My Daughter, Learning to Learn
Months ago, I said Anika deserved her own story. I keep writing the story in my head, writing and rewriting with a hundred different angles and next chapters and it’s hard to write about the past few months and years without a conclusion. I want to say, “Then we figured it out. And everything is fine. Life is good.”
Then I think, this is not my story at all. This is her story. And perhaps I should keep it close and quiet. And then I think of other families, other children who may read this and see the world differently. If it helps one parent, one child, the story is worth telling.
Life is good. Imprefectly perfect. One day she’ll tell her own story, and this may be a very quiet afterthought. Or it may be huge. I don’t know yet. I do know, today, she faces her challenges with determination, calm, and constant optimism.
She is part of a small population with tricky learning challenges. She is bright, capable, and charming. And she struggles to read. A few months ago we learned that she has an auditory processing disorder.
I am a thirteen year teacher. I teach hundreds of children the fine art of reading (and loving reading). And yet, my own daughter stumbles and struggles to read. And she was a puzzle from the beginning.
She never read books in sequence. Before she was born, I imagined sweet-storytimes, cuddling and sharing the stories of my own childhood. She didn’t like my plans. She squirmed off my lap, grabbed pages, shoved the book away to grab another. I simmered stories down to one or two word summaries. If I didn’t move fast, I lost her. I wrote our own books that didn't need to be shared in sequence. I created colorful illustrations with obvious texts. These were the only books that she could "read".
Not that she disliked books. She loved them. From the beginning, she preferred books "her way". In a sing-song voice, she wove stories around the illustrations and built far more interesting worlds for herself than the actual words shared.
When she started kindergarten, she attended well, enjoyed her day, and couldn’t rhyme for a thousand pocket-pets. She worked hard recognizing letters. I did everything I could- Dr. Seuss books, games, practice, practice practice. I would say, “hat, sat, c-“
And she’d call out, “Cow!”
At least she heard the c.
There’s nothing like being a teacher and having a child fumble through academics at school. In our culture, we can be quick to blame the parents. Did she watch too much TV? Was it the ear infections when she was a baby? Because I worked full time until she was three? Because she had a baby brother so I couldn’t devote enough homework-time every evening? Where did we go wrong?
Luckily, I know enough about childhood development that I didn’t take the guilt too far. I kept immersing her in literacy activities. We wrote books together. I bought books that interested her. We played lots of games. We bought computer programs to help with phonics and rote-practice. We kept working and checking and working some more.
Her skills became more random. She read a word in one sentence, only to lose all memory of it in the next sentence. She recognized big words like ‘elephant’ and was stumped by ‘dog.’ She sounded out individual sounds, than put them together in random, disjointed words. Stop became tops and hats became sat. She didn't read things backwards. She piled sounds together. She would say her guesses without any reference to the sentence or the story .
Meanwhile, her friends started figuring out the mystery. I helped in class so I saw her expression as she watched them read a sentence aloud. She had a mix of wonder and awe. How do they do that? she would ask. You’ll get there, I answered. Everyone learns differently.
And she had friends. She was socially happy. She had amazing teachers that supported her along every step. She started guessing even more, picking out the last sound now as her reference. What became tap and when became never. I practiced Sight Words with her every night, hoping that would help her fluency if she didn’t have to sound out words like of and with every time she saw them.
One night in the beginning of second grade, I agonized as I watched her try to read the word it.
I . . . I modeled the sound. I . . . T
I made the sounds clearly. Now put them together.
I . . . T. She said over and over. I felt like those Sesame Street episodes where the sound boxes slide closer and closer together. I . . . T. She did it twice, five times. Any second now . . .
To! she exclaimed.
I knew then. We had a problem.
At school, I taught with her teachers. We knew she worked hard. She had a huge positive attitude. We knew she needed help. She was part of the reading intervention group. But her curious habits of knowing big words better than small words, forgetting words from one sentence to the next, tripping up on simple phonetic patterns . . . I asked for help from our resource staff.
Many times we want to keep kids out of the system, avoid the labels. I welcome the labels. Labels have stories, they have information with strategies that may be more successful than traditional ideas. After all, we’d pulled all of the traditional interventions out of our teacher-hats. She needed more.
Our Speech and Language Specialist met with her and gave a series of assessments to measure things like attention, listening, and sensory processing. Anika’s attention was great (hurrah), her attitude was great (hurrah), and her listening . . . not so great.
The results fascinated all of us. Anika could remember sequences of 3. 3 numbers, 3 sounds, 3 words. But add a fourth into the mix, and all of the information jumbled into nonsense. A fourth number made her forget all the other three numbers, too.
When information was given in context, she had an amazing memory. She was in the 91% percentile for recall from a story. Yet, for random information, she plummeted to the 23% percentile.
The specialist explained that Anika doesn’t have the hangers she needs in her processing-closet. Anika must actively hold all of the information in her working memory. So when she has too many things, it all falls into a pile.
I see it that information doesn’t sink deep enough. It doesn’t take root where she can access it quickly when needed. Instead, the sounds and the information floats on the surface, and she tries to keep it all in order, or within reach, but it’s hard when you’re trying to organize on the surface of water. Things float away. Get mixed up.
The information helped. She is getting coaching to really notice how sounds are pronounced; paying attention to sounds so they go deeper into her mind and out of her working memory. I’m researching (of course) and learning about a lot of different learning styles. She doesn’t qualify for special education services but we’re giving her extra support at home and she gets focused attention at school.
We made a card game this week to play with mixing up sounds and words. At first, it was a huge challenge with a lot of random answers from her. But she understands it now. She’s having fun. Which is the perfect way to learn :)
She’s grasping sight words, too. She read a page of a new book that I got for her. I helped with any new words, but she knew all of the connecting words. It’s huge.
I read when I was four years old. Language was easy for me. So helping her along this journey is brand new adventure. I’m grateful for her school supporting her and celebrating her along the way. Grateful for her dad, for his patience and understanding. Another interesting development along the way is that we’ve been sharing our own learning-histories. I have challenges with rote information too. Times-tables bogged me down in school. I still struggle to remember people’s names. And her dad had challenges in math. He hits a wall when too many numbers crowd into a problem.
We learn a lot along the way. And her journey is far from over. For each success, I see new challenges. Now, her comprehension is slipping. She works so hard to decode (sound out), that the meaning becomes tiny. When the pictures no longer support her context-built skills, she loses track of the story altogether.
She will not be ‘fixed.’ She may need long-term accommodations. She may need audio stories (which she does follow pretty well because they provide context) for when the novels are too difficult to read independently. Luckily, her math skills are strong. She grasps big concepts like regrouping. She may trip up when the memorizing becomes really important (times-tables) but maybe it will make sense to her internal memory and she’ll be fine.
A day at a time. Meanwhile, I’m learning about Auditory Processing. I feel fortunate because many kids are not discovered until they are older and they may have a lot more negativity about their learning. We’ll be fine. Just wait until you see the game we invented :)