My sixth-grade teacher peered over my shoulder, handing back my essay. The ordinarily white paper with black pencil writing was covered with acres of red pen; each mark a new humiliation and evidence of failure. My teacher pointed to each correction mark, loudly stating, “How am I supposed to read this mess? You cannot write, Lois.”
It’s funny how a comment made at twelve years old could haunt me forever. Despite this prognosis, however, I went onto college and became a physical education teacher, learning—as an undiagnosed dyslexic—to read and write.
The impact of words
Life moved on, of course. Living in Brisbane, Australia, I married a professor and we had three sons. I assumed as any parent would, all my children would breeze through school. My eldest son progressed with relative ease, yet my second son was the opposite.
At seven years old he was called “the worst child seen in twenty years of teaching” by his school’s diagnostician. He was labeled “learning disabled” with a low IQ and I was told he might never learn to read.
The school system failed him as if they didn’t have the time, the patience, or the knowledge to teach a child who learned differently than his classmates. He was a slow learner and schools struggle with snails. He was eventually diagnosed as being in the lowest percentiles of having a language disability, or severe dyslexia.
His experiences of being cast aside echoed mine. Growing up with my own learning disability, I refused to have my son thrown into that same basket.
Luckily, as a stay-at-home mum and traveling for my husband’s work, I was in the position to temporarily take my son out of school and work with him one-on-one. I tried everything I’d heard of—learn-to-read-quick schemes, exercise programs to enhance brain development. Nothing worked. He couldn’t recall anything.
Designing a different way to learn
Despite the memories of my sixth-grade teacher’s sentiments, I was forced to throw caution to the wind. Call it a maternal instinct, who knows. Out of desperation, I turned to writing simple poems. It didn’t matter that I was told I would never write; there was no way my son would fail. Building on one of the few strengths—rhyming—that I’d noticed in him and making meaning out of words in a fun way flipped a switch for him and me.
Through trial and error and many innovative learning techniques, together we discovered a love of learning, excitement at making connections, and asking further questions to add to our knowledge. His learning skyrocketed, and he began succeeding in school, no longer needing me as he once did.
His learning also became the catalyst for my newly-discovered passion for teaching students who were also being left behind in the classroom.
Going back to school
I decided to go back to school and re-enter the workforce, receiving my master’s in literacy and immersing myself in the world of academic literature and current research. I kept meeting children of all ages who were struggling; to read, to write, to learn. I was astounded that so many children suffered like my son and lacked the necessary guidance to become successful learners. Many teachers relied on standardised reading programs, using methods that didn’t always work for every student.
Through my training and experiences with my son, I found innovative ways to keep these struggling readers engaged. One of the most powerful techniques I used was adapting short stories into plays, which acted as a bridge between a student’s decoding and age-appropriate literature.
For the past twenty years, I have spoken at many reading conferences, and have worked with hundreds of students—many of whom went on to graduate high school and college—removing them from the “unteachable category” to loving reading. However, I never expected to discover one more passion: writing.
In order to be a good writer, you must be a good reader. Working so closely with struggling readers and great literature day-in and day-out, I was gaining the foundations of writing.
Becoming a writer
At 58 years old, I wanted to tell my story in writing. I was teaching less, and my husband and I moved to upstate New York. Yet as I began to write, my sixth-grade teacher sat like a huge boulder between the paper and me. “You cannot write, Lois,” echoed in my head.
Writing experts encourage using praise to improve student results; my students gained confidence in learning because I reassured them they could do it. I didn’t realise I needed that same level of support to become a successful writer. Ignoring my old teacher, I enrolled in writing classes. Here I discovered my writing voice and met a young teacher who believed in both my writing and me. Her kindness, guidance, and patience helped transform my writing, removing my 12-year-old writing anxieties. The teacher who once ruled my mind with her words, “You cannot write,” has finally been defeated.
Two years later, I wrote a book. Reversed: A Memoir follows the journey of both my son and myself and how we became successful learners. He graduated in the top twenty percent of his high school, received a double honors degree in Engineering and Mathematics from the University of Tasmania, and just this year completed a D.Phil in Applied Mathematics from Oxford University.
If I could go back in time, I would wish for an easier learning path for us both. But, because we both overcame impossible odds—though our disabilities are lifelong obstacles—we can be inspirations for many others knowing they, too, can overcome.
Lois Letchford has specialised in teaching children who have struggled to learn to read for 20 years. Her creative teaching methods vary depending on the reading ability of the student, employing age-appropriate, rather than reading-age-appropriate, material. Her non-traditional background, multi-continental exposure, and passion for helping failing students have equipped her with a unique skill set and perspective. She holds a Master’s in Literacy and Reading from SUNY Albany. Lois has spoken at The California Reading Association, Michigan Summer Institute, and New York State Reading Association conferences. She is co-president of the Albany City Reading Association and a member of the Australian College of Education.