Am I to Blame?

Feb 1, 2022 | Literacy Leadership

Following our last post about whether schools should be holding parents accountable for children’s reading, a mother wrote this piece about her experience. It is, understandably, anonymous.

Who is responsible when a child can’t read? Is it the fault of the parents or their teacher? A letter to the Sunday Times this week from a secondary school teacher (about the report that 20% of secondary school pupils can’t read properly) laid the blame squarely at the feet of the parents. Why were so many parents ‘content’ that their children can’t read or write? Why didn’t society hold parents to account?

As I am one of those parents, let me share what it’s like being a mum to a child who can’t seem to get reading.

My youngest child is in Year 4. He has a reading level of emerging Year 1, putting him significantly behind. This kind of delay automatically triggers an EHCP. I don’t believe we’d even know what his reading level was, or have an EHCP in place for him, if it hadn’t been for me.

I started to worry when my son was two and a half years old. He was speech delayed and I was concerned he had far fewer than the suggested fifty words. I took him to drop-in speech & language sessions. There I was told not to worry, that “he’s a boy” and he most likely had “third child syndrome”. Apparently, the third child experiences more benign neglect. They are taken on school runs rather than to a play-group. I was told that I had probably let our older children talk over him. I left feeling guilty that I hadn’t done enough singing nursery rhymes with him. I was told to give it six months and that he was bound to catch up.

When he got to reception class I was still worried and I raised the issue with his teacher. He hadn’t caught up and had she noticed? I asked for a hearing test from a reluctant GP, who thought I was being an anxious mum. The school agreed to arrange an NHS speech and language assessment. While his hearing was fine, he scored as low as a child can on the speech language test without it triggering an intervention. I was told, with a smile and a head tilt, not to worry and to give it six months: “he’s a boy, it’s very common”.

While we waited again for the magic six months, his peers ran further on ahead. Catching up started to seem less and less likely. I was now asking his Year 1 teacher for meetings and was frantically googling for answers. I did the phonics sheet he was sent home with, but he didn’t seem to get any of it and I wasn’t even sure if I was doing it right. He spectacularly failed his end of year phonics test, getting only a couple right. His Ofsted outstanding school said not to worry, they’d keep an eye on things.

I was worrying though. I had helped my other two children learn to read, what was going wrong here? I was told by his teacher to stop comparing him to his brother and sister. I added “making comparisons” to my guilty list underneath “having three children” and “not singing enough nursery rhymes”.

Children who are struggling will either internalise or externalise. My child externalised. He hid in toilets, ran out of the classroom and refused to engage in most of the things he was asked to do. At school pick-ups I would be beckoned over to be told about that day’s meltdown. I was getting phone calls about his behaviour on a weekly basis. I emailed a reply to every call asking if they thought he might have a learning difficulty.  After getting into trouble, aged just six, my son told a teacher he should be left to die in the playground. The deputy head phoned me to ask me what was happening at home, why did I think it was my son was behaving like this? When I told them it was because he was unhappy at school I was met with silence. I sent another email including links to dyslexia and to ADHD websites. I asked if they thought he needed to be assessed. Meanwhile, my son started sleeping in our bed every night.

My son was well aware of what he could and couldn’t do. He said he didn’t want to get older on his next birthday. He told me he was scared of going up a school year saying school was too hard for him already.  As learning phonics seemed to upset him we tried a speech and language specialist again, this time privately. Rachel became the first person not to say “give it six months”. Instead she said there was a problem but that she wasn’t the solution. She suggested an auditory processing issue. Speech delay and poor phonological awareness are red flags and can be early indicators of a learning difficulty.

I contacted a private SEND specialist. She confirmed a ‘spikey chart’ and suggested we contact an Educational Psychologist. We found someone in July 2019, but he could only be assessed when he was over seven years old. We booked for January 2020, when he’d be 7 and 1 month, in Year 2.

Now we were on the waiting list to be assessed I hoped we were were heading in the right direction. His school report in December 2019 was glowing and included:

“What an amazing year [he] is having! He has been on a real journey so far this year, the transformation in his general attitude and behaviour has been impressive to see….. He is reading now with more confidence and fluency. He can recall key information from a shared text. He is an eager mathematician and picks up mathematical concepts quickly. I love teaching him and am proud of what he has already achieved. Keep up the excellent learning – you are great!”

His teacher and the head of SEND told me I didn’t need to waste my money on an Educational Psychologist. My son was doing brilliantly! Had it not been so difficult to book an Educational Psychologist, or encouraged by our private SEND specialist, I might have followed their advice. The assessment and report is prohibitively expensive and cost £900. Instead we decided to go ahead with it and, just before lockdown, we got our son’s assessment.  My child couldn’t read or write : “his printed letter formation and pencil hold were poor” and he was assessed as two years behind in his reading. He had a speech and language delay, attention issues and an auditory processing disorder. He was ‘vulnerable to dyslexic difficulties according to the commonly used definitions of dyslexia’. A very different report to his school report just one month earlier.

Thanks to our EP report we went into lockdown knowing he was struggling. It was still an enormous shock to see how little of the syllabus he could access and how much had been kept from us by his teachers.

Since that EP report, his school triggered the EHCP process and in July 2021 he was awarded funding and extra support. During this process I found out how little time my child was spending in the classroom, how disruptive he really was and how little he did by way of school work. I wish I could say this was a happy ending but we are still very much at the beginning of getting the support right and making up for lost time. His school has, though, accepted he was not supported in his crucial first two years of education and I now feel a sense of purpose from the staff who support him.

Let’s now return to the original question posed by the secondary school teacher:  why are parents content with their children being unable to read? I suspect lots of parents don’t even know their child has a literacy problem. They most likely think that it’s being dealt with in school. They are at work, they are focussing on extra curricular clubs in the evenings. They are feeding, cuddling and then putting children to bed. Parents also don’t know how to teach reading, especially to a child who is struggling. They may be like me and know only too well that their child can’t read and get reassured the teacher is dealing with it. I wasn’t ever told in explicit terms ‘your child is behind where he should be’. I was only spoken to about his behaviour.

I am still not content. I email teachers, I ask for meetings and I ask for reports. I researched how to teach him myself. I have done an online reading / phonics course. I found literacy experts on social media and immersed myself in their blogs and books. I also feel desperately sad for my son who feels stupid and is often angry and disruptive. I worry he won’t cope at secondary school, his life chances blighted because he can’t read well enough. I wish deeply that I had been able to fix this myself. I read to him every night and I get him to read to me every day.  I have spent thousands on books, EP reports, private speech and language therapists and tutors. I am the squeaky wheel, asking his school for meetings, researching their interventions and leaving nothing to chance and certainly never risking ‘another six months’.

In all this time, the one thing I wanted more than anything was one of those teachers “you never forget”, the kind that comes along and refuses to let your child slip through the net – who ignites a spark and makes a difference. I just wanted someone to help him and teach him to read.


You may also be interested in:

Looking Past the Masks

7 Misconceptions About Teaching Adolescents to Read

Can Reading Problems Affect Mental Health?

Addicted to Denial?


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