A couple of years ago, I asked a student sitting across from me to give me the sound for the letter a. In educator speak, that means that I wanted her to give me the sound that a makes in a word like “cat”. I watched as she processed my request and started to form her mouth to make the sound. I could tell almost immediately that she was having problems. For starters, the corners of her mouth weren’t far enough back; the sound wouldn’t be coming from the right place. Sure enough, when she finally spoke, she gave me e’s sound, like in “bed”. In other words, she had not done what I had asked; she had tried, but she had gotten it wrong.
As an educator working in one-on-one intervention, this was certainly not the first time that I had asked for one sound and heard another. If the students that I serve were in fact capable of producing the correct sounds reliably, they wouldn’t be my students. But this student was in many ways unique. She was particularly singular in her ability to shut down on me and to stay shut down for whatever remained of the hour, all the while taking turns between staring at the wall and attempting to glare a hole into me. And most of the time she would shut down following a correction from me. It didn’t matter how gentle or leading. Any and all corrections were received the same way.
I was baffled. When correcting my students’ errors, I had always done as I was trained, avoiding words like “no” and “wrong” in favor of silent cues and directed questions that would lead the student to self-correct. The last step, and one that was very often necessary, was simply to “give” the student the answer. For most students, these steps were successful and became routine. But this student was having none of it.
To be honest, this was not the first student to be less than happy to see me. She was also not the first to be angry about her difficulty learning to read and to take that anger out on me. But she was the first student that I simply could not bring around. She would not smile. She refused to laugh. Session after session my fear grew that she was blocking me entirely; my time with her was wasted. I was afraid that she was refusing to learn.
So this student, this girl, had given me an e when I’d asked for an a. What to do? Well, what I did was to cut out all of the kindly middle men between silent cues and direct correction. I leaned forward and said, “The sound that you made was ĕ, like in bed. I asked for ă, like in cat. Like this.” I modeled the sound a couple of times, giving her the familiar apple motion of hand to mouth. She did the same. And then she gave me a perfect ă. The next day, she gave me another.
As educators, we are trained in the science of teaching and steeped in its methodology. Most of that training holds up in practice. However, error correction is an art that must be reconfigured for and by every student that we work with. No instructor can predict which child is so deeply bruised by learning struggles that even the gentlest touch will cause her to flinch. It is equally difficult to guess which child, like my student, will find kindness to be abrasive and insulting to her intelligence. So we try, erring on the side of caution, and we learn. By the ripe old age of nine, my student had been through it. She had already been the recipient of multiple diagnoses and many failed attempts to bring her up to grade level. She needed me to trust her ability to learn and to respect her role in the process. She wanted me to stop the soft peddling and to tell it like it was, right or wrong. When I did that, she listened. And, even better, she learned.