Getting Personal

Today I am compelled to write about my daughter. This is not from an advocate, this is from me, the Momma of a child with Dyslexia. The Momma who gets frustrated her daughter is in third grade and cannot spell basic site words. The Momma whose child reads an entire grade level behind. The Momma who is trained in all things education, advocacy, special education, and uses the Barton Method with fidelity. The Momma whose heart still breaks because of the mountain my daughter has to climb when it comes to literacy.

In the beginning, my “M” started off great with reading. I was so proud of her bringing home her little level A books and reading every night in Kindergarten. She made progress and was moving through the standards guided reading levels. I never suspected a thing. I was confident she would make gains and learn to read and write. Then, in second grade, something changed. It was like she just got stuck. It took longer and longer to move to the next level. Words confused her. She guessed all the time when reading and could not spell. She avoided writing and reading. She would find ways to get me or the computer to read it for her. She would send video and audio responses instead of typing them. She was a pro at avoidance strategies!

I know it was not her teacher. She had the most amazing teacher. A woman who is an expert in her field. This teacher knows literacy inside and out. I have the utmost respect for her ability as an educator and her opinion. If this teacher could not get my daughter to make progress, I knew something was up. She moved to third grade and these problems persisted (even with another excellent teacher). Yet here I was, a trained advocate and a trained teacher questioning my own insight. I am someone who knows about pedagogy, methodology, and child development. I found myself wondering, “Is there something wrong? Is she not paying attention? Is she not working hard enough? Did I not read enough to her? Did I not make her read enough? Was she not in a literacy rich environment?” I went through all those questions and self-doubt that I warn parents about. Everything I knew about Dyslexia went out the window. Everything I knew about teaching and learning, forgotten. I just could not fathom that my child, the child of an expert, was struggling. I was not trusting my instincts that she was struggling because of Dyslexia. I knew it in my core and could not admit it. I am ashamed of this fact.

My thought process was completely skewed. Yes, my daughter had reversals of letters, but that is not the only indicator of Dyslexia, it could just be a developmental thing. So, I dismissed it. Yes, my daughter mixed up letters when she wrote words. Again, it could be developmental. Her spelling? Atrocious! Her reading fluency? Choppy! Her ability to decode words? She guessed! I had to take a hard look at all of these pieces of evidence. I could not blame her teachers, they were wonderful. I could not blame myself, although I tried. I could not blame her, unfortunately I tried this too. It boiled down to understanding this was all beyond her control because she lacked the tools she needed.

We started the Barton method in May. This was not easy. She did not want Momma to see how she had been coping, compensating, and covering. It was eye opening. Her struggle was far worse than I had thought. One lesson could take three, 45-minute sessions for her to process. Sometimes, I had to go back and re-teach lessons. She needed explicit, repetitive, multi-sensory instruction. It was a whole new way of looking at literacy and it was a major shift for her. This philosophy contradicted everything she had been taught about Reading and Writing. Now on level 4, I still remind her not to guess and to use her knowledge of language and letter sounds to decode a word.

I wish educators would understand, this is such a long road. It takes patience, determination, and strength to do what you know your child needs. I wish educators would understand this is not made up, not an excuse, and that parents of children with Dyslexia are not crazy. I wish they would not be so dismissive. I wish they knew that certain methods of teaching reading will do more damage than good. A multi-sensory method will serve my child far better. Reading and writing is not one size fits all and being trained in multiple methods will benefit students. I wish educators would do an in-depth study on Dyslexia to understand it better. I wish they would understand the years I have spent studying Dyslexia, working with students who have Dyslexia, and advocating for them; then maybe they would see the validity to the discussion. I wish they could see how using an inappropriate method severely affects children with Dyslexia. It makes them hide who they are. It makes them pretend because they think they are dumb.

My daughter is smart and spunky. She is creative and funny. She is so much more than her struggle, her guided reading level, or her poor spelling. She is full of beautiful ideas that are difficult for her to express through written language. Last year, I had a little girl who would never read signs wherever we went. This summer, at Reptile Gardens, she read every sign and piece of information we passed. I almost cried. I had a girl who would not write thank you cards because she could not spell all the wonderful things she wanted to say. Now, she makes cards for fun. I had a girl who would never pick up a book and read to herself. (She preferred catalogues because of the pictures.) Now, she will choose a book to read because she wants to. She was bored this weekend and uttered the words,” I guess I’ll read a book.” What? I love that!
It has taken us 7 months to move 4 levels in Barton. That is unusually long. This just speaks to how much time we needed to understand basic sounds. She processes slowly and we only work on it a few times a week because it is exhausting for her. She still has struggles. She still cannot spell “people”, but we are working on it. She can, however, understand digraphs, blends, long and short vowels, and a myriad of other things she could not do 4 months ago. This is the best decision I have ever made for her. I am giving Barton time to fill the holes left by guided reading and then will likely pursue a 504 plan.

It is sad I do not trust the public schools across the state of South Dakota to handle Dyslexia appropriately. (It is not their fault; they lack training and understand of this complex disability.) She does need specialized instruction from the school, and I am fortunate to have the training to provide that for her. Most parents do not. She will also need accommodations. She may need audio books or verbal responses on tests. Her work will need to be looked at for its ideas instead of its spelling. She needs things that can reveal her true intelligence and help everyone see her beyond Dyslexia.

I look forward to the day when she can read and write confidently. I know Dyslexia will always be an issue for her. I am thankful I can give her the tools she needs to make progress and find success. I am thankful for my training and understanding of this topic. I am thankful for this platform to tell my daughter’s story. I hope this reaches another family struggling, another family with questions, another family who does not know what to do and needs help. I am here. The Dyslexia community is here. We can help. Thank you for reading.

On Reading Wars… part 2

The core of the argument concerning the reading wars is about methodology. This is HOW your child is being taught. Whole Language is one way or METHOD of teaching reading. Orton Gillingham is another. However, OG specifically addresses the needs of learners with dyslexia. Whole language learning does not.

Some children with Dyslexia memorize the shapes of words. This is because the letters could appear to the child in any order. If they memorize the shape of the word, they can give the impression they are reading. (You may have heard the phrase, “guessing is not reading”. This is where that phrase comes from.) In guided reading, we teach children to look at familiar parts of words. We teach them to use the pictures to help them. We teach them to use context clues. Children with Dyslexia will focus on “using the pictures” as their primary strategy. Take those pictures away, and suddenly they cannot read. They have a hard time using known parts of words or “chunks” because, again, the parts of the word or the letters may be processed in a different order in the brain. This strategy is not effective for them. Context clues also becomes a challenge because the reader is supposed to use the words around the unknown word to help it make sense. Again, the way words are processed in the dyslexic brain does not correlate with this method. Thus, a different method will be more effective. Using a method that utilizes phonemic awareness, with a focus on syllables and rules, is appropriate methodology for children with Dyslexia. We know this. Research has proven this. Yet, getting an IEP team understand this is usually a HUGE undertaking.

We know children with Dyslexia needs specialized instruction. This has been upheld in the court system. Research also shows they need a multi-sensory approach to reading. This is not whole language. This is OG, Barton, Wilson, and Lindamood Bell. But these are not the methods most public schools use, have access to, or are even trained in. Districts will not commit to the purchasing or the training of these programs because it can be expensive. Getting a district to financially commit is always a fight in the world of advocacy. Always.

The reason why IEP teams have a hard time with developing IEP’s for children with dyslexia comes down to methodology. IDEA does not say a school has to use a specific method at the parents’ request. IDEA just says they need specialized instruction to meet their unique needs. A school can offer specialized instruction without using OG or any other method you may suggest. Methodology then becomes a gray area in which IEP teams across the country debate about. It is rare to get a school to admit their methodology is not working. It takes an extensive amount of data collection, time, and debate.

My training influences my philosophy about methodology. If something is working for a child and allowing them to make gains towards their goals, it needs to be allowed. The Federal Department of Education states, “if an IEP Team determines that specific instructional methods are necessary for the child to receive FAPE, the instructional methods may be addressed in the IEP.” The decision is truly left to the state and local school districts. Unfortunately, it is easy for many districts to say “no”. They know you will have to file a state complaint, or due process, or obtain a lawyer. Most families give up at this point understanding it could take 2-3 years of legal proceedings to see any progress. It’s not personal, it is a systemic problem.

The true consequences, in the end, is that children with Dyslexia are not getting what they need to succeed in school. It is a fact and not up for debate in my mind. So… case by case, family by family, child by child, I do my best to prove METHODOLOGY MATTERS.

On the Reading Wars…

Why does Dyslexia get such a bad rap in the world of special education? It is a disability. This fact can no longer be debated according to federal guidance. It affects 1 in 5 children and therefore is quite common. Plus, it often holds back some very bright children from loving school because they cannot read, write, or spell effectively. Yet our schools hold onto one specific method with all they can muster. Thus, we have the reading wars. Two camps of people who believe strongly in their method of teaching and will not compromise on what is best for the child. This makes me sad as a parent of a dyslexic child, an educator, and an advocate.

As I put my teacher hat back on for a moment, I look at the training I have had in both Whole Language Learning and Orton Gillingham. Teachers are extensively trained in guided reading, the core of whole language. Honestly, when I was teaching, I loved it! However, it did not help all my students make progress. There was always a few in each class, no matter what I did, that did not make gains. As I look back, I wonder how many of them had dyslexia? I think of my own daughter, who has had and still has AMAZING teachers. People who I turned to for my own training and advice when I was still in the classroom. People whom I completely have faith in, whom I complete believe in their teaching abilities. People who are experts at teaching reading. If anyone could help my daughter read, write, and spell, it is these teachers. They are the best of the best. Yet, here she is, an entire grade level behind in reading and even further behind in writing. It is not a reflection on them, it is a reflection on the fact that she learns differently. (I began OG with her in May. I knew it would work because I could see how she processed language. I am happy to report we are still doing OG, it is still working, she is making gains, and she is beginning to enjoy reading!)

Now, from a teacher’s perspective, a parent bringing this unknown method of Orton Gillingham to the table is intimidating. There was a time when I knew nothing about it and had concerns about its validity. Was it rigorous and relevant? Does it correlate with our standards? Is it effective? Is it research based? By using it, are we challenging the expertise of the school and passing judgement on the teaching abilities of staff? This is not the case at all! The dyslexia community, including myself, is just trying to tell their child’s story. We are trying to explain that using one, particular method (of guided reading) does not work for dyslexic learners. There are mountains of evidence and research to support this claim. There are true scientific reasons why whole language learning is the complete OPPOSITE of how children with dyslexia process and learn language.

Between the myths that are circulating and the lack of training, it can be hard to determine what Dyslexia looks like in the classroom. Like I mentioned above, Dyslexics process differently, not wrong, not in a bad way, just different. We need different methods to help them understand and retain information. The Orton Gillingham approach is a powerful tool for a teacher to possess when a child is struggling in Reading, Writing, or Spelling. I can tell you from experience, it is a JOY to watch children unlock their potential and begin to not only learn to read but LOVE to read! Children often breathe a huge sigh of relief when I no longer ask them to “stretch out a word” or look for a known “chunk”. They finally have the freedom to say, “This is not working for me. I don’t get it.”

If I could go into schools and share some basics with staff, I think we would be better at identifying and helping our students that have these struggles. My wish list is as follows:

1. Dyslexia is a spectrum disorder. You can have a mild case and it can still wreck-havoc on your learning.

2. It is not all about letter reversals. My goodness, this is the worst myth of them all!

3. You may see children substituting pronouns consistently as they read. (he for she, we for us)

4. You may see children mix up basic articles like “a” and “the”

5. Children may not be able to write on a line.

6. They may have all the letters to a word but in a mixed-up order.

7. They may insert extra letters into words that are not there. They may mix up the endings of words.

8. They may jumble words in a sentence.

9.They may avoid reading out loud at all costs.(Nor should they be forced to read aloud.)

10.They have outstanding coping mechanisms and have all sorts of creative ways of hiding they are struggling to read and write.

This list could go on and on! If you are an educator reading this, please reach out to learn more. If you are a parent reading this, please know I understand your point of view. This is no longer about dyslexia or the reading wars for me. It is about meeting the learning style of the child. It is about differentiating instruction. It is about abandoning this “one size fits all” mentality and making sure the school has ALL the tools they need to help ALL learners. 605-431-3318