Taking a Step Back to Consider the Whole Child
Typically, we start off each newsletter with a message from me. And other members
of the center’s team write the other pieces that go into the newsletter. To date,
readers have not known who has written our newsletter. However, those of us who write
it all agreed that I should put my name to the words that I write for this one. And
we decided that what I write would be a little longer than usual. I wear many hats.
I am a published and recognized researcher in the area of memory and language. I am
a full professor of Psychology. I hold an endowed chair. I am the editor of a peer-reviewed
research journal. I serve as a regular theme editor and on the editorial board of
a publication on language and literacy written for educators. And I am often asked
to review the research and grants of other researchers to help determine if their
research will be published or funded. I am also a person who has struggled in the
past and continues to struggle as a result of dyslexia. And I am the parent of a
child who struggles due to dyslexia.
Something that might come as a surprise to you based on what I have just
shared, I am a trained reading therapist. I completed two years of training
at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children. One of the hardest things
that I have ever done in my life but also one of the most rewarding has
been to teach children with dyslexia how to read and spell. Sure, being
a neuroscientist is no walk in the park, but neither is being a reading
All of the training that I have received makes me a research practitioner.
I am trained and qualified to practice what I study. And vice versa. I am
trained and qualified to study what I practice. Even though I do not spend
most of my days teaching reading, I continue to work with children and
families using my practical skills. As a research practitioner, this is a must for me because it keeps my practical skills fresh. It keeps me honest when I work with teachers in schools across the country. It also helps me when I teach graduate students in various programs within the College of Education at MTSU. One way that I keep my practical skills sharp is to consult with parents about their children’s literacy skills and school experiences. I recently provided such a consultation for a family. Their child was in the fifth grade, and he had been identified as needing support within the general education setting in tiers 2 and 3. This happened early in grade 1. He then received a structured intervention to target his reading and spelling deficits for several years. Those efforts remediated his deficits in phonological awareness and word reading skills. And when I met him, he was making A’s and B’s in his classes. However, he was still a slow reader, he struggled with spelling, and writing was a challenge for him. These continued struggles had been documented by testing recently conducted by his school.
His parents consulted with me because the school was struggling to justify continued intervention for their son. So, the family came in, and I looked at the kiddo and asked, “What do you need to help you in school?” He said, “I have a hard time writing because of my spelling and handwriting." That seemed reasonable. Then I looked at the little boy and asked, “How are the spelling tests going?” He said, “Well, not so good. I study 45 minutes every night, and then I go in and take the tests and do not do very well on them. Last week my teacher graded my test and looked at me and said, ‘You obviously are not working hard enough at home on this.’” I could see the pain in his eyes as he said that. So, I took a breath and said, “You have a long life ahead of you to keep learning how to forgive people for what they do not know. Your teacher cannot see the work that you do outside of school to get that grade. She does not see the extra time that it takes you to get through your nightly readings for school. It was hurtful to you that she said those things based on what she did not know. It would have been more helpful if she had asked you how much time you had spent studying and what you had done to prepare for the test.” I continued. “But this is not going to go away. People often do not see the effort that goes into what each of us does to get by in life. It is invisible to them. We have to learn to have the compassion to forgive people for things that they do not know—as we hope that they will have the compassion to forgive us for those things that we do not know. And we have to always remember that their words do not define who we are as people. It is how we respond to their words that defines who we are.”
The words I spoke to him in those moments rang true with his experiences and my own. I encourage those of you reading this to think of ways that you can make what is hidden visible. Also, I would ask you to consider the following questions: How can you choose your words to reflect your strong desire to help others and build them up, not inadvertently tear them down? What systems of support can we put around children like this one to allow him to experience success in school and life? There is no one right or wrong answer to these questions. However, they are questions that we all should ask ourselves if we are educators or advocates for children and families. They are also questions that parents should ask themselves when considering how they interact with educators. We must keep in mind that compassion flows both ways. I share that perspective as a parent. My son deserves compassion, and so does his teacher.
Returning back to the needs of the students, one way to address the needs of this student and all students is through instructional support. We can also keep in mind that literacy is reading and writing. Writing requires an ability to spell, and spelling is impacted by dyslexia. Spelling is a skill that many children who are not affected by dyslexia struggle with as well. Another way that we can address concerns that raise these questions is through accommodations, which is the focus of this newsletter.
Tim Odegard, Ph.D., chairholder, Murfree Chair of Excellence in Dyslexic Studies
Tim Odegard serves as the associate editor of Annals of Dyslexia and on the editorial board of Perspectives on Language and Literacy. These official publications of the International Dyslexia Association feature peer-reviewed research, as well as practical articles for educators, respectively.
Tennessee Center for the Study and Treatment of Dyslexia