Sunday, March 15, 2009

Reading vs. Listening

Ira Socol, who writes Special Education Change has become somewhat of a blog hero since he contributed to last year's BADD. Ira writes about accessible education, his Toolbelt Theory for Everyone should be required reading for everyone involved in academia. But from a personal point of view, I often read Ira's blog and think, if only I, or someone close to me, had read this stuff when I was still trying to finish my own education.

Nature made me a better than average reader. I could read very quickly and I could skim; I could look at a page and find an important word or the most relevant phrase or sentence. Give me five minutes with a novel and I could tell you who the main characters are and basically what happens. At school, usually loved the set texts we were given (unnatural child that I was), but I bluffed my way to top marks with any I couldn't be bothered with and frequently read ahead of the class in our history and science text books. I used reading to compensate for other weaknesses. As a chronic daydreamer, it was sometimes very hard to pay full attention in class – even in perfect health, I would fall asleep at my desk from time to time. But so long as I had read up on a topic beforehand, nobody ever noticed.

The Dreaded Lurgy then took this away. I pretty much lost the ability to read anything more complex than single words for the first or so year of my illness. There are lots of different sorts of dyslexia, there are several different mechanisms which enable us to read, so lots of different things that can go wrong. Abnormal brain symmetry, brain damage like Sara's tumour or my problem, even forms of malnutrition can be responsible for a person having difficulty reading. It also manifests itself differently. The problem I had was that I could no longer distinguish the symbols from one another; paragraphs became a grey smudge just as soon as I attempted to translate these symbols into language. Rather like trying to count the pebbles at the bottom of a running stream.

When that improved and I learnt a few tricks (chiefly involving coloured celophane), the words had and still do have a habit of rearranging their order within a sentence and the letters within the word. Meanwhile, I had and still have very poor stamina, as well as concentration and memory problems – all this becomes indistinguishable when you can't do the thing you're trying to do. I attempted to return to education when my reading was still extremely slow, tiring and unreliable.

My great fortune was with the timing. If someone sails through school up to the age of fifteen, acquires a physical illness and says, “I can't read very well.” they are taken very seriously. If someone struggles through school, especially when, in their frustration, they give up or get distracted very easily, and only then someone comes along with a label like dyslexia, there is more doubt. I have some sympathy with the suspicion of labeling very young children with impairments and nowhere do you have more trouble with what is normal and abnormal than when looking at child behaviour and aptitude. However, if we stopped regarding all such labels as some sort of charitable status, there'd be much less to worry about.

Another great fortune was that until I joined the Open University, I wasn't part of any institution (I would never be well enough to physically attend any classes). By the time anyone wanted to assess my special needs, they did this by handing me a list of adjustments I might need and asked me to tick the appropriate boxes and fill in any gaps. I think my GP needed to sign something to prove I had the sort of problems I descried, but my account of my own limitations was trusted absolutely. I have written briefly about my ridiculous crisis of conscience over exam conditions somewhere in this rambling post.

Anyway despite my trouble reading, I took on an English Literature A-Level*. This wasn't as foolish as it sounds. The sciences, arts and modern languages were impractical to do at home without a science lab, a stage, a studio or other people to practice talking to. And, believe me, there is much more reading in a humanities subject, at least at that level, then there actually is in English Lit.. History, for example, involved several text books of doorstep proportions - plus any extra reading you could fit in. For English Lit., I only needed to read four texts, two of which were plays – and one of the plays had to be Shakespeare.

Shakespeare is a gift for my sort of problem. Much less to read in a play than in a book, and dialogue is always the easiest bit to read anyway. Most of the important stuff is in poetry rather than prose (prose being reserved for low-status or comic characters), thus you have just one phrase or sentence per line, and you have all the clues that rhythm and rhyme provide. Added to this, you've usually got a wide choice of radio, television and film productions of the play you can track down, listen to or watch to support your reading. After all, the guy did not write plays to be read.

The novels were trickier. The obvious aid was audiobooks, but as well as the fact that it was massively expensive to obtain unabridged recordings, I felt like this was cheating.

We have this dichotomy in our culture, where one lots of media is for work and one lot for fun. One big factor in the reason that we read relatively few books as opposed to watching films and television programmes is that a lot of us are programmed with the idea that books are hard work. At [...]'s boys' comprehensive school, the teacher explicitly stated that he didn't expect that any of his charges would read another book in their lives, before he subjected them to Far From the Madding Crowd (the lower-ability kids read The Day of the Triffids and probably learnt to love reading).

At the same time, of course, a degree in English Literature is ten times more respectable than a degree in Film Studies. There's no fundamental reason why this should be the case. Personally, I think the world would benefit from reading more books; books do offer things that films do not and vice versa, but you get my point.

And so I imagined that audiobooks were cheating. Books were meant to be read; you made your own voices just as you made up your own pictures. You did all the work yourself, work I imagined to be crucial. I na├»vely imagined that all people with visual impairments could all read braille and that every book ever written would be available in braille at a special braille shop that undoubtedly existed somewhere. I also had idea that dyslexia was a problem that only young children experienced whn learning to read and could all be effectively “cured” by teaching them to read in a different way (which can help, but not always). Audiobooks were a form of entertainment, not an educational tool.

Only of course, apart from anything else, listening is often harder than reading. Personally I had (and still have) to listen to an audiobook two or three times to take in the same information I could have read the once; my mind wanders. Then you have to get over the voices; an actors' accent or cadence can be completely distracting and even some authors are ill-equipped to read their own books. It is trickier to control pace, and you can't scribble wildly in the margins of a book on CD. But there are ways of getting round these things.

Fancying myself as a writer, I don't for a minute think that you have to see the shape of my words in order to understand what is being said. So what if you were listening to this? If I'm writing sentences which would be difficult to read out loud, then I'm writing sentences that are going to be hard work to read at all.

Whilst we should attempt to teach children to read and write, the ability to read something off a page is not absolutely fundamental to understanding our language, or the ideas explored in journalism and literature. In the same way, learning to walk was a fundamental for most of us, but some people manage pretty well without. Far better that everyone is given the tools that work for them for learning and in life.

* An A-Level, my non-English and Welsh friends, is the qualification you'd usually take between 16 and 18. Generally you'd take at least three or four and upon your marks, university entrance is determined. I didn't actually finish my A-Level, but that is beside the point.


irasocol said...

Well, as one of my blog heroes (we're doing BADD again, are we not?), hearing you start this way makes my day.

But more importantly - you have demonstrated a true kind of courage at chasing what others might find absurd. Though I would have been really excellent pursuing a career in English (or more likely Irish) literature, or in European history, I was afraid - I guess afraid they would laugh at me - "You're THAT dyslexic and you want to read for a living?" - as if (a) that is how I read, or (b) I could not prove myself (want to discuss Ulysses? or why Irish fiction is inherently different from British and American? or what Woodrow Wilson was wrong about? or the Habsburg Empire? or how the rish revolution altered the 20th century? Try me). But still, I hid from school, and ran away numerous times when people distrusted my abilities. And - yes - I built my literature at first from film and television (as well as audiobooks, originally on vinyl) - is it less important to know how the film Lawrence of Arabia was constructed than to be able to discuss Atonement? And I learned to write through storytelling, and through art. And - in the end - I've written a novel (which you can buy on Amazon though no one does, or as a readable pdf from, which no one does, but that's not the issue - great literature or not - I could produce more than competent, effective communication).

But still, I wonder about myself every day, because the training to be a failure was so effective, and so complete. Because it began at such an early age. Because I still sit in grad school seminars and hear peers say, "that's not really reading, because it is too easy."

Ah... you've said it all better than me... and this is more confessional than comment. But thanks again.

- Ira Socol

Gone Fishing said...

Often it seems the problem with experts put in place to help us is that they have preconceived ideas of the abilities of those they are helping.

Have future intentions toward them (A favourite of mine since a person in reply to a complaint wrote "perhaps we should say what our future intentions toward him are").

Worse still become very jealous of their own "Importance" and position.

So that if the person they are "observing" behaves out side the expected "box" they will leave the room and stop "observing."
So results tend to be slightly skewed to the expected norm.

This seems also to lead to a certain amount of underestimation and even blocking of paths which we may see as blatantly obviously excellent paths for us to follow yet do not fall into the preconceptions of the expert.

Often setting goals and challenges for ourselves and achieving the "impossible" for our own satisfaction is far easier without having expert input or even letting on what you are up to until its ended.

The bloke with glasses, in the youtube clip was told recently the only occupation available to him, due to his brain injury would be in a sheltered workshop type environment YER RIGHT!

The key is being confident in your own abilities and avoiding the "boxers"

keep going gerl and everybody else as well, good on yer mate!

The Goldfish said...

Thanks Ira & Gone Fishing

Ira, yup, we should be doing BADD again on the 1st May - I'll announce that sometime in April.

You're very kind. My reading is much better than it was these days - I can manage a lot just by adjusting visual contrasts. I also think that the kind of education I had before I got sick made a big difference; before I was sick, I was going to get straight As, go to Oxbridge, be brilliant - I had my share of teenage angst, but academic stuff was just easy, and if anything, I was arrogant about it.

Although illness dealt a terrific blow, and I still lose heart from time to time, I avoided anything nearly like the sort of negative conditioning you must have experienced.

Gone Fishing, thank you. I think it is probably the most useful lesson in life, that whenever one door closes, there are several other doors wide open nearby which you would never have otherwise noticed.

Still love the trailer. :-)

Anonymous said...

Interesting post you've got there. And i think that children with dyslexia will always face problems in learning what more reading. Audiophiles may help them but like you've mentioned, im not sure of the effectiveness as well.

seahorse said...

Thought provoking stuff. You were right to choose English A level and no it doesn't matter you didn't finish. The chances of me finishing my linguistics course are remote. But I started and that means more somehow. A friend with the lurgy said recently: "I love starting things, don't you?" which made us both laugh. So true. Celophane??? As in, a letterbox style paragraph cutout thingy?

The Goldfish said...

I wasn't sure if Konnie's post was spam or not, apologies either way.

Seahorse, thank you. No letter-box stuff does help - and the tiny screen of my EEEPC (dinky laptop computer) - but the celophane thing is changing the colours. Black text on a white background is much much harder to read than, say, brown text on a yellow back ground (achieved with a sheet yellow celophane). Some people with dyslexia wear tinted specs for the same reason. And obviously you can set things up on a computer to accommodate this stuff.

I hope you get as much as you can out of your linguistics course whatever happens. A friend of mine did probably roughly the same course some years back and reckoned it was really very good.

seahorse said...

I just got a first for my first assignment today :-)
And they passed me for the playwriting course even though I couldn't finish it, because I got a first for the first bit of work I did for that. I spot a pattern here. Enthusiastic starts... I feel very unsure about finishing linguistics but yes, you can get a lot out of just starting things. Now, where did I put my Quality Street toffee wrappers?

Elizabeth McClung said...

I find/found both as a student and as a teacher that language and reading has hidden penalties within education - you can have a list of how you are graded but if you have spelling or other common dyslexia mistakes you will lose 10% or more, the hidden penalty. It is frustrating, and has haunted me my academic life. I mean, I was an English Lit teacher who had dyslexia, and would often stand at the board going through my head the synonymns for a word looking for one I MIGHT be able to spell correctly. I also made it into a game where people got chocolate for spotting the first mistake in a handout or on the board writing. But thank goodness for computers and spellcheck! While at uni, we did do colour changing, different people find different colours better than others.

After my brain go boom big time, I was at best able to read manga, when I was at my best, now I can read manga (short sentences with picture to give context) and am trying to read 'light novels' - to work myself back to the vast amount of books I own much less be able to write a paper. Cheryl says she can tell the exact time of day I write my blog post by the type and frequency of dyslexia.

I am glad you took English Lit, but I also think you are right about film studies. I grew up listening to my aunt tell my cousin all the things he couldn't do because "But you can't be a geologist honey, you're DYSLEXIC!" It drove me to frustration so that I hide mine, and since mine was an unusual varient - I learned how to stop writing letters backward and such.

I agree, dialogue is easier, which is why I dislike Dickens, it is like wading through some horrid mud to finally finish a page of description and turn over to see TWO MORE pages of description. AHHHHH! There is a reason my book is almost entirely dialogue.

Editor said...


I have posted my article already because I'm away most of tomorrow.

Its not quite a regular blog post, but I hope you get my point!




Editor said...


If this has already been posted apologies ... I think I kinda messed things up.

I have posted my piece for Blogging Against Disablism Day. It's not exactly a blog post, but I hope you get the point.