An easy way out?

August 20, 2010

She stares at the word. She is concentrating very hard. I glance at the clock on the kitchen wall and begin to count the seconds in my head. Surely she’ll get this one? Fifteen seconds tick by before she is ready to say the word aloud. The word she is trying to read is ‘asked’. She gets it wrong.

My daughter is eight years old, and she has been diagnosed with ‘specific learning difficulties’. The most well known specific learning difficulty is dyslexia.

Almost every day for the last eighteen months, including weekends and school holidays, either myself or her dad has sat down with her to work on her reading manual – Toe by Toe. As its name suggests, it helps children learn to read in tiny increments. Very tiny increments.

It starts with single letter sounds then moves on to two and three letter syllables. Next up, blending two letters to form new sounds (like pl, cr, dw). We have ploughed our way through loads of exercises to help distinguish b from d, and p from q. Weeks, if not months, have been spent working on how vowel sounds change if an ‘e’ is added to the end of a word (the ‘o’ in ‘mop’ sounds different to the ‘o’ in ‘mope’).

With dyslexia, learning to read is all about rules, repetition and revision. Both of my children found ‘sight’ reading extremely difficult (my older child also has learning difficulties). They relied on sounding out the individual letter sounds of even short simple words like ‘it’, ‘for’ and ‘had’ long after their peers learned to recognise them instantly. In other words, they cannot read without the rules.

In the manual, no word is considered ‘learned’ until it has been read correctly on three consecutive days. Even when a new rule or skill has apparently been mastered, it must be dragged back into focus repeatedly until it eventually becomes subliminal. Of course, the manual is merely a complement to her daily sessions with the learning support teacher at school, who also gives her nightly reading exercises.

As you can imagine, this is all incredibly tedious for everyone concerned. The parent of a dyslexic child needs to draw on endless stores of patience (not something that has come easily to me). But we stick with it, because not learning to read is just not an option. We are encouraged by her slow but steady progress and the small triumphs along the way – I’ll never forget the day she finally mastered the word ‘before’. We still read aloud to her every night, so she doesn’t forget that reading is also a huge source of pleasure. It saddens me that she cannot do this for herself yet. At her age I was to be found surreptitiously reading by torchlight most nights. But, she’ll get there.

There is a potential cloud on the horizon. Because my daughter is being educated in Ireland, she is also learning Irish, a compulsory subject. Before she becomes an independent and fluent reader of English, she will be required to start reading and spelling words like this:

Bhfuil – pronounced ‘will’

Mhaith – pronounced ‘wai’

Briste – pronounced ‘brish-ta’

Gloine – Pronounced ‘glinna’

Suddenly, the rulebook is thrown out the window. The alphabet is different, the sentence structure is different, the pronunciation is alien and phonics, which she relies on so heavily, are useless.

Literacy in Irish is introduced at a time when many children with learning difficulties are still getting to grips with English reading and comprehension. In order to allow them to focus on core literacy skills in their main language, some children are granted an exemption from learning Irish.

My older child has already been granted an exemption. This came at the end of several months of severe stress for him at school when he found himself completely unable to cope with the demands of the Irish curriculum. He began, uncharacteristically, hiding homework from me and getting into trouble at school. His very understanding teacher called a meeting and suggested we get a psychological assessment, which led to the exemption being granted.

His teacher (who incidentally runs the school’s Irish club) was “delighted”, as an exemption would enable him to focus on his English comprehension and other problem areas. She also stressed that it would help his self esteem – not helped by regularly achieving 5%-10% in Irish tests, compared to 80%-90% for his classmates.

The compulsory learning of Irish is a fraught subject, loaded with emotional and cultural baggage. Many people regard being able to speak the language, which almost died out under British rule, as a badge of national pride. For this reason, many take a dim view of children being granted exemptions. The popular view, echoed by the media, is that they are some sort of scam perpetrated by middle class parents and educational psychologists in order to give children an unfair advantage over others.

Having dropped Irish, my son’s score on the standardised Drumcondra reading test has gone up by 12 points in a year. We have no regrets.

I don’t know yet whether my daughter will require an Irish exemption. But I suspect she might. If I am told by an expert that she could benefit from dropping Irish, I will have no hesitation in applying. I’m not about to see her fail to reach her potential for the sake of national pride.


My Secret Shame

August 3, 2010

  • I have a secret. My secret is this.

About once a month, when nobody else is around, I get into my car and drive to a fairly grim retail park on the northside of Dublin. When I spot what I’m after, I pull up the car, roll down the window and speak to a teenager wearing a baseball cap. I hand over my money and am given a package. I drive off again, to a quiet spot in the car park. Only then do I open the package and get my hands on……a Big Mac Meal.

I love Big Macs. I love the cheap white bread of the soft sesame seed buns. I love the ‘secret sauce’. I love the melted plastic cheese. I even love the pickles.

But my McDonalds habit fills me with shame. I never discuss it with friends or family. I always use a drive-through (sorry, ‘thru’) rather than queue up at the counter with my tracksuit-wearing fellow customers. I park well away from other cars while eating the food, and always dispose of the packaging before I get home.

This shame has got nothing to do with problems around food or eating or an obsession with weight loss. Up to the age of about thirty, I was a skinny person. Since then, a combination of motherhood, encroaching middle age and reduced mobility (I need a hip replacement) has changed that. I have a definite muffin top and could do with losing about a stone, but that’s probably never going to happen. Diets are alien territory to me, I have limited will power and frankly, I just don’t care that much. Being quite tall, I tell myself I can carry a bit of extra weight.

Cooking is a pleasure, I love to eat well and can cook a mean Thai green curry from scratch. My weekly bag of organic, locally grown produce is delivered to the door, there are very few foods I don’t enjoy and I love visiting the occasional fine dining restaurant. But pizza, fish and chips and Chinese takeaways also form part of my diet and I have a weakness for tortilla chips and Mr Kipling’s French Fancies. However, I never feel guilty about eating any of it. Basically, I pretty much eat what I like.

So, how to explain the unique shame of the furtive McDonalds trips?

Could it be because I associate it with the most miserable experience of my working life, when I worked as a ‘crew member’ as a teenager? I still remember it vividly; the hyperactive, bossy managers, the smell of vinegar on my hands from the huge plastic buckets of pickles, the beeping of the machines instructing the drones when to flip the burgers. Most of all I remember the catchphrase ‘Time to lean, time to clean!’ (© McDonalds Corporation) being bellowed at me several times during every shift – I wasn’t the most motivated of crew members.

We were given free food if we worked a sufficiently long shift. The rumour among the crew members was that they put some addictive ingredient in the food. Did this get me hooked? I doubt it, except in the sense that the human body craves fat, salt and sugar.

I have read ‘Fast Food Nation’ by Eric Schlosser. I have seen Morgan Spurlock’s documentary ‘Supersize Me’. But my mortification predates these exposés of McDonalds and other fast food companies. I was embarrassed before I even learned the truth, but it wasn’t enough to put me off. My cloak and dagger trips even continued during the BSE scare.

If I have to pick a reason for my shame, it must come down to snobbery. Your stereotypical McDonalds customer is a young, working class mother giving her kids a treat, someone popping in for a milkshake on the way back from the methadone clinic, or a hoodie-wearing teenager attracted by the sheer cheapness of the food (€6.50 for the Big Mac meal!). In other words, not me.

My visits will no doubt continue, though now that I have posted to this blog, they are no longer a secret. I have finally outed myself. I’m lovin’ it.