I have a calendar in my office. There is a different word for every month, and the word for this month is “thrive.” I remember how I felt when I hung my calendar up in January. I felt white-hot rage: something wise warrior women are used to feeling but are asked to hide since forever. Play nice, says society. God forbid someone thinks you are mean on Facebook.
Before the calendar there was a framed certificate. This certificate was something that I had to work hard to earn. This certificate was an official stamp of approval from the Barton Reading and Spelling System, proclaiming me a Certified Barton Reading and Spelling System Tutor. This certificate was designed to reassure parents, children, and myself that I was equipped with A Binder and A Plan and A Scope And Sequence that was Research Based and would Absolutely Teach the Dyslexics How to Read Good and Do Other Things Good Too.
The word “assure” rolled around in French before arriving in English, but you can still see Latinate bones in its structure. These fossilized morphemes yield a denotation of “to safety/security.” As in away from the unknown. As in avoid discomfort at all costs. Turns out things are defined by what they are not.
When someone tries to reassure you, please learn from my mistakes and run like hell.
Two years ago I met a child who changed my life forever. This child, who I will call Ethan, could not read. He had repeated Kindergarten. He was in first grade. His truly outstanding first grade teacher had already referred him for Special Education Eligibility, which he would go on to qualify for. Ethan was confused by concepts like “brave spelling” (write down the sounds you hear, children!) and was unable to read. Math was also hard. School was beginning to feel like an impossible endeavor.
I met with Ethan for the first time on April 30th, 2015. I administered a bunch of tests and gathered a bunch of data. Ethan’s Phonological Awareness, as measured by the CTOPP-2, fell in the 6th percentile. His Phonological Memory score was 3rd percentile. Ethan’s Rapid Automatic Naming was very low. His spelling, as measured by the WIST, was in the 2nd percentile, and his word identification was in the less than first percentile. Ethan’s Oral Reading Percentile Rank, as measured by the GORT-5 (Gray Oral Reading Test, 5th edition), fell in the 2nd percentile.
I concluded in my written report that Ethan was 1) super dyslexic and 2) needed an “intensive OG program” in order to be successful. I never really intended to work with Ethan. My job at the time was to do assessments and then send families on their way, armed with new, carefully documented information and a hefty resource list.
However--because I am very fortunate and there are no coincidences--I did begin working with Ethan. I saw him twice a week for an hour. I can count on one hand the number of times he’s missed tutoring. He’s without a doubt one of the most remarkably intelligent, big picture, hard working, and thoughtful children I have ever met. We started the Barton Reading and Spelling System together and I felt confident. As one does when one has a Shiny Framed Certificate.
About a year ago I began to feel like Ethan’s progress was beginning to falter. He struggled to remember all the spelling rules, which were becoming increasingly complex. He had a hard time remembering and distinguishing between all the different directions one could send the consonant(s) when we divided polysyllabic words. He was able to read “sight words” but unsure how to spell them, even after I checked and doubled checked that I was following Susan Barton’s Spelling Sight Words Procedure to the letter. Ethan was able to use the spell checker during our tutoring, but it took him a long time and he often made mistakes.
And to be real with you, as a dyslexic who was/is still a poor speller, I could not find fault with his areas of confusion and struggle. Even though I had been told by Susan Barton that if I followed her Scope and Sequence I Too Would Become a Better Speller. Maybe the only people who will become Better Spellers are those who can remember all the rules, which in my opinion range from difficult to remember at best (like the Floss Rule: if a one syllable word with just one short vowel ends in F, L, S or Z double the final F, L, S or Z) to nearly outright impossible to apply, even as an adult (like Picnic Chicken Basket: when you hear /k/ in the middle of a word first try spelling the /k/ sound with a C (don’t use C if there is a watch-out vowel, watch-out vowels are I, E, Y), then try a CK (the ONLY time you can use CK is right after one short vowel), and then finally a K (last choice). Stop at the first one that works). If that doesn’t sound hard to you then yay for you. It’s hard for me and it was hard for Ethan.
My inner turmoil and cognitive dissonance grew louder and louder. I asked myself questions like, why is it recommended for a student who has lower working memory to stop the flow of their writing to open the spell checker, remember how to use the spell checker, and then type letters into the spell checker hoping the right word they want pops up? Why is it recommended to ask your students to wade through an entire Spelling Rules page devoted to SION/TION when they are attempting to spell a word that has the suffix <ion>, and why does Susan Barton call *<tion> and *<sion> units when the <t> or <s> is ALWAYS (not sometimes) part of the previous morpheme and <ion> is a suffix that forms abstract nouns from verbs?
You do the best you can until you know better, and then you do better. Luckily for me I stumbled across people who were doing better than Susan Barton when it came to teaching children how our writing system works. I was suspicious at first, though. When your thinking is still limited by what’s been given a Gold Stamp of Approval versus what is just the truth things can get tricky. But here’s the thing about truth: it’s beautiful, it’s elegant, and most of all, it’s meaningful. Dyslexics have to have that truth and beauty in my opinion. In my opinion it’s the truth and beauty inherent in structure that enables dyslexics to thrive.
Structured Word Inquiry is a framework for investigating the structure inherent in English Orthography. It’s not a curriculum. There is no Scope and Sequence, or as one of my teachers says, Scoop and Sequins. It does not have a universal Gold Stamp of Approval from the sellers of Dyslexia Remediation Programs and Trainings. There are four questions: What does the word mean? How is the word built? What are the relatives? What are the graphemes that are spelling phonemes? There are some leaders in the field who have dedicated their professional lives to helping people like me access real understanding. And then, best of all, there’s our gorgeous language itself, which continues to defy the boxes we long to put her into. There’s a historical reason for that <h> in “ghost.” The word “daughter” makes perfect sense. The <g> in “sign” spells a zero allophone in that word, but is phonetically realized in other words with the same free base <sign>, like “signal” or “signature” or “design.”
These eternal structures and precise terminology are not too hard for Ethan.
Ethan and I stopped using the Barton Reading and Spelling System about a year ago. It felt a little like leaping off a cliff, to be honest with you. I was nervous, because even though I was/am/will never stop learning everything I can about how our writing system actually works, leaving behind the Gold Stamp of Approval was a big big deal for me.
Our time since the cliff jump has been the richest and most meaningful work we’ve done. He comes to session with words. He wants to know about words like ancient, could, xylophone, migration, decide, comb, perspiration and vacuum. It’s not unusual for him to ask me about a word I cannot spell on my own, but again lucky me Ethan’s dear mama always sits in on session and regularly bails me out if this happens. Or we all look it up together. No one dies. It’s okay not to know things.
Turns out perspiration, which is a word we encountered while studying Charlotte’s Web, is: per + spire + ate + ion --> perspiration. The bound base (every word either is a base or has a base) is <spire>, which comes from the Latin word for breathe, blow (yes, totally related to the word spirit). Perspiration is the skin breathing. Spelling makes sense.
A while ago Ethan came into session and asked me about the word “vaccum.” We discovered that vaccum’s base, <vace>, also surfaces in evacuee, vacant, vacation, and vacancies. All those words have an idea of emptiness. Not always a bad thing, emptiness. You need it in order to take a vacation.
I proposed the idea of doing Form B of the GORT-5 to Ethan and his mama a couple weeks ago. We’ll only do it if we decide to as a team, I said. We don’t need a test to tell us you are a better reader, because we already know you are.
Ethan was game. He’s straight up one of the bravest lil warriors I know.
Ethan scored in the 25th percentile for rate, 84th percentile for accuracy, 63rd percentile for fluency, and 95th percentile for comprehension. His Oral Reading Percentile Rank fell in the 84th percentile, versus two years ago when it was 2nd percentile. He can read now. He could not read before and now he can. If I die today my life meant something, because no one can ever take that from him.