Introduce yourself: I grew up in the 1960s in a rural community in South East Queensland, Australia. I recall school being “challenging.” Although I worked hard, I struggled. I could read words, so I survived, but I could not comprehend them. School had a response for my “average” success: “Lois is not very smart.” Despite my weak beginning to education, I completed high school and college and became a physical education teacher.
Do you remember a specific time you overcame adversity? Although I was not a stellar student in school, I never thought I lived with a learning disability. In the 1990s, I became a stay-at-home mom as the mother of three sons. My eldest went to school and learned to read easily, despite being hyperactive.
In 1994, my second son Nicholas failed first grade. Throughout his first year, he bit his fingernails to the quick and wet his pants every day. I contributed to his dilemma by dressing him for school, something he should have been doing on his own at that point. His school requested he take a standardized IQ test. These results were devastating, revealing he could read only ten words, displayed no strengths, and had a “low IQ.”
In 1995, our family circumstances changed, as my husband’s work took us overseas for six months. Facing a blank slate, I decided to make learning fun. With nothing to lose, I began thinking of what Nicholas could do and enjoyed doing—instead of what he struggled with. He could see patterns and rhyme words. At the same time, I began researching “learning disabilities” and “dyslexia,” to figure out what he may be dealing with. Yet I found something I wasn’t looking for—I found out that was me.
What could I do? For the first time, I was able to acknowledge my learning struggles. My son was in a worse position. Many “learn to read” books were too challenging for him.
One solution was to write something he could understand. But for me? Could I write something?
But I didn’t write. I hadn’t written any more than a thank you letter or a shopping list in years.
Maybe I could write a poem?
Placing my fears aside, I decided to try, and I began writing simple poems. Reading these poems led to talking about meaning and finding rhyming words. Drawing illustrations was transformative. One success led to another. Writing poems filled my days. I was quickly writing about the oo sounds as in cook, look, and book. I wrote about the last of the great explorers, Captain James Cook, who “took a look and wrote a book.” This topic turned into an incredible inquiry project. My son began asking broader-thinking questions that had me questioning his “low IQ” label.
What was one of your most defining moments? When we returned to our home after this time of exploring and discovering Nicholas’s learning abilities. I met with his school’s diagnostician who had completed the initial testing. Excited about Nicholas’ learning, I shared our experience.
“Well,” she responded, “he’s the worst child I’ve seen in twenty years of teaching!”
I was stunned; I decided her aim was to defeat me. Her goal was to put me in a box and tell me there was nothing to be done. Accept your son is not smart and move on.
My response was my defining moment.
“Well, if my son is the ‘worst kid ever,’” I said, “then don’t expect him to learn like everyone else!” That was the day I decided to continue to change the teaching until my son learned to read independently. And I did. I experimented with humor and “thinking outside-the-box” because the diagnostician told me my son was the “worst kid ever.”
How did this incident impact you? I transformed the teaching and learning process to not only teach my son but to show that learning to read is one of the best, most exciting work in the world.
All these experiences allowed me to go back to study and gain a degree in teaching literacy.
The joy of teaching, along with my son’s extraordinary success, encouraged me to write my first book Reversed: A Memoir. I felt alongside Maya Angelou, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I write to share my message with teachers, parents, and professionals.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned along the way? I have two lessons. As a parent of a child who struggled with learning issues, I think:
“I’m in this for the long haul.” So, believe in your child and their ability to learn. “Don’t always believe what you have been told.” There are ways around the challenges children face. Alternatives can be found. My belief is that teaching vulnerable children to read is the most exciting job in the world!
My second piece of advice is for other women. For me, writing appeared impossible. Yet, an opportunity arose for me to write. It was surprising what events and connections fell into place once my decision was made. At age 62, I published my book Reversed: A Memoir. Writing still takes time, and I always pay an editor to read my published pieces. Yet, Grammarly and Read Please are both great tools and friends of mine.
What gets you up in the morning? I transformed my son’s early learning. I took the opportunity to take control of his education, and these experiences changed both our lives.
Children wake up, every day, like my son, and knowing they will fail in school. These young children are vulnerable and at the very beginning of their lives.
We, as schools, teachers, and parents, must make every effort to teach every child to read—early on in life.
My son’s life could have been so different. At times, I felt we walked along a cliff edge. Anything could have happened.
Yet, because of our success, I found teaching turned from “impossible” to “possible” and even exciting. Today, I write articles for magazines. I speak internationally, which allows me to share my story and my teaching methods so another child, another life, can be transformed.
As time goes on, how would you like to be remembered? I want to be remembered as a “Literacy Problem Solver,” as one who fought to challenge teachers to think a little “wider,” and thus teach many more children to read. I want my book Reversed: A Memoir (2018) to be a reference for teachers and parents to show how and why we must make every effort to teach young children to read.
Finally, I would like to be remembered for allowing my son to achieve. He caught up in reading, worked incredibly long hours throughout all his school years, and finally, in 2018, Nicholas received his Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics from Oxford University.
He achieved beyond expectation, other children can, too. His achievements inspire me to fight for every child left behind.
Lois Letchford’s dyslexia came to light at the age of 39, when she faced teaching her seven-year-old son, Nicholas. Examining her reading failure caused her to adapt and change lessons for her son. The results were dramatic. Lois qualified as a reading specialist to use her non-traditional background, multi-continental experience and passion to assist other failing students. Her teaching and learning have equipped her with a unique skill set and perspective. As a teacher, she considers herself a “literacy problem-solver.”