Dyslexia Awareness Month

Diana Pham, Editor and Chief

Reading a sentence for the average person effortlessly takes a few seconds. For those with dyslexia however, words blend together and reading requires more energy. Affecting over 20% of the general population, dyslexia is a neurological learning difference that is often misunderstood by those who do not have it. Without the knowledge that dyslexia affects several areas of reading and processing, some believe that letters are simply flipped around. 

Ellen Awe, a learning specialist at Kapaun Mt. Carmel, has worked with dyslexic students for several years. 

“It’s actually more about processing language, so kids with dyslexia are going to have trouble reading, spelling, possibly writing and understanding language,” Awe said. “It’s not related to intelligence. Kids with dyslexia are very intelligent. It’s just a processing difference but it is not related in any way to intelligence.” 

According to Awe, those with dyslexia have to put more energy into processing language. There are different mechanisms available to make reading easier.

“If you don’t have dyslexia, reading can be a fairly automatic process within a few years of good reading instruction,” Awe said. “If you have dyslexia, it’s gonna take a little bit longer and reading may never be totally fluent. For instance, kids may have some of the letters reversed. Bs, Ds, Ps and Qs are tough because they all have a ball and a stick, and they all go different ways. Just having the brain process which is which can be tough.”

Although dyslexia never fully goes away, there are methods available to help deal with the difficulties. 

“You can learn many, many coping strategies and with really good instruction and some assistive technology like text to speech, you can overcome it and deal with it, but reading is always going to be laborious and difficult,” Awe said. “It takes much more exposure to the written word and to things like phonics for it to be wired in and a part of your brain.”

Sophomore Aydan Spiers states his own experience with dyslexia has been challenging. 

“It’s always been there. Letters were really, really hard to understand and I’ve always been a really slow reader, not very good at writing. It just took a lot of work to overcome that,” Spiers said. “I’ve had a lot of help with worksheets and stuff like that. The teachers are just really understanding and capable of helping when I need it.”

Learning strategies teacher Mary Booth states that giving students extra time on their tests and reading the questions to them directly are two important accommodations for those with dyslexia.

“This helps them to focus more on the content and material on the test rather than trying to read the test,” Booth said. “Having the copy of notes or fill-in-the-blank notes is a great technique for dyslexic students. The fourth accommodation is having auditory books so dyslexic students are reading along with the material, so they are gaining that comprehension through the auditory processing as well as visually. They’re learning new vocabulary and recognizing new vocabulary. One of the difficulties students who have severe dyslexia really struggle with is being able to sound out longer, multisyllabic words. They will have a harder time remembering how to spell words.” 

Religion teacher Beth Ferraro had no idea that she had dyslexia when she first started experiencing issues with reading. For her, phonics was the main resource in coping with dyslexia.

“My younger sister, Mary Ellen, actually got diagnosed with it,” Ferraro said. “It was a different time when people started to discover that it’s a processing issue. Some people just think that your letters are switched around. I was smart, worked hard and made good grades, but I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t spell. I’m really grateful that I had amazing teachers that taught phonics.”

Years of experience and coping strategies has helped Ferraro have an easier time reading and writing. 

“I’m actually a pretty fast reader now because of knowing phonics so well but it’s really hard to explain,” Ferraro said. “I can see a word—and I know the word—but I can’t find it, how to pronounce it. Again, a lot of times when I’m tired or when I’m excited is when it’s hardest to do. All those sayings ‘I before E except after C,’ that helped me a lot. I had really good teachers that gave us those mnemonic devices all the time.”

KMC is working to implement more comprehension support and mandates to address dyslexia in the classrooms. 

“Teachers are supposed to have different learning plans for those with dyslexia,” Ferraro said. “It’s really nice today because on Powerschool, any issue you might have with dyslexia or anything is already written down so the teacher is supposed to fill out a paper that has all the accommodations. When we had that teacher inservice, we had the dyslexia specialist [come in]. The language-arts teachers had a whole extra day with her. [She said] that’s all that reading is: decoding. And I love that she used that word. They gave us a whole bunch of exercises.”

 Ferraro’s own experience with dyslexia has helped her gain more understanding as a teacher towards her students. 

“In my class, that’s why I do the notes the way that I do, so that people don’t have to write down every single thing,” Ferraro said. “You can very much notice students with dyslexia, and they don’t want to read out loud. I totally understand, so I try not to do that. For the kids that I know have dyslexia, I make the tests a larger font, and I spread out the words because it’s easier to track, and it’s easier when you can see the words bigger and more spread apart.”

Awe believes that kids with dyslexia are extraordinary students who are often misunderstood.

“They should know they are very, very smart because it’s really true,” Awe said. “Some of the hardest working, brightest kids I’ve worked with have dyslexia. And I’d really like to get rid of any negative stigma there is. Just own it, ask for help, learn some strategies for overcoming it.”

 Kids with dyslexia also develop a strong work ethic because of the obstacles they have to overcome to succeed. 

“I tell kids and parents this a lot: I taught in college for a couple of years, and one of the things I discovered was that some of my best students were kids that overcame dyslexia, who had to work hard with it their entire lives because they learned that nothing is easy,” Awe said. “They learned that they couldn’t just cram the information in the night before a test, they learned to use any resources they could and to work hard, so they were fabulous college students. They really were rising above because they worked hard their entire lives, so they knew school was going to take a lot of effort. Plus they were just bright out of the box thinkers a lot of times.”

Awe also reaches out a helping hand to any student struggling with dyslexia. 

“A lot of times when a part of your brain struggles, another part of your brain really lights up,” Awe said. “So often kids with dyslexia are so creative and bright and intuitive. Think of it not just as a weakness, but think of it as a strength and recognize how many other strengths you have as well. And there’s help available. Just ask; I always love it when kids ask for help and many teachers want to. They really do. If we can do something to make school more accessible for a learner, we want to do that as teachers because we want to see all our kids grow.”