If you had asked me three years ago whether Sam would be reading using a synthetic phonic based approach, I would have laughed in your face. We tried, we really did, but when it came to reading, Sam couldn’t blend efficiently enough to create words out of print, let alone any meaning out of a sentence. Having done a little bit of reading around the subject of teaching a child with Down Syndrome to read, I was bitterly disappointed to see how little his inroads into the delights of reading were, but I could understand why.
One of the by-products, if you like, of an extra chromosome number 21 can be slower brain processing. This is evident in the way that Sam finds it difficult to appreciate danger (crossing roads can lead to fun and games), in the way that it takes him longer to respond to requests (putting aside the belligerence of a young teenager), to changing his mind, especially when he is in a temper. I dislike the word ‘stubborn’, too many people seem to put it together with Down Syndrome, but, like many stereotypes, there is a tiny nugget of truth in the observation. For Sam, the process of deciding which sound the individual letters stood for, blending them together, making them into a proper word and then stringing them together to create something meaningful was several steps too far.
I was saddened, not only by his struggles, but also by a school system that didn’t seem to want to break a few rules on his behalf. Because, to me, the joy, the utter exhilerance (is that even a word?) of reading was, and is, worth breaking some. I remember one of the first books I brought home from school. After an infancy full of stories and song, of ‘A is for Apple Pie’, I was raring to go. I sat on the floor behind the swivel chair, in a patch of sunlight beaming through the window in the garden door, and read my Ladybird book to myself with an enormous sense of satisfaction.
How I loved those books. The stories may have been somewhat lacking in, er, story, but the pictures! Paintings that drew you in to a world, as a child of the Seventies, that had just gone past. The sky was always blue. The water was always clear. He always wore a red jumper, she yellow. The dog never dropped the sweet from his nose and the toys in the window always looked like so much fun.
But, not long after I had settled myself down in my cosy nook, I stumbled across a word I could not tackle. I looked at it, perplexed, but, despite my best efforts, it refused to rearrange itself into anything sensible. I frowned. I disentangled myself from the curtains. I knobbled the nearest reading person and asked for help. It happened to be the be-spotted step-son-of-my-mother’s-cousin, who was somewhat embarrassed, in the way of teenaged boys, by my request, but he solved the riddle for me nonetheless.
Such was my desire to read that I don’t actually remember struggling again. I may have got the names of characters wrong but I glossed over them, in my rush to find out What Happened Next. Of course, it may be that my leaps in learning happened during my long illness, my stay in hospital, and the pretty much one-on-one lessons from my mum (via the Mr Men) and the hospital teachers (shinier books than in school), but, to be honest, I don’t remember much about that.
What I do remember, though, is how I always, right from the very start, loved a story and, while not entirely breaking my heart, it certainly squashed it pretty flat that Sam, my son for who I dream so hard, couldn’t seem to share the same magical experience.
At thirteen years old he has had a year of instruction on a phonics programme, and guess what? He’s reading. He’s reading all sorts of things. From posters to calendars to road traffic signs to Which Caravan Magazine to the blessed reading book that still comes home, after all these years.
And the funny thing is, despite everything, I don’t think it’s because the teaching is any better now or was any worse back then. The subject matter hasn’t changed. There may be some different cheers (we like faaaaanTAStic), but the essence of the lesson is the same.
But he is not. He is no longer that little child who couldn’t dress himself, couldn’t cut up his own food, wouldn’t drink out of an open cup. Instead of sitting on the pavement, a protest at having to walk to school, he rides his bike over a mile, there and back. Two nights ago I watched him perform on stage, no hand holding, no watching everyone else, a spontaneous ‘yeeeesssssssss’ the moment before the rapturous applause. He’s growing up. And the process, the slow change I have observed in my special son makes me ask questions. The new SEN Code of Practice is about to come into force. In it is a requirement to identify problems early, to put measures into place as soon as we can to give children the best possible start in life. Great.
Some of them are so terribly young. They skip around school like the babies they are. They attend intervention after intervention, miss lesson after lesson of the sort that they might enjoy and benefit from and despite it all they still haven’t made the two points progress they ought. Before we know where we are we have slapped a label on them. A label we can’t quite name because we can’t quite put our fingers on what is going on.
Would waiting a bit be such a bad thing? They are only babies after all, and education’s a long game.