The Long Game

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.

And yet.

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.

And yet.

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.

I wonder.

Would waiting a bit be such a bad thing?  They are only babies after all, and education’s a long game.

Isn’t it?


20 thoughts on “The Long Game

  1. I think the thing to remember for those with ehc plans is that they run to 25 and are about aspirations and outcomes for the long term future. I just hope that they are used properly.
    I think we all know, s teachers, which students will benefit from intervention in the short term and which are going to take longer to get there. It’s just making sure we do the right thing by all our students, isn’t it?

  2. Oh – the timing thing does my head in! So many of the students out of mainstream who I teach just need LONGER to get there. In most cases there’s no particular learning or health delay, they’ve often just endured some horrible stuff that’s just knocked them off track, and they need to get their breath back. Yet if they’re not trussed and ready for exam success by 16 they feel themselves to be washed up before they’ve even begun. So I keep going with diet of exam-cram against a backdrop of “your first time through…there may be others…it’s all about getting there and not about when…” which usually ends up with me feeling completely schizophrenic at the end of the day! I just wish we had more genuine acceptance around the edges of mainstream that “not yet” is ok. And “now is fine, who cares if it’s early” should be ok too. Apologies for rantiness, I need a gin, hope your lad falls ever more in love with stories, however he chooses to devour them 🙂

    1. Rantiness is more than OK! I couldn’t agree more. The pressure we face, as a society, to have everyone checked and ticked off and doing all exactly the same things at all exactly the same time is immense, and, in my view, unacceptable. Rargh!

  3. I loved ladybird books too 🙂 but I found learning to read a bit tricksy 🙂 I remember struggling with ‘gl’ words a lot. And I could get my head round how to spell ‘people’. We didn’t do phonic then, did we?

  4. Couldn’t agree more about the long game thing. Children are not robots. They develop at different times in there own way and it is about time the powers that be recognised this again instead of trying to shoehorn everyone, teachers included, into a one size fits all one horse race. Okay. Mini rant over. Well said and illustrated Nancy. What a joy it is to see your child reach the milestones, whenever it happens.

  5. I just wish that children could get the help they need without having to face the behemoth of a system where everything takes forever. Most of the time its so obvious that a child needs help but it takes until year 2 or 3 to get anything. I love that your son is reading now. Good on him!

    1. Yes, good point. And, sadly, I fear that the new SEN system, which seeks to change all that with a ‘graduated response’ is so rushed that nobody really understands what it is they are trying to do. Interesting times ahead indeed. Hm.

  6. It is humbling to think what you and Sam have been able to accomplish together for you to give him the gift of reading and Sam to seize it. Thanks for giving me insight into Sam’s world.

  7. I can only imagine how proud you are that Sam is enjoying reading. I would just like to say that the earliest invention can be very positive, services such as Portage can offer parents an insight into how they can support their child’s learning as well as teach them many skills they will use for many years.

    1. Yes, you are right. Portage was an invaluable service in the early days, setting Sam up with the foundations he has needed for the success he is currently enjoying 🙂

  8. Thank you for yet another wonderful, heartfelt – and sensible – posting – all combined!

    I agree with you – but I also think we need to touch upon this issue as not only one about ‘give individuals the time they need under their particular circumstances’ – but also about the message that synthetic phonics is potentially very important for learning to read for lifelong reading.

    By that I mean, it gets bad press in terms of ‘one size does not fit all’ and ‘children have different learning styles’ without taking into consideration that it is the same alphabetic code and blending skill required for lifelong reading by the vast majority of learners – whatever their individuality.

    The most common ‘story’ around learners with Downs Syndrome is that they can only learn with whole words.

    I don’t think all children with Downs Syndrome will be able to learn to read as well as one another – they are individual – on a broad spectrum of learning capacity (you will know far more about that than me).

    But I do know that we should not dismiss the synthetic phonics route to learning ‘because’ the child has Downs Syndrome – and your heartwarming piece here demonstrates that.

    Coincidentally, the founder of the UK Reading Reform Foundation got into the field of phonics because her son had Downs Syndrome and she researched teaching approaches and content – and this resulted in her teaching her son to read through phonics where the school failed to teach him through a more book-by-book pick-it-up-as-you-go-along-whole-word approach.

    Mona would not suggest (I believe) that every single child with Downs Syndrome is necessarily going to become a successful reader – they may not all have the capacity.

    So, there are a number of issues your piece touches upon – individuality and allowing more time, the issue of methods of teaching reading – and aspirations of what is possible when the circumstances are supportive and patient.

    I love reading your diary entries and I am adding this to my PI forum.


    1. A wonderful response, thank you Debbie 🙂
      Yes, you are right, we need to respond to the individuals we teach…and we need to think deeply about when children are ready (for want of a better term) for this approach. And what we do in the mean time…

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