To illustrate the value of understanding words the story of Tommy comes to mind. His whole life changed starting in the 6th grade but I will start this narrative much earlier in his life so the reader can appreciate the context. At the age five Tommy was an energetic child growing up on the Santa Monica beach in California. His parents moved out from the east coast his father having landed a good job in the aerospace industry. They had no idea that their son would enter school with severe reading problems.
The father was almost never home when the kids were still awake on the week days. They saw him usually only one day on weekends; he was a workaholic. When Tommy’s teacher had her first meeting with Tommy’s mother in the first grade the problem was brought up but was quickly glossed over blaming emotional adjustment to school life and slower than average maturity for his age.
As the months ticked by Tommy enjoyed the carefree California beach life that his intact middle class family provided. However, back in school when the reading book was passed to him in reading circle set up by his teacher Tommy was petrified with embarrassment and fear. He could not decode the simplest words on the page.
His parents, busy with his three other siblings and the day-to-day requirements of a busy household, took little notice of their son’s reading difficulties until the start of the fourth grade and one teacher suggested that Tommy may need to repeat the third grade. His parents were shocked and very disappointed at this suggestion and especially disappointed in their young son who otherwise seemed well adjusted. The entire weight of this problem fell on the shoulders of Tommy’s already busy mother. The father was working harder than ever climbing the corporate ladder.
Tommy’s mother took him to eye doctor where he was prescribed reading glasses. Then he was examined by another doctor and was prescribed thyroid pills to increase the thyroid activity. None of this helped. After a cursory look at how reading was being taught she discovered that they were using only the sight reading method, meaning they did not teach phonics. Having learned to read through phonics herself she started in with Tommy teaching him how to sound out the words one by one.
During all this he was feeling very embarrassed and self-conscious about this failing especially because it he could see how much it disappointed his father. These deep feelings of shame and inadequacy motivated him try as hard as he could he learn to read at least enough to minimally function in school. Without the constant encouragement of his mother it was unlikely that his would have put in such effort.
After a few months of this he started to gain confidence, at least could do his homework without much help from his parents. Because Tommy read slowly school was still a struggle. Naturally he focused on math, his only good subject, which involved less reading. This, also, was his only source of his self confidence in academic world.
The essence of his challenges doing school work would only become clear to he and his parents a few years later when he was in the 6thgrade. His whole family took a battery of aptitude tests at a local testing service in Los Angeles. At that facility they tested for innate aptitudes or traits that were related to your genetics and one other trait that they called an acquired trait, in other words not genetic. This acquired trait they called General Knowledge. The test took three days and finally the results were in.
Although he scored well on several of the aptitude tests Tommy scored just below the 10thpercentile in that acquired trait. 90% of all other kids tested, of his age, scored better than he did. This was a bitter pill that began the life changing process for Tommy. His father, suddenly, took more interest in Tommy’s education and future and began to cajole and encourage him to read the two large books that the testing service suggested for improving this acquired trait.
General Knowledge was, essentially, knowing the meanings of words; the more meaning s of words you knew the higher your General Knowledge score. Learning words from these tomes was very arduous and it was so difficult for him to maintain his concentration while reading this text but after two years of slogging through one the tomes Tommy began to feel more confident in class and noticed that his ability to learn new material had become easier.
His grades had come up from D+/C- to a Solid B average. Tommy was still a slow reader making it hard for him to read through all of the material in his assignments but because his word knowledge was so much larger he found that he could glean enough information from reading a lot less. He continued to emphasize in everything he studied a focus on understanding the terminology.
By the time Tommy was ready for high school his parents noticed that he was doing very little work in school and almost no homework. This led them to place him in a highly competitive private prep school for his four years of high school. Even though he was not a highly motivated student and had the distractions of high school team sports and the beach he maintained a B average at this high school, however, always getting A’s in math, his favorite subject.
While at that school he had on occasion the opportunity to do some community service which consisted of tutoring elementary school students from low socio-economic neighborhoods. During these tutoring sessions he could not help reflecting on his early school years where he was struggling with reading and self-confidence.
It made him wonder what kind of future these kids would have if they did overcome their learning difficulties as he had. He wondered did they have the mothers with the time and discipline to help them through their learning issues. These thoughts lingered in his mind for years to come as he made his way through life.
Through the years since the days at the testing service Tommy noticed that the more he increased his word knowledge the more he could understand diverse adult conversations, maintained better grades with less work, and felt more confident.
Because of Tommy love of the beach and ocean sports he attended college locally and maintained an A- average though out his years there. Today, I consider him one of the smartest people I know. Maybe he is? He continued to wonder and hope that some day there might be a technological solution for the those kids who were from a low socio economic back grounds, having learning difficulties, or just growing up with a below average knowledge of the meanings of words?