Ash finished retelling me the story of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, which he read years ago, and was reminded of recently at school. At the end (just in case you’re unfamiliar) Sylvester’s family — reunited now that he was transformed back into his true self — decided to put the pebble away, because, while they might want to use it some day, just then they had everything they wanted. When he was finished reciting the story, Ash stopped, smiled, and said, “You know Mom, I love you just the way you are.” And by the by, that is NOT a direct line from the book.
Squishy-sweet, and yet more proof that, YES, he can read things, comprehend them, relate to them, infer from them, and link their direct and indirect lessons to other things. This comes as no surprise to us, and no doubt will be far from shocking to most of you by now. I note it merely because….well ok, mostly because Ash is a complete sweetie….but aside from that, because we just met with school staff yesterday, and had yet another discussion about the fact that the issue isn’t Ash’s ability to do those things, the issue is his ability to process well enough to EXPRESS those abilities to them while in that environment and in response to their tactics.
That being the case, there’s no reason to give him reading material well below his level, with the excuse that you can’t give him anything that challenges him, if you can’t even get basic comprehension answers out of him, about overly simplistic stories. The material used in an issue connected to but distinct from both the expression of comprehension skills (in general, or through whichever specific tests and tasks), and also the approach taken to try making those connections for him between what he can do, and how they want him to become able to show it. You can give him the same comprehension/organization/utilization type activities as the other students, while using different material (just like he could still do definitions, sentence writing, and spelling tests, last year, using a graded-up spelling curriculum). In fact, they are the second school to discover that, while using grade-level reading material, they have SIGNIFICANTLY less success getting proof of comprehension from him, than I do at home, providing him with material that better challenges and engages him. Now, they can’t do much about the difference between the home and school sensory environments, and they have only so much wiggle room, being a public school, when it comes to tactics. But MATERIAL, they can experiment with. They can, and they have cause to.
It’s not just that giving him material well below the level of his reading fluency is a wasted opportunity, educationally. It’s not just that he is more likely to put effort into the fight to find the words they want from him, if he’s rising to meet a challenge, if his interest in learning is engaged, and if he’s invested in the story (something that’s hard to do, when the story is five pages of a sentence or two apiece long). It’s not the clichéd problem of the unchallenged child getting bored and therefore not performing as well as they could, because Ash is, at least consciously, happy to do what for him are brainless things. It is the somewhat less clichéd problem of him sometimes not giving them the answer they want because he thinks it’s too obvious for them to possibly be asking for, and so he gets confused, trying to fathom what they could be after. It’s not just that either, though. The issue also comes down to something more personal and particular, more wrapped up in how he’s wired.
See, Ash’s brain doesn’t give things what we’d consider a reliable chronology. It also doesn’t assign relevance the way a typical brain does, and, as per my last comment, doesn’t really assign relevance related to chronology, at all. Combine this with his eidetic memory. Anything from any moment in his life can be called up, as a complete experience, in any given moment, as if he was in that moment. Think of the particular therapeutic tactic within the realm of hypnotic regression, where the person is taken back to a buried memory and asked to talk through the experience of being in that memory. If an adult is asked to go back to the time such-and-such happened when they were a child, you don’t get their adult mind’s play-by-play, as a distanced narrator, of what happened. You get child-them expressing themselves. Well, Ash can do that automatically, unintentionally, reflexively. Nothing is buried. Nothing is pushed back or discarded from his conscious mind because he’s moved on from it. He doesn’t move past things, he expands upon them, because nothing ever leaves him. What does that mean in terms of this argument? It means that if you give my seven year old something that he first read when he was four, he is most likely going to relate to and respond to that material, THE WAY HE WOULD HAVE WHEN HE WAS FOUR. (That’s why he’s perfectly happy to play with baby toys or look at board books, despite being many developmental stages past them, and extremely bright besides. When he was a baby, they entertained him and made him happy. It was good enough for him then, so it can be good enough for him now, because “now” vs. “then” are equally real and relevant, to him.) All questions of comprehension aside, when Ash was four, he could barely string a few words together. It’s hard enough for him to express himself NOW, without him sending mixed signals to himself about whether he’s in the now, or the then.
“Ahh,” they ask me, “But these books you say he reads at home, that are expected to be read by fourth or fifth graders….can he actually relate to them?” Look, I don’t pick just anything. In fact, there are many things I pointedly don’t pick for him, despite the fact that he is technically capable of reading them, because they wouldn’t be relevant to him. Nevertheless, although it takes some work to find them, there are skill-appropriate books out there which feature characters he can relate to, and situations it is appropriate for him to learn lessons from. Many 4th grade books feature main characters that are around 10 years old….and in ‘boy books’ in particular, the world of a 10 year old is not drastically different from that of a seven year old. Think about the How To Train Your Dragon series that he’s been reading at home. Hiccup deals with increasing expectations for him of responsibility and the skills to be independent, while struggling to do so, and struggling with feelings of frustration, guilt, and not wanting to let anyone down. He’s very bright, but feels that it isn’t appreciated even when he proves it, because he thinks outside the box that most people in his life, live in. He is involved with the people and activities around him, both out of obligation and desire, but never quite fits in. He deals with bullying, with trying to find his place socially and societally and functionally. He’s not concerned with romance yet, he just wants to make it through each day feeling comfortable, successful, and accepted. He has the feeling he could do a lot better for himself and in helping everyone else, if he could just be himself and do things his way, instead of trying to play the role he’s being forced to take on (while most people make it clear they expect him to fail). Etc. etc. Sound like anyone else you’ve heard about?
Ash’s new school has thus far been faster on the uptake, or at least more responsive to the uptakes handed to them, relative to his old school, when it comes to accommodating his challenges. I mean, we were pretty lucky with the last program, but it still gets your attention when the new program has six accommodations in place, in the classroom itself and not just the therapy rooms, within the first little-over-a-week. I wish they were likewise on the ball when it comes to accommodating his strengths! It took the old school half the academic year of my riding their ass (to use my own fine grasp of language), before they finally upgraded his ELA curriculum in a satisfactory way. I was rather hoping it wouldn’t take this school quite so long, especially since last year proved that Ash responded well and successfully. And yet, we met resistance even when we suggested grading-up his spelling words — a far simpler thing to deal with than the issue of reading material. “Well,” they said, “You want to make sure you give them words they are going to use.”
First off, are they seriously going to tell me that a third or even fourth grader is using a vastly different set of vocabulary, within vastly different kinds of subjects to write about, than a second grader does? I’m not suggesting they test him on spelling “thermocouple” just because he nonchalantly read that out of a junkmail catalog back before starting kindergarten. I’m just suggesting that he has cause to use words (and does anyway) beyond those chosen specifically because they familiarize the barely-literate with basic patterns with which to sound things out. As it is, I have to put reminders on his spelling lists to have have sentences provided during the quizzes, so that Ash knows which homophone his spelling of is being tested. It’s pretty common for me to have to say things like, “Ok Ash, how do you spell here, as in please-come-over-here?” A common follow-up would be him asking me if he can also spell, “Hear, as in what you do with your ears,” for me. An animal tail vs. a fairy tale? No problem. Too vs. to? No problem. Plain and plane, sun and son, ate and eight, bear and bare, mail and male………… He’s got this. It’s not that he never makes a spelling error, but it’s the exception far more than the rule. Remember, his processing issues might interfere with reliable recall timing and/or appropriate application, but he’s got an eidetic memory, and he’s been reading everything he laid eyes on since he was a toddler. He was a fluent reader before he got to pre-K. He knows how to spell almost all words he’s aware of, and can take a pretty good guess at many others, simply because he’s seen so many of them written, and it doesn’t matter if he saw them before or after he knew what they were.
Secondly, he is already testing at 100% on each weekly segment of the grade-level spelling curriculum, before he’s started studying it. The argument that something is the most relevant for him to learn, loses potency when it’s something he ALREADY KNOWS. In fact, they have already noted that he is above-age/grade when it comes to his vocabulary. His statements — verbal or written — might come out jumbled a fair amount of the time (if he doesn’t get cued that they’ve done so, and allowed to try again), but more often than not, the words he uses, are used appropriately. So, if he already knows how to spell 2nd grade words, and he has already shown that he can and does, unprompted, appropriately use 3rd and 4th grade words, then what exactly is the point of giving him 2nd grade spelling to “learn” because he’ll “use them more”?!
Seriously. He’s been working on mastering apostrophe use, so give him some conjunctions to learn. Give him some of those homophone sets — like they’re, their and there — that he already has better mastery of than far too many adults. Give him words that are exceptions to the “rules” of spelling that are taught in elementary school, and see if he can make the mental transition back and forth between spelling the words that fall into those patterns, and the ones that sound like they should, but don’t. (Maybe you’ll hit upon something he didn’t happen to know yet….and if so, cool….and if not, well hey, maybe one of the other students will end up learning an extra word that they might not have otherwise, yet.) I mean, ok, Ash is obviously not relying purely on the curriculum he gets at school. In fact, we tell ourselves that if they don’t jump on our bandwagon right at the beginning, well, that gives him that much more mental energy to put into learning the non-curricular things that are harder for him, there, and he’s still learning the other things, both through us and his own initiative, at home. At the same time, anything he learns now that he doesn’t need to, is something that, in a similar fashion, he won’t have to worry about putting his limited focus into once he DOES need to know them. You know….later on….when the curriculum as well as the non-academic facets of being in school, are going to challenge him more.