Is It Dyslexia?

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Brianna struggled with reading from the time she started school. Her reading difficulties were what ultimately tipped the scales in the homeschool decision-making process. She had always been a smart kid, but she just didn’t get reading. She could sound out each letter in a word, but she couldn’t blend them. By the time she was nearing the end of first grade and still struggling and her teachers had no valid suggestions for how to rectify the situation.

We did. So began our homeschool journey. On the advice of an online acquaintance who was a former special education teacher turned homeschooling mom, I picked up a used Sing, Spell, Read and Write set and began to teach reading from scratch.

It worked. By the end of second grade, Brianna was reading on a third grade level and, aside from occasionally losing her place on a line, misreading a word or being able to read a huge word, while missing a tiny one, all seemed to be well. Until fourth grade when she hit a plateau. She seemed to have trouble getting information that she knew from wherever it was stored in her mind. She might know a word on one line on a page, but not be able to recall it later on. She would substitute a similar word for what she was reading, “cap” for “hat” or “home” for “house.”

Her learning difficulties spilled over into math, too. Long division was a nightmare, not because Brianna wasn’t capable of doing the multiplication and division, but because she simply couldn’t remember all the steps. By March of 2006, we were sure there was some sort of learning disability. What we weren’t sure of was it’s origin. Her symptoms fit both those of dyslexia and those of an auditory processing problem.

We had advice from a couple of different people on a couple of different routes to pursue. We finally opted to start with an optometrist who checked not only eyesight, but vision, which are two entirely different things. Eyesight is how well you see. Vision is basically how your brain interprets what you see.

The vision exam showed that Brianna did, in fact, have tracking problems. The doctor showed me how her eyes followed the tip of his pen. I could see her eyes jump as they tried to follow the pen. He explained that this was what happened while she was reading, which was why she would so often get lost on a page, reading a sentence, then, at the end of that sentence losing her place, often beginning the same sentence again.

She was scheduled for comprehensive testing, which revealed several vision deficiencies, as well as auditory processing delays (but an above-average vocabulary). We were strangely relieved. At least now we knew what we were dealing with. Although we’d never implied such, Brianna was relieved that she wasn’t “stupid,” but that there was a reason for the problems she’d been struggling with.

We asked the doctor and the therapist if Brianna had dyslexia. Their standard answer was that true dyslexia was a neurological problem, though it had come to encompass many vision and reading difficulties. Basically, she had all the symptoms, but they weren’t in the right profession to officially diagnose dyslexia. They recommended several months of vision therapy that, of course, our insurance didn’t cover. We’d have paid for it anyway, if we’d thought that it would have helped, but we began asking around and weren’t convinced that it would.

I joined a couple of Yahoo groups (there’s a Yahoo group for everything, you know) for parents of dyslexic kids and began reading and asking questions. I heard many differing views about vision therapy. Some said it worked, others said it didn’t. There seemed to be a general consensus that the problems tended to clear up around the onset of puberty. Those who suggested this included those who had invested in vision therapy and thought that it might have finally “kicked in,” and those who hadn’t. Because Brianna was already 11, we decided to try some simple at-home fixes (one extremely simple one being to have her read with an index card under the line she was reading so that her eyes didn’t lose their place) and see how things went.

I also began reading lots of books and websites about dyslexia. One of the best books I read about kids who learn differently was Right-Brained Children in a Left-Brained World by Jeffrey Freed. The main thing that I took from this book was that many kids learn differently from the way the majority of teachers teach. Kids, due to growing up with television and video games, have become increasingly visual and take in information in short bursts. However, most schools still teach in an extremely auditory manner.

Another important idea that I took from the book was the idea that learning disabilities are often misdiagnosed or over-diagnosed. Sometimes it’s expedient to slap a label on a child, rather than look at how the child learns and comparing that to how he’s being taught. I know that there are true learning disabilities out there and that labels can be effective in helping parents and teachers learn how to approach a child’s needs, but oftentimes a label becomes a crutch, rather than a springboard.

Based on this information, I began teaching Brianna differently. For spelling, we made colorful cards in great big letters, to help her visualize the word. We still use this technique. Recently, one of her spelling words was “kitchen.” On her card, “Kit” was written in one color, “Chen” in another. She remembered the word because of the colors and because the word is made up of two people’s names, “Kit” from the American Girl books and “Chen,” as in Chen Po from Mulan.

Brianna’s learning differences also affected other areas of learning, such as math. One thing we did to help her during this time was lattice math. I know it looks crazy to some people, but for the first time Brianna was able to accurately compute multi-digit multiplication problems. I know that there is a YouTube video that seeks to “expose” some of this crazy “new math,” but for us it became a matter of finding something that helped Brianna learn, regardless of how off-the-wall it seemed. These days, Brianna rarely does her multiplication using the lattice method. It was as if once she was able to understand the process one way, the regular way finally clicked, too. And, her seemingly endless struggles with long division seemed to disappear over the course of one summer. It was like one day she didn’t get it, and all of a sudden, she did. These days (she’s thirteen now), her mistakes in long division problems are the simple careless mistakes that any kid might make and no more frequent than any other kid.

I guess, when it comes down to it, Brianna doesn’t have dyslexia of the neurological sort, since there is no fix for that and she does appear to have overcome most of her difficulties. However, she does learn differently. She is the typical artistic, left-brained type and we’ve had to explore different ways of helping her to learn.

My two biggest suggestions for anyone whose child is experiencing reading delays, especially if they spill over into other areas of learning such as math, would be to have your child evaluated by an eye doctor who also checks eye tracking and to pick up a copy of Right-Brained Children in a Left-Brained World by Jeffrey Freed. If the vision exam uncovers tracking problems and the child is ten or under, I would probably do the therapy. I do believe that it would have helped to some degree, if we’d started when Brianna was younger.

I recently asked Brianna if she wished we’d done the therapy. She said that she would have liked to have done it if the problem had been uncovered earlier, but she feels that she’s overcome most of what the therapy would have covered on her own. I agree…but I can’t help wishing that we’d realized what the problem was a few years sooner. At least now we feel as though we’ve come to understand more about how she learns and we’re able to work within those parameters…yet another blessing of homeschooling.

Kris Bales is a newly-retired homeschool mom and the quirky, Christ-following, painfully honest founder (and former owner) of Weird, Unsocialized Homeschoolers. She has a pretty serious addiction to sweet tea and Words with Friends. Kris and her husband of over 30 years are parents to three amazing homeschool grads. They share their home with three dogs, two cats, a ball python, a bearded dragon, and seven birds.

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  1. Lattice Multiplication has been around a long time, longer than the “new math”. My daughter is studying it right now in order to have a visual idea of what is going on when you multiply the long way. I think it is a useful tool.

  2. I am glad you have some answers now.
    I have been wondering about dyslexia for a while in my own daughter, who is 6 1/2 and in first grade. Not only because of her reading problems, but because she was writing numbers and letters backwards too. Her teacher told me that was normal for children her age though. And through working with her, she is doing much better.

    But thanks for the tip on seeing an eye doctor. Best wishes to your daughter!

  3. I’ve often thought that many learning “disabilities” are simply a result of the teacher not finding the right way to teach the child. You’ve gone and shown me another example of why I think I am right. Good for you, and good for Brianna.

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