I’m three days into my training to be a clinician at Lindamood-Bell and let me tell you, this English teacher is learning about language. It’s linguistics, really — the rules of the English language and how you teach them to struggling readers. On Monday I held up vowel flash cards for my partner who was making the phonemic sounds and then took my turn doing the same. We learned about consonants, vowels, diphthongs, and the beloved schwa. Now I know that way back in the eighties I sat in class with Professor Campbell and learned all the basic rules of linguistics. In fact, during my master’s work, I had two classes in linguistics with Dr. Stalker where we did all this and more — studying the rules of sentence construction and the ways that different people groups vary from the norm. But somehow knowing that these rules, when taught to a struggling reader, might unlock the door to decoding and then to comprehension, makes it all just a little more meaningful.
I believe it was my fourth grade teacher who clapped out the syllables for me. “My name is Kris/tin. I have two syllables in my name.” I have used that strategy with poetry students when I teach them meter, but I have never considered the fact that each syllable has a vowel or that the arrangement of consonants and vowels — whether a syllable is ‘open’ or ‘closed’ has an impact on the way that we pronounce the sound of the vowel. I’ve never had to! Reading and language have always come easily to me. I must have thousands of sight words. I very rarely have to sound a word out or look it up in a dictionary. I don’t have to think about how to decode; it’s natural for me.
But it isn’t natural for the students I will be working with. Some of them are years behind in school. We’ve looked at case after case over the last few days — many of these students are very bright, they just have never had success with reading. Some of them have already been through several other reading interventions, both in and out of school. They, and their parents, have had enough. They are ready to give up. They are almost ready to admit that they will never know how to read and comprehend. In my imagination they come dragging into our office, believing that their worst fears are going to be confirmed. They are beaten down, exhausted, and hopeless. I would be, too!
So for the last three days I have not only learned about language — phonology and orthography. I have also learned how to be a cheerleader. From the moment that a family enters the door, the focus is on success and celebration. Even the FOUR HOURS of testing is designed to be fun. From the room where I was training yesterday I could hear a student and a teacher in the next room laughing and celebrating — during a battery of tests!! The students are celebrated for showing up, for trying — even when they get it wrong, for hanging in there, and eventually, for reading!
My fellow trainee and I have even been celebrated. We are training via teleconference. When we are brave enough to un-mute our microphone and speak up in the conference, we get a prize — candy or a little toy to use in our tutoring. When we practice with one another we give positive reinforcement with every response, even when it is followed with a correction. We use words like great job, fantastic, amazing, you got it! Not once have I heard a trainer say no, but, not exactly, or not quite. The focus is on celebrating what the student did get right and guiding him to see what he needs to correct. It’s pure genius.
It’s also a life lesson for me. I have been pretty critical of myself and others over the years. I have focused on my flaws — my errors– instead of celebrating my strengths and successes. I’m pretty sure I have done this for the others in my life as well. I’ve probably told you more than I should what I think you are doing wrong instead of what I notice you are doing well. I’m sorry about that.
So today, let’s focus on the strengths. I slept through the night! I got out of bed this morning! I am excited about another opportunity to learn! I have a very supportive husband and family! I have a forgiving, redeeming God who daily says to me, “I see your strengths. I gave them to you. I love you.”
[We] praise you because [we are] fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful, [we] know that full well.