I love words. This has undoubtedly come about in part as the result of the inspiration of at least two outstanding teachers. I say at least two, because I am sure that others made a significant contribution to my enthusiasm for the spoken and written word. Mrs Evans (I never knew her first name, though we referred to her with an irreverent affection as Faggy Maggie because of her habit of chain smoking) and John Passey instilled in me a love of literature and books in general that has served me well over the years. The great authors and poets have been constant companions as have the writers of history, philosophy and assorted essays. The gift of reading given to me by my earliest teachers was reinforced by those who came later and tried to provide me with a more critical and discerning approach to books. This was a gift indeed, through reading Tolstoy I have been transported to nineteenth century Russia, by Mahfouz to the grimy back alleys of Cairo, Kenzaburo Oe has given me insights into the Japanese psyche and of course Narayan, Desai and Anand painted pictures of Indian village life in my imagination long before I visited India. I remember a time when occasionally I would see stickers in the rear windows of cars that stated “if you can read this, thank a teacher”. I certainly thank mine for the opportunities and pleasure that the written word has given to me.
It is a fact that many children struggle with words. Some find reading and writing to be a major challenge and often as a result of this they struggle to gain access to other learning. Every culture values the written word and an acquired competence in reading has become the key to gaining knowledge and information in our education systems. This is as true today in an age of digital technology as it ever has been through the era of the printed text and it remains the case that those children who struggle with reading are likely to be classified as poor learners. Many authoritative texts advocating approaches to the teaching of reading have been produced over the years. Early in my teaching career books, some of which like Tansley’s Reading and Remedial Reading became educational classics, were a source of inspiration and support as I attempted to address the needs of seemingly reluctant readers. But it remains a fact that despite my best endeavours some of my pupils gained nothing more than a basic understanding of the written word. Some could certainly be moved by words and demonstrated a love of stories or poetry when they were read to them. But their ability to progress to that desired state of competent independent reader appeared sadly limited. As a teacher I was often frustrated, but I hope, equally sympathetic.
Whilst we live in a literate world where the word continues to dominate, it is important that we recognise that there are other important means of expression that can, in some instances, convey meaning with equal if not greater power than words. Why is it that some educators are reluctant to accept that for some children who struggle with the written word alternative modes of communication may be just as valid? For some the expression available through music or dance is every bit as empowering as the written page. Indeed in some instances the presentation of a drawn image may be in every way equal to the well-constructed paragraph, and a collage may depict more emotion than most writers can manage in a page of text. My colleague Jean Edwards demonstrates this admirably by producing a blog based around a daily drawing. I would urge you to visit her work at http://jeandrawingaday.wordpress.com/ . An example from her collection of sketches is provided at the foot of this blog entry. Jean is an articulate, thoughtful, well read and effective communicator and teacher but on this site she demonstrates why as teachers we would do well to pay attention to a range of means of expression.
The London born artist Stephen Wiltshire is a fine exponent of the art of cityscapes. As a child he was described as non-communicative because he never used spoken language. Diagnosed as autistic he was labelled with the classical characteristics of this condition that include poor communication, an inability to empathise and a lack of sociability. By the age of seven, teachers had recognised that he had a talent for drawing and at the age of eight he was commissioned by the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath to make a drawing of Salisbury cathedral. In recent years Wiltshire has been acknowledge as one of the most talented artists of his generation with collections of his works such as Floating Cities and American Dream gaining significant acclaim from some of the world’s leading art critics. You can find more detail about Stephen Wiltshire and his art at http://www.stephenwiltshire.co.uk/biography.aspx
Had teachers not recognised and publicised Stephen Wiltshire’s talent as an artist and especially his ability to communicate through drawing, he may well have been known more for his label of autism than for his significant contribution to the interpretation of buildings and cities. So, when we talk about children and young people with communication difficulties, perhaps we might reflect upon the fact that it may not be their difficulty to express themselves that is at fault. It is equally possible that it could be our lack of ability to understand.
Thanks to Jean Edwards for permission to use this picture here.