Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning

Case Study: The Story of Lois Letchford: From Dyslexia to Ph.D. at Oxford “Using Neuroscience to Inspire Learning”

June 1, 2021

Welcome back to the Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast, EPISODE #136 I'm Andrea Samadi, a former educator who has been fascinated with understanding the science behind high performance strategies in schools, sports, and the workplace for the past 20 years. If you have been listening to our podcast, you will know that we’ve uncovered that if we want to improve our social and emotional skills, and experience success in our work and personal lives, it all begins with an understanding of our brain.

Watch the interview on YouTube here.

My goal with this podcast is to bring the most current neuroscience research to you and make it applicable in your life whether you are a teacher in the classroom, or using these ideas to improve productivity and results in your workplace. As I am researching and learning new ideas, I’m also implementing them myself, and making connections to past speakers, so that we can all benefit from the research that is emerging in this new field of educational neuroscience.

Today’s episode features Lois Letchford[i], the author of the book Reversed: A Memoir[ii], that tells the story of her son who failed first grade in 1994. His prognosis was dire. Testing revealed he could read 10 words, had no strengths, and a “low IQ.”  The first few chapters of her book are painful for a parent to read, and even worse if you’re a teacher or a coach, knowing how important your role is for shaping the lives of the students who come before you.

Her book sets the stage for just how chilling, and impactful their story is. I’ll read it slowly because there’s lots to think about here.

Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.  —THE IMITATION GAME

I have to spoil the story, and tell you there is a happy ending, with Lois’ son defying the odds he was given at an early age and graduating with his Ph.D. in 2018 from Oxford University.[iii]  I can just see this story as a movie, especially when I saw the book trailer on YouTube[iv], with the beautiful and prestigious University in the background, where scholars go to earn their degrees, where one young man would work harder than most to achieve what many only dream of. This story is of dreams becoming reality, where a Mother used the principles, she learned from Dr. Immordino Yang, to help her son to achieve his dreams.

This is our third case study on the podcast, with our first with Bridgid Ruden, and her story of overcoming a severe traumatic brain injury, and then with Barbara Arrowsmith-Young and her story of changing her brain and leaving her learning disability behind. Both of these stories moved me to such an extent that I realized the importance of featuring examples of people who have used the strategies we suggest on this podcast, with outstanding results.  Which brings us to the fascinating story of Lois Letchford. She had the opportunity to homeschool her son for six short months. During this time, she applied all the principals of learning provided by Dr. Immordino Yang. It turned her son’s life around – and hers too. 

Lois Letchford BIO:

Lois Letchford specializes in teaching children who have struggled to learn to read. Her creative teaching methods vary depending on the reading ability of the student, employing age-appropriate, rather than reading-age-appropriate, material. Her non-traditional background, multi-continental exposure, and passion for helping failing students have equipped her with a unique skill set and perspective. Originally a physical education teacher, she later completed a Master's in Literacy and Reading from the State University of New York at Albany. Lois has presented her work at The California Reading Association, Michigan Summer Institute, and New York State Reading Association conferences. She is co-president of the Albany City Reading Association and a member of the Australian College of Education. Lois continues to work with students to provide education and support to their teachers.

Let’s meet Lois Letchford, and hear her story, with the hopes that it will inspire you to look at your students in a different light, or your own child, and see the unlimited potential that just might need some extra fanning, and new ideas or strategies to ignite their excellence.

Welcome Lois! Thank you for reaching out to me with your fascinating life’s story on teaching and learning that you tell so beautifully in your book Reversed.

Q1: Just to set the stage for those who have not yet ready you book, when you got that phone call that day, waiting the news that Nicholas had passed his final tests for his PHD and he said, “you can write your book now” I wondered how he handled the fact that this was his story of struggle going out to the world.  Do you think he realized that it was time to show others that there is always a way by sharing his story of determination, struggle and success?

Q2: When I read your recollection of his life at school in PART 1 of your book “He sits alone every lunch time, every day” or “He has no friends, and no communication with anyone. It’s almost like he is an outcast” I couldn’t help but remember a young kid like this in my this was middle school, and this kid, would sit by himself and not say a word. It wasn’t his academics he struggled with, but more the social aspect of school, making friends and there was this group of us who all worked hard to make him feel included and a part of everything. I think it took a good year before he finally found his place, and It wasn’t hard to find him a few years ago, hes now a doctor. How did Nicholas keep his fire going through those difficult early years without those early relationships to “shape” his social and emotional development?

Q3: When I was reading your story, of the struggles to learn, I couldn’t help but to think of the extra work I’ve put in with my youngest daughter. Not even close to your story, but listeners who have noticed their child, or a student who needs constant support (not all children are the same—my oldest achieves perfect scores with little effort, but my youngest,  if I think back to kindergarten, it was with the letters of alphabet, to counting numbers by 5, progressing to vocabulary or spelling words I would print off in squares, cut out and then carry with us in the car to practice. Flashcards galore, they were everywhere in my house. The extra work built around trying whatever possible to inspire learning. Your ship at sea analogy made sense to me. Complete sense. I remember the moment I felt the same way. Can you explain why reading more books, working harder, doing the same thing, was not the answer with your ship at sea analogy?

Q4: Here I go tearing up again as I write my questions for you. It must be something to do with the process of teaching and learning. There’s something extremely powerful to me of educational institutions where you can “feel” the learning that has taken place before you. I used to spend time at the University of Toronto’s Hart House gym, and it was a feeling I’d never forget. I actually still have a towel from this gym to remind me of that feeling. Walking through these old buildings, looking at the athletes on the wall, wondering who they were. Exactly like Robin Williams in the movie “Dead Poet Society.”  Can you share what it was like teaching Nicholas to read maps, “on the outskirts of Oxford University, a seat of learning for almost one thousand years” (page 100)?

Q5: I also have tried everything to “make learning fun” and felt for you when Nana said “put the books away and make learning fun” and you said “But how do I do that?” How was learning for you growing up  and at what point did you discover that you had Dyslexia? What strategies did you use to find the joy in the learning?

Q6: What were some shifts that helped Nicholas with his learning?

Q7: How did you come across Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and what specifically helped you from her work?

Q8: What were some of the secrets that you think got you out of this Quagmire (I had to look that up!)  I must be a British term my Mum didn’t use.  She would have said jam or pickle. How can parents or teachers listening implement some of the ideas that you found to be the most useful for Nicholas?

Q9: What are you currently working on now? Where can people learn more about your innovative teaching methods?

Q10: Have I missed anything important you would like me to ask?



Dr. Sam Bommarito talks with Dr. Brian Cambourne and Dr. Debra Crouch about the Conditions of Learning Published on YouTube May 13, 2021

Prof Pam Snow and Jake Downs: The Science of Language and Reading August 2020 on The Teaching Literacy Podcast

Maps from Ptolemy’s Geography



[ii] Reversed: A Memoir by Lois Letchford Published March 13, 2018

[iii] Reversed: A Memoir from Dyslexic to Ph.D. Oxford Published August 15, 2018

[iv] Reversed: A Memoir from Dyslexic to Ph.D. Oxford Published August 15, 2018

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