The Other Dyslexia

In Education, Jayna Morrow, Lola Shreveport by Lola Magazine

Jayna, right, with daughter Ella.

Even as a public school educator with 13 years’ experience, I had only ever heard of one kind of dyslexia — phonological dyslexia. Those are the kids that write letters backwards, right? Sadly, that’s the general perception most people have when it comes to recognizing this learning struggle. Over the past two years, I’ve come to realize there are many forms of dyslexia and it looks different with every child. Let me tell you about my daughter’s journey with visual (surface) dyslexia.

Don’t wait for failing grades… explained that children with visual dyslexia find it difficult to remember what the word looks like in their minds. This manifests over time in subtle ways. For students with average to above average IQs, like my daughter, the symptoms may take longer to start affecting them academically. The first red flag, for me, didn’t appear until her 4th-grade year, when her reading level didn’t advance satisfactorily, her everyday spelling was atrocious, and she clung to lower-level fiction books with an aversion to nonfiction. Still, she brought home all A’s and B’s, so we cruised on. Little did I know that she’d developed a strong set of coping skills that served her well. That is, until 5th grade.

The year of tears…
That was the year Ella could no longer use her high-order language skills to compensate for her deficits in visual processing. The year of I hate school and Homeschool me, please. The year she felt stupid. It sounds strange, and even after all the research I’ve done, I still have trouble comprehending how visual dyslexia affects my daughter. So you’re telling me she can read and comprehend fiction books, but nonfiction gives her trouble? Here’s the lowdown on fiction vs. nonfiction. They are not the same, so much so that students can have two completely different reading levels: one for fiction and one for nonfiction. Fiction is primarily made up of only around one thousand words commonly used in the English language, while nonfiction is rich in less common vocabulary. This vocabulary is often built from the building blocks of root words and affixes, which make words look very much alike. If you’re a student with visual processing difficulties, this is a reading nightmare. Pages filled with unknown words that all look alike.

Pay close attention to your child’s written expression…
Her reading level barely budged that year, but the biggest problems occurred in science. Textbooks are cesspools of advanced vocabulary, polluted with root words and affixes. Her background knowledge of science topics was limited (due to an aversion for reading nonfiction), the text was written above her reading level, and her visual processing issue made it even more difficult to read and comprehend. Nonfiction is difficult so you avoid it, then it becomes even more difficult because you avoided it. Are you seeing the vicious cycle here?

I tried teaching her at home. After all, I am a certified teacher. How hard could it be? I signed her up for K12 Online and we worked through the science modules. I felt that she learned the concepts without issue, but her learning wasn’t being reflected in her grades at school. It just wasn’t translating. What it boiled down to was reading comprehension.

Her reading skills appeared normal…
As far as her actual reading class, everything appeared normal. But some pieces of the puzzle were distorted. They seemed to fit, but upon close inspection, they had been squeezed into place. I worked with her on a reading program at home, and I noticed that she skipped a lot of little words, she substituted longer words with visually similar ones, and sometimes read words out of order. Most of the time, these errors were made without self-correction, which means she didn’t catch her own errors. This is critical when it comes to tracking comprehension during independent reading.

Her writing skills were below grade level as well. Slow, tedious, riddled with spelling errors (even when copying), and poor directionality that headed downhill. She wrote as little as possible and often produced sentences that didn’t make sense. Once I saw a list of common spelling errors for kids with dyslexia, and I was shocked. They were the same errors that my daughter was making. While she was able to memorize a list of words for the “Friday spelling test,” it was her everyday spelling that concerned me. What was really eye-opening was the fact that she would misspell high frequency words that she’d seen and read thousands of times. It didn’t make sense to me that she wasn’t able to internalize these words and use them appropriately.

There were other signs as well…

  • Dependency on context and visual clues
  • Lower test scores than daily grades
  • Frequent “careless” mistakes
  • Poor memory, even after daily study sessions
  • Compensation skills
  • Struggling grades, but not necessarily failing grades

Then I found Learning Rx…
Ella’s diagnosis came too late to affect her grades in 5th grade, but her 6th-grade year has been amazing. Over the past six months, she’s learned to visually discriminate words and train her brain to process them for improved comprehension overall. She’s also made tremendous gains with short-term and long-term memory, root words and affixes, and inductive and deductive reasoning. Homework and studying are a snap, taking significantly less time and effort. I only wish I would have taken her in sooner.

The year of cheers…
The year Ella trained her brain for success. The year of loving school, of reaching her potential, of A’s and B’s on her report cards. The year she discovered her brilliance.
My advice to parents in a similar situation is to understand that you are your child’s first advocate. Nobody will fight harder or care more for your son or daughter, but the people at Learning Rx come in a close second. This is evident in the way they celebrate every victory right along with you. Know that there are other options out there besides the standard program for “traditional” dyslexia, so don’t give up hope. Their specialized training will give your child the skills he or she needs to not only survive, but thrive in school. I’ve watched my daughter go through this academic process that got easier and easier every six weeks, as she applied problem-solving and higher order thinking skills to make connections in her core classes.

Our brains are elastic…
One of the first home assignments we had was to read a book about how brains are elastic. They can strengthen and stretch. This got me thinking about rubber bands. Yes, they stretch, but not on their own. In fact, a rubber band will lie there and do nothing until someone picks it up and puts it to use.
When I taught kindergarten many years ago, we used rubber bands on peg boards to make shapes. But when I first passed out the peg boards and handfuls of rubber bands, my students had no idea what to do with them. Well, a few knew how to send them flying across the room. Over time, they learned how to make geometric shapes on the boards without popping each other or their own fingers. They learned. Learning is a beautiful process, but it looks a little different for each child. One thing that’s the same for all children is they need a teacher to show them how to stretch a rubber band into something amazing. Our brains are elastic…and they are amazing!