I did a year of a general science degree before I studied speech pathology. In the unit on botany, we covered basidiomycetes (aka fungi). I learned that ‘mycelium’ is part of mushroom and toadstool anatomy. It’s a fine structure like a mass of threads that spreads out under the ground. It absorbs nutrients and is the workhorse of the fungus’ thriving. Prior to botany class, I didn’t know it existed.
The toadstools themselves are the fruiting bodies springing up at the edges of the underground fungus. They stand as sentinels, separately, in a ring… but they are all connected as a single organism.
As a child, I learned to call these fungal circles ‘fairy rings’. There are a few of them under my pine trees right now. The toadstools pop up like magnificent red flags. I see the toadstools… and they signal that the unseen mycelium is also there.
The fairy ring is the perfect metaphor for early detection of troubles learning to read and write.
Red flags pop up. They are startlingly clear – speech pronunciation difficulties and delays in language development.
These problems signal what we cannot otherwise see – a complex web of differences in the way a child’s brain (the workhorse of thriving) processes the sounds of speech. These speech and language differences alert us that literacy learning challenges are there. Underground.
To support all children into their best lives of choice, knowledge, and connection, these early differences in speech and language development must be heeded.
Moreover, if the differences and delays are only mild, they are in no way lesser flags. In the same way that a bright red spot in your lawn is an obvious indicator of the mycelium – even if the toadstool is tiny.
Just as my enlightening botany class taught me that mycelium exists, we human services professionals and communities caring for children, need to know that this tight speech-literacy link exists.
I still sometimes hear about professionals who work with young children doing their best to kindly advise parents with a ‘wait and see’ approach about children’s speech and language differences.
Don’t do that. Like ‘bloodletting’ and extraction of medical ‘humours’, the days of that advice are long gone.
The science behind how we learn to read has clearly identified connection between the production and perception of speech sounds and spoken language, with later literacy problems. We must not ignore these early signs. They are the red flags of imminent trouble. So let us be alerted and take as many precautions as we can against that trouble.
Instead of waiting to see, follow the science and do these things:
REFER to a speech pathologist, audiologist, GP, and paediatrician for assessment and to get the child into the system for ongoing monitoring of development.
TELL parents that these early problems possibly relate to difficulty learning to read and write. Tell them this even when the child is under age two. It is true that we don’t want to unduly worry parents. They already carry such a large responsibility and load of care. But neither do we want to miss the early intervention years.
EXAMINE and manage whatever it is in your reactions that might make it feel uncomfortable to be the bearer of this news. It is better to bear and faithfully deliver evidence-based news, and to hold parents’ alarm or concern with steadiness, warmth, and knowledge. Then turn the conversation to what can be done.
MAKE INFORMATION AVAILABLE about what parents can immediately do to support skills for speech, language, and literacy. This will include fact sheets and websites, of course. But the greatest power for what parents can effectively do lies in the way they interact and use language and play with their children.
For all of us, at this point in our history, with busyness, and pressure, and screens, and uncertainty, and time-poverty, the way we interact can be hard for any of us to notice and manage in the moment. We all need the support of non-judgment, being listened to, separating-out time to pay attention without distraction, and to reflect. These approaches allow us to make intentional changes to the way we interact. When they are put together with specific literacy stimulation activities like rhymes, sound-play, and targeted skills-drills, they become the things that parents can most powerfully do to support children’s best language and literacy growth.
Parents need support for all this. As human-services professionals and families and friends, you might be the person who is in the best place to give this support. It’s never a one-off delivery of information. It’s relationship and commitment that works the change.
Please don’t ignore the toadstools at the bottom of the garden. They are red flags of opportunity. Early intervention opportunity to act now.
(PS: Having hinted at the availability of great, helpful websites… here’s a particularly terrific one: fivefromfive.com.au/parent-resources/ )
A version of this article was first published in Hobart’s The Mercury Newspaper on 22nd June 2022.