Tuesday 27 November 2018

Dear Mem: Professor Anne Castles' letter to Australian children's author Mem Fox about why some children can't read.

Recently, Professor Anne Castles, Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science at Macquarie University wrote to Australian children's author, Mem Fox following her comments about reading aloud to children on the Today Show. As you will note, Anne respectfully requested a reply from Ms Fox to this letter. Unfortunately this has not been forthcoming. In view of the importance of this issue, and the distress caused to many parents by Ms Fox's comments, Anne has asked me to publish her letter on The Snow Report, and I am pleased to do so. 

Readers may also be interested in the follow-up article about this issue in the Sydney-Morning Herald.

Department of Cognitive Science
Macquarie University
Sydney NSW 2109

November 9, 2018

Dear Mem,

I’m writing to you in relation to a recent interview on the Channel 9 Today program. In that interview, you agreed with the interviewer that:

“If every parent, or carer ...read aloud a minimum of three stories a day to children in their care, we could eliminate illiteracy within one generation.”

I write because I genuinely believe that you may be unaware of the huge hurt that you cause to parents of children with reading difficulties when you make statements such as this. As a researcher in the field of reading disorders and dyslexia, I witness the suffering, self-doubt, and guilt experienced by these parents every day. Maybe in your work you do not see the anguish of these parents so closely and directly. So, I thought that by sharing some stories of parents in this situation, I might be able to give you an insight into their experience, and the impact that your statements have on them.

I want to say right up front that I absolutely agree with you that reading with your children is a wonderful thing, and important. I loved reading with both of my own children. It’s a lovely bonding activity, it’s fun, and it is also central in building the vocabulary and broader language skills that allow children to be able to understand and enjoy what they read once they become readers themselves. All of the parents of children with reading difficulties that I see would agree with you too.

But what reading with children does not do is teach all children how to read – and this is what the parents I see found out the hard way. There are indeed some children who learn to read, even before school, as if by magic. But, for most children, that’s what school is for – they go there to be taught the basics of reading (and I don’t intend to get into debate about the best teaching methods – that’s not the purpose of this letter). And then there is another group of children (estimates are usually in the order of one in ten) who struggle to learn to read even with good teaching, and who continue struggle well into the primary school years and even into high school - requiring intensive intervention and support.

The children unfortunate enough to be in this latter group suffer greatly, and so do their families. Many parents feel terrible guilt and shame. They wonder what they did wrong, and why their child isn’t reading when others are. They feel judged by others – by teachers, other parents, and the broader community. But I can tell you that, almost without exception, the parents of these children that I meet read extensively to their children – many from birth or even in utero!  Many are highly educated and literate themselves. Statements such as yours, coming as they do from a respected public figure, just twist the knife, adding to their sense of guilt and failure.

Many of these parents have other children that learned to read just fine. Most of them tell me that they read to all of their children exactly the same. Many say that their child with a reading difficulty absolutely loves books and stories – just as much as their siblings who can read – they just can’t read them themselves.

After hearing your recent interview, I put out a call on Twitter for parents of children with reading difficulties to share their stories with me – of how much they read to their children, and of the guilt and pain they felt when their child struggled. I have been inundated with responses, which I hope to collate into an ebook that can be shared with other parents in this position. I have provided just a few of the stories for you here (they are anonymised but all have provided their names and contact details to me).

I hope that you will read these stories and see that you are doing these parents a huge injustice by making the sweeping statements about learning to read that you do. These parents want the same for their children as every parent does. I’d be surprised if you intended to inflict such pain on these parents, so I just ask that you think of them next time you are asked whether all children who are read to will learn to read.

I would really appreciate a response from you to this letter. I am very happy to share more about my experiences with these families, and of course my research on children’s reading difficulties.

Anne Castles
Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science

Parents' stories
As an early years primary school teacher with a passion for early literacy, no parent was ever more excited and eager to read to their kids. I hit the pause button on my career and enthusiastically stayed home full time to ensure my babies were immersed in a world of high-quality children’s literature and language-rich experiences.  My children were showered in all the books I had been collecting since my uni days. We read in bed in the morning, we read at afternoon sleep time, we read at bedtime and at any moment in between! Each time my weary legs would settle on the couch, a book would be enthusiastically placed in my lap by eager little hands. 
I was unsurprised when child one excelled at school. Child two, however, did not. I remember phoning my husband, following another meeting with the teacher and crying hopelessly down the phone. How had this happened? How had I so clearly failed her, in her preparation for school? Her prep teacher, the same one my elder child had, also had no answers for me as she shook her head in confusion “she doesn't present as a child who will struggle…” I will never forget those words. They haunt me. By age eight, when her dyslexia diagnosis came in, I calculate that she and I alone had shared almost 13 000 books; a conservative estimate of five stories per day. Usually, we would read that many in a single sitting. This is without the books shared with my husband, extended family and her book-loving teachers. And honestly, a number no different to that of her high achieving sister. Did the books develop her oral language? Absolutely. They helped develop that wonderful imagination she has, expanded her vocabulary and embedded a love of books and the written narrative that she carries with her today. Did those books teach her to read? Sadly; No.
A.S (by email)

I read to my oldest daughter for hours and hours and years (!) before her dyslexia diagnosis at age 9. Our house was filled with high-quality literature. From The Very Hungry Caterpillar to the Big Red Barn, our daughter breathed books. My husband is dyslexic, and as our oldest daughter moved through emergent reading towards more independent reading, it became clear she was potentially dyslexic too. She made classic dyslexic mistakes; misreading words from one sentence to the next, dropping endings such as 's' or '-ing.' The only aspect of raising my struggling reader that I regret is that in frustration, I said hurtful words to her about her inability to read. When she made some of those simple mistakes, I said cruel words to her. After her diagnosis, I profusely apologized because I felt terrible. I still do. She forgivingly told me, "I don't remember what you said." What relief, but I know that I said them and will never forget.
J.F. (by email)

I have always loved books and stories, and I read to my first son voraciously from the time he was born. (In fact, while other expectant mums bought baby clothes and mobiles, my favourite activity was to visit bookshops and get his personal library started). I couldn't be happier when it became apparent he shared my love of literature. We started with the usual nursery rhymes and kids' stories, and by the time he was 8 or so I had read him the entire Narnia chronicles, the Hobbit trilogy, and the Lord of the Rings.
He went to school at 5 years of age, and initially loved the social aspects, and his teachers. However, he didn't learn to read. Not in Kindy, and not in Year 1 or in Year 2 - by which point his younger brother was reading and spelling beautifully, much to his older brother's shame. It was only after intervention involving systematic and explicit instruction that my son learned to read.
K.D. (by email)

I come from a family where reading and literature are highly valued. So much so that as a profession I chose to be a Speech Pathologist. Reading is my number one passion and I get a lot of enjoyment from writing as well. I knew how important it was to read to my son, and we enjoyed reading together every day since he was a baby. I was shocked when he struggled so badly to learn to read and write when he started school. I, like Mem Fox, believed that immersing him in rich language experiences would be enough. It wasn't.
I still read with him/to him every night and he is 9. He still loves being read to, but he still has dyslexia. His younger brother, being the second child, probably didn't get the same level of book-love. Despite this, he has thrived with reading and writing. My son loved books and being read to, but it wasn't enough. Like lots of children, he needed something else, and to suggest otherwise does parents of children with learning disabilities a great injustice.
J.L. (by email)

Both my children have always loved stories, and they grew up in a home filled with books. As an avid reader, I enjoy sharing my passion by reading wonderful bedtime stories to my boys. This has been a nightly ritual of ours ever since they were tiny babies. When they were preschoolers, I would also read to them during the day to teach them new vocabulary (in French, my native language, and English as well). My eldest son breezed through school and learned to read effortlessly in two languages. His younger sibling’s journey could not be more different. Although he was read to just as much as his brother, he did not seem to be “picking up” reading and I watched helplessly as he struggled for the first two years of his schooling.  It did not matter how many books we read to him, he still didn’t learn to read by osmosis. The magic did not happen for him.
I.D. (by email)

From the day after my son was born, he was read to. And from a very early age, he adored us reading to him. I am a writer, as is my husband, and our house is full of books. My children's shelves are bursting with children's books. From an early age, visits to the library have been frequent, and both my kids loved “story time” at the local library. My son showed a love and aptitude for stories from an early age. When he was 4, we even read him The Hobbit, and he loved it. So I was surprised when my oldest struggled with reading and writing the moment he started prep. It took us a few years to really work out what was going on.
My daughter had a similar journey to my son with her literacy, also struggling. Second time around though we knew what to do, and intervened far earlier than we did with my son, which has meant that her reading advanced more quickly than his did. Although now in grade 3, she still struggles with some aspects of her reading and writing. 
I was taken aback by my children’s struggles. They’re both very bright kids, with a love of stories and inquisitive minds. And from infancy their lives have been awash with books, and reading, and stories. And yet reading and writing was just so hard for them. It was awful to watch all this unfold, especially for my son, who was a confident child in prep, but by grade 2, started referring to himself as a “dum dum”. For a while, we blamed ourselves for his problems. It was heartbreaking at times to watch a child with such a love of books and stories, unable to read. 
M.D. (by email)

(C) Anne Castles