Helena showed all of the signs of reading readiness at age four. She knew her letters simply from an alphabet puzzle I left out in the living room. She had somehow learned what sound they each made, though we never formally went through each one. I'm really not sure how she learned that. And she was continually rhyming things, a sure sign of reading readiness according to many lists. So I showed her how to sound out simple three letter words.
Fast forward a few years and the reading had not progressed much at all. Sounding out words was still incredibly tedious. For the longest time I had no idea what was going on. Why couldn't she recognize the two vowels in the middle of a word even though, if I pointed them out, she knew the appropriate phonics rule and could use it? Why would she not see the silent "e" at the end indicating the long vowel sound in the middle; although, once again, if I pointed it out she knew the rule to go with it? I began to suspect around 2nd grade that there was some dyslexia. She hadn't outgrown confusing similar symbols such as "p" and "9" and "b" and "d" and so on.
I researched and found Orton Gillingham was rated the best teaching method for children with dyslexia and purchased some expensive software. But it was totally ineffective for us and only led to further frustration as time went on. Again, Helena knew the phonics rules. But she just didn't see them. Reading was frustrating. I backed off making her read and just read to her daily - a LOT - something I had already been doing since she was a small infant. I tried to trust that she'd learn when she was ready. It was a bit scary to trust that process.
Somehow or other, around 3rd grade I heard of Davis and his book The Gift of Dyslexia. Davis himself has dyslexia, and while he has no PhD in education or psych, he found what worked for himself and taught it successfully to many others. Furthermore, his experiences lined up with what I knew about dyslexic brains from neuropsych research.
Dyslexia is a broad term that covers many different reading difficulties. For some children it's simply a matter of their brains needing a very left-brained method of reading, in which case the OG phonics method works wonders. For other kids though, it's a case of their brains being able to flip things all around 360 degrees - which is really pretty amazing and exciting and useful - until it comes to symbols.
One neuropsych article I read explained that neural columns are spaced more widely apart than is typical in many folks with dyslexia. Because of this they are more easily able to make broad connections between subjects and ideas. In contrast, a child on the autism spectrum tends to have more narrowly spaced neural columns which is why they may fixate on things, have difficulties making transitions, and become experts who go deeply in a subject area.
For the child with dyslexia, they begin making metaphorical analogies before school age - at a very early stage in development. And it turns out that with many kids with dyslexia they don't "see' only what's in front of them. Their brains have the ability to rotate an object around 360 degrees, in every direction, in order to find out more information about it. Those widely spaced neural connections allow them to make broad connections between what they already know - and what they are seeing. So what they "see" becomes a combination of what's right in front of them and knowledge they already have. Because of this, they often seem like bright, developmentally advanced toddlers and preschoolers. So it comes as even more of a surprise when they struggle with reading.
Needless to say, this ability of the brain to flip things around every which way is super useful in understanding the world around them - until they come to symbols which obviously can't be interpreted correctly when flipped around. But by this point in time, the flipping process is completely subconscious. Furthermore, it's stimulated to begin when the child is presented with anything the least bit confusing, anything they need to figure out. Can you see where the reading problems arise?
When I read all of this in Davis book I was in awe! Now I finally understood why Helena could read a few sentences well, hit a difficult word, and then literally be unable to read a three letter word such as "and" when it came next. Her brain was kicked into the "flipping things around" mode by the difficult word! Furthermore, some of the words she "read" were more like a word scramble. I'd find myself asking how in the world she got such a word out of those letters - and then I'd see that if you "unscrambled" the letters you really could almost get that word! I was amazed at what her brain was doing!
I read Davis book and then asked Helena a few casual questions such as "So hey, when you look at something do you see like a flat picture or does the object turn around so you can see what's behind it too?" She was really surprised to realize that not everyone's brains flip things around because that was totally normal for her!
Just a few minutes practicing with Davis' methods of brnging awareness to this subconscious process and learning how to put the "mind's eye" back in the position and order needed for reading or decoding symbols, and suddenly reading became a lot easier for Helena!
At this point, she was in 3rd grade and I was reading her books on a regular basis that were far higher than 3rd grade level. So the challenge became finding things she could read that were not Dick and Jane boring.
We found graphic novels with their small bit of text on the page were great. In particular Bad Kitty was awesome - absolutely hilarious! Bean Dog and Nugget were super easy to read and so ridiculously humorous even to me! Mercy Watson was also tolerable to her. From those we proceeded on to more complex graphic novels and short chapter books. I will admit we've bought a lot of books, mostly for pennies in the thrift store thankfully, that she thought she'd like and then hated. I won't force her to read something she hates. It's just not worth it. I'm a reader and, though she may never read prolifically like me and finds other ways of learning, the fact is that I really, REALLY don't want to create a person who hates to read!!
Now, at age 10, she reads on grade level, albeit still very slowly and sometimes sounding things out a bit more than average. She doesn't read a lot. As unschoolers I don't generally force things, believing that learning occurs naturally in many different ways. But I do - and this would get me kicked out of some unschooling circles - require now that she read just a little bit daily. It's an important skill and I believe a bit of practice is good and helpful. But she might only read five pages and that's ok!
While reading and writing are important, they are no longer the only way to learn or the primary means of communication. Dyslexia part 2 and 3 will talk about other ways to learn as well as how to keep up with NYS testing for homeschoolers when a child has dyslexia.