Struggling to Read: Trials and Tribulations of a Struggling Reader

Struggling to read - boy sits with head on desk and holding a sign that says Help!

Written by Lisa Bean

Lisa is the founder and head of school for IGNITE: An Acton Academy. She is a Mom of two boys, an entrepreneur, and a coach for high-performance businesses, leaders, and parents. She is passionate about re-defining education for the 21st century, and is adamant that learning be a fun and engaging experience that honours a child's unique strengths and passions.

April 24, 2022

Our Personal Story

We first learned that our son has dyslexia at the end of his Grade Two year.

Our psychologist who had done a psycho-educational assessment with my son explained that, in fact, they don’t call it dyslexia. Officially, our son was “exhibiting challenges with phonological awareness.”

Now, if you’re wondering what the heck phonological awareness is, you’re not alone!

At the time, we had no idea what this term meant, and even the teachers and administrators at our son’s schools didn’t know!

Give me a minute to geek out and explain.

Struggling to Read: What is Dyslexia?

Phonological awareness refers to an innate knowledge of phonemes. Many people, about 80% of the population, have a fairly easy time picking up knowledge of phonemes, almost as if by osmosis.

Phonemes are the sounds that letters make. For example, the letter ‘c’ has two phonemes associated with it: the hard /k/ sound as in cat, and the soft /s/ sound as in city. Sometimes letter combinations like ‘ch’ or ‘sh’ or ‘tch’ combine to make one phoneme. The English language has approximately 42 phonemes.

Reading requires that you can identify, differentiate, and blend phonemes efficiently. Research suggests that for 15-20% of the population this phonemic awareness doesn’t come easily. In fact, these same people usually have challenges hearing phonemes, and sometimes saying phonemes, too.

Early warning signs appear in young children with their hearing and speaking.

Looking back, with our son, we can remember that while he talked a lot, he often had to ask for clarification—he mis-heard or confused sounds in some of the words he was speaking. At the time it was cute: for example, he still pronounces the word “sushi” as ‘shoo-shee’.

It wasn’t obvious because we didn’t know what we should have been looking for, but with 20/20 hindsight we would have spotted it earlier. Experts tell us that early intervention is important to reduce later excessive challenges with struggling to read.

 What Causes Dyslexia?

The difference between people who are strong in phonological awareness and those who are weak in phonological awareness is in the brain. It’s a type of neuro-diversity. And, it’s typically genetic.

It can be eye-opening for the whole family when a child is diagnosed, sometimes sad, but also a big relief to finally know the reason behind the struggles.

When we started learning more about dyslexia, we realized that my father likely has dyslexia too. Some of the phoneme exercises my son was doing were still a struggle for him in his 70s. He told us stories of wearing the dunce cap in school because he was thought of as a “bad kid” for his inability to read. People thought he just wasn’t trying or working hard enough. It wasn’t until Grade 6 that things started to click for him and he overcame these early struggles to build a successful business career in the investment industry.

Things turned out well for him, but I still can’t help but get tears in my eyes thinking of the little boy sitting in the corner with the dunce cap on, being shamed for simply struggling to read, something he had very little control over. It would have a powerful effect on anyone’s self-worth, and life would be forever changed as a result.

Dyslexia or Phonological Awareness?

We’ve adopted the word “dyslexia” in our family since it’s widely recognized, but you also may hear it called a reading disorder, phonological awareness deficit, language processing disorder, auditory discrimination, auditory processing disorder, or other things. There’s much disagreement about the correct term, or in fact, whether it’s a disability, a disorder, or just a difference.

I’m particularly sensitive to referring to this as a disability or a disorder, or even a difference. But, I don’t want to get too hung up on the terms. You may hear it called many things, so I’ll put them all in here!

Dyslexia is very simply a term used to describe a difficulty in learning to read. A clinical diagnosis is likely to be much more specific and define the underlying reason someone has difficulty learning to read, such as phonemic awareness.

If someone is different from the norm, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. For all we know, this might just be the way humanity’s evolving.

Dyslexic Superpowers

In fact, there are many super strengths that seem to come along with these differences in the brain. Richard Branson is one such famous dyslexic, as are Whoopi Goldberg, Keira Knightley, Albert Einstein, Walt Disney, Steven Speilberg, Steve Jobs, and so on.  Many entrepreneurs, inventors and creatives are dyslexic and these are all careers that require out-of-the-box thinking.

Branson founded the Made by Dyslexia organization to call attention to the extraordinary skills that dyslexic individuals often have. In their book “Xtraordinary People Made by Dyslexia” they discuss seven types of Xtraordinary people that use dyslexic super-powers:

  1. Storytellers
  2. Entertainers
  3. Makers
  4. Movers
  5. Imaginers
  6. “People” People
  7. Questioners

It’s an excellent book for kids, and I highly recommend it for helping those who may be dyslexic or struggle with reading to see the world of possibilities that awaits them. Here you will find the book read-aloud by Made by Dyslexia ambassador, HRH Princess Beatrice, and introduction by Richard Branson.

Unfortunately, while many people are coming around to understanding that neuro-diversity isn’t bad, our school system hasn’t managed to catch up.

Remember that I told you our son’s teacher had no idea what we were talking about when we showed her the assessment results? Well, they had even less of an idea of what to do about it.

Struggling to Read: Our Family’s Story

When we enrolled our eldest son in school, we just so happened to be in the catchment for a French Immersion school, so at the end of Junior Kindergarten we made the choice to put our son into the French program. At the time, we figured why not try to expose him to as much as possible at a young age? He was a talker, and picked up on the English language very quickly, so this seemed in alignment.

Senior Kindergarten seemed to go off without a hitch. He didn’t really seem to like school, but that’s a story for another time…

In Grade One, his teacher pulled us aside and gently informed us that our son was “behind” and that we had to play major catch up.

Looking back, I shake my head at this. Knowing what I know now, we should never have caved to this pressure. Kids move at their own pace and berating them for not moving faster ‘like the other kids’ isn’t the solution. That just turns them away from learning, and quite honestly, harms your relationship with them. It’s our version of the modern-day dunce cap.

I know better now, but at the time we took the advice to heart, and we engaged in the reams of homework, and signed him up for 2 hours of in-home tutoring each week.

The results: He hated it. He hated us. And I think he even hated himself.

We fought every night over homework. There was yelling. There were tears. It was awful.

In Grade Two, we changed tutors and kept on going. Mid-way through the year a friend suggested we get help from a private psychologist. Waiting for a publicly funded psycho-educational assessment takes forever;  you might get lucky and get one by Grade 6 or 7, but we had the resources and decided to take control of the situation.

Private psycho-educational assessments are expensive. Your health plan may cover a portion of it, but you can plan to spend upwards of $2,000 if you go this route. It’s an investment I’d make over and over again, however.

The lengthy report detailed everything from mindset and mental resiliency, to test results and percentile rankings on various measures, to suggestions for additional resources for learning, tutoring and schools.

We finally had a little bit of illumination for our path, but we still had a lot of learning to do.

In Grade Three, we attempted to work with the school. It was clear that although the staff cared deeply and wanted to do everything they could to help, they didn’t have the knowledge, programs, or resources to really put a dent in the problem.

We moved our son from the French program to the English program, despite his protests.

We moved to a new tutor who had research-backed programs to support phonological awareness.

The most interesting piece of advice our psychologist gave us was to stop doing homework with our son. We could hire someone to do it with him, we could leave him to his own devices to do it, but we had to back off. He needed us to fully step into the role of loving, supportive parents who were going to accept him no matter what. Homework was too fraught with emotion, and there were clearly drawn battle lines.

All in all, that year helped us understand the problem better, but we still didn’t feel we were on the way to a solution. We kept researching.

For Grade Four, we enrolled him in an amazing school that’s one of a kind in Canada: Claremont School. Evelyn Reiss, a leader in the support of dyslexic learners had a school, that luckily for us, was only a 15-minute walk from our home.

It was a difficult decision to move our son from his friends and the public school that he’d grown to love for the social aspects, but we trusted in his resiliency and made the leap.

At Claremont the class sizes were small, the teachers were well-trained in the research-based Orton Gillingham methodology, and the environment was supportive.

Orton Gillingham is based on 80 years of research and has been proven, with that same research, to help those that struggle with reading and writing. It is multi-sensory, immersive, and methodical. In layman’s terms I describe it as phonics, but slowed way down so that a child has a chance to grasp one rule or concept at a time before moving onto the next. After going through Orton Gillingham teacher training, I could not believe how many different rules we need to – knowingly or unknowingly – master in order to read.

With our son, we were finally getting somewhere!

The only thing missing was fun. It was still a highly disciplined, traditionally academic school with its main emphasis on things that were my child’s weaknesses: reading and writing.

A Wish for the Future

While we were largely happy with the progress we were making, we still hoped to have a program that would encourage our son’s strengths and passions. One that helped support him, while at the same time allowing him the freedom to become his best self.

The biggest challenge with children that deal with dyslexia is their self-esteem, their belief in themselves, and how they see their personal challenges as a hindrance to their future.

In the grand scheme of things, reading is important but it’s also just a small part of who we are. If we don’t keep it in context then we risk that our children won’t dream big for themselves. They’ll determine too early that they can’t do anything purposeful or exciting or meaningful.

People with dyslexia will likely never (I hate to say never, but likely never) be fast readers, but does that really matter in today’s day and age? With all of today’s technology, do you think Richard Branson hasn’t found a way around his slow reading speed?

We need to help our children see that while this may not be their personal superpower, so many other things are. They need to focus on the things that bring them joy, light them up, and get them excited. If the fire’s there, the tools (like reading) can be found and can be developed, one way or another.

Struggling to Read: Supporting Dyslexic Learners

At IGNITE we have strong readers, we have those who aren’t strong readers yet, and those that likely won’t ever be strong readers (in the traditional sense). And, that’s ok.

We built our program to be inspiring, fun, and engaging. We want our learners to understand the big picture, and yes, somewhere in that big picture is reading. But, it’s never the whole picture.

We love supporting our dyslexic learners because they need and thrive with this bigger picture, sometimes more than others. We understand them, because this was our journey, and we see their extraordinary potential.

We don’t believe in homework battles. We believe in meeting your child where they are.

We’re knowledgeable. We understand the research, and that there are some programs that are better able to support the neurodiversity of these learners. We have those programs. But, more importantly we understand that every child is unique.  We’re going to focus on helping each child unlock that knowledge and confidence, and advocate for themselves so that they can step into their own possibility and make the impact on the world that they feel called to.

If this journey resonates with you, I invite you to reach out. We’d love to hear from you and we’re happy to support you and your family’s unique journey in any way we can.

P.S.

At the time of writing this blog post, our son is attending Infinity School, an Acton Academy in London while we get ready to open IGNITE in September 2022.

He spent his Grade Four and Grade Five years at Claremont and is now 8 months into his Acton Academy journey. He’s happy! He loves school for the first time in his life.

Recently we’ve noticed him really, truly try for the first time. I see him reading things around the kitchen, signs, notes that he would never would have attempted before. Last week he told me that he leaves his reading core skill work to the last because it’s his favourite!

Interestingly, this is the same age that things clicked for his grandfather, so we’ll wait to see. Perhaps it’s true that you just can’t rush these things.

The phrase “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” has never rung more true for me than when thinking about teaching children to read. Our son is in an accepting and supportive, but still challenging, environment now, and we couldn’t be happier.

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