Elizabeth’s Journal

A NEW YEAR! (Part 2)

My mom was a career kindergarten teacher, so I knew something about how young children were taught to read, but I also knew that the way reading was taught changed in the curriculum every few years, although at that time, I was not aware of the specifics. But I was pretty sure that simply knowing the alphabet and practicing sight words on flashcards was not going to help in this situation. Would any traditional teaching and learning methods work? It seemed like the answer to that question was probably “no.” I mean, he had been attending school for years and could barely read or write.

I had off-handedly heard the term “dyslexia” a few times growing up. One of my friends in elementary school had two younger siblings who went to a summer camp for kids with dyslexia, and the younger sister eventually left our elementary school for a private one that specialized in teaching kids with dyslexia. The brother of a kid on my brother’s baseball team had dyslexia– I remembered his mom mentioning it once during a game, but I couldn’t remember the context. All I really knew was that people with dyslexia had a hard time in school, needed extra help. And sometimes they needed a different learning environment.

I started doing research and making calls. What exactly was dyslexia and did this kid have it? If so, what were the next steps for getting help?

This is the official definition of dyslexia from the United States National Institute of Health:

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.

The definition is lengthy, so let’s break it down and unpack it. First, dyslexia is a specific learning disability. A specific learning disability occurs when a person has a natural variation in brain function that causes difficulty in learning a skill that is culturally expected for that person to learn. In our culture, reading isn’t just expected, it’s required to fully function in society.

Second, it is neurobiological in origin. That simply means that it is a difference that originates in the brain. The deficit is occurring at the neuronal activity level in the person’s brain, and is intrinsic to that individual. In other words, not everyone’s brain processes information exactly the same way. I think we all have first-hand experience with that!

The next part of the definition states that dyslexia is characterized by difficulty with accurate word recognition and/or fluent word recognition. That part is pretty self-explanatory. It means that it is difficult for the individual to read words correctly, that their reading might be choppy, and that they might not accurately read what was written. Small words might be omitted, a word may be substituted for a word that is close to it, like “from” for “form.” A person with dyslexia might read a word correctly on one page and then incorrectly on the next. They might have to stop in the middle of a sentence to try to figure out a word. This definitely sounded like the boy I was helping.

And so did the next part of the definition: poor spelling and decoding abilities. Everyone knows what poor spelling is, but what is poor decoding ability? Decoding is the process of figuring out a word using letter-sound relationships. Decoding is sounding out a word. But decoding correctly can be tricky, and for some people, the code itself is downright confusing. That seemed to be the case with this student: by seventh grade, he still hadn’t cracked the code for reading.

Elizabeth’s Journal

A New Year (Part 1)

Across the globe, as we celebrate the year ahead, we commonly reflect on the events of the past as well. There were the lessons we learned… and taught… and the countless emotions that we experienced and shared. There may be events we faintly recall or entire days that we remember with clarity! I wanted to share an experience that was a major stepping stone for me in the hope that it may be helpful for you or a student who needs support.

Twenty years ago in November, I met the person who started my journey into teaching reading. I have loved reading from an early age. Growing up, I was an avid reader, a quick reader, someone for whom reading was a pleasure and an escape. I was in college at the time, and probably hadn’t thought about reading being harder for some people since elementary school, when some kids were pulled from class for extra help.

This child was in seventh grade and reading was not easy or fun for him. Instead, it was a laborious and dreaded chore, far from my experience as my favorite pastime. He was struggling in school, and in danger of failing the seventh grade. I started helping him with his homework in the afternoons and quickly made several key observations. First of all, he was smart. A casual conversation with him would not reveal any indication that this was a kid who was academically behind or mentally deficient. Secondly, he tried hard and really wanted to be successful in school. Even though it was hard, he tried to do the work. His difficulties did not stem from lack of intelligence, desire, or effort.

Despite that, getting through his homework was a painstaking, exhausting process every day. We’d talk through an answer to a question and then he would start to write it down, but his spelling was so labored that as he strained to figure out each letter of a word, he would forget the rest of the sentence he was trying to compose. His handwriting was almost illegible and he would reverse letters, reverse the spelling of simple words like “was” and “saw.” His use of vowel patterns was random, sometimes adding an “e” to the ends of words that should have had short vowels and omitting the “e” from words that had long vowel endings, “lik” for “like,” but then “secrete” when he meant “secret.”

Reading out loud was slow, labored, and choppy, but his comprehension overall was surprisingly good compared to his reading. There would be certain details which he had read incorrectly, so of course this led to confusion or just caused him to understand something inaccurately, but overall he grasped what was happening. His ability to make accurate nuanced observations was certainly an advantage.

When we read together, I would discover by asking him, that he just didn’t know what some of the letters said, especially when multiple letters together said a single sound, like “ew” in “withdrew” or he would recognize that “ou” said “ow” in “found,” but then not recognize that same sound in “ouch.”

I also made some observations when we were not doing homework. This young man had song lyrics memorized perfectly. He could also recite bits from his favorite comedy routines word for word. Was this the same student who could not memorize simple math facts or spelling words? I didn’t understand at all, but I was determined to find out!