Thursday, June 28, 2012

Dyslexia Isn't the End of the World: An Insider's Perspective Part 2

As you know from my previous post, I am a professional librarian who also happens to be dyslexic. This is the continuation of my story.

Elementary school is a time of firsts; first classes, first teachers, first grades and, in my case, first "C" on a report card. I was devastated. Throughout my academic career, primary through college, I was an honors student. I worked hard, did my homework, studied and, even though I did not read unless forced, did well in school. Until we got graded for spelling. Spelling was the first "C" I ever made on my report card - and the only one I had on my academic record until college.

Now, at this point, neither my parents nor me knew that I was dyslexic. They knew I did not like reading and found it very difficult and they knew that trying to get me to learn the words for each week's spelling quiz was a hellish experience for all involved. But no one connected the dots since outside of spelling I was an "A" & "B" student. After I actually started reading voluntarily no one even considered testing me for a learning disability even though there were still discrepancies between intelligence and ability.

The Breakthrough

Growing up there was a pack of four girls, including myself, that spent pretty much any time not at school playing, hanging out and having fun. I was the youngest of this group, the other three being a year older and a year ahead of me academically. This turned out to be a great thing.

The year I started 5th Grade my friend, Abby, started middle school and had access to a whole new library with an approachable, involved librarian. In that library she discovered the novels of Tamora Pierce which she lent to me urging me to give them a try. In Ms. Pierce's world of strong heroines, magic and daring-do I found my niche. I began reading. All. The. Time.

It was like someone had flipped a switch in my brain. Suddenly I couldn't get enough. I read every book that Tamora Pierce had written, and then began working my way through the shelves devouring anything that caught my eye. At that time the concept of "YA Literature" was still in its infancy and there was not enough "middle grade" reads in my niche to satisfy my reading hunger. So I started haunting the "Science Fiction/Fantasy" sections of bookstores and basically skipped over "middle grade" reading straight into adult literature.

How I Think It Works

I have a theory, untested, as to how I was able to go from having such difficulty reading to reading 2000 words a minutes (if I'm "into" the book). My theory is this: in my mind, words are not created from a series of letters, but are pictures in specific shapes representing a specific object or idea. When I see the word "cat", I don't process it as "c-a-t" but as an image of the word with an overlay of the face of a cat. I know it sounds strange, but when I'm reading I have no memory of reading words. I've got a mental movie running through my brain that only gets interrupted when I come across a word I'm unfamiliar with (which doesn't happen very often any more). When I finally was tested for a learning disability, in my sophomore year of college, the doctor told me two things: one, that he was shocked I could read at all, let alone at the speed and volume I can; two, my vocabulary was one of the most expansive he'd seen in a college student.

I don't say this to brag, rather to point out something that dyslexics all over can benefit from. Learn vocabulary, but don't focuse on the individual letters. When you're dyslexic letters can't be trusted, they shift and turn and changing into other letters and leave you with a jumbled mess. I believe if a person can think of a word more like a series of shapes put together rather than letters you have a better chance of overcoming your brain's limitations. Flashcards are your friend, but not for learning to spell. Flashcards help you build your vocabulary and aid in visual recognition of words. The combination of seeing the word-shape and hearing the meaning of the word helps build vocabulary without focusing on spelling. Similarly, typing words can aid a dyslexic's spelling. It takes time, but once your hands get used to typing a series of keys in a certain order the correct spelling of a word becomes more muscle memory than conscious thought. (I still have issues spelling words when writing by hand that I don't have problems with when I'm typing.)

I think the biggest part of a dyslexic learning to read is the WILL to do so. I discovered that there were books I wanted to read so badly that I made myself do it; I pushed through the difficulty because I needed to know the characters, needed to see the action.

If a child or teen finds their reading niche they will read.

The Journey still isn't over, so stay tuned!