Joe, at eight was of at least average intelligence. However, despite various attempts at intervention, he was also a non-reader of any kind of text.
I tried basic, introductory mostly – picture books. Joe could not relate the contents of the pictures to the few, simple concrete word labels on the same page in any way. His vision had been checked; it was fine.
After thinking about it further, I tried a book with no text and clearly drawn colored pictures with many concrete details. In the instance that gave me the crucial clue, the book lay open with the picture on the left showing the shelves of a grocery store, on the right what to me was obviously a hardware store. I asked Joe to tell me about the picture on the left. Silence. “This picture on the right?” Silence. “How is each picture like the other?” Silence, with a shake of the head. “How is this one different from that one?” Silence, and another head shake. “What kind of a place is this? – This?” “I don’t know, I’ve never seen them before.”
I then asked Joe to tell me what he had done that school day, from the time he had gotten out of bed. To summarize, he’d spent his time at home, to and from school, and after school being “done for” by doting affluent adult family members and servants. He was the only child in a very large estate in which all of his choices were made for him, from food to clothing to toys to (mostly passive) activities. He wasn’t allowed to play with other children (“none near or suitable”), was driven to and from school by the family chauffeur, was allowed to watch carefully selected and supervised TV.
Joe had never climbed a tree nor had ever been in a grocery – or any other kind of store. He had been pampered, coddled, over-protected and essentially treated as a kind of human pet by his surrounding tribe of adults.
I worked on changing family behavior and attitudes toward their providing opportunities for direct, basic physical and social experiences from tree-climbing to exploring stores to play dates to getting a dog for him to care for.
I asked Joe to describe these activities to me; I’d record his words and he would sketch what he’d seen. His own words describing his experiences became his “reading texts”.
Within a year Joe was back in school, reading and achieving generally at an average level for his age – and, at least as important, climbing trees and romping with his dog.