It’s Only Pretend Reading, but It’s a Giant Step in the Right Direction

July 2016

In this video, Aleczander is reading a predictable pattern book. The book was given to him by Miss Shelley, a dyslexia teacher who was employed by Aleczander’s previous school to give him 12 1-1 lessons during the summer of 2016. Aleczander, who had just completed first grade, received some really bad special education that year. His special education teachers and therapists told his parents and me on more than a dozen occasions (all conversations were taped) that Aleczander was making excellent progress, “more than a year’s worth of growth” was the catch phrase that they doubled down on. That August Aleczander’s parents, egged on by me, threw in the towel and withdrew their son from the public school system. There was just so much abuse that Aleczander could withstand as we fought to get him the special education services he needed. 

Aleczander started stuttering during the last half of first grade, something he’d never done before. During the summer of 2016, staff at the Winston School (four weeks of full-day academic therapy, pro bono, bless them!) thought he might have epilepsy. A speech therapist who saw Aleczander pro bono for us that summer said the sudden manifestation and rapid acceleration of symptoms might be indicative of a tumor! It was September before Dr. Tomasovic alleviated those fears. It’s not a brain tumor, it’s not epilepsy, he has developmental dyspraxia, which causes his apraxia, dyslexia, and dysgraphia. The stuttering? That’s caused by stress! Which, considering how bad the diagnosis might have been, we considered to be good news!

I don’t think special educators were as stupid as they tried to appear, so I can only surmise that they lied and lied and lied some more because the school district made lying to parents a condition of their continued employment.

  • The school district’s Lead LSSP stated that, based on new information discovered only during the spring of 2016, it appeared as if Aleczander did in fact have dyslexia. She provided her diagnosis without ever having laid eyes on Aleczander. The assessment report she wrote that qualified Aleczander as a student with dyslexia was based upon testing in her possession since May 2015. Ms. Lead LSSP was adamant however that dyslexia is NOT a reading disability which would qualify Aleczander for special education services.
  • The school district’s  Special Education Director trumpeted, “we don’t put dyslexia in special education paperwork.” When provided with documentation from the state of Texas as well as the United States government that in fact children who are dyslexic who are in special education must have their reading disability addressed by the IEP teams, the school district’s $350/hourly special education lawyer called a recess while he conferred with his clients. He returned to the ARD table with his clients after about a 15 minute interval and announced that he would award Aleczander with a dyslexia goal! Does that satisfy you? he asked, glaring across the table at me. As the dyslexia goal was as vague and unmeasurable as were all of the other goals the district was proposing that day, I didn’t become an immediate fan.
  • The independent assessment person brought in to confirm the district’s diagnosis was a PhD psychologist. She refused to provide us with feedback about her assessment results prior to the ARD meeting because, “the district paid for this evaluation. They own it. They can share it with you if they want to.” Mrs. Very Important Person  stated at the ARD meeting attended by over twelve ISD employees that Aleczander did not have a learning disability, did have ADHD, and naturally couldn’t be expected to read or write on grade level because, “after all, he is in special education.” And yes, that educational expert is also on tape, as are all of the other professionals who were gathered around the table each and every time that Aleczander’s parents and I met with school staff.
  • These would of course be the self-same directors, therapists, regular and special educators getting paid to provide a free, appropriate public education to all children entrusted into their care by district parents. These would be the very same professionals that I polled that day. I asked if any of them cared to disagree with Ms. PhD’s statement about special education students not ever becoming able to read or write on grade level. As you might guess, not a one of them was willing to state that she herself anticipated that Aleczander, or any of their other special education students for that matter, might ever perform on grade level! Turns out that none of them had ever heard of the curse of low expectations either.

Miss Shelley, a former district employee, did a great job of teaching Aleczander during those twelve teaching sessions that were held at Central Office. The dyslexia teacher quickly realized that her student’s letter recognition skills and his ability to understand that letters have names and that letters make sounds was virtually non-existent. As best I can recall, the first thing that Miss Shelley taught Aleczander was that letters assemble themselves into words and that books were made up of words organized into sentences. Using predictable pattern books, Miss Shelley taught Aleczander that the letters he still struggled to learn to identify and write formed words on the printed page.

It’s clear from the movie that we made of Aleczander, so proud, reading to us, that Aleczander isn’t truly reading yet. He has memorized the words in his predictable pattern picture book and relies on picture clues to decode the one word on each page that changes. Also, notably, because he isn’t stressed, he isn’t stuttering! Pretend reading, while technically more of a pre-reading skill as opposed to a reading skill, is what children do first. They start out in parents’ laps, listening to the books that are read to them. They point to pictures and words and imitate the words they hear. They retell memorized stories, pretend reading as they point to pictures and words.

This pre-reading is a first step toward literacy that is typically seen in children who are two or three years of age and don’t have severe language and learning disabilities such as Aleczander has. In Aleczander’s case, because he is a learning disabled student, even though he was read to, he never made the connection between the words he heard spoken or read aloud and printed letters on pages. His learning disabilities, not misbehavior or lack of interest in learning to read, are the true reasons why, at the end of first grade, Aleczander continued to be unable to recite, read, or write the alphabet.

All of the educators who worked for and with Aleczander while he was enrolled in public school had, at a minimum, a college degree. In addition to their degrees, they had certificates from the state of Texas stating that they were qualified to teach the subjects they were teaching. If they were therapists (speech, OT, PT, dyslexia) or assessment specialists (LSSPs, Educational Diagnosticians, PhD psychologists), they possessed advanced degrees (master’s) in addition to certificates proving that they were licensed to diagnose and treat specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, or apraxia. So why didn’t they?

We asked that the school district send Miss Shelley, who did believe that Aleczander could learn to read and write on grade level, over to Salem Sayers to provide dyslexia therapy for Aleczander during the next school year; you can likely guess what their response was. Even so, it was still all good, which is Aleczander’s new teacher, Mrs. Urtiaga’s, most frequently uttered phrase! During his 2nd grade school year, Aleczander learned to love school and teachers. For the first time in over a year, he had friends in the classroom. He learned that he wasn’t stupid, and that, even though learning to read and write is very very hard for him, he can do this! He didn’t get the dyslexia or speech or occupational or physical therapy recommended by educational professionals at the Winston School or Dr. Tomasovic or Dr. Henry Lipsett, his pediatrician. What he did get was an amazing teacher and a fantastic school! And for that, I am truly grateful. As is Aleczander. The little guy who was so terrified of school that he had to be dragged into the building for almost every day of first grade is no more. He’s a different little boy, so different that, one year later, on the last day of second grade, Aleczander cried on the way to school. Why was he crying? He was sad because he wasn’t going to get to go to school all summer long, he said.



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