On Monday afternoons I tutor a little boy (initials JC -- there is no Jesus Christ reference here) whose unique character always delights me. He has been diagnosed as slightly autistic, but he doesn't really have the characteristics usually associated with it. For instance, he will make eye contact and he doesn't mind being touched -- which is fortunate, as I tend to be a very tactile person!
(By the way, if you haven't yet read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time you are missing a treat. The narrator, an autistic teenager, has the most beguiling mind.)
JC does, however, have a few unusual qualities: first and foremost, his obsession with cats. His conversation is 99% about cats. He carries a cat (Pippa; real name, as I don't think stuffed animals need blogonyms) around with him at all times. He will only read (or be read to, as the case is) books about cats. He begs me, over and over, to allow him to build a "cat house" in the backyard. What does this cat house look like in his imagination? I often wonder.
JC can recognize two words: his name and "cat." Sometimes he can recognize "and," but I am suspicious about this because if you ask him to identify "the" he will almost always reply, with much gusto, AND!
We have spent hours looking at "the." After all, "the" is all over the place. You can't avoid "the;" particularly in titles and opening sentences. We practice saying "the" and noticing how our lips vibrate when we hold our tongues between our teeth. (Just try it.) If you ask James which sound makes your lips vibrate he knows it straight away . . . he just can't recognize it on the page. We make lists of (short) words that start with "th." But still, if I point to "the" and ask James to identify it, he will invariably say "and!"
Unfortunately, "the" is on the basic sight word list at JC's school -- and until he can master it, he is pretty much stuck at the ground level.
How mysterious is the mind! For all I know about the reading process, how much still eludes me . . .
What synapses have to connect before a little boy can read "the?" My girls learned to read so effortlessly. Sound-letter correspondence was an easy code to crack, and away they flew through words, then sentences, then books entire.
Every Monday we make sentences with JC's "special" words -- what we call his "word collection." We write the words on index cards with fat blue ink, and he tries to link them together in short sentences. His name + likes + the ______. But the only word he is interested in liking is "cat." Today was a breakthrough of sorts, I guess. When I asked what ELSE he liked, he carefully pondered this question and then replied, most enthusiastically: cat FACES!