6 hens peck.
Then 2 of them run away.
How many hens are left?
This seems on the surface to be a pretty innocuous math problem. Ah, but I know better. I've learned the hard way. For a typically developing child, it's pretty straight forward. There is a level of decoding that happens invisibly and that, frankly, I took for granted. The fact that any child learns to read is absolutely miraculous.
I wanted to share a little glimpse into helping H. learn. I do not do this to sensationalize it, or to show what a wonderful parent I am (trust me when I say I do not handle this gracefully all the time), or for sympathy. I share this because I find teaching H. illustrates exactly what steps all of our children pass through in order to learn and how many steps there are to break down. Maybe what I share will be helpful to someone. Or, at the least, if your child suffers from the same difficulties, we can just laugh darkly together and give each other knowing looks.
Me: OK, H., read the first line.
H. sounds out the first line. I ask what a hen is. H. tells me. I ask what peck means. (Now, in my experience, vowels are the English equivalent of tones in Asian languages. Native speakers hear them easily, but non-native speakers have a boat load of trouble with them, especially the different between "i" and "e".) H. first tries to tell me that peck means to choose something. So we look at the difference between "pick" and "peck". Then we talk about what peck means. I act like a chicken pecking in the dirt. Then I ask what number is in the sentence. She is able to answer "6" and writes it in the correct space. "Six what?" I ask.
"Hens," she replies and writes hens after the six.
So far, so good. She reads the next sentence, but first we have to have our daily discussion about the difference between "ten" and "then". "What number is in this sentence?" I continue.
"Two," H. answers easily and writes it down. Now comes the tricky part. I've been to this rodeo before. I take a deep breath and ask, "Two of what run away?" There is a pause. Inside my head, I know the pause is not good and take another deep breath. The pause continues and I prompt again with my question. "Um, people?" H. asks. Another deep breath. "No, it's not people. Did we read the word people?"
"No," she replies, as if to say why would we have read the word people.
"So, how many of what thing run away?" I try again. Another pause. Another deep breath. "Squirrels?" H. asks.
"No, not squirrels. Why don't you read the first sentence again." I reply. [Squirrels?! Sometimes it's as if the synapses just randomly fire.] H. reads the first sentence again. It sounds as though it is brand new, never before seen, which because of her working memory challenges could very well be. I decide to take the opportunity to do a little work on fluency and ask her to read it again, hoping that with a bit of repetition, she can read it smoothly instead of sounding out each letter. After three repetitions, I wonder if that is a forlorn hope.
I decide to try something different and cover the sentence and ask if she can say it from memory. Another deep breath. Now, here comes one of the interesting discoveries of the morning. She is able to remember the words (hooray!), but as she recited them, she said them as if she was sounding them out. The rational, scientific side of my brain is is thinking this is very interesting. The irrational, emotional side of my brain is running around flapping its arms and screaming, "This child is never, never, never going to understand what she reads!" The scientific side of my brain contains the emotional one in a temporary straight jacket, and I ask why she isn't just saying, "dog," instead of "ddddooooooggggg." We spend some time talking about why we sound out words and that it's so we can learn what they say so we can understand them, not just to make the sounds. I fear I sound like an adult in a Charlie Brown cartoon.
But then we have to get back to the problem. I have her read the first sentence another couple of times, and then we move on the dreaded second sentence again. A couple more deep breaths and I ask one more time, "What kind of thing runs away?" I might actually be holding my breath at this point. "Picks?" H. asks.
A brief moment elapses as my emotional side breaks free of its straight jacket and begins its running and flapping.
"Picks?" I ask. "Where do you see picks?"
"Here," and H. points to the word "pecks." Ah. at least it is close to the realm of reasonableness and is a word in the correct sentence. I'll pretend it's forward movement. We repeat the discussion of the difference between "pick" and "peck". I ask the dreaded question again, "What kind of thing runs away?" (Can you guess what's coming? Sadly, I did.)
"Pecks," comes the answer.
We spend some time talking about nouns and verbs. More Charlie Brown adult-sounds happen. Waa-waa-waa-waa-was. I'm about ready to call it a day as I can feel my patience seeping away. OK, not so much seeping as river in flash flood stage. One last time. Pointing back to the problem, "What thing is running away?"
Another moment's pause.
"Hens?" H. asks.
"Yes! Yes! Yes!" I enthusiastically respond and let out the breath I was holding. Then we spend some time talking about which word in that second sentence tells us that it is the hens that running away. I'll spare you the details of the that little exercise... I'm sure you can imagine it. And just to really cement the use of the pronoun, "them", we go back to yesterday's math lesson.
2 dogs play.
Then 1 of them runs away.
How many dogs are left?
After we had played this game yesterday I had her write the sentences out and illustrate them, so we looked at that. She read the sentences and one last time, I asked, "Who runs away?"
"Dogs," she replies with little hesitation.
Only about 3947 more times of this and I think she'll have it.