Our Stories

Paula and Xavier

Paula and Xavier

Paula and Xavier

Tell me about your child’s early learning journey? 

Although a bright, inquisitive child with an extensive vocabulary, Xavier never seemed particularly interested in reading. We were told not to worry as boys just take longer and once he turned 6 he’d start to get it more. He turned 6 and his reading was still not going well, so he then had 2 terms of Reading Recovery. This appeared to help, but soon after that finished, issues were raised about him refusing to write and he was referred to the RTLB.

The process with the RTLB took several terms and by the time we finally got a dyslexia diagnosis we had a child who was so anxious that I was having to take him home from school distraught several times a week. He would tell us he was dumb, to just give up on him and that he wanted to die.

The diagnosis of dyslexia was both a bombshell and a relief.

When did you notice they were not progressing as expected? 

We had a sort of low-level concern all along, but we got all the standard reassurances from the school and we trusted their advice. He appeared to be reading well, if reluctantly, but only ever read the books that came home from school. As the oldest child we had nothing to compare him to. What we didn’t realise was that he wasn’t actually reading, he was memorising entire books, which would be read to him before he brought them home. As the books got longer and with fewer pictures they got harder to memorise. Now that we know a lot more about dyslexia, we realise there were so many obvious signs along the way that were missed.

What interventions did you try to help your child

Unfortunately, he had 2 terms of Reading Recovery at school. It is one of my biggest regrets in life that I didn’t do my own research into this. It would have only taken a quick Google to discover how much research exists that proves without doubt that Reading Recovery doesn’t work. It was after Reading Recovery that his anxiety and behaviour issues at school started, something that appears to be very common following exposure to Reading Recovery.

After his dyslexia diagnosis he was given a teacher aide for some hours each week and the RTLB wrote a plan for his work in the classroom, that we wrongly assumed aligned with the recommendations in the report from SLD Nelson.

At what point was Structured Literacy introduced to you? 

Our lucky break came when SLD Nelson, who did our assessment, brought Carla McNeil from Learning Matters to Nelson for a course for parents and teachers. I attended the parents’ course and what I learnt just blew me away. The penny dropped that my son was being given even more intensive Balanced Literacy at school and this was never going to work for him. We got a Learning Matters tutor straight away. Enough time had been wasted.

How has Structured Literacy helped your child? 

Frankly it was life changing. Before getting our tutor, we had a 7 year old with severe, generalised anxiety, who had completely given up on himself. Nicky realised how desperately Xavier needed to experience success. She identified the exact areas where he needed explicit teaching and took him right back where he needed to be so he could feel emotionally safe. Although it shocked us that we had a 7.5 year old that was really only reading at CVC level, this approach made complete sense to us.

Honestly within 2 weeks of starting tutoring, we noticed a huge difference in our child – after two terms of picking a distraught kid up from school on a regular basis this just stopped – so it was obvious to everyone that it was working! By week 7 we had a child who had stopped guessing words, was actually looking at the letters and was applying the evidence-based strategies he had finally been taught. It was an enormous relief for all of us, especially him!

What were your greatest challenges with finding the right support for your child? 

The biggest challenges at the time were the misinformation that surrounds dyslexia and the lack of understanding in the education system. A quick google after diagnosis led me to the Dyslexia Foundation website, which made me feel so much better because they talked about all the accommodations that could be made in the classroom for Xavier. But no mention of any evidence-based teaching practices! I also got ‘The Gift of Reading’ out of the library as it was one of the few books in there about dyslexia. I had no idea what quackery I was getting into!

At the time, the term Structured Literacy wasn’t quite in common use yet and although we had a fantastic report from the dyslexia assessor, with a raft of evidence-based intervention ideas, we didn’t understand how poles apart the Balanced Literacy/Reading Recovery approach and the Structured Literacy approach were and how little knowledge there was in the education system as to what dyslexic children actually need to learn to read. We thought we were so lucky that the school was giving him the ‘intervention’ he required and we didn’t need to get a tutor – when actually we were just wasting more time and further entrenching poor reading habits!

Once we found the right information and knew what needed to be done to help him, I found myself needing to advocate very strongly for his right to access what was considered to be a very ‘radical’ approach by some in the education system. Personally, I found this really emotionally draining.

How did you overcome those challenges? 

We overcame the misinformation due to the follow up provided by our assessor Gill Knight, at SLD Nelson. Without her invitation to the Learning Matters course, I honestly don’t know how long it would have taken us to finally figure out what needed to be done!

In terms of the lack of information in the school system at the time, we quickly realised that we were unlikely to change that in the short time frame we had to turn things around for our child. So, we just gritted our teeth, did what we knew was the right thing to do and got him the support outside of school that he needed, all the while hoping that this would provide an example to the school of what a dyslexic child can achieve when taught correctly.

Where have you found your greatest source of support? 

Our tutor Nicky was amazing, she provided the backup we needed when our decision to get a tutor was questioned and continued support that we were on the right track through many ups and downs that followed. We had already been so badly let down by the education system, but finally had found an educator that we could trust 100%.

I’ve been really lucky to have met Sharon, fairly early in our journey with Structured Literacy, and she has been an incredibly support for me too, not just in terms of recommending resources, but also in being able to offload ‘my story’ to her and have someone that understands how hard this journey advocating for help for your child can be.

I think that those in the education system massively underestimate how incredibly vulnerable you as a parent are when your child is diagnosed with a learning disability. Even just that moment when you realise that there is no funding for the tutoring required, it’s all on you to access that for your child and that educators have no idea what Structured Literacy even is! It is unbelievably stressful.

How has the information and advice on the Dyslexia New Zealand Evidence Based Support Group Facebook page helped support your journey? 

It’s been and continues to be incredibly helpful – even though our son is reading now, the struggle with writing and maths continues. “deb” is such a unique space in that it is parents, educators, tutors and assessors all working together. Having such a variety of experience and of perspectives is amazing.

What advice would you give to other parents facing a similar situation as yours? 

There are two things that are key:

The first is to be very, very careful where you get your advice from. Unfortunately, most teachers, schools and even many RTLB/RLits are still not well trained to either recognise or remediate dyslexia. As a parent, with a child newly diagnosed with dyslexia, this will seem completely bonkers to you, after all dyslexia affects 10-20% of the population! But our educators have been done the disservice of not learning about this in their teacher training institutions or continuing professional development and so they don’t know what they don’t know.

If Structured Literacy is completely new to them then you’re going to be ‘that parent’ who comes into the school asking them to do something that is very different to what they have potentially been doing for decades. For some people their long held and entrenched ideological beliefs will be impossible to let go of, even though doing so will benefit so many children. Educating yourself is imperative so that you can ensure that the help your child is getting is evidence based and their time and effort is not being wasted on things that won’t work for them.

The second, is to get support from other parents who’ve been where you are now. This can be a really tough journey emotionally, especially if your child is at the point where they have given up on themselves, and you are probably feeling like you have been very badly let down by the education system to whom you entrusted your child’s formal education. There is enormous value in knowing that others are on the same journey as you, and hearing their successes gives you hope. The people on the “deb” page are really caring and knowledgeable and will guide you through this. Also, it’s heartening to see the teachers on the page who are doing their best, often using their own money to fund training and resources, to change to a Structured Literacy approach that they know will benefit all kids.

Where are you now on your journey? 

We now have a 10 year old who is reading Harry Potter like his peers. Last week he failed to appear at the school gates for pickup. After 10 minutes of waiting, when all the other kids had come and gone, the Principal went to find him. He was still sitting in his classroom reading a book. He was so absorbed that he hadn’t heard the bell or all the other kid’s leaving!

He still struggles a bit with his writing and maths, but I am learning more about evidence-based approaches to teaching these and doing more with him outside of school to help with these areas.

Now that I am not juggling all the tutoring I have time to ‘give back’ to our dyslexic community and I do what I can to help in the “deb” page and through volunteering with Lifting Literacy Aotearoa

What does success (in all areas – academically, self esteem, confidence etc) look like now for your child? 

Someone once said to me “Paula, you and your husband will have to accept that just because you are academic, doesn’t mean your child will be”.

I’ve never had any expectation that my children will grow up to be neurosurgeons, but my hope was that they would have a good enough education to be able to choose whatever path they are passionate about following. The foundation of that is to be able to read.

Academically Xavier is going well, considering how far behind he was and how much time at school he missed in year 3. His confidence across a variety of areas is coming back. He will often say that he is a good reader now, but he can still be pretty hard on himself when he is struggling with something, whether that is writing a story or even something as apparently small (to me!) as not understanding the rules of a school yard game.

What does the future hold for your child? 

Who knows? Now that he can read and his love of learning has returned, he can fulfil his potential in life, whatever that may be.