By: Rifka Schonfeld –
Eric McGehearty, a nationally acclaimed artist with advanced graduate degrees, is also an inspirational speaker who shares his struggles and successes as a dyslexic. His artwork reflects his difficulties reading and helps audiences see into the world of reading disabilities. He explains a breakthrough moment in his life as fundamental to his understanding of his ability to succeed:
I was in the 5th grade, and I was enrolled in a summer school art class. I broke my arm that summer, and at the time, I felt I would have to withdraw from the class because of the injury. When I went into the classroom for my first day I let the teacher know I could not participate. “What do you think people who can’t use their arms do if they want to be artists?” she asked. “They don’t let their disability stand in their way. They hold a paintbrush with their mouth or in their toes to draw. Just because your right hand isn’t working doesn’t mean you can’t be an artist.”
The rest of that summer I did just that: painting with my mouth and feet. I learned that if having a broken arm wasn’t going to stop me in art class, my dyslexia wasn’t going to stop me in life.
McGehearty’s lesson is an important one to teach our children with dyslexia or any other learning disability – if you can’t paint with your hands, paint with your feet. If you can’t read the way other people read, find your own way. To that end, it’s important to understand in what ways children with dyslexia have difficulties with reading in order to teach them how to maximize their strengths.
What Is Dyslexia?
The National Institute of Health defines dyslexia as characterized by difficulties with accurate or fluent word recognition, and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. Dyslexia is a learning disability that is neurological in origin and often runs in the family. Children with dyslexia experience trouble reading when taught through traditional instruction.
Though the symptoms of dyslexia manifest themselves in different ways depending on the age of the child, some common symptoms for a kindergartener through fourth grader are:
1. Difficulty reading single words that are not surrounded by other words.
2. Slow to learn the connection between letters and sounds.
3. Confusion around small words such as “at” and “to,” or “does” and “goes.”
4. Consistent reading and spelling errors, including:
Letter reversals such as “d” for “b.”
Word reversals such as “tip” for “pit.”
Inversions such as “m” and “w” and “u” and “n.”
Transpositions such as “felt” and “left.”
Substitutions such as “house” and “home.”
Children with dyslexia are often well-adjusted and happy preschoolers. However, research shows that they begin to experience emotional problems during early reading instruction. Over the years, their frustration mounts as classmates surpass them in reading skills. Often, these children feel that they fail to meet other people’s expectations. Teachers and parents see a bright child who is failing to learn to read and write and assume that he is simply “not trying hard enough.” This can cause dyslexic children to feel inadequate and inept.
In addition, children with dyslexia frequently have problems in social relationships. Often, this is because they have difficulty reading social cues or because dyslexia affects oral language functioning. As both non-verbal and verbal language are essential for forming and maintaining relationships, children who struggle with reading are at a disadvantage socially as well. Additionally, without proper intervention, these children will fall farther and farther behind peers their own age.
Therefore, helping dyslexic children gain confidence and skill in their reading not only improves their test scores, but perhaps more importantly, builds their self-esteem. This increase in self-esteem can work wonders on the playground and in the home, promoting positive social interactions and explorations.
Effective Reading Programs
The National Institutes of Health have conducted several long-term studies that indicate the best ways to get children with dyslexia comfortable reading. Among those strategies are:
First things first. Recognize that students need to learn to read in a certain order. First, that words are made up of different sounds, then that sounds are associated with written words, and then that they can decode written words.
Phonics. In order to decode unfamiliar words, students with dyslexia should be taught the specific relationship of letters to sound.
One-on-one. Instruction needs to be on an individual level until the child fully grasps phonics.
Appropriate level reading. Students need to read at their own reading level and have access to a multitude of books for that purpose.
Highly trained teachers. Much of the success of children with dyslexia depends upon the teacher’s expertise.
With the summer in full swing, here are some strategies to help your children with dyslexia (or any sort of reading struggles) continue their reading when school is out:
1. Give them reading “jobs.” When planning a day-off, ask your child to sort through the brochures to plan different activities or give him an “events” section of a newspaper to decide which events seem interesting to him over the summer.
2. Be supportive. Sometimes they might just need someone to read to them – and that can count too – as long as you are doing it together.
3. Go easy on the reading. Don’t pick books that are above their reading level, summer should be fun. As long as they are reading, they are on the right track.
5. Use recorded books. Children can read along with the tape, giving them instant gratification of decoding words.
6. Bring reading material along everywhere. If you are waiting on line for a summer activity, you can always use a children’s magazine or short book to pass the time.
Dyslexia does not have to mean that your child will never read. Like McGehearty pointed out, someone with a broken arm can still be an artist. You simply need to help your child learn how to paint with his feet.