arents often ask me about dyslexia. Either their children were diagnosed by someone (psychologist, psychiatrist, pediatrician, school counselor, therapist or relative), or the parents became worried after reading about dyslexia, and concluded, “That sounds like my child.”
I wish I could instantly take away all of the confusion, worry, frustration and pain associated with this label. The dyslexic label is one of the tragedies of our education history. True dyslexia affects a very small percentage of the population, and yet many students who are not dyslexic are given this label because they are “behind” in reading, according to the school system’s definition of “reading at grade level.” Why do we label these other students dyslexic?
Basically, this is what happens:
Ann and Jill start kindergarten (or preschool or first grade). Ann is a print learner. At 2 or 3 years old she already loved to color within the lines and was interested in letters and their sounds. As a preschooler (or kindergartener), she loves to sit at a desk, do worksheets, organize her papers. Reading and writing come naturally to her and she starts her school life off with a bang.
Jill is not a print learner. She is a picture or hands-on learner, or combination of both. At 2 or 3 years old she wanted nothing to do with paper, pencil, crayons or “seat work.” As a preschooler (or kindergartener), she has trouble sitting at a desk, does not like worksheets, and wants to be building or dancing or doing puzzles or playing outside or drawing or exploring. Reading and writing do not come naturally to her and she starts her school life off with a thud.
Very quickly Jill gets labeled as having a problem. And, if she shows signs of reversing some letters, not remembering what letters say which sound, or not wanting to do paper and pencil work, she can easily get the dyslexic label — and she is on her way to a lifetime of experiencing learning-failure at every turn.
Many students who are not dyslexic are given this label because they are “behind” in reading, according to the school system’s definition of “reading at grade level.”
It doesn’t have to be this way! Jill simply needs more time and a different program. Did you know that the majority of children (especially boys) are not ready developmentally to read or write until they are 8 or 9 or even 10 years old? That means that, apart from their learning styles, their eye muscles and hand muscles are not yet coordinated in a way that supports the fine motor movements needed for reading and writing.
When we force these kids to read/write and put them in special classes and get them tutoring and “extra help,” that simply gives them the message that they are deficient. And they grow up thinking, “I’m not smart,” “I can’t do that,” and “That’s not for me.”
If your child has been given the dyslexic label, here is your chance to step back and start thinking about your child in a completely different way. If your child is between 5 and 8 years old, please remember that your child is probably not ready to learn to read. If your child is older, he/she might be ready, but because of negative experiences associated with reading, this child might be terrified of the process and say he/she doesn’t want to read; this is a protective response.
These children need to go through what we refer to as “detox.”
The first thing we recommend in these cases is for parents to back off and assure the child that he/she doesn’t have to read right now. Everyone is smart in a different way, and there are plenty of things to do besides reading. Many parents breathe a sigh of relief at hearing this — especially if they are homeschooling and have control over the program.
But parents whose children attend traditional school, and many homeschooling parents as well, panic and get scared. If we don’t have them read, what else will they do? What will happen at school? What if they never learn?
The basic answer to all of these questions is: You must coach for success, not failure, if you want your child to learn and to thrive. Success comes when students are successful! So we must concentrate on things they can do successfully. That means focusing on their natural talents, skills and interests.
This is very hard for most people to understand. The education system has almost brainwashed us to believe that unless you can read by first grade and write by second grade you will never get anywhere in life, and certainly won’t get to college and get that good job. These are all myths, and very dangerous ones, because they hold back some of our most brilliant students — the potential inventors, scientists, artists, musicians — by convincing them they are not smart.
In Part 2, I will give examples of ways to learn that do not require reading. I will also give ideas to get your kids interested in reading if they have been turned off by previous experiences, and what to do to help them learn to read, once they are interested.©2012 by Mariaemma Pelullo-Willis, M.S.
Mariaemma Pelullo-Willis is a California credentialed teacher and holds a Master's Degree in Special Education. She is co-author, with Victoria Kindle Hodson, of "Discover Your Child's Learning Style" (Random House) and "Midlife Crisis Begins in Kindergarten." For many years a Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, she attends Mission San Buenaventura. Contact her:firstname.lastname@example.org.