Nicholas Letchford completed his doctorate in mathematics last year from Oxford University on a full international scholarship. Unknown to his colleagues, Nicholas had been diagnosed with severe learning disabilities as a child, and now his mother, a passionate advocate and teacher for children with reading difficulties, has written a book about his struggles through the education system.
The path from being described as “the worst child I have seen in twenty years” by his school counsellor to an Oxford graduate was not a smooth one. The story takes place in Australia, the UK and the US, since his family moved about. The book makes clear that “learning disabilities are for life,” and even alludes to the challenges he encountered while a student at Oxford. Many of the events recounted are dire and Nicholas himself has avoided reading the whole book. Speaking to me, Nicholas said: “I don’t relate much with that time period. It is almost like the book is about another person.” He says he remembers being stressed a lot during his childhood and has avoided reading the book so as not to relive some painful memories.
After a dismal first year of school in Australia and being tested in WISC of having a low IQ, in the ‘borderline’ category, 6-year-old Nicholas was dismissed by his teachers as pointless to teach. His mother took his education into her own hands, particularly his struggle with reading. Through fun learning games and with a lot of practice, Nicholas finally learnt to read. In the meantime, his parents tried a variety of interventions, some of which turned out to be bogus, such as physical exercises that were meant to help with reading.
One of the striking points the memoir illustrates is the level of abuse children with learning disabilities face, from teachers and others. This was something Lois, Nicholas’s mother, could relate to, herself having struggled to learn to read as a child. After recounting suspicions that Nicholas had been shouted at by his first-year teacher on a regular basis, she recalls an incident from her own schooldays in which she was berated by a teacher for an assignment she handed in. It becomes apparent quite soon that the memoir is as much about the author as it is about Nicholas. Being able to relate helped her to diagnose stumbling blocks and develop strategies to teach reading.
After teaching Nicholas to read, Lois, already qualified as a physical education teacher, retrained specialising in literacy. She was shocked to find the techniques she discovered teaching Nicholas were already prescribed in the academic literature – shocked that these insights had no bearing on classroom practice nor were being implemented even by special education teachers. In the book Lois describes in detail her teaching methods with her students in the USA. She laments the waste of time and resources, when some students after several years of schooling can barely recognise a few words, because the teachers do not use the appropriate methods for such students.
Speaking to me, Lois says that she doesn’t want to accuse teachers, since that will make them defensive. Rather, she would like to see a change of attitude. Instead of labelling some students as being stupid or incapable, she would like teachers to think of ‘what can they do to change things’. In the book, while some teachers encouraged Nicholas and his mother’s efforts, some clearly did not. After Nicholas learnt to read and began to do well in his studies he moved to a new junior-high school in Texas. In his first day, because he struggled to follow some instructions due to his difficulties, in front of the whole class, his pre-Advance Placement math teacher tore up his work and suggested he quit that subject, saying he was not capable of doing it. The incident was humiliating and painful for many years to come. Raising awareness of the difficulties such students face may help avoid similar events in the future.
The memoir Reversed is now out and will be invaluable reading for those interested in special education, particularly teachers and parents.