New tactics were needed when six-year-old Hal became demoralised on encountering difficult words. His father, psychodynamic counsellor Roger Mills, describes how he changed his approach when listening to Hal read.
In the last diary entry I was describing how difficult Hal can find it if he gets things wrong when he is doing his reading. And I mentioned that I had started using a new tactic to help us get over this particular obstacle. Since writing that piece things have moved on a bit (as they always seem to do) and there are in fact a couple of things that we are now trying that seem to make the experience of reading somewhat easier for Hal.
The first new strategy is the simple one of supplying Hal with a word that he is finding difficult fairly quickly. Take, for example, reading Dr Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat as we were last week. When we came to the passage
‘“So, DO something! Fast!” said the fish
“Do you hear!
I saw her. Your mother!
Your mother is near!”’
Hal struggled with the word ‘something’. What happens when he doesn’t get a word is fairly predictable. First he will have a guess. If wrong he will try, with a little coaxing, to work it out by spelling out the letters. This often works well with short words, but with longer words is much harder. Then, if he doesn’t get it pretty quickly Hal will start guessing again and, fairly quickly he will despair.
Previously when something like this happened I wouldn’t help out much. I’d urge him to try and work it out. I’d suggest he split the word into two and try to work out the constituent bits. And I’d sit in silence waiting. With this approach Hal would be likely to get increasingly exasperated and increasingly despairing. You could almost sense his building sense of impotence and distress. Result – a demoralising experience which was highly unlikely to make Hal think a) that reading could be easy and b) that it could be fun.
What I started doing last week was to tell Hal what the hard words are after a few seconds. This seems to very effectively nip the impotent feeling in the bud and Hal’s confidence is much less battered. Nor is it the case that rapidly supplying a word makes him less likely to remember it. As far as I can see his retention doing it the new way is just as good as when he had to slog away at trying for an answer.
The other little discovery is, in its way, just as simple. A couple of weeks ago my wife Jo started to notice that Hal’s reading was better in the evening than it was in the morning (which is when I normally try to read with him if I am at home). This is pretty much the converse of what I would have expected. I’d imagined that it would be the morning when Hal has most energy and therefore would read best.
Not so. What seems to be the case is that Hal reads best when he has had the opportunity to run around a lot after school and has burnt off his enormous stores of energy. Obviously you have to calculate this one fairly finely as he won’t read with concentration if he is too tired. But if the physical resources are burnt off to the right degree Hal is capable of applying himself with a level of concentration that you simply don’t see in the morning.
So another couple of stepping stones on the way to literacy and reading is definitely getting a little bit easier for Hal. Easier yes, but still a bit of a chore. We aren’t at torch under the bedclothes yet.
The Cat in the Hat is published by HarperCollins.