An Interview of
Rick Lavoie – Advocate for Children with Learning Differences and Special Needs
Richard Lavoie, M.A., M.Ed. holds three degrees in Special Education and has served as an adjunct professor or visiting lecturer at numerous universities including Syracuse, Harvard, Gallaudet, Manhattanville College, University of Alabama and Georgetown. Rick is probably best known for his videos "How Difficult Can This Be?: The F.A.T. City Workshop" and "Last One Picked, First One Picked On: The Social Implications of Learning Disabilities". His new video on behavior management is entitled "When the Chips are Down ..." is now available through LD OnLine.
"Suddenly, he's run into something he just can't do, and he has to do it; he's being told by the adults in his life he has to do it. He begins to view himself as a failure. Other kids begin to view him as a failure. The teacher and parents begin to worry if he's going fail. And that has a generalizing effect on the self-concept." - Rick Lavoie
The following transcript has not been edited for journal or magazine publication (see 'Interview Notes' for more details). Bold is used to emphasize our [Children of the Code] sense of the importance of what is being said and does not necessarily reflect gestures or tones of emphasis that occurred during the interview.
Difficult to Relate to Struggling Readers:
David Boulton: It’s a delight to have an opportunity to talk with you.
Rick Lavoie: Delighted to be here.
David Boulton: Probably some of the most fiercely loyal and passionate people in the world are parents who are advocates for their children. And those parents that are advocates for children that have various degrees of learning disabilities or difficulties know your name. You’re a hero in those groups.
Rick Lavoie: Thank you. Well, the bias that I bring to the table here is that adults who enjoy reading, to whom reading is a pleasurable experience and something that brings comfort, find it very difficult to relate to a child who struggles so much with that process. What I found a number of years ago in my career was that there’s a great irony in education, and that is that most of us who teach school did well when we were in school and enjoyed going to school. Why would you become a teacher if you didn’t like school? Most of us are carrying degrees, and advanced degrees, so we did pretty well there.
So, the great irony is that the child to whom we can best relate is the child who needs us the least; the captain of the football team, the head of the debating club, the head cheerleader. And the child who needs us most is the kid we can least relate to. It kind of put me on a mission of explaining to adults how painful it is to be a child who’s unable to conquer the reading process.
Rick Lavoie: I’ve been on the road doing this for several decades now and I’ve heard some amazing stories from people. I was speaking, not so long ago, at a community college on Cape Cod in Massachusetts and this young man approached me and said, “I really want to talk to you about something. Can I set up an appointment?” He set up an appointment and came to see me a week later. And he said, “My name is Daniel. I’m a student here at the community college. I have severe learning problems. I had a horrible time in elementary school, middle school, and high school. It took me five years to get through high school.” He finally graduated from high school.
Under the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, if you graduate from high school you can automatically go to community college. So, he was accepted at the community college. Fortunately, one of the professors recognized the symptoms during his first semester at college. He went for some testing and it turns out he had severe learning disabilities. He now is getting a little bit of tutoring, a little bit of help, and he’s doing quite well. He said, “But I’m also a real good public speaker and I want to do what you do. I want to go around the country and speak about what it’s like to be an undiagnosed child with a learning problem.”
So, I was giving him some advice about how to break into the speaking business. I said, “One of the things I’ve found is that people love stories. All the great teachers use stories to get a point across.” I asked him if he had any stories he could share. He said, “Well, maybe the ear story. I could share the ear story.” And I asked him to share that story with me.
He said, “I was born here on Cape Cod and my dad was a lobster fisherman. His job was to catch lobsters and he was very good at it. He was the first guy down to his boats in the morning and the last one to bring his traps in at night. He was a very hard-working guy and he took his job very seriously. My mom was a housewife. It was her job to have the house nice and clean and have dinner on the table when dad got home from work and she took her job seriously and did real well at her job. It was made very clear to us, as the kids in the family, that it was our job to do well in school. There were to be no excuses; everyone had their job to do. We were all to do well in school, and those were the jobs that were defined.”
He said, “And I got into first grade and I couldn’t read.” He put it beautifully, he said, almost poetically, “The other kids could make the books talk. They’d pick the books up and words would come out.” He said, “To me it was just like lines and circles and squiggles. I had no idea where the words were. I realized some seventeen years later I was diagnosed as dyslexic, but all I knew at the time was that I was a six-year-old kid and I wasn’t doing my job. Around the middle of October the teacher began hassling me because I wasn’t able to read, and by the end of October the kids were making fun of me because I couldn’t read, and I realized it wasn’t going to be too long before my mom and dad found out that I wasn’t doing my job.”
“So, I was scared. I was really scared. But I was also a real resourceful kid, and I looked around the room and I noticed there was another kid in the class who couldn’t read. This kid couldn’t read a lick, and yet nobody made fun of him because he couldn’t read and the teacher didn’t hassle him because he couldn’t read because he was deaf. He wore a hearing aid. He had a hearing loss and because he was deaf, no one expected him to read on time. So, I figured in my six-year-old mind the solution to my problem was to convince everyone that I was deaf. If I could convince everyone I was deaf, they’d stop hassling me about the reading. So, I went on a one-man campaign to convince everyone in my life that I couldn’t hear. I’d be sitting in class, the teacher would call my name and I’d just ignore her until she came over and tapped me on the shoulder. What? ‘I’m calling you.’ I didn’t hear you. I trained myself not to respond to loud noises. There’d be a big, loud noise outside the classroom and all the kids would run to the window. I’d stay at my desk working like I didn’t hear it. We’d be out at recess and the bell would ring and all the kids would come in from recess. I’d stay out on the jungle gym until the principal came out and said ‘Daniel, didn’t you hear the bell?’ No sir, I didn’t hear the bell.
“At home I’d be having dinner, my mom would ask me to pass the salt and I’d just ignore her until she tapped me on the shoulder. ‘Dan, I asked for the salt.’ Mom, I didn’t hear you. My dad would call us to come in from play. I’d stay out there until he’d finally come out to get me. ‘Dan, I’ve been calling you for ten minutes.’ Dad, I didn’t hear you.
“I even remember when my parents would go for an evening out. I’d be watching television and as soon as I’d see the lights of the car coming down the driveway, I’d run over to the television set, turn up the volume as high as it would go, and be standing with my ear cocked against the speaker when they came in.
“They took me to hearing doctors and audiologists all over Cape Cod. They’d put a cup on my ear and say, ‘Do you hear that beep, Dan?’ And I’d say no I don’t even though I did. After awhile I convinced everybody I couldn’t hear. Everything was fine until June.”
I said, “Well, what happened in June, Dan?” At this point, this is seventeen years later, he began to shift in his seat, and tugged at his collar a little bit, his voice cracked a little, and he said, “I’ll never forget it.”
“My mom and dad sat me down the last day of first grade in June and said, ‘Dan, we’re really worried about your hearing. You don’t seem to be able to hear. We’ve taken you to hearing doctors and audiologists all over Cape Cod. Nobody can figure out what it is. So, we’ve made an appointment for you and you’re going to go to Boston Children’s Hospital next week, and you’re going to stay there for four days and three nights. They’re going to do exploratory ear surgery and have your adenoids surgically removed.’”
And this six-year-old kid went through three days of surgery rather than tell his parents what he had done. Can you imagine the trauma of a six-year-old child going through surgery that only he knows he didn’t need? Early identification would have found that kid. Early identification would have caught that kid and given him the remedial help that he needed.
Rick Lavoie: I’ll submit to you that it’s a fairly powerful story if you care about kids. It’s a story that sort of gets you. I was telling this story to an auditorium full of people in the mid-west and about three rows back on the left-hand side there was a young man, about twenty-five, sobbing during the entire story. It’s a powerful story, but the gentleman was sobbing. And it was very strange because he wasn’t making any sound. He was just rocking back and forth with his head in his hands. S, no one really knew what was going on except me, who could see him from the speaker’s perspective, and the people sitting immediately around him. The people sitting around him are looking at me like what do we do? And the poor guy is in great distress. As soon as we got done he came running up to me and said can I spend a few moments with you? I said, “Yes, are you okay?” And he said, “That story about the little boy who got the ear surgery he didn’t need really threw me and brought me back to a place that I had forgotten about. Could I talk to you about it?” And I said, “Sure.”
So, we sat down and he said, “My dad left my life when I was in the third grade. I got up one morning, I went downstairs and he was gone. He’d packed up his stuff and he’d left; abandoned the family. I look back on my life now, in my mid-twenties, and I realize that was probably the best day of my life. He was a terrible man, who was terribly cruel to me and my brothers and my mom. The fact that he left us was probably a great thing for me; seventeen years later I don’t know if he’s alive or dead and I don’t care.
“I was the youngest of three brothers. And in the first grade, my dad used to beat me. He used to beat me because he liked beating me. He didn’t need a reason to beat me. We’d be sitting at the kitchen table and he’d reach across the table and slap me in the face. He was an extraordinarily cruel man and he used to beat me for no reason. Generally, when my Dad beat me he beat me in the living room or the kitchen and I could just run away and go hide until he fell asleep. But when I did something wrong or made a mistake, I used to get what my brothers and I called a bathroom beating. A bathroom beating went like this: my father would take me, drag me into the bathroom, close the door behind us, lock the door, and then beat me until he got tired of beating me. And in a bathroom beating you couldn’t get away. You ran in the closet, he was there. You ran behind the toilet, he was there. You jumped in the shower, he was there. That was a bathroom beating when you did something wrong.
“In the first grade, I couldn’t read. I just couldn’t read. And I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t read. The way they used to teach reading in my school system when I was a kid, is Mrs. Donovan, the reading specialist from the district would come every other Thursday and she’d take all the kids in the first grade who couldn’t read and bring them to the front of the class and make them read out loud in front of the other kids. That was so embarrassing and humiliating for me that every other Thursday before Mrs. Donovan arrived I’d go into the boys’ room and take my reading glasses and twist them until they broke, or break one of the lenses, or pop one of the lenses out. Then when Mrs. Donovan would come I’d go up to her with the broken glasses and say, ‘Mrs. Donovan, my glasses are broken. I can’t read today.’ And I did that every other Thursday for a year with the full knowledge that when I got home I was going to get a bathroom beating for it; when I showed my father the broken glasses, that I was going to get a beating.”
The saddest part of that story is, I’ll bet you anything, if you look at that child’s file, some where Mrs. Donovan probably wrote that this kid is not motivated. You don’t break your glasses every other Thursday for a year unless you’re doing it on purpose. She must have known he was doing it on purpose and interpreted that the child was not motivated, which is so sad. That child was probably the most motivated child Mrs. Donavan will ever, ever have. His motivation was to avoid the humiliation. Imagine if she could have taken that motivation and injected that into his desire to learn to read. He was an extraordinarily motivated child.
I own a little 1972 Karmann Ghia. It’s my pride and joy. I love that little car. It’s very, very special to me. My wife bought it on our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. It was manufactured the year we were married and I love that car. But if you told me in order to keep that car I’d have to take a beating twice a month I’d say, “Well, keep the car. It doesn’t mean that much to me.” I’m not that motivated to keep the car. This little boy was so motivated to avoid being embarrassed that he was willing to take a beating from a grown man twice a month. We need to understand the incredible impact that an inability to read has on the life span of a child into adulthood.
In one of our videos there is all these adults sitting around talking about the impact of reading, comprehension, blah, blah, blah, and all of this kind of clinical good stuff. But our son, who now is twenty-eight, was twelve in the video, and when we did the commentary afterwards on the film what he says is, “Yeah, but what about the kid in the record store, who can’t pick out a CD?” That’s what gets the kid. You know, they struggle in school, but that’s only six hours of their day. It’s the impact that it has outside the school.
David Boulton: That’s where the shame is the greatest because of peer visibility.
Rick Lavoie: Yes, and basically what a kid’s response to that is.
David Boulton: When we talk about reading difficulties, I think the biggest sleeping giant in the whole field is shame aversion; pre-conscious, automatic shame aversion. That’s one of the things, in addition to the code confusion, that we’re exploring. And how the shame response to that confusion is a downward spiral.
Rick Lavoie: Yes. One of the things about Mel Levine’s work that’s fascinating is about how ‘reputation’ works with kids. For example, take your relationship with Cori, you can say she’s a great camera person, she’s a kind person, and so on, but she doesn’t cook well. Okay? In other words, you can say she does these things really well, and this is something she doesn’t do well, but that’s okay. Kids can’t do that. Kids think, okay, you’re in my class, first grade, and you can’t read. You don’t know how to read so you’re a stupid person. You’re a bad person. They can’t say, well yeah, but he’s great at sports. Once there’s one area of failure, then all of your reputation…
David Boulton: It’s so fundamental to how they think about each other.
Rick Lavoie: And it’s so visible. It’s so visible. You just can’t fake it.
David Boulton: The mechanisms of avoiding this are really surprising. When we talk with parents and teachers the degree to which they do not understand this one point is huge. Helping them to understand this is one of our main missions.
Rick Lavoie: I’m a public speaker and that’s what I do for a living. It’s difficult for me, even as a sensitive educator, to understand how terrifying it is for other people to do public speaking. It’s just something that I don’t find scary at all, it’s something that I find enjoyable. I’ve gotten good at it. When you do something well it’s very difficult to relate to people who find it such a difficult thing to do. Try to watch a physicist trying to teach his kid the times tables. It just doesn’t work because it’s so natural to the physicist. I love the analogy that he’s above, looking down, with a kid who’s below, looking up and it’s a whole different perspective.
David Boulton: Exactly.
Reading Difficulties and Learning Disabilities:
David Boulton: One of the things that I want to make sure that we spend some time talking about is the relationship between reading difficulties and learning disabilities, as they’re generally thought of as two different distinct things. Did you read our conversation with James Wendorf? It seems to me that difficulties learning to read are clearly the nation’s greatest learning disability.
Rick Lavoie: Right. We’re going to get into some of that stuff. There is a tremendous discrepancy and on-going argument in the field about learning disabilities versus reading disabilities. The bias of those of us in learning disability field is that the inability to read and the reading disability is not the problem, but rather a symptom of a larger problem. The larger problem is language development and a symptom of that is reading. The Language Arts consists of reading, writing, listening and speaking, and what we find is kids with learning disabilities have global problems in language that are reflected in an inability to read. However, there are people who say we need to focus exclusively on the reading. You have a child with poor language development, and as a result of that, he has a reading problem, so you focus on the reading.
Now, you’ve got a child who can read, but who has poor language development. So, the discrepancy appears to be whether you take a frontal assault on reading, or whether you take a frontal assault on language. Those of us in the learning disabilities field would favor more of an assault on language, because again, we see the inability to read as a symptom.
Rick Lavoie: Literacy, in and of itself, should not be the goal. Improvement in understanding of language should be the goal. There’s a body of research that indicates that if you improve the child’s ability to listen, his ability to speak, his ability to write, that reading will also improve along a parallel course. So, that’s an ongoing dispute that, frankly, is a point of some concern to me because we are just working in such a multi-disciplinary way now where the reading specialists won’t talk to the language arts people. The language arts people won’t talk to the pediatrician. What I try to do in schools where I consult is to get away from multi-disciplinary programming, get away from multi-disciplinary teams. The term multi-disciplinary translated means many disciplines. What I recommend is what I call trans-disciplinary programs, which means across disciplines, where you all sit around the table as equals not representing your department and not representing your discipline, but rather representing the child. Where the problem is thrown onto the table and everybody jumps on it. In a school setting, who’s to say the history teacher won’t have a great idea about how to teach this kid the times tables? Who’s to say that the math teacher won’t have a terrific idea about how to get the kid to show up on time for his history class?
So, what I say is when you meet in a trans-disciplinary meeting. Picture it… you’ve got twelve people sitting around the table, twelve different disciplines, twelve different undergraduate degrees, twelve different graduate degrees, twelve sets of life experiences, twelve sets of educational experiences. That’s a treasure chest of information sitting around that table. And until we start talking together as equals, rather than going to these meetings and each of us giving our presentation from our own discipline, we’ll continue to represent our discipline rather than represent the child.
David Boulton: Thank you. I completely agree with the need for such dialogue.
David Boulton: Relative to the oral language/reading spectrum, I think that’s really important. We’ve got that pretty well-covered with neuroscientists that specialize in oral language development, the oral-to-written language continuum, like Paula Tallal, and also the work of Keith Stanovich. There’s just no question that reading (at least initially) is a virtual reality overlay to a deeper level of oral language processing. No question about that. Nonetheless, for the reasons that we’ve been talking about, relative to shame aversion, shame aversion isn’t just this monstrous avoidance of a thing called reading. It’s also an aversion to the kind of cognitive confusion that associates with reading. Children that develop an aversion to reading are developing a learning disability, in the sense that they’re avoiding learning. That’s learning disabling. Massively learning disabling.
Rick Lavoie: Right.
David Boulton: I understand there’s a neurobiological distinction that we could make between the three to five percent of the population, that according to James Wendorf and others, actually has some kind of an internal, structural difficulty in general processing or language processing, which translates into various kinds of learning disabilities. No question. But we’re talking sixty-eight percent of our graduating high school population is below proficient in reading and, to various degrees, feeling less than comfortable with their ability to learn. That’s massively learning disabled.
Rick Lavoie: I think the concern that I have is that most adults, care givers, parents and teachers don’t understand the relationship that children who are disabled in the area of reading have with the reading process. It’s a life-long relationship, and it’s a very, very rocky marriage that they share between them and the reading process. It begins in the first year of school. The child is a happy kid, three, four, five, six years old. He can run fast. He can jump high. He’s got friends. Life is good. He can’t wait to go to school like his older brothers and sisters do. He gets on the school bus and goes to school very anxious and eager to begin this process, and suddenly, he runs into the reading process; a code that he simply cannot break. It’s his first experience with failure. He’s lived in a protective, cocoonish environment with mom and dad who protect him and love him and care about him in an unconditional way.
Suddenly, he’s run into something he just can’t do, and he has to do it; he’s being told by the adults in his life he has to do it. He begins to view himself as a failure. Other kids begin to view him as a failure. The teacher and parents begin to worry if he’s going fail. And that has a generalizing effect on the self-concept. Suddenly, mom and dad report he doesn’t want to go to swimming lessons anymore. He doesn’t want to go horse-back riding anymore. He doesn’t want to go to visit grandma anymore because he’s failing at this monumental task of reading and that begins to generalize and begins to impact his self-concept.
Then he moves into the elementary years. After around second or third grade there’s an assumption we make in education, which can be very damaging to our kids. And that is that in American education you spend the first three years learning how to read. From then on, you’re not learning to read, you’re reading to learn. You’re using reading as a tool. And if you haven’t developed that tool by the third grade, there really isn’t much hope for you ever developing because most school systems don’t provide remedial reading instruction after third grade. So, now the child is floundering in fourth grade. He hasn’t mastered this tool that he desperately needs in order to learn, so he begins to develop behaviors that are troubling.
One of the philosophies I remind teachers and parents of constantly is, at any given point in time, any kid will prefer to be viewed as a bad kid than a dumb kid. If you put a kid in the position of choosing between looking bad or looking dumb, he will choose to look bad. So, you’re the basketball coach. You’ve got your team sitting up in the bleachers. It’s the end of practice and then you look at your watch and you realize that you have five more minutes left. ‘Kevin and Michael, come on down from the stands and demonstrate that passing drill that we learned yesterday.’
As Kevin comes off the stands, he slaps some other kid in the back of the head. You need to think, why did he do that? He did it because he couldn’t do the drill. He’s coming off the stands and he’s thinking, I don’t remember that drill. I don’t know how to do it. I’m going to look dumb in front of the coach. I’m going to look dumb in front of the other kids. But if I whack this kid, the coach will throw me out of practice and I won’t have to be embarrassed. Now the kids will think I’m bad, and the coach will think I’m bad, but nobody will think I’m dumb, and I’d rather have them think I’m bad than think I’m dumb.
So, kids begin to develop these behaviors of avoidance, where they purposely get into trouble to avoid being in class; where they want to develop the reputation of being a bad kid because it’s so much less painful than developing the reputation of being a dumb kid.
School is a Kid’s Job:
Rick Lavoie: I was asked by a newspaper one time, what’s the most profound understanding that parents and teachers can have about kids? My response was that we need to understand that kids go to school for a living. That’s their job. They do it six hours a day. If they’re failing at their job, if they can’t do the majority of what they’re asked to do, if they don’t really like or care about the people they work with, their colleagues, their classmates, if they’re not understood by the people they work for, their teachers and supervisors, then that’s a pretty lousy existence for a child.
Imagine how you would feel if you had a job, eight hours a day, where you couldn’t do most of what you were asked to do. You didn’t have the basic tools you needed to do your job and nobody around you understood. You’d be pretty unhappy as well. Kids go to school for a living. Not only do they go to school for a living, they’re more closely identified with what they do for a living than we are with what we do for a living.
My brother came to visit us recently. I opened up the back door of the car to greet them when they pulled up in front of the house and I reached in and shook my nephew’s hand and said, “Hey Tim, how are you? How’s school?” First question I asked him was how’s school? I was with my brother for the entire weekend. It wasn’t until the end of the weekend when they were leaving that I said to him, “By the way, Chip, how’s work?” I don’t identify my brother with what he does for a living, but I identify my nephew with what he does for a living.
When you see a child on the street from your neighborhood who you haven’t seen in awhile, the first thing you say to him is, “Hi, Billy. How’s school?” It’s their entire identity. And around middle school things really begin to fall apart because, again, there’s no longer remedial education offered. The child can’t use the tool of reading and so school becomes even more and more confusing for him.
Teachers Assume the Child Can Read:
Rick Lavoie: The other thing that happens around elementary and middle school is teachers begin to make assumptions. They assume the child can read.
So many times the kid will say, “I don’t know how to do this worksheet.”
And the teacher will say, “Well, it’s written right there.”
“Yeah, but I don’t know how to do it.
“Well, it’s written right there. There are the directions.”
“Yeah, I read them, but I don’t know how to do it.”
And the teacher will say, “It says circle the right answer.”
“And the kid says, “Okay, I’ve got it.”
In other words, once I heard it, I was fine. But I was unable to understand it from a reading point of view. So, then you get into the middle school years, and again, the inability to read begins to manifest itself in either the child becoming withdrawn or the child acting out.
Inadequate Reading Remediation in Middle and High School:
Rick Lavoie: Then you move into high school. In high school people are talking about college. People are talking about getting massive amounts of reading. Now, instead of just reading a chapter of a book, you’re assigned to read an entire book. Many of our kids really hit the wall with the reading process at that time.
The problem that we have in our middle schools and high schools is no one is doing any remediation for kids who struggle with reading. When you have a child who’s failing in school, there are two approaches you can take. One is remedial and the other is compensatory. This is how it works: you’ve got a child who’s in the seventh grade, but he’s functioning at the fourth grade level. You have a gap there. He’s in the seventh grade reading at the fourth grade level and you want to close that gap. There are basically two ways you can close it. One is with remediation. Remediation says, ‘Kid, you’re in the seventh grade, but you’re functioning at the fourth grade level. I’m going to close that gap and here’s how I’m going to do it. I’m going to make you a better reader. I’m going to give you remedial instruction. I’m going to take your fourth-grade reading skills and bring them up to seventh-grade level. I’m going to close that gap by improving your reading skills and bringing them up to grade level’ That’s remediation and that is good.
The other approach is compensation. Compensation says, ‘Kid, you’re in the seventh grade, but you’re reading at the fourth grade level. I’m going to close that gap and here’s how I’m going to do it. I’m not going to try to make you a better reader. I’m going to take the seventh grade material and bring it down to your level. I’m going to put the book on tape and I’m going to modify the material. I’m going to modify the assessment. I’m not going to try to bridge that gap by improving your skills. I’m going to bridge that gap by bringing the material down to your level.’ That’s compensation, and that’s good, too.
What troubles me as I go around the country is I see that so many schools are so deep into compensation that no one’s remediating anymore. I’ll go to a middle school and I’ll say to the principal, “How are things going with the children with reading problems in this school?” And the principal says, “We’re doing great. In fact, we took all of the history books last semester and we put them on tape, so now the child with a reading difficulty, instead of coming and taking out the history book, he can take out the history tape. We’re done. We’re fine here”. And what that principal is forgetting is this: the problem is not that the child can’t read the history book. The problem is the child can’t read, and by putting the book on tape you haven’t dealt with the problem. You’ve only dealt with a symptom of the problem. It’s like if you had a terrible toothache and I kept giving you pain medication. Well, that’s going to take care of the symptom, but until somebody gets in and deals with the abscessed tooth, you’re going to continue to have problems.
And this compensation that goes on, where instead of trying to remediate the child’s problems we merely compensate for it, as a result of that in almost every state in the United States now there are lawsuits being filed against school systems who are being sued by students who have graduated in the top twenty percent of their high school graduating class, reading at the second or third level because no one ever remediated the problem. All we did was compensate for it.
David Boulton: There’s also a failure to recognize that the process of learning to read is more fundamentally engendering of the health of learning and the ability to learn about whatever somebody might need later, than any of these other particular subjects.
Rick Lavoie: Exactly.
David Boulton: There’s a major mis-orientation as to what’s most fundamental here.
Rick Lavoie: There was a major campaign a few years ago called Reading is Fundamental. In one simple sentence that grabbed the issue that reading is the basis for it. Of course, what happens with adolescence is because they don’t enjoy reading, and they don’t read well, and it’s such a struggle, not only don’t they read well, they don’t read much. They choose not to read. So then because they’re not practicing the reading process, they never get any better and it just becomes cyclical. It’s no small mistake or it’s not by chance that fifty-three percent of the children in the United States go on to four-year colleges, where only thirteen percent of children with learning disabilities go on to four-year colleges. High school is a nightmare for the person who struggles with reading.
We Forget the Adult who can’t Read:
Rick Lavoie: But what many people forget is the adult who is unable to read. The government keeps playing with the definition of literacy, but generally you say a person is illiterate if they can’t read to at least the eighth-grade level. But you need to read at a higher level than that to read Time, to read Newsweek, to read The New York Times.
It’s been estimated that you need to be reading at fourteenth-grade level to understand Medicare forms. You need to be reading at the rate and the comprehension level of a person who’s halfway through college in order to understand the Medicare forms that the government is currently cranking out.
Parental Shame Avoidance:
Rick Lavoie: So, the inability to read impacts more than the adult’s ability to work and to function and to maintain a respectable job. I’ll never forget a gentleman who was in his early forties coming up to me and he was virtually a non-reader. He was involved in tutoring and remediation to be able to learn how to read. We had quite a conversation and I said, “What made you, after being a non-reader for thirty-five years, what made you go out and take the incredibly courageous step to take reading lessons to try to become literate?” And his story was extraordinarily touching.
He said, “I have a daughter who I adore. She’s absolutely the light of my life. The greatest moments I had with her when she was growing up were reading her stories at night. But she didn’t know that I couldn’t read. So, I just opened the book and I described the picture using the context clues of the picture and I would basically tell her a story in the storybook. She had no idea I couldn’t read. By the time she got into first and second grade, and she began to develop reading skills, she caught onto my trick. She’d look at me and she’d say, ‘No, Daddy. Read the words in the story. That’s not what you’re saying, read the words, Daddy. Read the words.’” He said, “And I was extraordinarily humiliated in front of my daughter that I couldn’t read. What I found myself doing in the evening was I would purposely find a reason to punish her. And the punishment was I’m not going to read you a story tonight. In order to avoid that interaction and the embarrassment, I’d come in and I’d say, ‘The television is too loud, Ellen. You’re not going to get a story tonight.’
“I did this time and time again, until eventually, she stopped asking me to read her stories at night. And one night I just realized what a terrible thing that was to do, that I was actually tripping my daughter up, to find an excuse to punish her, so I wouldn’t have to go through the humiliation of reading. It was that day that I realized I needed to go get help.”
And he’s doing quite well, thank you very much. There is real promise in the approaches we’re using in adult literacy. It’s never too late and this man realized that reading is a great pleasure for him.
David Boulton: That was a really nice piece. Thank you.
Prison Building Programs Based on Literacy Rates:
David Boulton: Now I’d like to invite you to go into this question that I asked earlier about the relationship between learning disabilities in the field and reading, and reading as a learning-disabling process for those that don’t get it.
Rick Lavoie: Right.
David Boulton: To an extent that it’s just mind-boggling to me, when we look at the various things children are at risk for, that they might develop that could do harm to their lives, that could diminish their potential in life, the risk of having some reading-related difficulty that can harm their life is greater than everything else we pay attention to combined.
Rick Lavoie: Absolutely. Reid Lyon talks all the time about the number of states in the United States who use reading skill levels in third grade to project how many prisons they’re going to need twenty years down the line. That’s horrifying to think of that, but they really do. Their prison-building programs are based on the literacy rates in the third grade and they’re figuring in twenty years they’re going to need this many prisons based on the number of kids who can’t read in third grade. That’s how close the correlation is. That’s how real the correlation is.
David Boulton: What we’re basically saying is this comes back to the shame avoidance, the kind of things that you’ve been talking about. What we’re saying is that children that struggle with learning to read become self-disabled in some ways. Their relationship with themselves becomes disabled. They become more prone to social pathology, and it radiates, at massive expense to our society as a whole and to our population as a whole, to such an extent that this is the nation’s greatest learning disability.
Rick Lavoie: There are a number of schools within the field of education; in terms of the way we view the relationship between reading and learning. I come from the school where the inability to read is a symptom of a larger language problem. The overwhelming majority of kids who have difficulty, who have learning problems, have difficulty reading. And the overwhelming majority of kids with reading problems also have learning problems. So, I have a difficult time teasing the two of them away because they are so fundamental and so interlocked.
Juvenile Delinquency and Reading/Learning Problems:
Rick Lavoie: The reading process is the first experience of failure that our children meet when they get to school. What begins to happen is as they become isolated from the other kids and they become rejected by parents and teachers, they can fall victim to all sorts of societal pathologies. We see a disproportionate number of kids with reading and language problems, and we see a disproportionate number of kids in populations of kids with eating disorders and juvenile delinquency.
There’s a judge in the state of Connecticut who is so convinced of the link between reading and language problems and delinquency that when she meets a child in juvenile court she will say to the attorney, to the prosecutor, ‘Does this child have a reading and language problem?’ If the prosecutor says yes, then the judge conducts the proceedings in her chambers. If the prosecutor says no, she conducts the hearing as she normally would. And if the prosecutor says, ‘I don’t know’, she says, ‘Find out,’ and adjourns the hearing until the prosecutor finds out.
We’re finding that with kids with reading and learning problems, for example, juvenile delinquency, is a strike one, strike two, strike three situation for our kids. They’re more likely to get involved in juvenile crime because they can’t get and hold jobs because of their reading and language problems. They need the money, so they’re more likely to get involved in juvenile crime. They’re more likely to get caught because they’re not real good at being bad. They don’t plan real well because of the learning and language problems. So, they’re more likely to get caught. And they’re more likely to get stiffer sentences from the judicial system because they don’t handle the proceedings really well. So, it really is a strike one, strike two, strike three.
You see a disproportionate number of learning disabled kids and kids with reading and language problems in populations of kids who abuse drugs, who abuse alcohol, self-abusive behavior, suicide. A startling statistic in California is that approximately nine or ten percent of the kids in Los Angeles County have severe diagnosed learning and language reading problems. However, between the years 1995 and the year 2000, of the school-age children in Los Angeles County who attempted suicide and were successful, almost sixty percent had a history of learning and reading and language problems. Now that, statistically, is almost mind-numbing. Do the math. It’s easily seven, eight times what it should be.
So, the inability to read because of language, whether it’s directly or indirectly caused by a learning and language problem, looms very, very large in the lives of these kids. It impacts their peer relationships, it impacts relationships with teachers, and it impacts their relationship to learning. The reading and the learning are so intricately tied together, it’s such a Gordian knot at this point, that attempts to untie them and separate them into the learning disabilities camp and the reading disabilities camp, I see as an exercise in futility. They’re so closely linked, and so closely tied together.
David Boulton: I appreciate where you’re coming from. Here’s some differences and distinctions that I would like to exercise. For example, you just made a ten percent quote in Los Angeles county. That’s true on the one hand. On the other hand, nationwide, eighty-eight percent of black fourth-grade children are below proficiency in reading. Eighty-eight percent. Eight times that number are at some degree of life risk here.
Rick Lavoie: What I said was, and I always make a point to say it, ten percent have diagnosed learning disabilities.
David Boulton: What we’re basically saying is that some are so severe and so obvious that we can put a label on them in this way. But nonetheless, some six to eight times that, on a national average, are struggling and they’re not getting the same degree of attention.
Rick Lavoie: Yeah. One of the problems that I see is that school systems across the country have adopted a triage approach, in terms of dealing with children with reading and language problems. Triage, you’ll probably recognize from M.A.S.H. and medical shows, triage is a widely-accepted and extraordinarily effective technique that’s used in medical emergencies. A bus rolls over and there are forty people in different stages of injury. The first emergency workers who arrive, they know their job is triage, which is basically to put all of the victims in three categories. Category A are people who are going to live anyway. They’ve got minor injuries, but they don’t need immediate medical attention; they’re going to be fine whether or not they get immediate medical attention. Group B are the people who are going to die anyway. They’ve got burns over eighty-percent of their body, they have mortal injuries. They will not survive even if they get immediate medical attention. And Group C are people who need immediate medical attention in order to survive. The workers go and tag each one of the people to put them in category A, B, or C.
Then, when the emergency teams arrive, the conventional wisdom is that eighty percent of the time, energy and resources go to group C, the people who need immediate medical attention to survive. So, eighty percent of the doctors and nurses and personnel go to work on group C, no matter how large that group is. It could be the smallest of the groups, but those people need immediate attention in order to survive. Ten percent go to give first aid to the people with minor injuries. Ten percent of the doctors and nurses and personnel go to comfort the dying. And eighty percent go over there to group C. I would submit to you that’s a very practical and a very useable technique in medical emergencies. It was invented in 1915 during World War I and it’s still being used.
However, that triage has moved into public education. I’ll go to meetings and I’ll here teachers say, ‘Why should we give this kid help? He’s going to make it anyway. He’s a bright kid. His father owns a construction company. He can go to work for his dad. Let’s not give him any help; he’s going to make it anyway. And this kid here, he’s not going to make it anyway. He comes from a rough neighborhood, bad family. I’ve had his family, his brothers and sisters. He’s not going to make it anyway. Let’s not invest any time and energy in him. Let’s take all of our time and energy and invest it in these kids over here, who are identified and we can work with.’
I would submit to you that’s against the Federal law. Federal law says free public and appropriate education for all kids. What we’re doing is using this triage to eliminate kids who we think, in our wisdom, are going to make it without help, or the kids who won’t make it no matter what we do and we’re focusing on this identified group over there. As a result, there are literally hundreds of thousands, millions of kids who need remedial help in reading in order to master the reading process, in order to prevent this downward spiral into social pathology. And yet they’re not receiving it because they’re not identified and they don’t fit into this group C.
David Boulton: I appreciate the fact that you want to be careful with the distinctions here.
Learning to Read is Unnatural:
David Boulton: When we talk about learning to speak, with the exception of a very small percent of the population, estimated between one and three to four percent, learning to speak is built in.
Rick Lavoie: Yes, you’re hard-wired for it.
David Boulton: We’re so hard-wired for it that as Terrence Deacon, the author of The Symbolic Species, a cognitive scientist-anthropologist said, ‘We can come in with half a brain and we’re going to learn to speak.’
Rick Lavoie: Right.
David Boulton: Learning to read is an artificially confusing learning challenge. It is not like learning language. It’s a different thing altogether.
Rick Lavoie: Absolutely.
David Boulton: Now, in learning language what we need is to be verbally in dialogue, interacting with a language-rich environment, in order to develop the brain’s capability to be more extensively language-abled.
Rick Lavoie: Right.
David Boulton: That’s all we need. We do not need anybody giving us any intentional instruction. It’s not an artificial-to-our-nature process. It’s wired in. We need adults or care givers around us who are addressing us, who are talking to us, who are using rich vocabulary, complexly and richly, so that it pulls our brain into making those differentiations and distinctions so we become more language-empowered. When we hit the wall, and there’s no question that without developing to a certain threshold level of competency at that level, when we hit the wall of this confusing challenge of learning to read, we’re under-empowered to take off with it.
Rick Lavoie: Right.
David Boulton: So, you could divide the reading problem as fundamentally, number one, language readiness. Second stage is that learning to read is artificially confusing.
In conversations with neuroscientists like Michael Merzenich and others, it’s really clear that in learning to do the phonological processing associated with learning to speak that any fuzziness in the distinctions the brain has learned to pick up in making phonemic distinctions in the oral language sound scape will result in poor language processing.
Rick Lavoie: Right.
David Boulton: Well, equally true, the fuzziness in the correspondence between letters and sounds represents an additional brain processing lag time that can result in a difficulty. How we feel when learning, can not only generates this aversion that you’ve been talking about in your stories, but it can fundamentally, dissipate the processing bandwidth necessary to read. The moment that I become self-conscious, my brain becomes so busy that I don’t have the mind power to learn to read. So, all these things are working together. But the first part, is that we could say we have learning disabilities that effect our natural ability to learn. These other things are artificial. And yet, they become learning-disabling. They become fundamentally learning-disabling because the individual child develops an aversion that’s as learning-disabling as being born with something wrong with one’s brain.
Rick Lavoie: One of the big problems that you’re going to run into, I’m sure you already have with this, is so much of the gunfight at OK Corral here is over government money. There’s only so big a pie and everybody wants a piece of it. One of the things that concerns people in the field of learning disabilities is that, particularly under the current administration, is that there’s such an incredible emphasis on reading as being the problem.
David Boulton: Absolutely.I am trying to say that this is a continuum that we’ve got to understand at an entirely different level of richness and granularity than we’ve been thinking.
Rick Lavoie: Absolutely. One of the great gifts that’s been given to the field of reading and education through people like Reid Lyon is the understanding that reading is an extraordinarily unnatural process. Oral language is far more natural. It develops by modeling, and yet also, a little four-year-old would say, ‘The pre-school teacher brought in a bunny today and I holded it.’ Well, the child has never heard the word holded, but he’s taken the word hold and made it past tense because he knows when he puts -ed at the end of the word it means it happened before. There’s all this wonderful language going on that comes part from modeling and part from the natural, instinctive, kind of intrinsic desire and ability to form language. It’s a fascinating process to watch.
Reading is a totally different process. It’s totally unnatural. It’s artificial. It’s imposed on the human being. It’s only been the last number of generations that even had a written language to deal with. And the English language, of course, continually throws curve balls at all of us with the inconsistencies in the spelling and the arrangement of words. So, it just exacerbates the puzzle for our kids.
Language and Reading Rates:
Rick Lavoie: They also need to understand how to read at different rates. You talk very naturally at different rates. If you’re in a hurry, you talk faster. If you’re trying to explain something, you talk slower. There’s a parallel in the reading process, where if you’re looking for a number in the telephone book you just scan and skim down the page. You don’t have to read every name. You just keep scanning and stopping your eyes occasionally. It’s a whole different set of eye movements. But again, it’s a very unnatural process, even though it has parallels to the oral language process. We need to understand that there are always going to be kids for whom reading is the problem. There will also be a cadre of kids for whom reading is a symptom of a larger problem.
We need to make sure that particularly the second group has an enriched language environment where oral language, listening and speaking is emphasized in order to build up the foundation for the reading. In the second group of kids, reading is the foundation for the language problem, and more reading is going to improve the language.
In the first set of kids, the learning disabilities, you need to improve the language in order to improve the reading. That shouldn’t be a point of contention in the field. That should just be a point of understanding that for some kids reading is the problem, for other kids reading is a symptom, and there needs to be treatment for those two different kinds of kids. A one-size-fits-all frontal attack just on the reading process, without doing any sort of language enrichment, is not going to reach the number of kids that we want to reach, particularly the kids with severe language and learning problems.
David Boulton: That was excellent.
Rick Lavoie: What I bring to the table is not the science of it.
David Boulton: I appreciate that. This was an exercise for both of us. What I’m interested in is that our society doesn’t get this.
Rick Lavoie: Right.
Societal Challenge to Understand Reading:
David Boulton: When you talk with Louisa Moats, or other people that we’ve talked to, it’s really clear that one thing we can all agree to, no matter what our otherwise different lens here are, that our society as a whole doesn’t get it.
Rick Lavoie: No.
David Boulton: Those of us that can read, and read well to the point that it’s become transparent, can’t really understand or empathize with the difficulty, and the effect of the difficulty of it not being transparent. And yet, a hundred million people in our society are, to various degrees, having their lives diminished by this. This is a result of an artificial process, not a natural one. It’s an artificially confusing technological mess and our children feel as if there’s something wrong with them because they’re not doing it well.
Rick Lavoie: Right.
David Boulton: We’ve got to get that as a society.
Rick Lavoie: One of the challenges, too, that you face with kids with learning disabilities that you don’t face with kids with just reading disabilities is a thing called performance inconsistency, which is that it’s very common for one a kid with a learning problem to master material and know it cold on Wednesday and not know the same material on Thursday. And so they begin to develop, particularly the brighter ones, begin to develop the understanding that school is basically a crapshoot for them. It’s a game of chance. They have good days and bad days that are beyond their control. A kid said to me one time, it just was so profound, he said, “You know, I know if I’ve got a test on Friday, if I’m going to have a good day on Friday, if all my planets are in their right orbit and I’m going to have a good day on Friday, I’m going to pass that test whether or not I study. And if I’m going to have a bad day on Friday, I’m going to flunk that test whether or not I study. So, why should I study?” There’s absolutely no correlation.
David Boulton: On the one hand, I feel incredible compassion for the children that have those kind of difficulties, and at the same time, it seems to me, for reasons connected to the politics of how money gets allocated and how that defines what’s considered a learning disability and what’s not considered a learning disability, that something in the neighborhood of eight times that number of children are having their lives mangled but are not getting the same kind of attention because they don’t fit into this box.
Rick Lavoie: Right. Exactly. That’s where the triage thing comes in, basically we’re focusing on that group of kids. Frankly, those of us in LD, what we’re afraid of is now this new emphasis on reading, which is great, is going to begin to diminish what it has taken us forty years to get, which is for people to understand that reading can be a symptom of a much bigger problem.
David Boulton: What you’re saying is that for some percent of children reading can be a symptom of this deeper problem. Arguably, and I think this is a great case, of the sixty to eighty percent of the people that are having reading difficulties at the level that they are improficient, probably sixty percent of them, the ground problem is language facility.
Rick Lavoie: Right.
David Boulton: Even though they’re not necessarily learning disabled. So, I think you’re right on here, and I’m saying that because we’re trying to defend focus on this smaller group, which I have great compassion for, we’re turning away from these others because they don’t share the same definition of problem. Even though the effect of the problem on their lives is monstrous.
Kids With Learning Problems Make Teachers More Creative:
Rick Lavoie: Right. I was down in Florida a couple of weeks ago and I did a conference. It was jointly sponsored by the Learning Disability Association in the area and the Literacy Council in the area, which is great to see those coming together because we’ve been kind of spitting over the fence at each other for years because we’re so afraid they’re going to take some of ours and they’re afraid we’re going to take some of theirs. And we realized we have far more in common than we do different.
David Boulton: Yes and the place we have most in common is stewarding the health of our children’s learning. If we come from that perspective, we say, what’s most important? How healthily we learn.
Rick Lavoie: Right. Of course, I’m out there fighting the inclusion battle all the time, and one of the things that I say is that one of the great misconceptions is teachers believe that if you accept kids with learning problems into the school, it lowers the standards of the school, and this school becomes less quality.
My argument is quite the opposite. It makes teachers more creative. It makes them more responsive. It makes the kids more tolerant. I tell an old New England story of this group of kids in front of an elementary school waiting to get in at the beginning of the day, eight o’clock in the morning, and they’re standing in the parking lot waiting to get into the school. There had been a surprise snowstorm, so the custodian is out there shoveling off the steps so the kids can get in. This little boy in a wheel chair says, ‘Will you shovel off the ramp so I can get in?’ And the custodian says, ‘Well, wait a second, I’ve got to shovel off the steps for these kids and when I get done, I’ll shovel off the ramp, but you have to wait.’ And, the little kid says, ‘But if you shovel off the ramp, we can all get in.’
You know, if you make this place accessible to me, as a person with special needs, you’ve made it accessible to everybody. And that’s something that’s being lost. My bias is we’re going to learn more about language by studying learning disabled kids than anything because they don’t get it. We’ve learned more about language since we discovered learning disabilities, in terms of how language develops, because the best way to study disease is to study sick people. And the best way to study how language develops is to study people who don’t develop language well.
What we’re finding is so many of the techniques that we use for kids with language disabilities and learning disabilities work beautifully for the other sixty percent that you’re talking about. And so to say that we’re two separate fields; it’s ludicrous. We’ve got good practices that work, and the remedial reading world has good practices, and we need to share the ideas, rather than this on-going gun battle between.
David Boulton: Right. Separate from the methodological things and implementation levels, when we’re talking about consciousness in the country to the dimension of the problem, we’re just way off.
Rick Lavoie: Right. The problem you’re going to run into it with any of the folks in the learning disabilities field is that we are constantly accused of over-identification. You know, a mother said to me, ‘What we used to call ‘boys will be boys’ we now call attention deficit disorder.’ So, now all of a sudden, the government is taking the definition of normal language and learning and making it smaller and smaller.
David Boulton: They’re contracting it in order to reduce their footprint defensively.
Rick Lavoie: Yes. And so what we’re saying is, ‘No, no, no. We don’t want to play that game because we’re already being accused of over-identifying.’ If we start talking about numbers like eighty percent it’s going to totally discredit our field. And we’re wrong. I know we’re wrong.
David Boulton: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. It’s been a pleasure.
Rick Lavoie: Thank you.