Sally Rippin’s son, Sam, struggled to read – but she ignored her gut and thought he’d pick it up over time. She was wrong. Her new book, Wild Things: How we learn to read and what can happen if we don’t, describes the research she unearthed and the heartbreak she endured in her long quest to get him help.
Early on in Wild Things you admit that despite being a bestselling children’s author you had no idea how much struggling to read could impact every aspect of a person’s life, not just school. What was the most heartbreaking impact for your son, Sam?
I had thought the only part of Sam’s life that would be affected by struggling to read would be access to great literature, which for someone whose whole world is books was devastating enough. However, what I hadn’t factored in was how much we rely on reading for everything. Every subject in school requires reading. So, Sam eventually found he was unable to do well in anything, even maths, which he had previously enjoyed. This meant he soon became completely disengaged with school and learning, and his self-esteem plummeted. He gravitated towards other kids who were doing badly and lost faith in the adults around him, even those who were on his side. He was regularly getting into trouble in school and became harder and harder to reach. Now he is 19 and school is far behind him, he is doing really well, but back then I had no idea what would become of him. It was a really scary time.
It took you a long time to learn that Sam had dyslexia and ADHD, which left him further and further behind his peers, and labelled as “difficult” by an education system that couldn’t easily cater to neurodivergent students. What warning signals do you now advise other parents not to ignore?
I think most parents know in their gut if something is going awry. I certainly did, but people all around me told me not to worry. They kept telling me Sam would be fine, despite it being clear he wasn’t hitting the same milestones as his brothers and doing poorly in school. The biggest message I received from all the parents I interviewed for this book is to trust your gut and get help as soon as you can. The earlier you can get intervention and support for your child, the more chance they will have of success. This might be medical support, such as psychologists or paediatricians, particularly if your child also has ADHD and might benefit from therapy or medication; or it might be educational support: speech therapists, tutors, literacy specialists, classroom aids. There is no reason why neurodivergent kids can’t thrive in school, but we need to make it accessible for them by understanding how they may learn differently and providing any supports they may need. This is what is called the social model of disability – as opposed to the medical model. It’s not about fixing the person – neurodivergent kids are perfect as they are – it’s about creating an environment that has been adapted to their needs. Then, if we get onto supporting children’s learning differences early, there is less chance their mental health will be impacted.
You also assumed Sam’s struggle to read would sort itself out over time. How typical do you think this is of parents? What would you most like to say now to parents who see their child struggling to read but assume everything will be okay?
The most mind-blowing thing I learned while researching this book is that neuroscientists now know that humans aren’t born with a brain for reading. While our brains are hardwired for speaking and listening, as oral language has existed for 100,000 years, reading and writing has only been around for 5,500 years, so it is a relatively new invention. Therefore, like any other skill, it needs to be taught. Then, as we are taught to read, learning to decode words and put them back together to create meaning, the part of our brain that becomes responsible for written language is formed, through repetition and practice. However, as the English language is a particularly complex one, full of irregularities and words borrowed from other languages, this process can take up to three years before children can become fluent readers. This is why it is so important that all efforts are made to support children who may show signs of struggling with reading acquisition as early as possible, because while the first half of primary can be dedicated towards learning to read, the second half students are expected to read to learn.
In Sam’s case there were some early warning signals and even a teacher in his first year of primary school who told you she suspected Sam might have some learning challenges. Despite what your gut was telling you, you didn’t really want to believe these signs were serious. What does Wild Things offer to parents in a similar situation that you wish you’d had back then?
My hope for this book is that it will show readers what can happen if you don’t trust your gut and get onto issues before they become harder to resolve. Once I finally started to do some serious research into learning difficulties and neurodiversity, and how to be a better advocate for my son, I realised that all the information is out there, provided you know where to look. So, by writing this book, I’ve aimed to include everything I learned the hard way and make it as accessible as possible for a stressed-out parent who might need some quick solutions at their fingertips. Essentially, it’s the book I needed when my son first started school. In the back of the book there are plenty of resources listed for people who might like to delve deeper into all the topics I explore, but I first and foremost wanted to share my story in the hope that other struggling parents might feel less alone. As an extra bonus, I have also been very happy to hear from some of my dyslexic friends that the font, layout and writing style makes it an accessible read for people who may normally find reading a challenge.
You discovered the hard way that early intervention for dyslexics is essential and note that the sooner dyslexia is identified, the more chance a child will have of getting the support they need. How important is it for parents whose children are having difficulties with speech and reading to get them assessed and then to advocate for them to receive learning support?
Early intervention is absolutely essential. Unfortunately, this can often be easier said than done. It’s also an easy thing for someone like myself to say from my position of privilege, as I can speak English, have the confidence and education to navigate the schooling system, and have the financial means to be able to get my son the support he needs – even if much of it was too little, too late. However, there will be many families who won’t be able to do this, and this is where we need to ensure we are giving our teachers all the education and assistance they need to understand how to identify and support these children within the classroom, wherever possible. Teachers I interviewed for this book also had other useful suggestions, like lowering the teacher to student ratio by providing aids in all classrooms so that teachers can better support struggling students, as well as ensuring students have easy access to allied health professionals within the school.
My hope is the more we explore the complexities of neurodiversity – both its strengths and challenges – and the more people become aware of how this may play out in children’s behaviour, the more likely we are to be able to direct funding into the right places, so this burden doesn’t fall on individuals – parents or teachers – and becomes the responsibility of our whole community. After all, if we get it right when people are young, they are more likely to grow into adults who can contribute meaningfully to society later on.
When Sam was in Year Eleven you finally managed to get him to accept help with his schooling and you worked with a professional advocate and the Year Eleven learning coordinator to write him up an Individual Learning Plan. At last, he had extra support in place and you and his teachers were feeling optimistic. Then Covid lockdown struck … What happened next?
Covid was a disaster for my son’s schooling – there was no way he was going to be able to keep up with all the online platforms and reading with dyslexia and ADHD. However, it ended up becoming a great thing for our relationship and his mental health. During lockdown, I signed up to do a counselling course online to try to learn to be a better support for my son, and then went on to study two years of Gestalt Therapy in Melbourne in 2021 and 2022. As well as wanting to show my son that you can go back to study at any age, I found these studies enormously beneficial both for my own self-awareness as well as helping support and improve my son’s mental health and self-esteem. The main thing I learned in support of my son was to talk less and listen more and, in the process, I recognised how many of my own anxieties and expectations I had projected onto him. I found the less I talked, the more my son began to open up and reveal himself to me, and I began to see who he really is, rather than who I thought he was – or should be. Now he is able to talk more openly with me, I am gifted with an insight into his extraordinary mind, his unique perspective of the world and his beautiful spirit, which, for a time, I had feared we might have lost for good.
You acknowledge that school is rarely an empowering environment for kids who learn differently – but you also note that it often only takes one passionate teacher to get a child engaged and feel positive about learning. What would you like to say to the teachers who go the extra mile and look out for the kids who are doing it tough?
Teachers can change lives. So many of the stories I share in this book revolve around how important teachers can be in a young person’s life and how much a dedicated teacher can impact a child’s future. I hope teachers know this because I also know how exhausting the last few years of remote learning have been for so many teachers, who were often juggling their own families, too, and how often they are subjected to soul-destroying criticism and unfair expectations. My mother was a teacher. Many of my friends are teachers. Too many parents can forget that most teachers go into teaching because they want to make a difference in kids’ lives, and while kids may not be able to show their gratitude at the time, I reckon almost every adult I know could look back on a teacher they had at school who they can feel grateful for.
While your journey with Sam’s reading and learning challenges was long and painful, it led you to create several popular book series for younger readers: Billie B Brown, Hey Jack! and Polly and Buster. Tell us a little about these characters, why you created them and how children love and relate to them?
Everything I have written since my son was in primary school, when it first became clear he was struggling to learn to read, has been for kids like him. – kids who may find reading a challenge, either because they have learning difficulties or may just not have been effectively taught. I aim to use simple words, but complex themes and engaging stories, to give the most struggling of readers the incentive to want to learn. Along with this, all my characters face challenges in some ways, often unable to fit into conventional society, but eventually find their strengths and then soar. These are the themes I hope my young readers will take away from reading my stories.
How do these books help emerging readers grasp skills and enjoyment in reading they might not be able to gain from school readers?
School readers can be an important teaching tool but often lack the things that entice us to want to read, such as plot, character development and emotion. While children are learning the mechanics of reading in the classroom, parents can help them on their reading journey by reading aloud a wide range of stories, introducing them to complex stories and the enormous possibilities of language. Provided your child is also receiving dedicated instruction in school, often by using educational readers, this is the best thing parents can do at home.
However, in creating my most recent series, The School of Monsters, my aim was to bridge the gap between school readers and the books kids might choose to read for pleasure, by using engaging characters and funny stories, along with simple rhymes to help develop phonological awareness and even simpler vocabulary using words they may be learning in the classroom. These aren’t designed to teach your child to read, but they can be used to support your child’s reading skills at home.
We love wayward children in literature. Not so much in life. And your experience with Sam’s reading and learning difficulties was pretty heartbreaking. What was the best thing you learned from this difficult journey?
I have learned to be much less judgmental. Not just towards other parents who are struggling with their kids, but also towards myself. I have realised there can be so many reasons why our darling offspring can suddenly turn into a Wild Thing, but a lot of the time this challenging behaviour can be just a cry for help. And the sooner we can find a way to love and support our children exactly for who they are – not who we think they should be – the more chance they will have of finding a way to live a full life in their own unique way.
How is Sam doing now?
He is doing great. Thanks for asking. I now feel so lucky to have this gorgeous young man in my life and grateful for all the things he’s had to teach me.
Wild Things: How we learn to read and what can happen if we don’t by Sally Rippin, Hardie Grant, $29.99