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Style versus substance December 14, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, family, homeschooling, older son, teaching, younger son.
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I think I spent the vast majority of the older boy’s elementary school years arguing with teachers who didn’t understand that a kid could be both LD and gifted. The arguments that they presented seemed extremely superficial from my perspective.

For instance, they told me he was not good at math, and they used the following as evidence:

“He doesn’t have his tables memorized.”
“He keeps flipping his numbers around. His numbers are malformed.”
“He has to think for a long time about his computations.”

The teachers used these arguments as justification that he should not be allowed to progress in math.

I come from a different perspective: thinking about how to do math is far more important than memorizing tables. If he understood what he was doing, no matter how slow, there was no reason to hold him back. Far better to learn the process to figure these things than mindlessly memorize a bunch of numbers. Tables can be printed out on paper and referenced.

When I finally gave up and homeschooled, that is exactly what I did: I printed out addition and multiplication tables. I explained how to use them. Then I started moving him very rapidly from single digit to multiple digit manipulations. I never made him memorize anything. However, he knows his times tables as well as any other kid his age. In fact, chances are he knows them better since he’s taking college algebra and trig as a freshman in high school.

The reality is that comprehension is more important than computation when it comes to math. Yes, getting the computation right is important, but that’s also why we have tools (ranging from calculators to mathematica) to check ourselves. Knowing how to do the problem is essential for fixing our errors: that is something a calculator can’t explain.

Unfortunately, now that the younger boy is in school, these arguments are coming on all over again. Interestingly enough, they don’t seem to be around math, which is the older boy’s phobia. No, the younger one is acknowledged to be quite adept mathematically. But they were claiming he is behind in reading.

The younger boy has quite a perfectionist streak, and so if he can’t do something perfectly, he doesn’t like to do it at all. And worse yet, he compares his abilities to his brother’s all the time. (He doesn’t realize that his brother has had a decade to master a lot of these things.) Reading has always been a bit terrifying for him.

When I mentioned to the teacher that the books they were sending home were far too easy (things he’d read in kindergarten), she told me that they were looking for comprehension. That was actually part of my problem: the books they were sending home had no plot, so if you ask him what happened, he couldn’t tell you. However, I started him reading Magic Tree House books, and he had no problem telling me what happened there.

Fortunately, the books coming home seem a bit better, but I got a note from the assistant teacher saying that one of the things they were working on was reading “smoothly”.

I have three issues with this. First, reading aloud is not as simple as just plain reading. While I can imagine that a child who reads well out loud is a good reader, I don’t think a child who may have difficulty articulating what they’re reading implies they aren’t a good reader. Even if the reading is choppy, if they aren’t struggling to read the words, then that’s a good indicator they understand the words. Saying ‘choppy reading indicates he’s having problems’ is like saying a kid who writes their numbers ‘funny’ is not good at math. Second, I feel that if you send a more difficult book home with a kid, they’re going to be exposed to many more words, which will give them more practice. This, obviously, will create a better reader than giving them books which are not challenging: increase the learning curve, and the rate of learning will necessarily be higher. If you don’t challenge them, they’ll continue to plod along at the same slow pace.

The final issue is that this will be very child-dependent. In this case, I have already had my son’s IQ tested, and one thing that came out of this testing is that he, like myself and his brother, is strongest in visual abilities. He may have a lot of difficulty reading “smoothly” for a while because, being a visual learner, he will need to translate every word he reads into a mental picture. This means he will read the word and have to pause after it to process what it looks like. Then he will read the next word and do the same thing.

The problem I have with all of this is that the focus is not on comprehension and higher-level cognitive skills. Kids are held back because of lower-level skills, the kind that require practice. Rather than giving kids stimulating work to practice on, work that challenges the higher-level skills, it’s easier to focus on the areas where there may be functional weakness, holding the child’s mind hostage to their motor functions.

As I was pondering this, an article on visual-spatial learning from the Eide Neurolearning Blog popped up in my reader. (Honestly, it was incredible timing!) After discussing ways to deal with visual learners, they ended with:

Be Patient Young visual thinkers are classic late bloomers. Yes, there are ways to help, but it’s also a good idea to understand big picture view of their growth and development.

It was good to remember that this too shall pass, despite the fact that I’m frustrated to be dealing with these same issues again.



1. Fluxor - December 15, 2010

A child that reads well out loud isn’t necessary a “good” reader either in that the child may not fully understand what he’s reading. It does show he’s mastered phonics and sight words and the nuances of good phrasing and intonation. I bet I can do a decent reading of a Shakespearean play. It doesn’t mean I understand a wit of what that wacky English bloke has to say.

BTW, tell your kids to stay clear of Jack and Annie. Troublemaking misfits, they are!


mareserinitatis - December 15, 2010

True. Kids can be hyperlexic, as well.

The older one grew up devouring Magic Tree House. Maybe that’s been the source of all my grief over the years. 🙂


2. Luke Holzmann - December 15, 2010

I am so glad I was homeschooled. I’ve long struggled with reading (especially out loud), and have much improved since college. Homeschooling let my parents tailor my education to fit my needs, and so I learned how to learn despite my “delays.”

Fascinating: I never considered that my reading difficulties could be tied to the fact that I am more visually oriented. That’s something I simply never considered…

Thanks for sharing all this, as this is an important topic.



mareserinitatis - December 15, 2010

It really blows me away, once you look at the research on visual learners, what a difference there is.

I think the younger boy is far too social to homeschool happily, but I also won’t say it’s never crossed my mind. 😉


3. FrauTech - December 15, 2010

One of my classmates was telling me about another class he is taking where if he gets the equations right and everything but screws up a calculation at the very end they can lose 10 points for it. When he confronted the professor, the guy said “well if you were my boss and I was your employee and I got these calculations wrong, what would you tell me?” And my classmate said “I’d tell you to use a f#$!&ing calculator.”


4. FrauTech - December 15, 2010

Sorry I should mention the tests are no notes and no calculator, or that doesn’t make as much sense.


mareserinitatis - December 15, 2010

I ascertained the context without the comment, but yeah, I agree. In a work environment, you may have to answer questions about things on the fly but 1) usually you’ve been living it for weeks or months beforehand, and 2) no one really sees things as set in stone until they’ve got your powerpoint or report…which is usually checked many times before it’s sent to colleagues and/or supervisors to also check out.


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