Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda: If only I had known then what I know now

child reading

This guest post is by Cheri Rae, founder of The Dyslexia Project in Santa Barbara, California.

When my son was in third grade, he had difficulties reading. Since he had missed an extended period of school the year before due to a bad bout with whooping cough, we thought it made sense for him to need some extra help to catch up with his peers. But on the advice of his reading tutor, a kindly retiree and friend of the school principal, we asked for him to be tested.

After the testing was complete, we were told to come in for a meeting, called an IEP; at the time we had no idea what the letters stood for, but now know it means Individualized Education Plan. And we had no idea what it meant when we were told that the testing revealed he was much smarter than his reading abilities showed—that was simply the reason we asked for the testing. And we had even less idea what it meant when we were told the testing indicated that he had some visual memory processing issues, and a “specific learning disability.”

Every question we asked was answered in a very reassuring way, indicating that he would simply outgrow his current reading difficulties and all would be fine as long as he had a little extra help during the school day and a little extra time to complete his assignments.

We believed them. And that was a big mistake. I’ve been kicking myself about it ever since.

Like so many parents, who are unfamiliar with the common learning disability that affects one out of five children—and adults—who struggle to read, we trusted the school district to help our child with his reading difficulties, believing that the professionals were both telling the truth and well-qualified to help.

We were wrong.

For far too long, our son showed up in the “learning center” for his daily “special education” lessons—during which he received no special instruction or training in how to decode the reading he found so difficult. Instead, for hours every week, he simply worked on worksheets, painfully worked to craft a five-paragraph essay, and struggled to read aloud. And this “special education” didn’t help at all. He was embarrassed to read aloud in his characteristic halting way, guessing at words, skipping over others, and unable to sound out a thing.

But the school’s evaluations kept coming back with the encouraging comments, “He continues to make progress toward his goals.”

He was bright, curious, sociable, and athletic; highly verbal, and interested in the world around him. And his behavior was consistently cooperative, caring and helpful, except when he expressed frustration over his reading. It was uncomfortable to listen to him read aloud, struggling over some words, guessing at others and skipping over articles for no particular reason.

And his writing was even worse.

His fifth-grade teacher observed, “He’s having so much difficulty in the process of writing that his ideas just get lost between his brain and his fingers.” When he composed essays in his head and dictated them—as I typed them on the keyboard—they were lengthy, rich in detail, insight, and comprehension. But when he wrote them out himself, three scrawny, relatively illegible sentences miserably appeared on the page; any reader who managed to figure out what he’d written would figure that he had no mastery of the material, or had just blown off the assignment.

He just couldn’t seem to write out the thoughts in his head.

After far too much time passed, we finally began to question the school officials. “Just what, specifically, does specific learning disability mean?” The confusing answers we were given hardly helped, especially when we asked pointedly, “What can be done to help him read—and write?” When the school officials looked baffled, and the school psychologist finally answered, “Chunking might help,” we left the meeting exasperated, realizing incredibly that his making so little progress in so much time meant something was going terribly wrong.

Not with him. With how he was being taught; or more correctly, how he was not being taught.

In truth, his “learning disability” is much more revealing of the failures of our increasingly narrow approach to teaching than it is about his ability to learn.

After losing years on ineffective advice and inappropriate “special education,” our son finally got the comprehensive evaluation he needed, got a definitive diagnosis of a language-processing disorder, and is now getting the treatment that’s making a difference in his ability to read, write and spell.

Volumes of research prove that some of the smartest, most innovative people who ever lived have struggled with dyslexia, just like my dear boy. A language processing evaluation is an absolutely essential first step. If you sense that your child is just not making the reading or writing progress he/she could, don’t wait! Take the first step by taking one of our free tests here.

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Cheri Rae

Cheri Rae is director of The Dyslexia Project, in Santa Barbara, California, which shares information and insights about programs and parenting, research and legislation, advocacy and networking opportunities to create dyslexia success.