teaching the alphabet (special needs)

When I first met G, her parents expressed concern about her developmental delay. She was able to converse in simple mandarin but unable to understand basic instructions in English even though she has been attending school for about 2 years. She was about 5 years old. She had been referred by a PCF family worker/counsellor.

G had meningitis when she was an infant. As a result of the brain infection, she developed severe learning difficulties. She did not undergo any early intervention.

She was put in a language immersion programme for about 4 months (freq:1x/wk). She picked up functional English phrases rather quickly. She was discharged. Her mother found her an English tutor to work on literacy skills.

6 months later, G was back as she was unable to recognise or print most letters .

G proved to be quite a challenge as her language skills were still weak. Her fine motor control was like a toddler’s. When given a crayon, she would scribble circles all over the paper. She enjoyed covering the whole paper with circles, much like Baby C last year.

She took about 4-6 mth to learn to copy the alphabet. Usually, I used grids/boxes to help the child define space.
Montessori activities which involve comparing relative sizes/length/weight, are helpful for children with perceptual difficulties. Working with different materials such as play dough, writing over sandpaper, plastic or wooden letters, can also help a child utilise different parts of his memory. eg some children like playdough, others like writing in a sandtray.

Even though G could now copy some letters, she still couldn’t name the letters. As she only came for weekly lessons, she tended to forget everything. G also refused to allow her mother to teach her. She’ll wail and her family would cave in.

After some hits & misses, I finally came up with something that would capture her attention. G loved to eat. I found pictures of all her favourite foods and things. We did letter-picture matching eg p-prata. She was given a set to practise at home. I only worked on lower case letters as it yields faster results. I can teach her to read some sight words once she recognises lower case letters. The alphabet was boring and meaningless to G. Without pictures, she was unable to remember most symbols which were too abstract for her.

After that was accomplished, we started to work on visual perceptual skills – matching same array/sequence of letter
eg cat – cat, car, can (select the same word)

G was able to recognise some sight words after a while. She still could not read sentences. Other areas of development remained delayed. As of Dec, she could read and copy single words. G was unable to complete most worksheets independently. As she had already been retained in kindergarten for 2 years, her parents could send her to primary school or send her for assessment (to place in appropriate special school based on IQ test)

After some discussion, her parents were advised to send her to mainstream primary school as she was unlikely to do well in an IQ test. A low score would mean she will not be posted to an APSN special school. It will be easier for her to transfer from primary to APSN school as she is able to read and write. MOE psychologist report will be more detailed than a IQ test as her school performance will be taken as part of the assessment.

Due to transport and other resource issues, G stopped therapy. Her father signed her up for a music class which claimed that it can help her connect left-right brains. That failed. He then signed her up for OG dyslexia reading class. While G was still unable to blend CVC letters, she can remember some sight words and word families through the drills. However she never learnt to recognise upper case letters.

When I checked with her mother a few years ago, G had transferred to an APSN school. She is happy and bouncy as always. She hasn’t made much progress since then, ie she still reads at sentence level.

My belief is that any child who can talk, can learn to read. It is a matter of association, ie associating a symbol with meaning. Most children with moderate intellectual disability can learn to read up to P1 level. Beyond that, one has to work on cognitive & language skills such as comprehension and reasoning skills. Children with pleasant temperament are easier to work with and show more improvement. G made a vast improvement in 1.5 yrs of therapy, despite receiving little coaching at home. She can understand simple English and read and comprehend at sentence level.

There are some ASD children in primary school who can read but have no functional communication. There are some ASD children who can talk and understand a bit but unable to read. I find that an extreme irony as the latter group is much more communicative but are in special schools because they are unable to read.

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