Friday, May 23, 2014

The Importance of Being Task Driven While Using Assistive Technology

by Jackie Hersh
Technology Integration Specialist, Lawrence School
Sagamore Hills, Ohio

It is hard to not get caught up with the latest and greatest tech tool. The shiny package, the quickness and ease of PayPal, two-day shipping, etc  Now on top of all those benefits, add being a teenager in the instant gratification generation, and you can see our problem. This year, I have been focused on changing our view of tool driven to task driven. In addition to not wanting to get caught up with the name brand of the latest gadgets, we are also trying to purposefully implement a specific tool and how to use it into our daily lesson. We would never tell children to open their textbooks and then expect them to find the page number and heading of what we were reading. We provide the page number, along with wait time to get to the right page, as well as notes and other supports that they may need. Why do we not practice the same methods when we are using assistive technology with our students?

To be task driven, we are no longer instructing our students to use Read&Write Gold to read their tests. Instead, we are telling our students, “This test is on content that is difficult to decode. Use the screenshot reader tool so that you can listen to the questions and focus on the content.” It’s leaving the actual task of reading with our eyes -which a lot of our students struggle with- and focusing on the academic content. Not only that, our directions enable the student to be able to use the specific tool that they need and learn why they are being encouraged to use it. This can be a very hard concept for our students, especially if our teachers are not consistent with delivering those expectations each day. Assistive Tech doesn’t work if we brush off the keyboard once a month and say we provided keyboarding. Assistive Technology is a skill that is practiced and delivered with the purpose of enhancing the academic content skill that the teacher is wanting to enforce. This teaching strategy is a tool that requires directions, practice, reminders, and meaningful opportunities to use the tool.

Oftentimes, the excitement of a new technological tool causes educators to lose focus on the original goal, which was what the tool was supposed to support. I encourage our teachers and families to make a list of the tasks that the student needs to improve. In those discussions, after reviewing the list of tasks, we often find opportunities for students to demonstrate their knowledge in other meaningful assessments. We have even learned that some of our students need additional academic support -not necessarily with technology- which leads to how the whole class would benefit from those supports as well. There are still a few students that, after an assistive tech consultation, would benefit from a specific AT tool, but they also need supports a,b,c... I am yet to give an AT recommendation that is solely based on simply learning how to use the tool without a specific academic content goal it is supporting.

What I have learned this year is that we have to continue to have this conversation. We need to demonstrate this way of thinking, discuss it, share and collaborate with others about it as well. The more we can be task focused and not tool focused, the stronger our conversations will be. Ultimately then, more opportunities present themselves so as to have thoughtful, purposeful, and responsible implementation of assistive technology.

Once our society is more task driven, then we can start practicing implementation of technology -not assistive- so that our students are not an afterthought in content driven classes. The more mainstream meaningful technology implementation becomes, the more it benefits everyone in the class.

Take aways from this article:

You would never ask a teacher to build a lesson over a box of crayons - the same is true with technology tools!

Stay task focused and recognize that you may need a variety of tools to support those tasks depending on the students and their environment!

It takes a village- collaborate with one another! We are all in this together.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Is Dyslexia Still the Hidden Disability?

by Sharon Plante
Director of Technology, Eagle Hill-Southport
Southport, Connecticut


Dyslexia is often referred to as the hidden disability (I use the term dyslexia to include all forms of language based learning disabilities). Difficulties with mobility, vision, and hearing, along with other disabilities, are often more obvious to the world, especially to those of us in education.  Accommodations for these children are imperative to their functioning in the classroom and in their learning.  For dyslexic students, the same accommodations are often given repeatedly, with the hope of improved academic performance, but those accommodations are often not considered imperative for their learning.

This week, I listened to a student talk about his path to learning, leading to his enrollment at our school.  This boy is a sixth grader who was identified as being dyslexic in the third grade.  Despite that identification, year after year, teachers gave him the traditional work that required a trip to the resource room for him to even attempt it.  He talks of spending days in the resource room just playing on the computer because he knew he had to be in school, and he found his time in the traditional classroom to be a waste of time.  Now that he is in an environment that understands his learning needs, he is doing his work, he is making gains, and he is showing his strength as a learner.  He didn't want to hide from learning; he just needed someone to understand his less-than-visible disability.

This is not an unusual story for those who work with kids with dyslexia.  We hear stories of struggles and failures all the time.  Yet when these kids are given learning that fits and tools that support, they thrive.  So why do so many schools ignore the possibilities to address the achievement of these kids?

My opinion is that we need to take a large magnifying glass to dyslexia.  We need to show people the challenges, much akin to Rick Lavoie's F.A.T. City video.  Then we need to shine the spotlight on all the great ways technology can support and enhance learning for these students, as well as the instructional methods that are proven to impact skill development.  Technology tools enable dyslexics to engage in the acquisition of knowledge, while remediation continues to build their skills.  Seemingly too often, skill development is the focus, or students are provided just enough technology to get through without being provided a true opportunity to interact with the information they are accessing or the knowledge they are demonstrating.

I recently attended the annual Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) conference, and I was intrigued by the minority of sessions directly addressing the learning disabled/dyslexic population of learners.  There was great information being shared in a broader sense that definitely had implications for dyslexia, and some being shared that I wish just had flashing lights saying, “Please use this to support kids with learning disabilities!”  Is this "hidden disability" just too quiet to be highlighted at such an important conference?  Or are educators not aware of the powerful tools that can be used to support dyslexic students? Whatever the reason, those in the dyslexic community (dyslexics, educators, assistive technology specialists, leaders in the field) need to come together and make dyslexia become DYSLEXIA.  I hope to gain support for the idea of dyslexia technology (dyslexia tech).  Not that we cannot learn and share with the global assistive tech community, but there are unique needs to be met for students with dyslexia.  Voices need to be louder and more prevalent, so that we can ensure that more students can be provided the fabulous supports that exist.

One great start is the creation of The School of Dyslexia blog, where Jamie Martin is working to curate information from educators in the field of dyslexia.  Other great work is being done by organizations like Headstrong Nation and Dyslexic Advantage, along with powerful parent organizations such as Parents Education Network, Smart Kids and the Decoding Dyslexia movement.  It is obvious that all these voices need to become a chorus.  If we add the continuous work of the International Dyslexia Association, Haskins Labs, and Literacy How, there is a whole masterpiece that could arise to uncloak dyslexia.

With the wonders of social media, there is a great avenue for all of us to connect, empower, and do what is needed to ensure that all dyslexic students have a voice, have the tools, and have the instruction that will give them success.  I encourage you to connect with the people and organizations above, as well as the following to bring the discussion of supporting students with dyslexia to a greater decibel:

Carolyn D. Cowen

Lou Salza

Theresa Collins

Ben Powers

Ben Foss

Scoop iT Topics:

Students with ADHD and Learning Disabilities in independent and public schools

Dyslexia DiaBlogue

Also, join a weekly Twitter chat via National Center for Learning Disabilities @ldorg  Wednesdays at noon.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

UPDATE: Dyslexia and Vision Training

by Rachael Strathmore  
Class Teacher, St Teresa's RC Primary School  
Stretford, Manchester, England

I am a teacher in the UK with a special interest in dyslexia and struggling readers.  In October, I posted about a theory that many dyslexics and poor readers suffer from vision problems, namely convergence insufficiency and tracking issues.  In short, the eye muscles do not work effectively as a team.

In my school, we ran a trial of a Vision Training program called ‘Engaging Eyes’ which works to strengthen and coordinate the eye muscles.  Ten minutes a day of playing the vision games has produced some promising results in three months.

The average reading speed of pupils following the program increased by an average of 27%.

In Year 6, 2 dyslexic students gained over a year in reading (moving from 3c to 4c) and are now at the expected level in reading.  Another student with more severe issues gained ¾ of a year (2b to 3c).

Class teachers have reported an increase in motivation and concentration in these pupils and three parents have noted that their children have a greater interest and enjoyment in reading at home.

Of course, once students’ vision problems are improved, their other learning difficulties will remain.  However, they will be better able to access the teaching and learning, thus their chances of success are much increased.

As a school, we are very excited by the improvements and the potential of Vision Training.  We are now planning on rolling it out across other year groups.

Friday, February 21, 2014

27 Outs (& Sometimes Extra Innings)

by Jamie Martin
Coordinator of Assistive Technology, The Kildonan School
Amenia, New York

I love baseball.  I’ve never been much of a sports fan.  Sure, I went to my high school and college sporting events, and I’ve been paying attention to what’s going on in the Sochi Winter Games; but I can’t remember the last Super Bowl I watched, and to me, March Madness has more to do with the Ides than basketball.  But baseball is different.  I grew up playing baseball in the yard.  I remember my Little League team winning the city championship.  Joe Torre and Derek Jeter renewed my faith in the Yankees.  And now, taking my son to minor league games has become a summer tradition.  Maybe it’s baseball’s rich history; maybe it’s the sights, sounds, and food of the ballpark.  All I know is that baseball holds a unique place in the sporting world and it gives me a great deal of satisfaction.

I also love teaching dyslexic students.  When I was in college, studying to become a teacher, I really didn’t know about dyslexia.  They didn’t cover it in my education classes.  It wasn’t until I trained to become an Orton-Gillingham tutor that I could even start to understand what dyslexia is all about, and I didn’t fully appreciate the dyslexic mind until I learned about assistive technology and how it can elevate dyslexic students to higher levels of learning.  Now, teaching dyslexics is what I do; it has become my professional (and part of my personal) life.  Maybe it’s seeing the passion of pioneers like Diana King, Sally and Bennett Shaywitz, and Roger Saunders; maybe it’s being excited by the new energy of people like Brock and Fernette Eide, Ben Foss, Dave Flink, and Peggy Stern.  All I know is that working with dyslexic children holds a unique place in the education world and it gives me a great deal of satisfaction.

So now that the 2014 Spring Training season has begun in Florida and Arizona, and now that the snow has begun to melt here in the northeast, I have been doing a lot of thinking about both baseball and dyslexia.  And it occurs to me that for dyslexics, learning how to read and write is a lot like playing baseball.  They are both challenging activities and require many strategies.  They both involve a great deal of failure before success is reached.  And for both, the old adage, “There’s always next year!” holds a lot of weight.  The analogy is not perfect, but let’s take a closer look at the similarities:

Unlike many other sports, time is not much of a factor in baseball.  A common rule of thumb is that three hours constitutes a “manageable” baseball game, but there is no time limit.  A game is played until it’s over; each team has nine innings and 27 outs to try to win the game.  Plus, if the game is tied after nine innings, extra innings are played until it’s over.  I recently read a book about the longest professional baseball game in history – two minor league teams played for 33 innings in Pawtucket, RI.  The players were exhausted and the managers used every available resource, but they were committed to getting the job done.  When it comes to teaching dyslexic students, there also is no time limit.  A good remedial program works at the individual pace of each student.  If more time is needed on decoding silent-e syllables, it doesn’t matter.  If it takes extra time to learn how to organize a five-paragraph essay, tutors and classroom teachers are committed to making that time.  Every inning is played until each dyslexic child reaches his or her potential.

In a similar vein, the annual baseball season is sometimes referred to as a “grind.”  The regular season lasts for six months and constitutes 162 games, with six to seven games played per week.  It can be exhausting for the players to stay motivated and at the top of their game day in and day out.  Sometimes, they get injured and spend time on the disabled list.  But more often than not, they overcome their injuries and fight to get back in the game.  I have seen many dyslexic students in their own “grind.”  Learning to read and write is not easy for them.  With the help of their teachers, they fight to stay motivated and overcome setbacks in their learning.  Each school year is a long season, but they are driven to keep coming back in order to learn.

Winning baseball games, and ultimately a World Series championship, is a team effort.  One player cannot carry a team to success.  It takes great starting pitching, a reliable bullpen, an explosive batting order, a solid defense, and strategic managing to make up a winning team.  Similarly, the success of dyslexic students relies on many people.  Dedicated teachers and tutors who are skilled at what they do are imperative in the team makeup.  Assistive technology professionals go a long way in leveling the playing field for dyslexics.  Parents and advocates often work behind the scenes, providing motivation and support, and changing things for the better in the greater dyslexia world.  Dyslexic students can’t do it all on their own; they need a team effort in order to win their own championship.

In baseball, you don’t have to be perfect to be successful.  In fact, highly successful players like Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and Ted Williams (all Hall of Famers) failed most of the time.  A perfect batting average is .1000, but great hitters often have lifetime averages around .300, getting hits during less than half of their at bats – Ruth hit .342, Robinson hit .311, and Williams hit .344.  Pitchers rarely pitch perfect games and today are considered successful even if they allow an average of 3-4 runs per game.  Any successful dyslexic will tell you that when they were learning to read and write, their language skills were never perfect and remain that way.  The goal of teaching dyslexic students is not to make them perfect readers and writers.  Rather, we strive to give them tools, including a combination of remedial strategies and assistive technology, so that they can be successful in school and beyond.

Currently, there are 30 teams in major league baseball, and only one of them can win the World Series each year.  For the majority of baseball players, managers, front office personnel, stadium vendors, beat reporters, and fans, each season ends with the thought, “There’s always next year.”  But that’s what makes baseball so great.  The promise.  The promise that each spring everyone has a chance to win.  There’s always a fresh start.  And that’s what makes teaching dyslexic students so great.  The promise.  The promise that every child is capable of learning and being successful if given a fresh start; or even better, if they are given the best start to begin with.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The LD Generation: Advice for Dyslexic Parents

by Ben Powers
Headmaster, Eagle Hill-Southport
Southport, Connecticut

Last spring, I had a chance to see James Redford’s The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia.  If you have not seen it, I highly recommend the film.  One thing that struck me was the perspective of the father of Skye, a young dyslexic girl who is followed in the film.  She needed support in school, and her mom advocated to get her placed in a school for students with dyslexia.  The father, a successful surgeon, is also dyslexic.  While he is incredibly supportive, his first reaction is, “I made it through and survived, so why shouldn’t she?”  This brings up an interesting question as we enter the LD Generation, the first wave of students, now parents, identified with dyslexia in school. 

The LD Generation is akin to first generation immigrants.  Children born to immigrants are torn – do you fit in, or do you adhere to custom?  Likewise, the dyslexic parent is torn.  Some feel like the father in the movie – perseverance and hard work will get you through, like it did for me.  Others feel a great sense of guilt or shame, knowing that dyslexia is hereditary.  Some parents are struggling with a spouse who might not understand, or worse, not even know.  For some parents, school brings back such awful memories, it may be difficult to address. 

In my experience running two different LD schools, I’ve had lots of interactions with LD parents.  As the saying goes, many times the apple does not fall far from the tree.  Interestingly, I find that most parents do not identify themselves right away.  Some work it into the conversation: “Well, I struggled a little bit in school, so I knew my child might need some support.”  Others, however, are quite reluctant.  Not too long ago, I met with one mother who desperately wanted to enroll her son.  She knew he needed more support than his public school could provide, and there was almost a sense of pleading in her eyes.  Mistakenly, I assumed that the boy’s father is dyslexic, which is often the case.  Instead, through a tearful and quiet confession, I learned that she is dyslexic.  You could almost feel the guilt hanging in the room from this quite successful professional. 

On another occasion, I met with a family, and the mother was doing most, if not all, of the talking.  The father seemed disassociated, head down, as if he were uninterested.  Halfway through the meeting, I shared, as I often do, that I struggled with word attack, word recognition, and comprehension and spent time in the resource room early on in elementary school.  Almost instantly, the father raised his head and said, “I had to go to the resource room, too.”  After that moment, we had a completely different conversation.

So, here are five tips for those LD parents out there:

1.  If you have a learning disability, or if you struggled in school, share that experience with your child – and your spouse.  There is nothing to be ashamed of since it’s neurologically based and typically hereditary.  And, while we each have our own path toward success, there is quite a long list of successful dyslexics, including 35% of American entrepreneurs.  Recently, I read an interesting piece of research, which stated that if there were not strengths associated with dyslexia, it would have been eliminated from the gene pool a long time ago.  There is a lot of research to support dyslexic advantages, including the recent research published by Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide in their book, The Dyslexic Advantage.  I highly recommend reading that text (and it’s on Audible, too) and Ben Foss’ book, The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan.  Ben’s book will help you build a roadmap for you and your child.

2.  Your child does not have to walk 15 miles barefoot in the snow - uphill both ways – just because you and others did.  Yes, perhaps some will say that it “builds character,” but it’s unnecessary and can do permanent damage.  There are so many more resources, from researched-based intervention and remediation programs to teach students differently to visual maps of the brain (e.g., fMRI’s) of how dyslexics are literally wired differently.  We just know a lot more than even ten years ago, and although we still have a long way to go, every child that marches on a different path than you did is one more in the army of the LD movement, paving the way for the next generation.  It should get easier.  It will get easier.

3.  Assistive technology is a game changer, and guess what?  You may benefit from it, too.  Text-to-speech, speech-to-text, platforms like Bookshare, Learning Ally, Audible, Co:Writer, new operating systems, and more all place assistive technology at everyone’s fingertips.  Are you or your child a slow reader?  Try text-to-speech software.  Things have changed significantly, even over the past few years, where so much assistive technology is available on your laptop, smartphone, or tablet.  From dictating papers (or emails, Mom and Dad) to reading the newest New York Times bestseller, assistive technology can open many doors for your child, and for you, too.

4.  Find some allies.  When I first began teaching, there were few resources for dyslexics and their families.  Today, there are a host of resources, local and national.  From the Decoding Dyslexia movement to groups like the IDA, Learning Ally, Bookshare, and Headstrong Nation, allies are just an email, phone call, or support group away.  Being able to talk with other adults, about your own experience or your child’s, may give you a different perspective on things and help you make different decisions.  Allies are also empowering, and there is a lot going on right now in the LD Movement.

5.  Don't wait.  Two recent conversations with families brought this to my attention.  One was a family who waited several years after they noticed their daughter having issues in school before getting help.  The second was a parent who was on the fence about whether her child needed remediation.  Both were families with at least one LD parent.  There is no danger in being proactive about getting help, whether it’s tutoring, finding a different school, or getting social/emotional support.  Too many times I have heard parents say they waited too long.  This is especially true when one parent is LD – there’s already a hereditary bias, so be on the lookout, and if you begin to see your child experiencing frustration in school, begin asking questions and find out what support you can receive.

The final story I will share is a funny one, which ended well.  Earlier this fall, we got a call from a parent who had himself attended an LD school as a child.  They saw the signs in their child and decided to come in for, what turned out to be, their second visit (they had visited the school several years ago but weren’t sure at that time).  Turns out, both parents are LD.  It was a great moment to experience when both parents were so open, and laughing, about their own experiences, saying, in reference to their daughter, “Yup, it was pretty good odds.”  I am certain that kind of approach will benefit their child tenfold. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What’s in a Name? Labels that Inform and Educate—But Don’t Define Us

by Lou Salza
Head of School, Lawrence School
Sagamore Hills, Ohio

The following post was original published on Lou Salza’s personal blog, “Confessions of a Lunch-Pail Headmaster,” on December 12, 2012.  He is graciously sharing it here with the readers of The School of Dyslexia.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”  ―Juliet, from Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

“It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.” ― W.C. Fields

“We believe learning is a journey in which obstacles can become opportunities for growth, and direction is more important than distance.” ― Lawrence School, Guiding Principles (from the Mission, Vision, Guiding Principles)

The news services have been recently buzzing about the latest revisions to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (known as the DSM) used by social workers, physicians, and psychologists to identify and treat mental illness. This will be the fifth revision to the DSM; the last revision (DSM-IV) was in 1994.

One controversial issue in this most recent round of revisions was whether or not to use the terms “dyslexia” and “Asperger’s disorder” as diagnostic categories.  Just last week, it was announced that Asperger’s disorder will be dropped. Dyslexia is in—but will be subsumed under the category of Learning Disorders.

These changes have caused passionate debate in the professional community and outrage among some parents and teachers, who argue that subsuming the term “dyslexia” under a broader category minimizes the seriousness of the disorder.

But what’s in a name? How important is it to name the obstacles our children must dodge in order to succeed in school?

Physicians and clinicians report that it is certainly important to have the right name on whatever conditions afflict or impede children in school or in life. Their concerns are real: the names of these conditions, affixed by properly credentialed professionals, determine which treatments and services will be provided, by whom, in what settings, and for how long.

No name means no diagnosis, and no diagnosis means no treatment.

For school-aged children with language-based learning differences like dyslexia, no diagnosis also means no eligibility for services. This can result in academic disaster. As psychologist Deborah Waber points out in her book, Rethinking Learning Disabilities, untreated learning issues that a child may face early in school can initiate a ‘cascade’ of confounding negative effects. As the failure in one academic area builds, it spills over to other academic areas and then into the emotional arena, causing anxiety, depression, low self esteem, and a host of other problems secondary to the original learning issue.

Waber suggests that when it comes to identification and evaluation, we rethink our entire approach. Under the current system, we wait for two to three years for children to fall significantly below age and grade level norms before an assessment can be approved. By that time, the failure has already done lots of damage that may take years to correct. Rather than wait for failure, Waber argues that a concerned parent’s call for help ought to be enough to initiate services.

This makes more than common sense. It makes educational and economic sense as well. Ever since the first federal legislation was approved back in the 1970’s, educators, researchers, politicians, clinicians and physicians have been arguing and debating definitions, diagnostic thresholds, and treatment protocols for dyslexia and learning disabilities.  Research is ongoing. There is still no real agreement. Eligibility is not portable from state to state or county to county, despite federal legislation that is intended to guarantee that students receive special education services when needed. The debates between and among the professions and professionals rage on, while bright children continue to fail in school and needlessly suffer the outrageous indignity of illiteracy.

I have no argument with professionals trying to get the right name for what ails us. But, along with Waber, I do argue that we need not wait to serve children while the professionals argue semantics.

We know how to teach a child to read—and we can identify a child who is at risk for reading failure very early in the game.  We don’t need a diagnosis of dyslexia or a label! We know what to do and we know how to do it. The fact is, the sooner we intercede, the easier, cheaper, and more effective the remedy. We can prevent Waber’s ‘cascade‘of negative effects.

The research has been done, the arguments have been made, and the jury is in. Early screening and prompt intervention in grades K-4 prevents reading failure and reduces referrals to special education.


The first time I heard the term “dyslexic” it was used in a way that was very personal to me. I was in a job interview in June of 1975, with Dr. Charles Drake, the founding headmaster of the Landmark School in Pride’s Crossing, Massachusetts; 35 miles north of Boston. Landmark serves bright children and adolescents with language-based learning disabilities like dyslexia. My little brother Adio was 12, couldn’t yet read, and was enrolled at the school.

At the time of this interview I was 24; a college graduate with two years of inner city teaching experience. I was no longer struggling to pass courses in school or college. In fact, I was relieved to have escaped from the University of Massachusetts in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Urban Education.  It took six years to navigate the gauntlet of required classes, and to negotiate with deans and faculty to substitute science and philosophy courses for classes I struggled to pass (and ultimately failed) in foreign language and math.  Dell and I married in our sophomore year, and she helped me with spelling and grammar so that I could get through college. Without her help, I would have certainly dropped out.

But once I got my degree, I put those days behind me.  I buried the experiences of struggling to learn to read and spell in school along with the names I secretly called myself— like “stupid” and “lazy.”  They seemed accurate. Why else did I have such difficulty with reading, handwriting and spelling? Everyone else seemed to do these tasks quite easily.

When I interviewed at Landmark in 1975, I was ignorant of dyslexia even though I had taken courses to earn a teacher’s license in college and had a brother who was struggling with that very challenge.

About ten minutes into my interview with one of the heads of Landmark High School, the interview started heading ‘south’ as he asked me about F’s and D’s on my college transcript from UMass.  I bridled defensively—I had just finished teaching two years in a challenging inner city school in Philly.  Why ask about college?

But it was true—my college transcript still smolders with the evidence of my six-year struggle. I didn’t want to talk about the bad grades. I wanted to talk about my work in the classroom. Just when I thought he was going to call for the ‘hook’ and dismiss me, he asked me if I would like to meet Dr. Drake, the Headmaster.  I thought, “That’s strange… why not just shake hands and give me the old, ‘Thanks for your interest, we’ll call you and let you know next week…’ routine?”

Intrigued, I followed him across the campus to the Headmaster’s office. Dr. Drake spoke slowly and deliberately in a deep, resonant, warm voice with a decidedly southern accent.  He was a psychologist and a Congregational minister. He was dyslexic himself I eventually learned, and he was deeply committed to serving children and families who struggled with dyslexia at a time in our history when very few people knew anything about it.

After some warm comments about my brother and my family, Dr. Drake proceeded to stun me by speaking in a most casual way about the very problems that I had always tried to keep hidden.  I remember thinking, panicked, “This guy can read my mind!” Had he somehow gotten a hold of my elementary school teachers?  He seemed to know everything about me. He asked me about my struggles with the alphabet and math facts in first and second grade. He knew all about my trouble telling time and using the dictionary in the third and fourth grades. Of course, now I can look back and know that he was simply reciting the issues that lots of children with language based learning differences have in elementary school—but at the time, I was convinced he was clairvoyant!

At one point, the interview got so scary I interrupted him. Abruptly—almost to the point of rudeness—I offered to save us both a lot of valuable time.  I suggested he move on with what was a busy schedule for him and I get on with a long train ride back to Philly.  He was completely unimpressed with my attempt to put him off and calmly, quietly, and firmly pressed on. I recall that I tried to marshal all my power to control overwhelming emotions that bubbled up. I wanted to argue and prove him wrong! I wanted to escape the interview! I wanted to block my ears! I wanted to run!

In response to my poor attempt at hiding my distress, he did what I could only describe at the time as some kind of magic. He smiled, leaned forward just a bit, looked directly into my eyes, and asked me with great compassion and understanding, “Lou, don’t you get it?  Don’t you have any idea why you have had the experiences and struggles you have had in school?” He talked about my brother, Adio, how dyslexia probably runs in families, and how dyslexia was being treated at Landmark.

Eventually, I agreed to three hours of testing in their clinic. I left his office later with a new understanding about a battle I had fought every day as a student in school, as a young man in college, against an enemy that now had a name:


Knowing the name of my nemesis was a relief to me in some ways. It was an answer and a puzzle all at the same time.  It was also a source of grief. Why this? Why now? Why me?

I get it. What we call something is important. If we don’t name something correctly, children and others may come to inaccurate, harmful conclusions. Physicians and psychologists should be able to bring all their diagnostic acumen to bear on any question of diagnosis and treatment. We should get the right names on the conditions that impact our lives.  We should talk honestly and directly to our students. They should know as much about their own thinking and learning as they can possibly understand.

However, let’s be clear: A child’s failure to learn to read in school is as much a failure of the educational system and environment as it is any thing else.  I am not blaming teachers who don’t know what to do about a child with dyslexia—I was one myself! Inexplicably, we continue to churn out teachers from college with education degrees that leave them clueless about how to teach reading—even now.

I had wonderful teachers who paid attention to my situation. By seventh grade one of my English teachers took time to tutor me so that I could read well enough to move into a college preparation track in high school. Neither of my parents called—no one tested me. This teacher simply recognized that I was unable to write and faking a good deal of my reading. She decided to tutor me. I met several teachers like that during my school years.

The main point is that illiteracy is not a disease—and neither is dyslexia or dysgraphia. The failure of a child to learn to read and write in school can be remedied with or without a diagnosis in school by educators. Treatments for illiteracy and dyslexia are educational—not medical—and should be a part of every teacher’s toolbox before they ever step foot in a classroom.

After my interview with Dr. Drake, I rode the train back to Philly trying to read, realizing that I had stared at the same page for over three hours.  During that train ride, I began to reconstruct my understanding of myself because now I had a name that explained lots that I had tried to avoid or discount over the years. I journeyed through each year of my early childhood and schooling recalibrating and recategorizing experiences.

Oh—and I got the job!  I stayed at Landmark for 13 years, teaching and learning at the same time. I left briefly to earn a master’s degree in Reading and Language, making a career out of my struggle with dyslexia.

The journey I began with Dr. Drake on that day in 1975, in that interview, continues to this very day here with our students and teachers at Lawrence School in Northeast Ohio. Dr. Drake was not only my employer for 14 years—he was a guide and mentor. Through his work at Landmark, he shared his conviction and faith in the future of our students—in young teachers like me, and in the future he hoped would materialize for our educational system.

He didn’t wait for the psychologists and educators of the day to agree with him. If he had, we’d all still be waiting! Rather he simply set about exploring and thinking; finding a way where none had existed before. He taught students with approaches he knew would work.

We all have names—some names and labels we choose, and others we earn. Each reveals something essential about us. I didn’t choose the name “ dyslexic” but I accept it now, and pay it the respect it is due. It doesn’t define me—but it does inform me and others who might want to know why I double-check my arithmetic, why I send everything I write to Dell; or to Ann, our executive assistant; or to Courtney, our communications director.

Dyslexia explains why it takes longer for me to get some tasks done. Sometimes dyslexia has been a stumbling block that I was able to turn into a stepping stone with help from others. Other times it has just been a stumbling block. Dr. Drake was fond of saying that having dyslexia and 59 cents would get you a cup of coffee at McDonald’s.  The price has changed for coffee—but the cost of dyslexia to the individual has remained stubbornly the same over the decades.

Dyslexia should be in the DSM-V. The testing and the diagnosis can inform us, but it does not define us. A diagnosis is not a prerequisite for us to do our primary job in school:

Teach all children to read.

We don’t need the DSM to help us apply the extensive body of scientific evidence and solid research that has been done over the last two decades about how children learn to read in our schools and classrooms.

To those concerned and worried about the DSM-V, I say, let’s keep our eye on the ball. Let’s put the focus on serving the children in the classroom. Let’s use our ire and outrage to get things right there so our children don’t have to struggle for years on end before receiving the vital services they so rightfully deserve.

If not us, who?

If not now, when?

If we can do our jobs now in schools to teach all children to read, I promise by the time the DSM-VI comes out, dyslexia as a diagnostic category could be rendered moot.


Thursday, December 5, 2013

Response to The Benefits of Cursive Writing in the Classroom

by Derek Rhodenizer 
Vice Principal, Heritage Academy 
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

I was very pleased to see the spirited discussion around my last blog post, “The Benefits of Cursive Writing in the Classroom.”  With dyslexia affecting so many people, it is very important that we have these discussions.  There were a number of concerns brought up in response to the last blog post that I wanted to take a moment to respond to.  There are so many issues surrounding dyslexia in debate right now; it is great to see people informing themselves and sharing their experiences with others.  In response, the following post will discuss the whole student approach, the idea of how accommodations and therapy work in tandem, and finally, references to the research previously discussed about handwriting.

It is very important to me as an educator that we teach to the student.  As a result, there should be no blanket statements in education.  If a child is completely resistant to a technique, or does not benefit from the technique, we should think about a different way of doing things.  If the child is not learning, we need to change the way we are teaching.  In the post, “The Benefits of Cursive Writing in the Classroom,” I referenced cursive writing as a practice that “improves dynamic interplay in the brain, improves fine motor skills, and can help improve the memory of the written concept.”  It is my stance that in isolation, cursive writing is capable of achieving improvement in these areas.  It is important to note that there are many intangibles that apply when we are talking about people.  Everyone is an individual, and if it is too frustrating, or for whatever reason does not work for the child, we as educators and involved parents should find other techniques to use.

When working with dyslexic students, I look at two different methods of support -- accommodation and therapy.  The idea behind accommodation is that the dyslexic student is given the resources they need to demonstrate their knowledge.  For example, students can use speech-to-text and text-to-speech technology, oral answers, extended time on tests, etc. to support their learning differences.  I always talk to my teachers about assessing in a vacuum.  For example, if you are assessing the student’s knowledge of photosynthesis, I shouldn’t care whether or not you can spell the word.  Instead, I should design my assessment to only evaluate the student’s understanding of that concept.  The second method of support for a dyslexic student is the therapy side.  By this, I mean products such as Orton-Gillingham style approaches.  We use Simultaneous Multisensory Teaching (SMT) at our school, but there are myriad different programs that push students to work and improve on their challenges brought on by dyslexia.  It was my intention to have cursive writing fit into the therapy side of support for students.  It does not make a great deal of sense to have large amounts of text, such as an essay, written in cursive writing for most dyslexic students.  This may be simply an exercise in frustration.  However, short daily journal entries for 10-15 minutes a day in cursive writing might be worth the struggle to achieve the benefits of the exercise.

It was pointed out that it would be beneficial if I directed people towards the research I am talking about when it comes to cursive writing.  When I spoke about the improvement dynamic interplay of the brain in my last post, this is referred to as “functional specialisation” by Karin James. In, “The Role of Sensorimotor Learning in the Perception of Letter-Like Forms: Tracking the Causes of Neural Specialization of Letters,” it is explained that learning cursive integrates sensation, movement control, and thinking.   In doing this, multiple areas of the brain are stimulated much more so than keyboarding.  This has been brought forward by many, but Dr. David Sortino does an excellent job addressing it in his recent post, “Brain Research and Cursive Writing.” Another type of research that I used was in the field of Haptics, the science of touch.  An area of research in this field includes the interaction of touch, hand movement, and brain function. In “Digitizing Literacy: Relections on the Haptics of Writing,” Mangen and Velay refer to “embodied cognition,” that perception and motor action are closely connected and dependant of each other.  They also put forward in their work that the acquisition of writing skills involves a perceptual component; that is, learning the shape of the letter and the graphomotor component, learning how to produce the letter’s shape.  Cursive writing intertwines these two components into one action, making the acquisition more effective.

Hopefully this follow-up post sheds some more light on this important topic, and we continue to promote growth in the field of educating dyslexic students.