When Alta Graham was in first grade, she was behind the other students in her class. Alta was dyslexic. Unable to comprehend the alphabet Alta was declared by her teachers as “uneducable.” The best bet, her mother Yvonna was told, was that with a little work Alta would be able to wipe up tables when she reached high school. A devastating moment? Absolutely not. If anything, Yvonna was emboldened. She knew her daughter better than any teacher, principal, or school counselor. Alta was a bright kid filled with creative energy. Yes, she was dyslexic and her learning styles were different from other kids. But Alta was not a figure of pity to be written off by teachers who preferred “better” students. Yvonna took charge of her Alta’s education, pulling her daughter out of the toxic environment of this public school in favor of homeschooling. The way Alta learned was not like other kids. Yvonna’s challenge now was to learn how to teach her daughter using methods that worked for the dyslexic brain. She went back to university, earned an M.Ed. in special education, and created hands-on learning lessons where Alta could thrive and reach the heights of education Yvonna knew was possible.
Unique Learners and Unique Learning
Dyslexia is often thought as an inability to read. In reality, it's just a different way of processing letters and words on paper or screen. Vocabulary is not an issue. "People with dyslexia tend to see connections, relationships, and patterns that others miss," Yvonna says. "A person whose brain is organized in the dyslexic style may learn best while hearing and telling stories rather than memorizing facts or rules.” Dyslexia is not a learning disability, but a different style of learning that requires out of the box thinking. It is not “special education,” a term that is really a misnomer. All education is special. Everyone learns, just not in the same way. There's nothing special in that respect. What is special is the untapped abilities within a student. For the dyslexic student, these talents must be nurtured, developed, and brought out in creative ways that benefit not only the child, but also the parent-teacher as those unique gifts blossom.
Dyslexia Tool Kit
In her innovative book Dyslexia Took Kit: What to Do When Phonics Isn't Enough, Yvonna lays out lessons that build on the natural strengths of the dyslexic child. What works about Graham’s exercises is that they are universal. Though aimed specifically for dyslexic learners, they can apply across the board for anyone looking for innovative teaching methods. Take, for example, an exercise on story writing. Ask your learner to tell a story while you act as transcriber, using computer, pen and paper, or typewriter. While you are writing down the words, have your child watch as the marks appear on the page. This way they can see how sounds form into shapes. Once you’re finished with that stage, do some light editing to get the piece into workable order. Talk about what's been created. Highlight the parts that are jumping out as something unique and special. Print out the story in several copies and go wild: use multiple fonts with different sizes and hues, print it out on colorful paper, and read the story aloud together. This exercise not only makes the writing process a rollicking good time: it helps the dyslexic student recognize letters and letter combinations in their many intricate forms. By goofing around with the fonts and color, the child sees the uniqueness of words and their spatial relationships.
QWERTY Rules the Day!
Another good method is teaching students how to touch type. A keyboard allows students to create a sort of "muscle memory" that turns letters and words into objects in a way that just doesn’t work with penmanship. Don’t worry about misspellings or other typing errors. The old typing exercise "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" is a fantastic way to develop this skill. There’s a reason this sentence has been emphasized in typing classes since the dawn of the typewriter: it uses every letter in the English alphabet, which helps create that muscle memory. QWERTY keyboards, the standard since typewriters first came into mass production, are ideal for dyslexics. It teaches letters not by alphabetical order but by spatial relationships. If you can, I recommend you get an old-fashioned typewriter rather than a computer. There is a physicality to typewriters that can't be matched by any computer keyboard, with the unique feelings that come when the fingers hit the keys, sending the typing arms onto the ribbon, and putting the letters on paper. You may have an old typewriter lying around the house or in someone's attic, but if not they aren't hard to find. Antique stores and estate sales can be a great source for old manual typewriters, and at less of a cost than you might think. Full disclosure: I am a typewriter geek who learned how to touch type in high school, a skill that has taken me far. In fact, I'm writing the first draft of this post on my Smith-Corona Skyriter, a 1950s machine developed for businesspeople on trips, journalists on the go, and military personal working in the field.
Writing That’s Not Writing
Another suggestion in Dyslexia Tool Kit helps students see the spatial relationship in reading through simple letter games. Use Scrabble tiles to create words. Form letters using a stick to write in sand. Take a ballpoint pen and write on your hand. Rather than the linear method of learning the alphabet, offbeat methods to create words and letters can steer the dyslexic child into a love for reading and writing. It vanquishes that fear of letters and the feeling of being "stupid" because a child’s learning patterns don’t fall into the standard methods used by other kids.
Rocket to the Heavens
I suppose you're wondering what happened to Alta. Did she learn to wipe tables? Of course. But she also learned a whole lot more. The child once dismissed by her teachers as unteachable and incapable of anything other than rudimentary skills is co-author of Dyslexia Tool Kit. She also has a doctorate and works as a software engineer designing systems for orbital dynamics, the creative science of sending rockets into space and satellites spinning around the globe. "Dyslexia doesn’t have to be chains," Alta says. "It can be wings instead." The kind of wings that keeps education grounded and sends satellites to the heavens and beyond.
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Copyright 2021 by Arnie Bernstein