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What I’ve learned, after studying kids and asking kids how they feel about reading, is that kids look at reading, as a proxy for intelligence. So when they see kids who are not able to read, they judge those kids as not as bright as they are or something like that. When kids don’t learn to read, obviously it internalizes. And that really blew me away. Actually, at this point a bunch of things were blowing me away: 1) I didn’t know what I was doing, 2) I needed to know what I was doing because my job was much more than learning how to read, it was the development of social and emotional competencies and all kind of things like that. 3) And, I also saw this tremendous impact on the kid’s self-awareness, self-concept and so forth.
David Boulton: This is shame avoidance.
Dr. Paula Tallal: It’s a shame avoidance to one self. It’s not only the external. I think we often think about the child who is developing behaviors to cope in terms of how other people are going to treat them, that’s certainly important. But I think ultimately it comes down to how you feel about yourself and can you trust yourself to get through the world, to keep you safe, to perform well, to make you feel good about yourself. And a lot of that has to do with automatic processing and automatic control of the information that’s coming into your world. I think a lot of children who are struggling with that will develop a lot of compensatory behaviors to try to gather a sense of being in control. Even if it makes them get in trouble, at least they were in control of getting in trouble. Whereas they cannot be in control of failure if they really can’t do it, and that feels a lot worse. That’s just a theory, it’s not scientific.
Boulton: The work of the National
Institute of Child Health and Human Development, in summarizing the reading
research, seems to indicate that while there’s many different problems,
there’s a spectrum of related problems involved here and that one of the first
consequences, almost across the board to children who struggle with learning to
read, is that they feel ashamed of themselves. They feel as if there is
something wrong with them.
Grover (Russ) Whitehurst: Part of the
complex of reading failure is increasing frustration by individuals, children
who are failing to read at their success in school and what school is all about.
And it can in some cases, in desirable cases,
resolve in greater motivation to try
to get help and succeed.
But in many cases it
generates a sense on the child’s
part of helplessness; helplessness not only with reading, but helplessness with
school. You find those children turning to other avenues to gain reward to gain
they don’t read well, so they don’t read. They may play a computer game
because they’re better at that. So you find individuals shifting their
activities into areas which they are getting a sense of satisfaction, a sense of
reward, and away from activities that are frustrating, and that’s certainly
the case for reading.
So, you see a pathway taken for children who are failing to read and it’s a way of preserving their self-concept of succeeding, but it’s a pathway that is not ultimately to their benefit because it takes them away from the activities from which they can derive knowledge and develop the skills that are important for success in school and in life.
Boulton: At a somewhat more implicate level the emerging emotional sciences,
with respect to ‘affect’ and its driving and directing influence over
cognition, have suggested that we operate in a way that once shame gets to a
certain threshold level we want to move away from it. The National Institute
of Child Health and Human Development research studies are saying that children,
because of the way we contextualize this whole reading experience, are feeling
that there is something wrong with them because they can’t do this.
we’re back to our beginning points: most of our children are to some
degree in this space, for some degree of their education, feeling ashamed of how
they’re learning. And if shame causes us to want to move away from what causes
shame, then we want to move away from learning.
Grover (Russ) Whitehurst: Yes, that’s certainly true. And we need
solutions to this. We need curriculum solutions so that fewer children
experience frustration and difficulty during the task of learning to read. We
need to change the context of schooling so that the child who’s struggling in
reading in third grade can have that problem addressed in a way that isn’t
stigmatizing to the child and doesn’t generate the sense of shame. We need in
some way to break out of the lock-step nature of elementary education so that if
you don’t have what the other children have in first grade for some reason you
are forever doomed and will never get the opportunities to pick up that
it is a very significant problem and the emotional and social consequences of
reading failure are extremely important and are the soquali of the bad
experiences that come from sitting down with text and not being able to figure
out what’s going on, or not being able to figure out what’s going on at the
level of one’s peers.
often the implicit comparison with what other kids are doing in the classroom
that generates not only the shame, but in some cases, the lack of motivation to
do better. That is, if the overall expectations for that classroom, those
children are low, then there’s no shame on anyone’s part with reading
failure or low level reading success. The teacher isn’t ashamed, the school
district isn’t ashamed and the state isn’t ashamed.
We need to create a context in which people understand that there is a problem, that they need to deal with it, but the child doesn’t experience shame for having not benefited from the type of instruction or societal support necessary.
One of the things that is both great but also sad, is that we have had the opportunity in my job working with all of our scientists at all of our sites to follow kids from before they enter school until, in many cases, they’re now twenty-three. And what is wonderful about that is we can walk through life with folks who are going to become very good readers. Sadly, we also walk through life with kids, adolescents and then adults who never learn how to read. And sadly, when we talk with these kids, adolescents and adults who’ve had a tough time with the shame of not learning to read, we find it is further exacerbated by the fact that they can’t compete occupationally and vocationally; they don’t do well in school, clearly the adolescents show us a level of pain that this society doesn’t even see. Most of society takes this for granted, but all of this begins to build up together and keep kids further behind."
Timothy Shanahan: It is a kind of
shame and they do hideout. Again, you see that participation in professional
organizations and honorary societies are more linked to high literacy than low
literacy. Well, that’s not surprising to anybody. But then you start to look
and you see that adults who are low literacy are less likely to participate in
athletic organizations. They’re less likely to participate in religious
organizations. They don’t take part in as many of the social activities. They
essentially get isolated.
shame aversion to
everything that can stir up the
kind of shame they want to avoid.
Timothy Shanahan: You got it. It
plays out in terms of I’m not going to participate in an intellectual
discussion or debate, or whatever, but I’m also not going to participate in a
lot of other social activities as well. So, they really are losing out on
big chunks of their lives.
What it means is that
we’ve put through the civil rights laws of the 1960s and we’ve done so many
things to try to facilitate full participation, but literacy still is there as a
barrier holding people out, even though politically the barriers have been taken
Boulton: In a recent report from ProLiteracy,
according to their surveys and also by American
Medical Association research, they find that most of the people that can’t
read go to inordinate lengths to hide it. Something like sixty percent haven’t
told their spouses. One projection was that when low literate Americans walk
into a grocery store or department store they are stirred with anxiety trying to
make sure that they can get past the cash register without making a mistake that
they can’t afford but that they can’t know they’ve made because they
don’t have the skills.
Timothy Shanahan: This
hiding of the problem is real common. I
don’t have a lot of statistics on it, but I have many personal experiences.
For example, the mother who had come into one of our literacy programs – her
kids were eight or nine and she was taking literacy classes because she didn’t
want to hide it anymore. Her children, even at their age, didn’t know she
didn’t have literacy. It was really surprising that she could hide that from
them living in that household for so long. She said she always had to be on
example, she told us that, ‘When the kids come home from school I always make
sure I’m busy – I’m washing, I’m ironing, I’m doing something so that
if they come in and say here’s a letter from my teacher it allows me to say
set it down I’ll get to it later, I don’t have time for that right now.’
She would depend upon her husband to do her reading.
North Carolina we held a seminar on literacy for some teachers and we brought in
a local business man who was low in literacy and he was willing to come in and
talk to the teachers. The thing that was important was only two people in his
life knew about his literacy problem: his wife and his business partner. Nobody
else knew because he feared that if any of potential clients knew of the
problem, he wouldn’t get contracts. He wanted this kept absolutely secret. We
literally had to smuggle him onto the campus where we were working and put him
in a room where we pulled the shades and had a guard at the door.
These fears, sometimes it’s just a personal thing, that I don’t want my children to think less of me, and in other cases it really has larger meaning in terms of I don’t want to be discriminated against.
Boulton: Sometimes it’s so
powerful and fast and operating before those kind of rational reasons to just be
an avoidance. One of the dimensions that we’re trying to bring to this is our
work with emotional scientists and cognitive scientists and neuroscientists and
bringing together just what is going on here. There’s no question human beings
generally do not like to feel shame. We’re learn very young to become escape
Timothy Shanahan: Absolutely.
Boulton: We’re being put into
circumstances, with this learning to read challenge, in which day after day,
week after week, month after month, in some cases year after year, we’re
forced to do something we’re not good at. It’s not like basketball or sewing
or music or other things that are an option –you can’t avoid it. And these
kids are developing a shame aversion to the feel of their own learning.
Timothy Shanahan: Absolutely.
when they become adults it ends up becoming a part of the social reality of
their lives. It’s not just harder to learn then, but emotionally that whole
network that builds up around you makes it tougher. So if you’re that low on
literacy what usually happens is you have to find somebody you can depend on.
I might not want the whole world to know, but maybe my spouse knows that I am
illiterate or maybe it’s one of my older kids, but nobody else does. What that
does is it builds a dependency. If I were especially low on literacy and my wife
knew it she would do certain things for me to take care of me and make sure that
I’m okay. But what happens to the relationship when I decide this is
terrible, I have to go learn literacy, I’m going to go enroll at the local
library program or whatever. How much does that threaten the partner who has
come to depend on my dependence?
often when an adult who is really low on literacy goes off and becomes literate
it leads to divorce. There are many cases documented where women are beaten
or abused in various ways, either verbally or physically, certainly emotionally,
because the partner who is depended on doesn’t want to give that up. The
reason you’re going for literacy classes is because you want to get away from
Even when it’s a child who is the one who is being depended upon, the children get quite angry. It’s like mom wants to leave me or mom doesn’t love me anymore and that’s why she’s doing this. The trick is to catch this thing early enough so we don’t get to that point where there are those kinds of problems in people’s lives. That is essential.
heard some amazing stories from people. I was speaking not too long ago at a
community college in Cape Cod, Massachusetts and this young man approached me
and said, “I really want to talk to you about something. Can I set up an
appointment?” He set up an appointment and came to see me a week later and he
said, “I’m a student here at the community college. I have severe learning
problems. I had a horrible time in elementary school and middle school and high
school. It took me five years to get through high school. I finally graduated
from high school.”
wanted to tell me his story. He said, “I was born here in Cape Cod and my dad
was a lobster fisherman. He was a very, very hard working guy who took his job
seriously. My mom was a housewife and she took her job seriously and did real
well at her job.
was made very clear to us as the kids in the family that it was our job to do
well in school. There would be no excuses, everyone had their job to do and we
were to do well in school.”
got into first grade and I couldn’t read. The other kids could make the books
talk. They’d pick the books up and words would come out. To me it just looked
like lines and circles and squiggles, I had no idea where the words were.”
said, “I realized some seventeen years later I was diagnosed as dyslexic, but
all I knew at the time was that I was a six year old kid and I wasn’t doing my
the middle of October the teacher began hassling me because I wasn’t able to
read and by the end of October the kids were making fun of me because I
couldn’t read. And I realized it wasn’t going to be too long before my mom
and dad found out that I wasn’t doing my job. So I was scared. I was really
I was also a real resourceful kid and I looked around the room and I noticed
there was another kid in the class who couldn’t read. This kid couldn’t read
a lick – and yet nobody made fun of him because he couldn’t read and the
teacher didn’t hassle him because he couldn’t read – because he was deaf.
He wore a hearing aid, he had a hearing loss. And because he was deaf no one
expected him to read on time.”
said, “So I figured in my six year old mind the solution to my problem was to
convince everyone that I was deaf. And if I could convince everyone I was deaf
they’d stop hassling me about the reading. So I went on a one-man campaign to
convince everyone in my life that I couldn’t hear.”
be sitting in class and the teacher would call my name and I would just ignore
her until she came over and tapped me on the shoulder. What? I didn’t hear
you, I didn’t hear you.”
trained myself not to respond to loud noises. There would be a loud noise
outside of the classroom, all the kids would run to the window and I would stay
at my desk working like I didn’t hear it. We’d be out at recess, the bell
would ring and all the kids would come in from recess and I would stay out in
the jungle gym until the principal came out and said, ‘Daniel, didn’t you
hear the bell?’ No, sorry, I didn’t hear the bell.
home I’d be having dinner and my mom would ask me to pass the salt and I’d
just ignore her until she tapped me on the shoulder. ‘Dan I asked for the
salt.’ Mom, I didn’t hear you.”
dad would call us to come in from play and I’d stay outside until my dad
finally came out there. ‘Dan, I’ve been calling you for ten minutes.’ Dad,
I didn’t hear you.”
said, “I even remember when my parents would go for an evening out, I would be
watching the television and as soon as I saw the lights of the car coming down
the driveway I would run over to the television set, turn up the volume as high
as it would go and be standing with my ear cocked against the speaker when they
took me to hearing doctors and audiologists all over Cape Cod and they put a cup
on my ear and they’d say, ‘Do you hear that beep?’ And I’d say no I
don’t even though I did. “
a while I convinced everybody that I couldn’t hear and everything was fine
said, “Well, what happened in June?”
this point, seventeen years later, he began to shift in his seat and tug on his
collar a little bit and his voice cracked a little and he said, “I’ll never
forget it. My mom and dad sat me done the last day of school in June in the
first grade and said ‘Dan, we’re really worried about your hearing. You
don’t seem to be able to hear. We’ve taken you to hearing doctors and
audiologists all over Cape Cod and nobody can figure out what it is. So we’ve
made an appointment for you and you’re going to go to Boston Children’s
Hospital next week and you’re going to stay there for four days and three
nights and they’re going to do exploratory ear surgery and have your adenoids
this six year old kid went through three days of surgery rather than tell his
parents what he had done.
Can you imagine the trauma of a six-year old child going through surgery
that only he knows he didn’t need?
Boulton: So, we've got millions and millions of children growing up feeling
ashamed of their minds and wanting to avoid confusion...
Edward Kame'enui: That's right.
Boulton: Which decapitates learning.
Edward Kame'enui: That's right. They don't want to read because they're not good
at reading. They avoid reading. They'd rather clean the bathroom than read. Got
Boulton: So, the interesting thing here is that not only is this all of the
emotional trauma that we can imagine, but from a cognitive point of view, the
moment this shame starting to trigger, it burns...
Edward Kame'enui: Yeah, that's right.
Boulton: The brain resources necessary to process the code in the first place
and a downward spiral kicks in.
Edward Kame'enui: That's right.
Boulton: The teacher has got to get this.
Edward Kame'enui: That's right. Absolutely. That's right. It basically takes the
cognition hostage. It paralyzes the child. Absolutely. You're right. It’s a
Kame'enui, Past-Commissioner for Special Education Research where he lead the National Center for Special Education Research
Kame'enui, Past-Commissioner for Special Education Research where he lead the National Center for Special Education Research
So what you’re talking about, why reading is this
gateway, is not as simple as it’s often made out to be, ‘when they can read
they can acquire knowledge’. It’s much richer and much more detailed, which
you’ve given great voice to. It’s a cognitive exercise environment of an
entirely different kind that has emotional consequences, serious consequences.
Have you yourself, as an add to the Matthew Effect – something like I was
suggesting in the downward spiral of shame – have you given attention to or
can you speak to the emotional processes that are concurring with reading?
I think low self-esteem causes a child to pull back, to not engage. Why go out there and put yourself on the line if you know it’s going to be another failure and you’re going to be called on it either by your teacher or your classmates and you will be open to shame, to disapproval. Kids aren’t dumb; they know when something isn’t working and they know what’s going to hurt, so they pull back.
This is my sense of the miraculous
intersection, because whether you care about the children as bots for the
machine, or you care about their human potential, you arrive at the same place,
which is how they participate from the inside out. The health of their learning
is at the core of how they're going to serve the system and how they're going to
grow to be who they are.
Marilyn Jager Adams: But what we said our goal was with public education was
that that every human being would have the right to choose. But they can't
choose what they can't do. If they want to choose to sit on their thumbs -
that's fine, they can choose that. But they can't choose what they can't do.
But it's not a choice to sit on your thumbs unless there's a bunch of other
options to be considered. And so often it’s shame avoidance.
Marilyn Jager Adams: On the shame avoidance thing, one thing you might want
to look at just to make people feel really bad, that I think is a real
heartbreaker, is the ‘Be all you can be’ ads.
turns out that the majority of the recruits until Reagan changed the bill so
that he only recruits when he's having a war — the majority of the recruits
were getting thrown out in six weeks because they said, ‘Well, guess that's
all you can be.’ Because they couldn't read or write.
that awful? You can't even join the Army.
we want when you finish is for everybody to say, ‘Yes! This is a team sport,
and we can do it. It's not the kids' fault, it's not the parents' fault; it's
not the teachers' fault; it's simply a team sport.’
Adams, Chief Scientist of Soliloquy Learning, Inc., Author of Beginning
to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print. Source: COTC Interview -
Marilyn Jager Adams, Chief Scientist of Soliloquy Learning, Inc., Author of Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print. Source: COTC Interview - http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/adams.htm#Stewarding