Month: January 2021

“How Learning to Read a Book, Is Like Learning to Play the Piano”

As I continue to go through my piles of hoarded articles, I came across one of my favorites – “How Learning to Read a Book Is Like Learning to Play the Piano” (Brent Staples, New York Times, March, 2002).

When the article was written there was a debate raging as to what was the best way to teach emerging and struggling readers.

Essentially, there were two camps. (Sound familiar?)

At the time, the first camp was thought to be more cutting edge and progressive in their approach to teaching children to read.

Espousing what was viewed as a “top-down” model, its view was that learning to read was largely seen as a process that occurred naturally, like learning to walk and talk. All that was needed for children to learn to read, was an enriched language-loaded environment (such as reading stories to children) that fostered the natural unfolding of the skills.

For these “top-down” adherents, the teaching of sound-symbol relationships (i.e., phonics) was “so yesterday,” so old school. For those who maintained the “old school” approaches (i.e., the “bottom-up” camp), there was considerable criticism, often expressed contempt directed their way.

From the NYT article that I’ve held onto for nearly 20 years, the Windward School, a specialized school based in Westchester County, New York, was featured.

As stated in the article:

“Windward rejects just about all of the conventional wisdom underlying programs at traditional schools. The most important difference is that the school views reading and writing not as a thing that human beings are “naturally wired” to do, but as acquired skills – like driving or playing the piano that require structured practice and constant conceptual reinforcement.”

Citing Ms. Phylis Bertin, the director of reading for Windward’s Teacher Training Institute, she, “likens the school and their methods to a conservatory where aspiring musicians practice scales and play exercises to prepare themselves for the masterworks they one day hope to play. Ms. Bertin says the nation’s sense of having a reading crisis will only deepen until school system and colleges of education adopt a structured approach that reaches the 4 in 10 American children who have trouble learning to read.”

Ms. Bertin stated, “Windward is not the answer. The answer is to change the way we teach teachers to teach reading.”

Since 2002 the research evidence has not been particularly kind to the “top-down” group. In fact, their theories have largely been rejected.

The problem is we are still largely feeling the effects of the top-down theories. If we could, instead of waiting to unfold these theories, introduced the children to more practical forms of learning like STEM teaching which opens them to the world of science, arts, technology, it would have helped them a great deal. Introducing STEM in early childhood could help them to become curious and independently attempt to solve their own problems using the help of technology.

Let’s take Ethan, an 8-year-old third grader who is struggling to read, spell and write. Since there were “red flags of concern in first grade, he should have gotten a healthy dose of targeted, focused, structured instruction.

At the time that I met Ethan he had received little “bottom-up” instruction,”

Instead, the parents were told, “It’s too early to do anything – we need to wait and see.”

This “wait and see” approach is opposite to all of the best research and one of the reason the Ethans of the world are struggling far more than they should be in the middle elementary school grades.

Ethan could have and should have been practicing his scales, notes and chords as soon as there was any suggestion of difficulty, but if reading, spelling and writing are viewed as a natural unfolding, then you listen to songs and hope they will be absorbed.

Takeaway Point

If you see your child struggling, even as early as six or seven years of age, don’t wait. Find a good “music teacher.”


“Is ADHD a Valid Disorder?”

“‘I think the current diagnosis of ADHD is a mess and has been wildly overdone.  It blames a variety of symptoms entirely on the child’s brain, and ignores the child’s environment and the interaction with it.’” (Philadelphia Inquirer, William B. Carey, pediatrician, researcher, and medical educator, dies at 93)

Admittedly, I am a bit of a hoarder.

This hoarding tendency of mine has overlapped with a multitude of articles I have saved  for many years, unable to toss or to even scan them on to the internet.

As part of the ritual of the New Year, I commit to going through these articles attempting to organize them better, but rarely tossing them.

I always think they would be great springboards for later blog topics.

Going through the piles one article jumped out at me that I have saved for over 20 years.  It was by Dr. William Carey, the renowned professor of pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who passed away this July at the age of 93.

Within the article,  “Is ADHD a Valid Disorder,” Dr. Carey raises many important issues that are as relevant today as they were when it was written.   As the coffee stains on the article attests, it has been reread by me many times.

While not knowing him personally or having the pleasure of attending his lectures, I have been a behind the scenes disciple of Dr. Carey.

Dr. Carey emphasizes that there is no one test or objective instrument to diagnose ADHD (often referred to in more casual terms as “ADD.”)

Typically, in the process of obtaining a diagnosis of ADHD  a parent typically will say a few common buzzwords.  Here are some of the more common:

He just can’t focus.”

“He’s easily distracted.”

“She won’t get started.”

“He hates homework and the teacher says his attention is very poor.”

“The teachers say that they are not doctors, but… (with the clear implication that they think the child needs medication). 

 “She’s always fidgeting.”

When descriptors like these and a few others have been present for at least 6 months, the scales tilt in the ADHD direction and a “diagnosis” is typically obtained.

After receiving this diagnosis parents will often report a sense of comfort, feeling that they have “finally gotten the answer.”

As is my nature, I will push back on this “the answer,” emphasizing that there are many other factors that may not have been understood or addressed.

Just below the coffee stains on my saved article, Dr. Carey noted:

The assumptions that the ADHD symptoms arise from cerebral malfunction has not been supported even after extensive investigations.  The current diagnostic system ignores the probable contributory role of the environment; the problem is supposedly all in the child.  The questionnaires most commonly used to diagnose ADHD are highly subjective and impressionistic…The label of ADHD, which is widely thought of as being beneficial, has little practical specificity and may become harmful.”

Takeaway Point

Don’t be too quick to toss things out.  They may come in handy one day.

Interview With Kelli Sandman Hurley – “Dyslexia Advocate: How to Advocate for a Child with Dyslexia within the Public Education System”

[podcast_episode episode=”5368″ content=”player”]

In this latest installment, we talk with Kelli Sandman-Hurley, Ed.D. regarding her book, “Dyslexia Advocate: How to Advocate for a Child with Dyslexia within the Public Education System.” This straightforward guide provides the essential information for parents and advocates to understand US law and get the right educational entitlements for a child with dyslexia.

Using case studies and examples, this book demonstrates clearly how to apply the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to the unique requirements of a dyslexic child. It offers simple, intelligible help for parents on how to coordinate successfully with their child’s school and achieve the right services and support for their dyslexic child; up to and beyond getting an effective Individual Education Plan (IEP).

Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley is the co-founder of the Dyslexia Training Institute.


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