W is 12 and has learning difficulties which mean that he finds it very difficult to read. He is a Looked After child. When I first started reading one to one with him, his reading ability seemed so low that I felt concerned about finding a book that would be appropriate for his age as well as his ability. As it happened, in our first meeting I had taken the book Skellig, by David Almond, which I had almost written off as being too difficult for him. However, he liked the cover, so I thought, well, let’s give it a go.
I started reading it to W, and almost immediately, he was hanging off every word. He was just soaking up the story, and watching my face – I wondered if he had ever been read to before. As he mostly looked at me when I was reading, rather than at the book, I made sure I was making as much eye contact as I could with him by raising my eyes from the page when I could - this way, we could communicate through our facial expressions whilst reading, and W certainly had a lot of response in his facial expressions!
When I stopped and asked W open questions like, ‘what did you make of the man in the garage? I wonder if he is a man!’, W chatted away showing that he had been following the story completely. I always asked W gently but without any pressure if he would like to have a go at reading, and one day he said yes. He read very, very, very slowly, and haltingly, as the majority of the words he didn’t know. But, we got to the end of the page. I praised W a great deal for this, as it had been an admirable effort. I assumed that he had not understood what he was reading because of the way he had read it, and meaning to cover what had happened in the page, I checked first by saying ‘What did you think about what was going on there then?, ready to jump in with an explanation if he shrugged. But, to my surprise, W had understood every word he had read. This was a great lesson for me to learn – that a child’s reading ability does not always reflect their level of comprehension. W was obviously a very quick to understand, mature child, and this demanded a book like Skellig.
We have a reading ‘trick’ now, where W, when he is reading, follows the words with his finger and taps under words he doesn’t know. I then whisper the word to him, and he repeats it and continues with his reading. His reading is getting better and better, and his vocabulary is widening – but what is more important in our sessions is his enjoyment of the book. W is expressing more and more feeling and thought through the book. In a recent week, he said that, when the man in the garage is taken by the children to a safe place, ‘that’s like me, when I was taken away from my family, I didn’t want to go, but it wasn’t right, but I didn’t know that until I was safe somewhere else like Skellig’. The connection that W made with the book connected W with me, too, and with his own feelings – it gave him a starting point for understanding and expressing his own, very important experience.
The Reader magazine offers a mix of new poetry and fiction, classic and neglected works and interviews with leading literary figures.
Join Jane Davis, The Reader’s Founder and Director, to read and explore Winterson’s ‘Why Be Happy W
If you have any suggestions on how we can enhance The Reader experience for you, please get in touch by filling out our quick form. Thank you.