the regimentation of the school experience is interfering with the spirit of enquiry and repressing the child's spontaneity.

 

Chapter Eight: Family Matters: The External Situation

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Most teachers—particularly in primary-schools recognise that a sudden deterioration in a child's behaviour is likely to be related to circumstances in family life. It is also obvious that some major events in a child's home-life—a bereavement for example—can be expected to have an effect on school work, even if there are no behavioural or management problems. Nevertheless, the general assumption that still seems to be made is that even small children are relatively autonomous systems, carrying around inside them their in-built equipment and that the dynamics of family life (particularly the relationship with the parents) is of little relevance to their cognitive development and capacity to learn.

The main evidence for this is the way in which the response to any significant learning difficulties or lack of progress tends to take the form of devoting resources or special teaching exclusively to the child and seldom, if ever, to the parents or the family situation. Most commonly, the only contact with parents takes the form of reporting on progress or problems and discussing what is needed to be done with the child. The idea that the parent–child relationship and the family dynamics are likely to be the main factor in the child's learning difficulties, let alone that these difficulties may be little more than the public expression or acting-out of problems in the family situation, is seldom entertained. Yet there is ample evidence that, particularly in the case of small children in early stages of their development, child–parent relationships and family dynamics are always relevant. Moreover, the more serious and pronounced the problem in the child's behaviour or learning difficulties, the more important it is to assess them in the context of the family.

 

Chapter Nine: Secrets, Lies, and Hidden Agenda

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The way in which guilty secrets or buried history can contribute to problems or crises in the present is the staple diet of thrillers and detective stories. Most people have secret hopes, fears, and memories. In the literature of psychotherapy, a lot has been written about the issue of “the secret”, a situation where the client or patient is obsessed with guilt, anxiety or embarrassment about something which happened which they have never dared share with anyone. Most commonly, when such a secret is eventually revealed to the therapist, the biggest problem is that of understanding why the patient felt so awful about it. What this highlights is how personal and irrational feelings of guilt and shame can be and how much, consequently, they can interfere with a person's capacity to function normally in life.

In this book so far, we have been mainly examining all the different ways in which ordinary, everyday fears, anxieties, and confusions can contribute to learning difficulties in children and students who in other respects are fairly normal and healthy. In this chapter, we will be examining and discussing some of the more common ways in which secrets, trauma, and guilty feelings can interfere with the child's capacity to learn. Sometimes there are dark and disturbing secret issues at the root of the problem, such as sexual abuse. More commonly, there is nothing particularly sinister or dark at the root of the problem, but the lack of interest or imagination on the part of the adult world stops them finding out what might be wrong or understanding what it means when they do. I was once called to see a boy of eight whose class-teacher complained was uncooperative and disobedient. When I asked her to describe what form this took, her main example was the way in which every time she asked the class to write a story, whatever subject she specified, this boy always wrote the same story: about a little child going into a forest and getting attacked. Evidently she had so little imagination and emotional responsiveness that it didn't occur to her that this was likely to be a communication of some kind of anxiety or trauma as opposed to disobedience or not paying attention. It wasn't as if this little boy was actually devoid of signs of anxiety: the teacher also observed, with similar lack of curiosity, that he had such a strong habit of tugging nervously at his hair that he was actually starting to develop a bald patch!

 

Chapter Ten: Autodidacts and the Garden of Eden

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Health and optimal functioning of any sort is dependent on various types of balance. One of the best indicators of a person's physical health is their body temperature. Getting too hot can be just as lethal as getting too cold. Vegetation can be damaged as much by flooding as by drought.

In the same way, emotional balance is crucial to psychological health and optimal functioning. Emotional balance concerns the central question of confidence and self-image. Insufficient confidence and belief in oneself, on the one hand, can inhibit learning and performance and may even prevent it altogether. On the other hand, excessive confidence and an inflated idea of one's ability can be just as big a block to learning and as much of an interference to performance.

Problems of insecurity and lack of confidence have always been familiar to the teaching profession, as well as parents, as is the role of encouragement. Beyond these general concepts, there still seems to be relatively little, clear understanding about what is involved in this crucial aspect of early development. There seems to be even less awareness in society, as a whole, of how many of the problems people have in adult life in the workplace, in social relationships and elsewhere, are a result of this crucial aspect of their development remaining incomplete.

 

Chapter Eleven: Go for It! The Function of Aggression

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Aggression is a fundamental part of being alive. The moment we make that statement, however, we are confronted with the fact that aggression, out of context, always has connotations of hostility or destructiveness. The expression “an act of aggression” automatically suggests some kind of violence or attack. It doesn't take much reflection, however, to see that everyday life is full of examples of what we might call benign aggression whenever we engage in an action which is aimed at achieving something. This is reflected in everyday language. Attempting to do something is often described as “having a go at it”, “having a stab at it”, “having a bash”, and so on. Anything which is perceived as possibly difficult or unfamiliar is thought of as “a challenge” as if it is an opponent who has to be faced in some form of combat.

In the educational world more than any other, it is vital to understand the role of aggression in mobilising the child's attitude and energy towards the task of learning. Anything which contributes to a child being unduly inhibited and afraid to harness his or her aggression is bound to interfere with learning, regardless of how much ability or understanding the child as. A punitive or authoritarian home situation, for example, is likely to produce a spirit of timidity and caution where the child is forever anticipating being told off or humiliated in response to any mistake.

 

Chapter Twelve: Writing: Exposure or Self-affirmation?

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Literacy can be thought of as something of a mixed blessing. If you're able to read then you are able to find out what is going on in the world as well as having access to history, science, literature, and so on. On the other hand, being able to read makes you vulnerable to receiving messages and information which might be disturbing or unpleasant such as anonymous letters, threats, legal summonses, bills, and so on.

The same thing applies to being able to write. This enables you to express yourself and communicate. You can do this in an ordinary, everyday way by sending other people letters, emails, and so on or you can do it on a grand scale by writing newspaper articles, novels or even your own autobiography. On the negative side, writing is also revealing. Not just the content of what you write—such as the compromising letter or email which falls into the wrong hands—but the way you express yourself. How educated and articulate are you? Are you able to express yourself well or can you never quite say what you mean? Even your handwriting can reflect a great deal about you, whether or not you are aware of just how much an expert graphologist to tell about your character from it.

 

Chapter Thirteen: Boring! Attention and Interest

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One of our central themes in this book is the extent to which learning difficulties and general reluctance to learn are provoked and exacerbated by the coercive nature of the educational system and the traditional approach of teachers. The underlying basic assumption is that children will not learn anything unless they are somehow forced to. Behind that assumption is one which has deeper roots in human nature which involves a refusal to accept the essential autonomy of other human beings.

Children do need to be supervised, guided, corrected, informed, and—in a word—taught. The big issue, however, is whether this is done by harnessing their natural enthusiasm, curiosity and interest or whether they are treated as little animals that have to be tamed. In actual fact, the same principle applies even to taming animals.

As has been clearly demonstrated by Monty Roberts and other “horse whisperers”, horses respond to understanding where they will not respond to force. The secret in getting a horse to cooperate with you, as every horse-lover knows, is the understanding that horses are afraid of human beings. How can this be, since horses are obviously so much bigger and stronger than we are? The answer is that horses are, in this respect at any rate, much more intelligent than human beings since they realise that how dangerous another species is has not necessarily got anything to do with its size or strength. Whales and elephants are the biggest and strongest creatures on the planet and yet both species are famous for their extraordinary capacity for tenderness and concern, even to the human beings who hunt and try to destroy them. Horses know, from hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary experience, that human beings have an almost unlimited potential for brutality and destructiveness.

 

Chapter Fourteen: What is your Story?

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The continuity of our experience of everyday life is something which we tend to take for granted. We were born on a certain date. When we were so many years old, a brother or sister was born, a grandparent died or we moved to a new house. At such-and-such an age we went to university, got our first job, became pregnant. The year before last we had that holiday in Italy. Last Thursday we saw a particular film. And so on. The continuity of events, big and small, is central to our sense of identity and gives our lives meaning. We usually only notice this when something interrupts it. Little things can do this briefly, such as going to sleep in an unfamiliar place or at an unfamiliar time, when we wake up and think for a moment, “Where am I?” Jetlag is a rather more long-lasting experience where a changing time-zone confuses our biological clocks: twelve hours ago it was morning in the country I left and now we are in Britain and its still morning. It feels weird.

Then there are the ways in which major changes—particularly unexpected ones—can interfere with our sense of continuity and history. Perhaps the most severe one is bereavement when a key person in our life ceases to exist, and our world “can never be quite the same again”.

 

Chapter Fifteen: Un-ready Adults

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A doctor once described to me how he had a patient who seemed to have a very good life. He was a very successful businessman and he had a very happy family situation. But there was something a bit unusual about him that she couldn't put her finger on. Eventually, the doctor realised what it was. The successful, well-established patient was illiterate. “You have made a fortune in business without being able to read and write!”, exclaimed the doctor, “don't you ever wonder where you would be now if you had been able to read and write?” The patient laughed and said he knew exactly where he would be: when he was eighteen years old he had applied for a job as a public lavatory attendant but he failed to qualify because he couldn't read. If he had been able to read, that is probably the job he would be doing now!

One of the things which this little anecdote points out is the interesting question of how many people achieve great success in life not just in spite of being illiterate or semi-literate, but even because of it. This takes us into deeper layers of investigation as to how far the literacy problems constituted a kind of physical disability which a determined patient can overcome, or how far they were symptomatic of some deeper problem which could be very productive if channelled in the right way. At the same time, it's does underscore the fact that a high level of literacy—or even literacy at all—cannot be assumed to be essential to success in life, and certainly cannot guarantee it.

 

Chapter Sixteen: Dysnumeracy: The “Third r”

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“Reading (w)Riting and (a)Rithmetic”: no discussion of learning difficulties would be complete without including the difficulties that many children encounter with numeracy. While being numerate is obviously as much a part of education as being literate, numeracy somehow seems to be viewed as the poor relation of literacy or at least, to be put in a separate category. The first thing to which this draws our attention is that most of the population does seem to divide quite naturally into those who have more of an inclination or aptitude for things expressed in words—what is loosely put under the heading of arts and humanities—and those who take more naturally to number-based subjects—maths and sciences.

The Scottish psychologist Liam Hudson put forward convincing evidence in his book Contrary Imaginations (Hudson, 1966) that everyone naturally falls into one of two categories. These were what he called “convergent thinkers”, those whose aptitudes were for mathematics and science, and “divergent thinkers”, those whose natural aptitudes were for humanities. This certainly tallies with most teachers’ impression of how children are and it is rare to find someone who is equally at home with both sides of the picture.

 

Chapter Seventeen: Hyperlexia, Dysbiblia, and the Problem of Giftedness

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The problems that children and young people encounter in the learning situation are not confined to failure and encountering difficulties. A great many children find life at school problematic because part, or all, of them is overdeveloped and far in advance of most of their peers. Dysbiblia and Hyperlexia are terms which (as far as I know) I have invented to describe two common problem situations which are not only completely unrecognised, but most teachers and educationalists seem unable to imagine how they could be problems at all!

Dysbiblia is the term I have coined to describe both adults and children who, despite the ability to read fluently to the highest level, have a massive block against using their reading ability by opening a book. They can read, but they hardly ever do.

Hyperlexia seemed to me to be an appropriate, descriptive term to describe the tendency that many people have to read too much.

The classic phenomenon which is recognised to exist, but all too often not seen as being a problem is the situation of the gifted child. One of the first case conferences I ever attended as a student in a community health team left a very deep impression on me. The case being presented was of a gifted child and I was deeply affected by the way in which the various professionals involved in the conference polarised into those who could only think about squeezing the maximum performance out of the child and those who were much more concerned about what being gifted would do to the child's development and sense of identity.

 

Chapter Eighteen: Schooling and Education: Liberation or Persecution?

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Starting with the crucial benefits of literacy, education is generally reckoned to be one of the things which make the most essential contribution to well-being. Whether it is the job prospects of the individual or the general prosperity of the country, education plays a crucial role. In an affluent country, anyone with few qualifications is liable to have very limited job prospects and much has been made in recent years of how much a university degree and further qualifications improve earning capacity. Standards of literacy and education are also known to play a major role in health and social well-being. Responsibility and management of the birthrate is known to improve in direct proportion to the levels of education.

Knowledge, as well as information, is power, and recognition of the empowering effect of literacy and education has been reflected throughout history in the various efforts made by authorities and leaders to debar sections of the population in order to keep them subservient. An historical example of this was the strenuous efforts made by the Church to prevent The Bible being translated into the everyday language of the people. Privileged access to the word of God puts the clergy and politicians in a position of power. Once the people were in a position to read The Bible for themselves, they were in a better position to make their own interpretations and think for themselves.

 

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