I work with special needs young people who have dyslexia. I help them overcome their difficulties in reading, writing, speaking and thinking clearly, and focusing attention. Dyslexia is not just a learning disability. It carries with it enormous emotional frustration, shame, and lack of self-worth. Everyone once and a while you get the privilege of working with a young person who is so ready to make major changes—not only in their reading and writing, but in their relationship to life in general.
When 8-year-old Jordan first came to my office for a dyslexia assessment, he was extremely quiet. He barely looked at me. His hair covered his eyes, his shoulders were slouched down, and he answered questions minimally, mostly a “yes” or a “no”. When it came to the reading part of the assessment, he quickly put his head down on his folded arms on the table and in a loud, firm voice exclaimed, “No … I won’t read!” His mom, sitting behind us, put her head down and sadly shook her head. Quietly, I moved around the table and sat next to Jordan.
“If I read with you, would that help?”
Jordan looked up at me. There were tears in his eyes. He looked directly at me for a time and then said, “Maybe …”
“Ok, we will share the reading… I will start ok?”
He looked at me and sat up.
I picked the simplest, most visually based page in the reading choices. I told him a bit about the story we were going to read. I started, and then I urged him to read the words. He struggled tremendously. He was hardly able to get through most words. We did a very short reading, and then I praised his effort, and ended that part of the assessment.
The initial program with Jordan took five days. We started with the basic alphabet. He was unable to write or speak most of the letters. There were lots of reversals and confusion with letters. He would mix up the sound of a letter vs. the name of the letter. I am sure he had proper instruction in school; but it was not well suited to Jordan’s thinking style, which was predominantly visually-based. It took nearly two full days, with lots of breaks, to identify and correct issues and mistakes he had with letters of the alphabet.
The reading exercises in the program I worked with were initially very challenging for Jordan. One day I decided to take him for a walk to the shopping center next to my office. As we walked I asked him what his favorite stores were. Without hesitation he pointed to the video game store. He saw the name of one of his favorite video games on the store window with a bunch of writing under it.
“What does that say?” he asked.
“How about if we do the reading exercise together on that?”
Jordon moved quickly towards the window.
Slowly we did this particular reading exercise that helps to ensure the person is seeing and saying each letter in a word and tracking his eyes across the word left to right. Usually this exercise is done in my office, on a page in which we use a large index card to draw across the letters one at a time. But what the heck, we walked up to the writing on the window, my hand became the card and we did the reading exercise right there in front of the store with people watching us wondering what we were doing. Jordan made good progress that day! He read a number of signs in the mall that were of interest to him. He was visibly excited about his new-found skill. Every day we worked together, that walk became part of our routine. His question of the day became, “When are we going to the mall to read?!”
Well… the rest of the program went quite well. Sometimes it was slow going, but Jordan was starting to feel accomplishments, and there were daily breakthroughs. On the last day we explored the “dreaded” dictionary and how to look up words, etc. To my surprise, Jordon did not complain, or even hesitate. He worked with me to understand how to look up words, and I would read the definitions to him. He clearly enjoyed this. We kept it fun and gradually increased the difficulty of the words we looked up. He was able to after a short time look up words mostly on his own.
Several weeks after the initial program, I got a call from Jordon’s teacher. I had worked with him to be aware of the dyslexia correction tools Jordan had acquired during our work together and shown him the various reading exercises and dictionary skills.
“I cannot believe the enthusiasm Jordon has for learning right now! I have never seen this in him. Today after class he walked up to me and handed me his dictionary and asked, “Can you help me look up words?’”
Jordan’s teacher then continued his verbal report, “When we did the reading exercises, Jordan finished several sentences without difficulty, smiled at me and said, “What does that word mean?” We explored this in his dictionary. He is slowly gaining the ability to read short sentences. When he finishes a small reading, he initiates a conversation where he asks me, ‘What does that mean?’ David, this is quite interesting and wonderful to see what is opening up for Jordon. Let me know whatever I can do to help him further develop his skills!”
A few weeks later I got another call from Jordan’s teacher.
“Well David, something interesting happened today with Jordan. He was trying to do a project in the classroom and several students next to him were talking very loudly. Without any notice Jordan yelled at the top of his lungs “Be quiet!!!” There was a dead silence in the room. This was so un-characteristic of Jordon’s behavior. Then in a roll which spread throughout the classroom, everybody started first giggling, then laughing, and finally clapping. Even Jordan smiled and enjoyed the whole event.”
Jordon’s teacher and I discussed this. I suggested, and he corroborated my feeling that somehow this new found ability or breakthrough had opened up Jordan’s energy. That cork on his energy was a result of his frustration and shame regarding reading and writing. Now it was opening up.
To my delight, Jordan’s teacher told me that after the outburst and laughter, he humorously told Jordan in front of the class that it was good to be energetic and expressive in his relationship with others, but maybe eventually he should find a way to communicate that did not involve shouting at someone! Jordon smiled sheepishly and nodded his head in agreement.
Throughout the next few months I got weekly reports from Jordon’s teacher about his progress. One morning Jordon and I worked together on writing a simple story. Slowly but steadily we worked on how to select a topic to write about (rock climbing!). Then I helped him develop a way to sequence all the various aspects of this subject. Sequencing can be very difficult with dyslexic individuals. When we finished writing the three paragraphs of this story, Jordon briskly put his pencil down on the table and proudly smiled ear to ear. When his parents came to pick him up he very proudly showed them his writing. Then he said in a loud voice “Wanna hear me read it?” It took several tries for him to get all of the words right. The last reading was almost a play, with Jordon being the writer, actor, and director!
It is a success story like Jordon’s that makes working with dyslexic young people completely worth it. Beneath all of the complication, shame, struggle, and behavior issues these young people suffer, they are intelligent, creative, motivated, and immensely talented human beings. I have the very fortunate job of helping to unlock all that potential!