Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Worrying Student

As in, the student I'm worried about, not the student who worries a lot.

I met recently with a student in one of my lower level courses to talk about an assignment based on some readings.  As I looked at what the student has worked on, and talked to the student, I realized that they didn't understand the vocabulary they were reading (this isn't, say, Shakespeare, but modern English, an essay aimed at first year students).  But when they read something aloud, they substituted similar looking (but often different meaning) words, and read along without realizing.

I'm sort of at a loss.  I suggested that the student slow down when they're reading, look up lots of words, and such.  But it seems that lacking a basic vocabulary would make the world incredibly hard to navigate, so I worry about this student not only as a student, but as an adult, trying to work, make decisions, vote, etc.

My understanding is that kids who read a lot tend to develop a way better vocabulary, and that kids who don't, don't develop as strong a vocabulary.  But it seems like the person who already doesn't read a lot is at a double disadvantage; they haven't developed the vocabulary, and they haven't developed the habits that are likely to help them develop a stronger vocabulary.

I don't know quite what to do.  It seems almost punitive to send a note to the central advising office, doesn't it?  I've suggest to everyone in my classes that they make regular use of the writing office, tutoring offices, etc.  Should I make an extra point with this student?

What do you folks do?


  1. Anonymous12:18 PM

    I would send them to disability services. This sounds like a language impairment/possible undiagnosed dyslexia to me.

  2. I wish I knew. (I see a fair bit of this with our student population, and I think in most cases it's not dyslexia-related, but a consequence of systematic poverty and educational neglect.) I've never been able to work out a really good strategy for dealing with it.

  3. "I notice that you're reading a significant number of the words here incorrectly. Now, this could be stress or exhaustion or such but it could also be a factor of visual acuity - do you need to have your vision checked? - or even something such as dyslexia [insert brief explanation].

    Do any of these sound likely? I can put you in touch with our counselling, accessibility, student support services? I know you're working hard and that's great. Let's make it so that you don't have to work extra-hard on your reading."

    Honestly, it might be so many things. I'd suspect that bringing in someone from the central advising could open doors to at least figuring out what's the issue, whether it's unfamiliarity with the words or a medical concern. Kudos to the student for seeking out some help and to you for thinking deeply on how to provide some.

  4. Thanks for your feedback, folks; it hadn't occurred to me that there might be a reading disability. (The student has the same problem verbally; they can't say what some pretty common words mean; but I'm the wrong kind of doctor for this!)

  5. FWIW, our ADHD guy specifically told me -- because I specifically asked -- that we are not allowed to suggest to students that they get tested for disabilities like dyslexia.

    "We can't even say, hey, have you thought about being tested?" I asked incredulously. "Because, you know, the way you're mixing up words and the patterns of misspellings here, that suggests to me..."

    "No," he said, with a certain amount of force. "They can ask to be referred. You can't suggest it."

    IDK if this is correct. But he seemed pretty certain, and he is our disability guy.

  6. I was thinking that there might be a disability (perceiving/processing) issue, too.

    I've never been told that "have you thought about being tested?" is out of bounds (then again, I've never been told it is in bounds, either). I've certainly said to students who were saying things out loud that sounded like depression "I'm no expert, but I understand that thoughts like that can be a sign of depression. Have you thought about talking to a counselor?" The most common reply to that kind of query, in my experience, is something along the lines of "yes; I know; I probably shouldn't have stopped taking my meds; I should make an appointment with my doctor."

    Of course that's a slightly different situation -- the student has already been diagnosed, and in fact is familiar enough with the signs and vocabulary of the condition to say things that even I recognize as symptoms (and, I think it's fair to say, is probably saying them in part to have a responsible adult confirm what the student already knows -- it's time to get back in treatment). But saying something along the lines of "I see you're having difficulty, and it doesn't look quite like the kinds of difficulty with which I'm already familiar, so it would probably be a good idea to talk to someone who might be better at helping you figure out what's going on, and how to address it" seems appropriate. After all, the student may not know that hir experience is unusual/atypical until someone (gently) points it out, and it seems unkind to do that without also pointing out that there might be a solution, especially if there's reason to think that the student might be unaware of how to go about seeking a solution.

    P.S. I wonder whether, for whatever reason, the student can only recognize words by sight (i.e. isn't able to "do" phonics). That might explain the substitutions.

  7. just chiming in here to say that of people I know who have been diagnosed with ADHD or dyslexia (family members, friends, and some colleagues), all have said something about the diagnosis being a relief. the burden of being stupid / lazy / whatever other externally- or internally-applied epithet the person had been laboring under was replaced by relief: the challenges the person had faced were not, as had been assumed, their own fault, and there was help.

    1. Thanks, Adiamondinsunlight; that's a good point.