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Young, Gifted… and Stuck (Part 2): or helping children with ongoing spelling problems, assisted by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Joni Mitchell and Blondie!

Date posted: Sunday 23rd June 2013

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young with Joni Mitchell: singing to a lost generation?

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young with Joni Mitchell: singing to a lost generation?

I’m part of a lost generation. I was too young to be a hippy and too old to be a punk. I turned 13 in 1970 and stood on the platform at Guildford railway station watching trainload after trainload of hippies heading to the Isle of Wight festival. There they would see countless legends such as Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, The Who and Joni Mitchell. Being a hippie seemed to make perfect sense to me, and I wanted to be like them. All you needed to do was grow sideburns, wear a tie die t-shirt and sit on the grass, singing Woodstock by Joni Mitchell, listen to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young on your portable cassette recorder , while talking about changing the world, though not actually doing anything about it. I turned 16 in 1973 and just about had sideburns. I sneaked out of school and watched Woodstock at the local cinema. After that being a hippie made even more sense: you needed to wear very bright clothes, have a chick, and say ‘far out man‘ a lot. Rock and roll was still important, as was looking cool. I turned 17 in 1974, and saw Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at Wembley Stadium. They sang Woodstock with Joni Mitchell. But there was a change in the air: Joni wore a smart white suit and sang jazzy, discordant songs with Tom Scott and the LA Express. The Band did a set, but they were boring. Practically every musician onstage that day was over 30, but they really could sing and play (apart from Neil Young, who was very drunk.)

I turned 19 in the summer of ‘76. Elvis died and punk exploded across the UK. Punk made no sense to me whatsoever. Why dress like an extra from the Rocky Horror Show, or take a perfectly good tee shirt, rip it to pieces and then stick it back together with safety pins? Why pay good money to see a band who spat at you and could neither sing nor play? Someone explained to me that The Sex Pistols were ‘the apotheosis of bad taste and a counterpoint to years of hippiedom and prog rock’, which just confused me even more: but that’s philosophy students for you. No matter how much I tried to understand Punk, it made no sense. There were no hippies around anymore, so I was in a cultural void. Then Punk morphed into New Wave, along came Debbie Harry and Blondie, and everything began to make sense again: hippies were gone forever, but rock and roll and looking cool were back.

I’m messing about here, because music, like cheese, is a matter of taste, and it’s not the end of the world if a musical genre and the culture that goes with it doesn’t appeal or make sense to you. However, growing up not being able to make sense of reading and spelling can have a devastating impact on your life. Teachers in mainstream schools have an increased awareness of how to identify and support children with dyslexia, though there is still a long way to go before all children with severe dyslexia will have their needs met. It’s still the case, however, that children are being diagnosed late. This is particularly true when they seem to be reading well, but as they grow older their spelling lags increasingly behind their reading skills. They can be as old as nine or 10 before teachers start to notice a problem.

Blondie: still cool and still rockin'

Blondie: still cool and still rockin’

I’m messing about here, because music, like cheese, is a matter of taste, and it’s not the end of the world if a musical genre and the culture that goes with it doesn’t appeal or make sense to you. However, growing up not being able to make sense of reading and spelling can have a devastating impact on your life. Teachers in mainstream schools have an increased awareness of how to identify and support children with dyslexia, though there is still a long way to go before all children with severe dyslexia will have their needs met. It’s still the case, however, that children are being diagnosed late. This is particularly true when they seem to be reading well, but as they grow older their spelling lags increasingly behind their reading skills. They can be as old as nine or 10 before teachers start to notice a problem.

I became aware of a group of children with such difficulties, who seemed to be getting lost in the primary school system. I was experimenting with a piece of software called Lexion, that assesses children’s reading and spelling, and with the press of a button creates a series of games and activities that build children’s understanding of the underlying principles of reading and spelling. I wanted to get to know the program better, so put an ad in my local paper, to see if I could sign up some parents who were interested in having their children assessed and to use the software at home.

I received 11 responses on the day the paper was published. A pattern emerged among these children: they were all described by teachers as showing ‘mild dyslexic signs’, but their needs were not judged to be serious enough to warrant support. The children seemed to be reading relatively well, but all had very poor spelling: poor enough to get three out of 10 every week in a spelling test. Worse than that, they were literally spending hours doing homework that took their friends a tenth of the time. The children all had very low self-esteem and some even had sleep problems caused by anxiety. All of the parents had been aware of their child’s difficulties with reading and spelling from when their children first started school. However they were not believed. Why? Because their children were well-behaved, high achievers in subjects with little reading and spelling, and had managed to convince everyone that they could read.

The Lexion assessment showed that all of the children had developed isolated skills in reading and spelling, but had failed to really understand what reading was all about. Typically they had learned words as whole units, using their visual memories to identify words in reading. They had also memorized a large number of words that they could automatically spell. This all broke down in Year 4, when their visual memories could no longer cope with the level of spelling that was required of them. All of the children had only a very basic understanding of how to break down an unfamiliar word into phonemes and syllables in reading, or how to build a word up in spelling. They were, in fact, stuck at the very early stage of reading where children identify words as whole units. Lexion assessment also showed that their phonological awareness, including rhyming and identifying syllables, was very shaky.

Why were these children experiencing difficulties? Were they dyslexic? Possibly. Some had a history of dyslexia in the family; though I wasn’t experienced enough to say categorically that what I had uncovered was dyslexia. Whatever we were going to call their problem, they would need support to help reading and spelling make sense.

Several of the children had experienced significant hearing difficulties under the age of five. They had been diagnosed with otitis media (‘Glue Ear’) and had had grommets inserted in their eardrums. In many cases this surgical procedure is enough to restore the child’s hearing to normal, and with time everyone in the family forgets about it. However I think that there is a link between having had glue ear in pre-school years and experiencing spelling difficulties in school. In the early years of life children’s phonological awareness develops rapidly, with their pronunciation developing quickly as they are exposed to the speech patterns of the language around them. Part of this development is the ability to recognise words that rhyme and to be able to play around with speech sounds. This is largely an aural/oral (listening and speaking) experience.

The children with glue ear weren’t able to make the most of this rapid development in phonological awareness, because they couldn’t hear well enough. Their brains compensated for this, as brains do, by saying to them, “Your ears don’t work very well, so use your eyes. You can’t hear, so look at everybody.” Consequently the children began to ignore what they were hearing and concentrate on picking up visual clues to learn. When they started to learn to read, they had weak phonological awareness, and though some aspects of phonics teaching made sense, they largely relied on the visual skill of reading words as whole units. They also used their visual memories to help them to spell.

It was only in Year 5 that alarm bells began to ring for the Head Teachers and class teachers, who started to look closely at who was going to need support to get the best grades in their SATs. However, the damage had already been done. The children’s parents had been telling teachers for years that their child couldn’t read. In some cases they had been told, “We have tested your daughter, and her reading is only a year behind, so we are not going to allocate her support. Yes, her spelling is poor, but if she works harder to memorize her spellings each week then she will make progress.”

Many of the parents were quietly furious, while their children were rapidly losing confidence and experiencing plummeting self-esteem. While the children were judged to be ‘good girls and hard workers’ at school, they were letting rip and expressing their frustration at home. They were finding it more and more difficult to complete written homework, and parents used to dread helping them to learn spellings. Year Six was a particularly stressful time, with the emphasis on doing well in SATs and the parents’ growing realization that if you can’t spell by the end of primary school, then you are stuck, because high schools don’t focus on teaching spelling, and only pupils with a diagnosis of dyslexia or severe problems with literacy are likely to get support.

Lexion proved to be beneficial for many of the children: it took them right back to the early stages of learning to read, and the exercises helped to build up their phonological awareness. Reading and spelling began to make sense, and those with a history of glue ear made particularly rapid progress. The children and their parents were relieved that finally they were being taken seriously, and could do something practical to get to the heart of the problem. I was left with a lingering suspicion about the children whose progress was less rapid: could it be that they actually had dyslexia, and would require in-depth assessment by specialists and ongoing support with literacy in secondary school?

I had done my bit to help a group of children, but I have met many parents since whose teenagers are failing in school because their spelling is poor, though apparently not poor enough to warrant support. Poor spelling impacts on the youngsters’ grades, because coursework becomes a nightmare, and they are not entitled to extra time in exams. Parents are then thrown back on the possibility that they will need to pay privately for an assessment, which may or may not be taken seriously by the school. What is needed is an early recognition of those children who find reading and spelling difficult, and to use a range of approaches to teaching reading, rather than the ‘one phonics approach fits all’ method that is currently used throughout England.

A good place to start is to know which children in school have had glue ear, and to assume that they are likely to have literacy problems, until proved otherwise.

For more information about Lexion and the links between glue ear and reading and spelling difficulties, click here and here.

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9 responses to “Young, Gifted… and Stuck (Part 2): or helping children with ongoing spelling problems, assisted by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Joni Mitchell and Blondie!”

  1. Cheech Marin says:

    More nostalgia trips to the Canyons, please…!

    Nah, seriously man, this was a heavy, far-out article. Just keep on doin’ your trip like only YOU CAN DO IT – know what I mean, man?

  2. Fiona Ford says:

    I am a Speech and Language Therapist and mother of six children, four of whom have suffered with glue ear. It’s such a relief to see someone else ssying what I’ve been saying for years now! My “glue ear sufferers” have all struggled with spelling, one in particular memorised her spellings by what they looked like on the page and could only reproduce them in the order they were learnt. She is now 13 and has a diagnosis of Auditory Processing Disorder, but also has “dyslexic” type difficulties – in my opinion (I have had the “paranoid professional parent label thrown at me several times). She works far too hard, uses visual clues and is a whizz at using a laptop, word banks etc for homework, producing work of a high standard. Unsupported, her work is very different and I am currently engaged in a running battle with her school to recognise this. She has written an article which is due to be published in Bulletin (RCSLT in August about her difficulties to raise awareness. My 18 year old son was diagnosed privately last summer at 17 with dyslexia, having gone from gifted and talented in early secondary school to C and E grades at AS level – school again would not recognise a problem, but attributed it to lack of effort on his part. Both have suffered greatly with self esteem. The other two (aged 15 and 6) have difficulty with phonics and listening, but to a lesser degree. Significantly, the first two I describe with the more severe difficulties had surgery to repair their eardrums at 10 – 11 years and suffered with perforations much more when younger. The impact of hearing on attention and listening skills, and subsequent speech and language development is vastly under-estimated.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hello Fiona
      I’m sorry to hear that your children have suffered in this way. There is a real need for detailed research into the links between glue ear, phonological awareness and later reading and spelling difficulties. My feeling is that there is a difference between the difficulties faced by those with dyslexia and children with a history of glue ear. I have seen a difference in progress once they have appropriate intervention, in the sense that those with glue ear can make very fast progress, while those with dyslexia take longer.
      This is only a feeling on my part, and it surprises me that this area has not been explored on more depth, bearing in mind that as many as 25% of children in the UK will experience intermittent middle ear problems and hearing loss before give years of age.

      I was on touch with a SLT with a teenage daughter with similar issues to yours. I think it is a fairly widespread problem. What can we do about it?

  3. I was a year ahead of you. Imagine being in Southsea and literally looking over the water to the isle of wight at age 14 where you knew your friends with the liberal parents were watching Hendrix…… Actually I probably would have hated it; I knew someone who slept through his set. It was a shambles and his et is strangely sad unlike the Who (their footage is pretty timeless)
    I was at Wembley in 74 too and the Band are still Gods in my eyes, but there you go. Whats the best Fruit? Actually my most vivid memory of that gig was being stuck like sardines in the underpass out of Wembley next to someone who was by turns puking and apologising to the pukees(sic)
    I too was too old to be a punk, but it did all made sense to me. I remember telling my sister that the Sex Pistols were the best band since the Beatles.. and if they weren’t then they ought to be (whatever that meant) And having just seen footage of Blondie at the 2013 IOW festival I would have to seriously question the “still rockin” tag.
    Try and listen to what Paul Morley says about X factor I’m pretty certain there’s a great language analogy in there for you to dig out and entertain / inform us with.
    Big up for exposing the phonics fits all myth.It also makes a whole heap of sense that if somone can’t hear properly then they are likely going to look.Additionally and seriously what about the, probably significant, number of children who’s sight (or more complicatedly) their visual processing is impaired as well as the glue ear.

    Keep on Rockin in the (not so) free world Michael


    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Tim
      I have had an enduring fascination with the Isle of Wight festival. The DVD ‘Message to Love’ shows the festival in all its shambolic glory. It’s a bit expensive on Amazon, but I had it as a video recorded off the telly. There are some great music clips, e.g Free, but the anarchy off stage is the real star of the show! I’ve seen the whole Jimi Hendrix set, and it wasn’t so bad. He doesn’t seem depressed or suicidal, as some people have said.
      You get to see the historic event when a guy sneaks onstage and grabs the mike from Joni Mitchell. She was really shocked and started to cry. She thought the audience were heckling her afterwards, so she told them off as if they were a bunch of kids;”you’re be behaving like a bunch of tourists man. Show some respect!”
      I have a tape of a Radio 1 programme dedicated to the festival’s 25th anniversary, and there’s an interview with Jim Morrison. He sounds like an academic.
      Also there’s an interview with the onstage DJ, who explains that one of the reasons that Hendrix was so delayed getting on stage was that his trousers kept splitting and his billowing sleeves kept getting caught in his guitar. Amazingly the DJ had a sewing kit in amongst his albums and stitched Jimi up before he went on(if you look closely you can see that be did a pretty good job!
      Plus Kris Kristofferson walking off, Leonard Cohen drunk and the organiser getting more and more irate with the fans as the weekend progressed: its the stuff of legends.
      I went on a cycling pilgrimage of the IOW to find out all the sites mentioned in the excellent book about the festivals. No one o. On the island that I met could direct me to the actual site at East Afton Farm, but I did find the pub next to where Dylan and the Band spent two weeks rehearsing. I met a guy there who told me that most nights a bearded American used to visit the pub and get pretty sloshed. Everyone thought he was Dylan, but it turned out to be either Levon Helm or Robbie Robertson.
      I will definitely look up the Paul Morley reference.
      My next post is about Jennifer Lopez and Freddie Flintoff..
      Best wishes

  4. Fiona Ford says:

    Hi Michael – many thanks for taking the time to respond. I agree with you about the problem being different to dyslexia. Unfortunately, I think my son has a bit of both!There is dyslexia in the family, and the combination of the two is not a good mix. I used cued articulation with my children when they were little, which I believe helped to develop their sound systems. Both of them struggled with listening, so we did lots of listening games and Orchard toys used to do a very good jigsaw with a tape, which was great. My daughter has recently tried a Lightwriter, which helped with written work, I believe because she processed back visually what she had written and was able to make some corrections. She says she “speaks” in words in her head when she’s writing (as do I), which may explain why this helps. On the downside, it’s not cool to use one when you’re 13 so we’ve had a few problems with that. The receiver aids she is using are part of a trial but really seem to help (and are so “not cool either!”) She has written a power point for her teachers which explains her difficulties very well which I could forward to you if you would like. It has been used by Audiology at our local Hospital and Dr Barry (see below) for sharing and teaching. I recently left the NHS due to a heavy dose of disillusionment, and am working in mainstream Primary Schools. In one school I am screening around 84 children- Nursery Reception and EAL for speech, expressive language and comprehension. I’m seeing some evidence of this in probably 25% of children, funnily enough! We’re planning on doing lots of sound awareness and listening activities as a pre-cursor to speech work and will combine it with work on written language if age appropriate. I bought your book “Let’s Get Talking” a while ago, which has been a huge help with school support staff – thank you! The study my daughter is taking part in about Auditory Processing Disorder is headed up by Dr Johanna Barry at Nottingham University and I believe the aim is to produce a comprehensive and reliable screening questionnaire. What saddens me is the lack of interest in finding out how to support these children, who have a lot of potential. Fiona

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thanks Fiona
      This is quite fascinating information and I think a lot of teachers will benefit from finding our more about your work and Dr Barry’s study. It is recognised that there is a link between early phonological difficulties and later reading and spelling problems. I think that glue ear in early years, anx ongoing glue ear, have significant impacts on reading and spelling. One of the key indicators of later success in reading is the ability of young children to recognise RHYME. Lack of this ability may be an indicator of later spelling problems.
      Dr Jeni Riley, of the Institute of Education discussed this with me recently. Annika Hallsvik, of Lexion, is interested in exploring this. Frances Girling, a SLT involved with NAPLIC, has lots to say about this too. If you Google BAPLIC you will find an excellent group of like-minded people who may be able to offer you support.they are an excellent professional network.
      Jo Belsten, who co-authored our book, is an independent SLT and may be a useful contact too.
      I think that Special Children magazine, who I have written for, might be interested in finding out more about your experience.
      Please keep in touch

  5. Fiona Ford says:

    I will certainly look into all you suggest. I have never assessed my own children until last year, when I assessed my daughter using an informal psycholinguistic assessment. She only had difficulty in syllable clapping and…..rhyme! I’ll certainly do what I can to raise awareness, as will my daughter.
    Best wishes,

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