In conversation with Mrs.Radhika Mitter

Special educator with over 25 years of experience in the teaching field, tells us about her experience teaching different kinds of children, how stories helped her to reach out to children and teach better, her thoughts on how children can be encouraged to read and much more.

Would you like to tell our readers a little more about your experience as a special educator?

The desire to be a teacher is something that was in me right from the time I was a little girl in school. We had excellent and dedicated teachers back then who not only taught us various subjects but also taught us to be good human beings. My experience in school then, left a deep impression on me. So after my children had grown up and when I decided that I want to pursue a career, the obvious choice available to me was to become a teacher. I got a diploma in Nursery Teachers Training and that’s how my journey as a teacher began. I worked as a nursery school teacher for four years. I cherish many beautiful memories of working with the tiny tots during those four years. Little did I know back then that they would show me a different route.

During that time, I came across children with learning disabilities. That was when I learnt as a teacher that some children find it hard to grasp some concepts because they have a learning disability and not because of a lack of interest. I had never imagined that children could have such problems. Wanting to know more about how I can help such children better, I underwent a short training programme at Madras Dyslexic Association, in Chennai which opened a new career path as a special educator.

As a teacher of children so young, you would be telling them a variety of stories. In your opinion why are stories important for children?

I learnt about the importance of stories for children, when I was undergoing a training programme, for the final practical exam for the Nursery Teachers Training Program. I was assigned to teach a group of special children with moderate mental retardation. I never had any experience of teaching special children. I was nervous also because I was told that there would be external examiners accessing my teaching.

I chose story telling as the first activity followed by other activities. I chose the ‘Pied Piper’ story. I made dolls and rats using cardboard and paper. I also took the help of a few children to act as some characters in the story. When I finished, I received a standing ovation from the kids. They enjoyed the story session so much that they wanted more stories. It was an amazing experience to get such a positive response from special children. It also taught me that children love listening to a good story and it is the best way to connect with them.

That lesson was once again reenforced soon after, during my first year of teaching pre-nursery kids, in East West School, Bengaluru. I had put in a request for a month’s leave for a trip abroad. As I was under probation the request for leave was denied and I chose to resign. After I returned from the trip, I was asked to join the school once again. I was told, “Children refused to come to school, as they want Radhika Ma’am only.” In the words of the children, “The new teacher cannot tell stories like Radhika Ma’am!” I was taken aback when I heard this, but I knew one thing for sure. I realised that the children are my gurus, telling me how I can help them in learning new things. I just had to follow their response and I would be able to teach accordingly.

I realised that the children are my gurus, telling me how I can help them in learning new things. I just had to follow their response and I would be able to teach accordingly.

Stories as a means to help hyper active children settle and enjoy learning

Over the years, there were hyper active, and attention deficiency children in the pre-primary classes. They were very young, could not be punished for behavioural problems. Over course of time, I learnt that story sessions are a boon to manage these children. I included their names as characters in the stories, they simply loved their names coming as characters in the stories, they used to wait for their names to popup, and so they started paying attention keenly. The results were heart-warming. Parents often told me that this idea of including their names in the story, had a great impact on the children.

I included their names as characters in the stories, they simply loved their names coming as characters in the stories, they used to wait for their names to popup, and so they started paying attention keenly.

Stories for language development, enhancing comprehension and creative imagination skills.

Stories are extremely important for children to learn any language, understand what they are told, taught and read as well as for enhancing their imagination. My generation, as children we had the privilege of growing up with grandparents who were the treasure house of stories for children. But a significant number of children in the modern generation live in nuclear families. They have easy access to different gadgets and ofcourse TV. As a result they do not know the charm of stories been told at a drop of a hat. As a result when they join a school, many have difficulty in understanding what the teacher is trying to teach and adjusting to learning using books rather than the entertaining content that gadgets provide.

Would you agree that learning to read for the first time is difficult and the child feels a lot of pressure? If yes, how should a parent help the child deal with that pressure?

I feel we make reading difficult for a child by using a wrong approach. As new parents we feel anxious and pressurised by seeing some children as voracious readers and we want our children to take to reading as a fish takes to water. Just as the baby learns to crawl first and then takes baby steps to walk and run later, you must introduce the child to the world of stories by showing toddlers pictures of animals and birds, pointing out and talking to them things that you see when you go out for a stroll and so on. Then slowly introduce them to colourful books with big pictures and when they are 3+ introduce the alphabets slowly. Usually blog posts say, that parents should read books, and when the child sees them read, they will imitate and take a book and start reading. But personally I feel, it will have better impact, if the parent reads the book with the child laughing along with the child or emoting various expressions according to the story lines. The child will enjoy the activity, and slowly will show interest in reading on his or her own later. If this is done regularly, when the child goes to school, the child will not be intimidated when it comes to independent reading.

Personally I feel, it will have better impact, if the parent reads the book with the child laughing along with the child or emoting various expressions according to the story lines. The child will enjoy the activity, and slowly will show interest in reading on his or her own.

In your experience how do different children respond to learning reading skills? Some may take time while others may pick up fast. What factors do you think contribute to this difference?

As a pre-primary teacher, I have observed that the children coming from homes, where they hear English more often, are able to grasp and understand English better. Later they even find it easier to read English words, as they are familiar with the words. Another observation is, girls some how show more interest in reading and listening to stories than boys. Of course there are exceptions.

Children coming from homes, where they hear English more often, are able to grasp and understand English better. Later, they even find it easier to read small English words on their own as they are familiar with the words.

In your experience as a teacher as well as a special educator, you would have had to teach and encourage children read on their own. What were the challenges you faced? What would be your advice to parents in similar situations?

As a special educator, I found that every child is unique and the problems they face are not similar. For example, dyslexic children are supposed to lack logical understanding. While some of them proved that theory wrong, some others found it extremely difficult to understand even simple facts such as mother- child relationship, backward counting and subsequently subtraction and so on. In such cases, I had to follow different techniques to make them understand the concepts properly. Since their ability to grasp concepts was limited, I had to make extra effort to make concepts easy for them. In addition to preparing for tests and exams, I had to help them complete assignments as well, leaving very little time to teach or encourage independent reading. I wish I could have done more to encourage reading for pleasure.

What would be your advice for parents whose children have learning disabilties?

Parents who have children with learning disabilities, must be patient and take steps that would suit the children’s needs accordingly. While some methods may work for some, it may not work for others. What works for each child is something that needs to be found out by patiently trying out different methods. It is important for us to remember that these children with help can also shine. They also have lots of potential.

It is important for us to remember that these children with help can also shine. They also have lots of potential.

How can parents encourage reading for pleasure at home?

Children at primary school level are smart enough to play the video games that even adults find it difficult to play, with such ease. But when it comes to reading books for pleasure, many children shy away. Why is that? It is not that they are not smart enough to learn reading. The reason in my opinion is that children are exposed to gadgets early on. Instead of introducing cell phones and TV to toddlers, showing colourful books with pictures, telling children small stories and talking to them, showing various things like trees and flowers, birds etc. when going for a walk, will create a conducive environment for reading for pleasure. This is the foundation to letting the child learn that reading is not a chore but an enjoyable activity. Learning to read on one’s one eventually opens up even more possibilities in the imagination space, that makes reading an even more pleasurable activity.

Children at primary school level are smart enough to play the video games that even adults find it difficult to play, with such ease. But when it comes to reading books for pleasure, many children shy away. Why is that? It is not that they are not smart enough to learn reading. The reason in my opinion is that children are exposed to gadgets early on.

Thank you so much for talking to Reading Journey. If there is anything else you would like to add, please feel free to do so.

My journey with the children as a nursery school teacher, and a special educator, has taught me one lesson. Children are wonderful and it is in our hands to enable them to blossom into beautiful and loving grownups.


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