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Smoke Signals for the Blind

February 4, 2014

I’ve been holding off on writing this blog for a while now.  This is a very, very personal story, and as I’ve said before, I tend to keep this blog at arms-length from my real life.  I lean on sarcasm and wit to avoid getting too real.  However, some time ago I made a comment on another blog about how my daughter struggled to learn to read.  The response to that comment was a number of people asking to hear the full story. So, here it is… the story of how I taught my daughter to read.

From Early Childhood

My daughter was sick quite often.  Not like “oh my lord we need to rush her to the hospital” sick, but she would seem to go from one illness to the next.  An ear infection would be followed by a throat infection, followed by a bout of bronchitis, then when that cleared up she would be healthy for a few weeks or so before the next ear infection would come along.

She was hard to understand once she learned to talk.  She always sounded congested.  When learning her numbers she couldn’t differentiate between 7 and 11, and she had similar difficulty with her alphabet with telling the difference between “c” and “g” and also between “s” and “x.”

It was becoming increasingly obvious that she was struggling with her hearing.  During this part of her life, unfortunately, I changed jobs a number of times.  With each new job came new insurance, and generally a different doctor.  So, getting consistent pediatric care was a problem.

Early Schooling

From the time she started school, she struggled.  Her attendance was a mess with her numerous infections leading to absences.  She was sinking fast and was failing to learn to read.  The teachers told us that she needed to stop missing school if she was going to ever catch up, because clearly she was failing to learn to read due to her attendance problems.  I suspected, though, that there was more going on than a simple lack of one-on-one time with the teacher.

In first grade, she was diagnosed with impaired hearing.  Her pediatrician said her inner ear was scarred from the constant damage of the ear infections she kept going through.  She failed several hearing tests at her school.  At a parent teacher conference, the teacher, armed with this new information, informed us that she was failing to learn phonics.

Well, no shit.

Phonics is a means of teaching reading through sounds.  You tell a student that a certain combination of letters makes a particular sound, and they know every time they see that combination of letters that it will make that sound.  That’s great, IF you can hear the sounds.  If, however, you have impaired hearing and the “s,” “sh,” “sk,” and “st” sounds are all completely alike to you, then phonics aren’t going to teach you jack squat.  Anytime you see any of those combinations of letters, you’ll know that it will make some sort of hissing noise which all pretty much sounds the same to you.  And the same problems exist for “r” and “w” sounds, and with “ch” and “th” sounds, and a number of other sounds.

So, not trying to sound like a complete ass, I told the teacher that MAYBE her struggles with phonics were because she couldn’t hear.  And MAYBE the teacher should try a different approach to help her learn to read.  After all, trying to teach someone with a hearing impairment to read through phonics was like sending smoke signals to a blind person.

I was told that MAYBE my daughter should repeat the first grade, and by maybe I mean definitely.  So, yeah.  She ended up repeating first grade since the school had no idea how to approach teaching reading without phonics.

Public School Isn’t Stupid…

…But it does need to cater to the public.  By that I mean that public schools just simply aren’t equipped to handle one child’s needs if they vary from the needs of the common student.

So, on her second time through first grade, she excelled.  Why?  Not because she suddenly “got” phonics, or that she could suddenly hear perfectly well.  No, she excelled because she’s extremely bright and had pretty much memorized the curriculum from the previous year.

Second grade, though, was a mess again.  With a new curriculum to work through, she sank to the bottom of the class again.  At the end of her second grade year, they once again recommended retaining her in the same grade.  This time, though, we were able to talk the teacher out of it and she was moved onto the third grade.  This, too, went predictably poorly.  The only improvement this time around, was that she was seeing the same doctor the entire year and even started being seen by an ear, nose, and throat specialist.  At the end of the year, though, she was again slated to be retained in the third grade.  The teacher was adamant, and I’d had enough.


So, at this point in time I was working from home, and I put my daughter into an internet-based school so she could learn from home.  I remember when I was a child, and the introduction of phonics was considered an experimental teaching method.  Instead, rote memorization was the preferred method of teaching children to read.  You show a child a word, and tell them what that word is.  No “sound it out.”  No “work through it.”  Simply repetition and memorization.

As my daughter began working through her homeschooling, I took extra time with her to help her to memorize some short books.  We worked through a number books, with me reading a chapter to her while she read along silently, and then she would read the same chapter back to me.  Sometimes she hadn’t heard me correctly, but we were able to work through those issues.

She sailed comfortably through her fourth grade year, and had worked through several books and was reading close to her grade level by the end of the year.  In the summer between her fourth and fifth grade years, she had her tonsils and adenoids removed, and tubes put in her ears.  The ear infections all but stopped, and her hearing began to return.  She started fifth grade at home, but transferred back into public school for the completion of her fifth grade year.


My daughter is now in the seventh grade.  Last year, she read the entire thirteen book Lemony Snickets series, as well as the three Hunger Games books.  This year she has read all seven Harry Potter books.  This was all done in addition to her school work, where she earns straight A’s.

She continues to go through speech therapy to correct some of the speech patterns she learned in all the years she couldn’t hear correctly, but she reads avidly, and in fact leads her class in her comprehensive reading testing.  So, in the case of my daughter, the old ways were in fact the best ways.  By going away from phonics and teaching my daughter using rote memorization, she was able to learn to read, although the love of reading simply came from her own heart.

  1. Sarah (est. 1975) permalink

    Get that kid in Battle of the Books! Wait, she might be too old for that now. Damn. I loved that shiz.

    • She’s a bit out of luck now. As she puts it, she’s “read all the good books” on the reading list. The reading list is a list of books that they have computerized tests on, so after the kids finish each book they take a test as a sort of book report to prove they read it. She wants to start reading the Divergent series, but they don’t have tests on those. I’ve told her to bring home a list of the books and I’ll help her pick out a good series.

  2. Public school is too stupid. Any organization that fails to recognize individual needs, fails. Not all schools, but enough of them to reflect poorly. Good for you and other parents who recognize when your child’s needs aren’t being met. By the way, this common student you speak of is becoming nearly extinct. We need to talk less about test score accountability and more about “Best Practices” and prescriptive instruction. A physician doesn’t put a bandage on every patient who comes in the office, right? Sorry. Sore spot. I’m done now.

    • I love you SO MUCH for this. I totally agree with your disagreement. I do think, though, that public schools are trapped in a way. On the one hand, we have created a culture of catering to the average student and to focusing on test scores by making those the determination of where funding is spent. Class averages, overall test scores, those are what schools MUST focus on in order to get the money they need to pay teachers, buy books, etc. On the other hand, we have the students who fall outside of this average ON BOTH SIDES of the bell curve. My daughter has gone from one side of the curve to the other, and honestly, her needs STILL are not being met by public schools to the fullest. It’s a culture which MUST be changed.

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