Help For Struggling Readers: Dyslexia and Beyond

For several years before I became a parent, I worked part-time in The Literacy Council of Sumner County (LCSC).  Like most non-profit organizations, it was cash-strapped, barely-staffed, and run by folks who were absolutely devoted to the cause of helping their neighbor.

When I first showed up as a volunteer, I made my way to the back of a 1970’s strip mall.  I finally found the small sign for the LCSC, pushed my way through the glass doors and into the reading room, and there I found Margie Anderson–the fearless director.  In addition to an overview of what the LCSC was about, I was given some forms to fill out and a book: The Teacher Who Couldn’t Read by John Corcoran.

That book would become a huge part of my life as I went from volunteer to part-time employee.  I loaned copies to moms and dads and grandparents who had just realized they would be confronting reading difficulties in their children’s lives.  I described it to parents who’d finally given up on a particular failing public school and switched to homeschooling to give their kid a chance to read.  Margie and I also shared it (in audiobook format) with adult men and women who, despite success in their jobs and family, still didn’t know how to read.

Originally published by Focus on the Family back in 1994, it’s still in print today (though by Kaplan).  And for good reason.  John Corcoran grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s–a time when there was very little sensitivity to dyslexia and other reading challenges.  When he didn’t “get” reading in the early years, he learned to cope with anger, apathy, and even deceit.  And boy did he cope!  Shuffled from classroom to classroom, he managed to graduate both from high school and then college, without ever learning to read.  Believe it or not, Mr. Corcoran became a teacher, and he was actually a very good one–using verbal teaching and testing methods until he chose to reveal his secret.  One evening, his young daughter sat down in his lap and asked him to read her a simple picture book.  His wife listened from the other room as he struggled to make sense of the story, astonished to learn that he wasn’t just a poor reader.  He couldn’t read a picture book!

Not long after that, Mr. Corcoran finally decided he would seek help.  He found an adult literacy center and began the grueling work of learning to decode the written word.  Since then, he has gone on to be an advocate for folks struggling to read–but you’ll have to read it yourself to hear the rest of this happy story.

Mr. Corcoran’s book was eye-opening for me and for others in many ways.  First, in any given population, statistics show that 10-20% of that population will be affected by reading difficulties.  That means 10 or 20 out of every 100 adults you know in your job or your church have some issue with this.  Some will be suffering outwardly because of it.  They won’t be able to read their medication labels.  They may not have a job because of it.  They may have stopped coming to church because they couldn’t read the Bible or the prayer in the church bulletin on Sunday.  But many others will have learned to cope like John Corcoran.  They will be highly functional and not show any severe symptoms, even to a spouse.

The main reason I recommend John Corcoran’s story to parents and young adults is that it shows folks struggling with this that a) they are not alone, and b) for many,  there is hope.  There are many resources and experts out there dedicated to helping kids and adults learn to read.  Whatever struggles your child or your loved one are having, don’t give up.  We all have limitations.  But whatever challenges you face, if you are His child, He had promised to use them for our good and His glory.  Lean on Him, and ask Him to guide you through it.  Wait, I say, on the Lord.  And then in His strength, seek out as much help as you can.

Four Practical Helps

If you’re worried that someone you love has a problem with reading, here are a few things to consider.

  • Trust Your Instincts:  A lot of folks who called or came through our doors were unsure whether they or someone they knew had a reading problem.   Teachers or grandparents didn’t think it was that serious…did they really need help?  Margie’s approach to this question was always the same: trust your instincts.  If you are a parent, chances are you know your child better than anyone else.  If you think something is wrong, you’re probably right.   Or if you are an adult who feels like you missed your potential, chances are you could still benefit from the right help.  Why not call a literacy council in your area or another reading center and take a test?  It’ll only take a few minutes, and it could reap great benefits.
  • Rule Out Physical Issues: One of the reasons worried parents don’t reach out for help is that they believe, mistakenly, that there is very little that can be done.  Actually, the first thing we would check at the LCSC was for physical issues or solutions that might be causing the problem.  A child may need glasses, or may have a light sensitivity issue that causes normal lighting on a white page to feel in their eyes the way screaming feels in your ears.  If you or your child are experiencing reading issues, I would recommend getting your eyes checked by an opthamologist first.  Then check out Irlen Syndrome.  I didn’t put a whole lot of stock in light sensitivity until I was a tutor myself.  One child I tutored normally wore Irlen lenses, but forgot them for one tutoring session.  Neither of us realized it until I had to ask her mother to come get her to calm down.  The child was so wired and unable to sit still that she was actually sitting on her head in one of the seats.  We realized then that my normally calm, dutiful student wasn’t wearing her Irlen glasses.  And I was a believer after that.
  • Mental Challenges Don’t Equal Stupidity: Another myth that keeps people from seeking out help is the belief that they or their children haven’t learned to read yet, then there is an intellectual defect involved.  Not so.  Per the intellectual issue, of course mental retardation can sometimes be involved.  But other times certain kinds of intelligences or giftedness make reading harder.  Believe it or not, Harvard is actually involved in testing to see whether dyslexia is helpful in making someone a great scientist.  I talked to a fellow who had spent much of his life working at a major hotel in Nashville, quite successful and gifted at thinking three-dimensionally.  In fact, his job overseeing electrical work and other groundskeeping was made much easier by his ability to imagine objects from all angles.  However, that gift also made is harder for him to see the difference between the letters “b” and “d”.  To him, they were the same object turned a different way.  Despite dealing with this issue for roughly 50 years, he was actually one of the most successful students I met.
  • Try Something New:  Unfortunately, while the science of reading has come a long way, there is still quite a lot of debate about what ought to be done to actually help folks rise above reading challenges.  See this article in Newsweek  at John Corcoran’s site or an overview of what scientists agree and don’t agree on.  (It’s a little old, circa 1999, but still helpful.)  The upshot seems to be that there still is no scientific, universally-accepted solution or curriculum to fix the problem of reading challenges, including dyslexia.  If you’re looking for a silver-bullet that’s a no-brainer, I don’t have it.  But there are quite a lot of motivated, intelligent people working on the problem.  AND there are a lot of people like John Corcoran who have overcome their challenges to become excellent readers.  My suggestion is don’t wait until you find the perfect answer.  Say a little prayer, surf the internet, read the research yourself, (if you can’t, get a friend or a librarian to help you!) order John Corcoran’s book, and then try something.  Maybe it will click with you or your kid.  Maybe it won’t.  But you won’t know until you try.

I haven’t really gotten into simple things you can do to help kids who might not be struggling but need a little help.  Hope to do a post on that soon! 

Til then, any of you have ideas about reading curricula that might be good for struggling readers?  Interested in bringing more awareness of literacy issues to your community?

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