‘Reversed’: An interview with Lois Letchford

Lois Letchford’s memoir ‘Reversed’ follows her son Nicholas’ struggles with learning disabilities and the education system.

Nicholas Letchford completed his Doctorate in mathematics last year from Oxford University having been diagnosed with severe learning disabilities as a child.

To delve deeper into the issues raised by the book, Kurien Parel interviewed Lois, speaking to her about why she decided to write the book, and how she thinks the education system could be reformed to help students with learning difficulties.

KP: I spoke to Nicholas a few days ago and he told me he has only read bits of the book. He said he didn’t want to read it all because he was afraid it would bring back some painful memories.

LL: His comment to me was ‘I don’t want to read it, I lived it’.

KP: I understand Nicholas still has some difficulties. What exactly is his disorder?

LL: Today, they would call it Developmental Language Disorder. Nicholas was very slow with processing information. By the time he worked out that the teacher had spoken and has given an instruction, he was lost. Because people judge others on how they speak, the implications in the classroom are horrendous. People would think he is dumb. To me he is  now very articulate; yes, he is still slow with listening and he takes time to respond. But when he was a child, if he didn’t hear the first word or second word in a sentence, he would withdraw, and it would look like he was dumb.      

KP: So he takes him time to understand what people are saying. He also mentioned he had dyslexia and some difficulty with writing. 

LL: Yes, it affected his listening and processing of information, and subsequently reading, writing and interaction with other children. It’s like dyslexia, only worse. Nicholas said he expected every word to represent a picture and only one picture. When you think like that, reading becomes very difficult because reading doesn’t work like that at all. 

KP:   Why did you write this book?

LL: Nicholas’ story should always have been told. Even if it was just a story of him going from non-reading to reading, it would have been a great story. Then he went from non-reading to the top of the school. That was a better story. And it goes on. He gets two honours degrees, and then he got a PhD from Oxford University. The story just got better and better. I wanted to tell this story, one because it was a good story, but also because it is a Helen Keller story. We must teach these children to read because we don’t know what is in their brains. 

KP: In the book you talk about a few of your students, in the USA. You lament how despite being in school for several years they can barely read a few words. Obviously, something is wrong.  What do you think is the problem with the education system and what should be done to reform the system?

LL: Do you know what I am finding? A lot of the problem is with the teacher’s mindset. Some say, ‘That child is just dumb. I tried this and that and the student couldn’t do it.” Some of them never say, ‘What do I, as a teacher, have to do to engage this child?’ 

Teachers often do not have enough knowledge of reading education – how to teach reading – partly because majority of children learn to read with ease. You only need this knowledge when you come across children who struggle. When a child struggles, it is easier to blame the child than to work out what the teacher could do differently. 

However, instead of pointing out the teacher is not doing their job, the question for principals and educators should be, ‘What can we do to support the teacher so the child can learn to read?’. Make it more collaborative and less accusatory. I don’t want to use the word accountable. I want to say when children are failing, let us have a discussion. Let’s work out what we as a school have to do to help this child rather than write him or her off.  See what we can do in a supportive environment for everyone. If we say you are accountable, it is almost saying you haven’t done the job. We want to keep teachers on our side, so they gain greater knowledge and teach more children to read. 

There are simple questions to ask: is the child being taught in a small group or in a big class?  How often is the child being seen by a teacher? And if the child is still not making progress, they should ask what else can be done. My feeling is that if we can teach more effectively the child at the bottom, we will teach everyone more effectively. It’s not a strategy that works just for one child out of a hundred but a strategy that affects everyone. 

When I first taught Nicholas in Oxford, I tore my hair out. I was crying and I was blaming Nicholas. It was horrendous for both of us. When I changed the teaching, teaching became so exciting- finding ways around the problem. One thing I had in Oxford was time. I had time to reflect, write and think what else will I could do. We need to give teachers time. 

KP: When your family went to Oxford for 6 months when Nicholas was in 2nd grade, you home-schooled him.  You mention this 6 months as a key episode in Nicholas’ story. Why?

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LL: If you take out that first 6 months in Oxford, I would not have seen Nicholas in the light that I saw him. I would have agreed with the school that the kid can’t do anything. I would have said I know he is really dumb. I needed that time to see him blossom, so I could come back to school and say you are wrong and we are going to teach him to read.

KP: And then when you came back to Australia, the school retested him and said his reading had become worse. That must have been a shock. How did you deal with that?

LL: Well that was a fascinating day. It was 24 hours that changed my life. The morning I walked into that diagnostician, I was excited. I was so pleased with what Nicholas and I had achieved in Oxford. Nicholas’ thinking was coming out. All that time Nicholas was excited about learning. I had turned teaching around–from him hating learning to loving it. And then the diagnostician comes out and says, ‘he is the worst child I’ve seen in 20 years of teaching’.  She devasted me. I went home and thought about it. I decided I didn’t care what she called him, and that he is going to learn to read. 

Then, that afternoon the teacher sent him home with those sight words, ‘I saw a cat climb up a tree’, and Nicholas is cutting the cat in half. I recognised the problem was with the teaching. Nicholas only looks for the concrete meaning in each word, and he took the word ‘saw’ to mean ‘to cut’. The teacher hasn’t recognised the difficulty he has with words with more than one meaning and is using the same exercises to teach him that she uses with everyone else. He gets confused and they say he is dumb.  

KP: Why do you think Nicholas scored lower on the tests after you home-schooled him?

LL: They would have measured him before he left Australia. They would have been teaching and testing letters and sounds as well as sight words. I had not focused on the test. I focused on the teaching. What was important for me was that these letters and sounds and the words stick. When he came back 6 months later and was given the same test, he scored lower, but what he learnt with me was glued to his inside and he was never going to forget it. I was teaching him about the world and learning. They were teaching him to the test. 

KP: It becomes quite apparent in the book that the memoir is as much about you as it is about Nicholas. You see yourself in his struggles, since you too had learning difficulties. Do you see yourself in some sense living vicariously through Nicholas?

LL: I think Nicholas’ achievements blow me away. He has just got better and better and I am proud of him. But I look at my life, and I see today students from low socioeconomic circumstances subjected to poor teaching, and we don’t do anything about it. I see Nicholas as very privileged to get where he is.  I am feeling for every child that is not privileged. What are we doing for them? Their parents are busy putting food on the table, like my parents were. The parents aren’t reading to them.  Well, the parents are surviving. The school has to do it. The school is responsible for education. I don’t think I am living through Nicholas. But I want to use his story to say privilege should not be a prerequisite to learning to read. 

KP: One of the key points the book made was the level of abuse children with learning disabilities endure from teachers and others. One striking example was Nicholas’ math teacher that ripped up his work and humiliated him, basically implying he was too stupid to take her class. What is your advice to parents and schools to prevent this? 

LL: I don’t think we can protect them from the rest of the world. This is another reason why Nicholas’ story is so important because I think people learn from stories. Let’s open people’s minds. Our family met in Australia in 2016 and I read this part of the story to Nicholas, and he was still affected by it, 13 years after it happened. How do we protect them? I don’t know. It was true Nicholas went into this brand-new school, into junior-high. He didn’t know a soul. It was period one, day one, when that happened.

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KP: In your book you talk about teaching struggling students, who sometimes could be difficult. For instance one of your students, Amy, would at times act out. What’s your advice to teachers who work with such students?

LL: Amy was 5th or 6th grade when I picked her up. Her father was illiterate. I could see Amy as this little girl who had been just left out of the system. She was really quite articulate. This goes back to our attitude. Do we see a difficult child or a child that cannot read and is trying to cover her difficulties?  She was quite stubborn. I recognise often when students act out it is because they are frustrated. I give them a break.  It’s hard in the classroom. I was teaching in the ideal circumstances. I was teaching one on two, five days week, an hour a day. Saying that, that’s what they deserved and what they needed.  

KP: What are the aspects of reading these children struggle with which teachers often may not be aware? 

LL: There is a disconnect between the oral language and the written language. We expect if a child can speak it that they can read it, but they sometimes don’t. People who are highly literate don’t understand the level of difficulty children who struggle with language have. A researcher in Oxford in late 1980s pointed out that children have problems with pronouns, particularly children in the bottom half of the class. We are now in 2018 and teachers are not aware of this research. Teachers sometimes say, ‘look this is so easy, why don’t you get it’, and that makes it so much worse. For example, many children struggle with the word ‘it’ for which they don’t have a picture. If you ask some children what is ‘it’, they will answer ‘it is nothing’. Another disconnect is between reading and comprehension. Reading is thinking, not just reading the words, and that was the problem I had growing up. Because I had struggled with reading growing up, I am more attuned as to what is going wrong with reading, as opposed to someone who has flown through it.

KP: Going back to Nicholas, were you worried when he was pursuing his doctorate in Oxford? What’s your advice to parents for similar children when they go to University?

LL: One of the best things we did was we had his documentation up to date. So, when he had trouble passing his first year viva, we could get support from the disability office. That was huge. We are in a world where we can’t ask everyone around us to change. What we can do is to be as supportive as possible and to remind him he can do it. Keep believing in your child. Since Nicholas had difficulty remembering academic discussions, his elder brother advised him to record everything, take pictures of the board and to use modern technology so he can get back to it. This is now out of my hands. I am just a mother now. All I can be is a shoulder to cry on. 

KP: What is your advice to parents with children with learning disabilities?

LL: Believe in them. Follow their interests and advocate for them. Accept they may have a problem but insist on them learning to read. Don’t let teachers write off your children. Parents should ask their teachers, ‘what else do I have to do at home, to help?’ Audio books made the difference to Nicholas and helped him go from the bottom to the top, through the exposure to language. Now we have computers at every home. Use the technology to help them read and get back to grade level. Read my book, and get in touch with me!

Lois Letchford currently lives in Upstate New York and holds a Master’s Degree in literacy, specialising in teaching students with reading difficulties.

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