Coming from a Different Space -The Challenge of Dyslexia
Or Seeing it Differently Or But I'm NOT dumb, am I?
My third week at school was hell.
The first week had been fun. Our teacher was a darling. Her name was Miss Davies and it was her first week teaching too. She read stories to us, and hugged us, and wiped our noses, and told us never to go down into the old air raid shelters because there were spiders down there.
This was 1950's Brisbane; classes of forty or more baby boomers. We still had air raid drill left over from World War II, except now we practiced hiding under our desks in case the Russians dropped an atomic bomb. Outside the playground was all ruts and dust, while inside we watched the black board or tried to follow 'Run Spot. Run ' in our readers.
At least the other kids did. I was having problems.
I still remember the terror of that week three.
Every kid had to spell out a word on the board. Not only couldn't I spell it out, despite Miss Davies' alphabet lessons, I couldn't even focus on the blackboard.
I'm dyslexic. Even today, 115 books published, a couple of million copies and about 25 literary awards later, I find it difficult to focus on single words.
I can print okay – and I'm a fast typist. But my spelling is appalling. Arithmetic is a nightmare. And when I write longhand, sometimes it's as though the instruction in my brain doesn't reach my hands, and the words turn into straggly lines. When I'm really tired I can't even sign my own name.
Back in the 1950's no teacher had heard of dyslexia. You were either dumb, or you were clever.
If you were clever you did your copybook neatly and got ten out of ten for your spelling test. If you were dumb you were put into the 'gardening group' and picked up papers in the school yard until you were old enough to leave at Grade 8.
I was lucky. After a few months of failing to read 'run Spot run' I broke the school rules and snuck into the library at lunchtime. When the headmistress found me I was just about at the end of 'Black Beauty.'
No, I couldn't read 'Run Spot. Run'. But I COULD read a page with lots of text, like 'Black Beauty.'
My form of dyslexia is a common one, but it's one that is very rarely catered for in 'special needs' classes. I can't focus on a single word for more than fraction of a second. I have to do things FAST. I think fast, speak fast (my husband is always telling me to slow down, so others can understand me). I write fast, and I read fast.
I don't consider now that my dyslexia is a handicap. On the contrary, there is no way I could have written 115 books in the past 15 years without it, not to mention the gardening columns. But like many kids, I learn differently – and the standard teaching technique of making a kid follow the words with their finger literally makes me giddy!
In fact I had learnt to read long before I went to school, recognising words as my mother read stories to me – thank goodness, as there is no way I would have learnt to read in the 1950's school system.
Back in the library, the headmistress and Miss Davies were puzzled. Why was this illiterate kid pouring over Black Beauty? There weren't even any pictures for her to look at! She couldn't REALLY be reading it?
The headmistress asked me to read a bit out to her. So I did.
I can still remember the looks on their faces. How could a kid who couldn't read 'Run Spot. Run' read complicated text? Answer: she must be lazy, or daydreaming in class.
But at least I wasn't regarded as dumb any more. I wasn't sent out to pick up papers.
I was lucky enough to have another saving grace too. I could tell stories.
I can't remember how it started, but by the end of that first year at school if the class behaved, I was allowed to spend the last twenty minutes of each day telling everyone a story.
Most of those stories had volcanoes, or lots of earthquakes – one had vast underwater caverns filled with the world's stolen fish, as well as a tsunami and a couple of ogres. And by the end of Year Two I had written my first book, 'Tresses and the Unghostly Ghost', about a haunted horse. The headmistress liked it so much she had it typed and the spelling corrected and a copy printed for every kid in the school.
Then after two lovely years of Miss Davies, we suddenly had a new teacher. I'll call her Miss Emmaline. Miss Emmaline had no time for stories. She liked neat writing, and good spelling, and correct answers to the sums. And I could do none of that.
I was a nasty, messy, daydreaming little girl, who just wasn't trying.
Miss Emmaline had a long wicker cane for the boys. She used a ruler for the girls, one stroke on the hand for every mistake. Miss Emmaline's ruler had metal edges and she could raise weals or cut your fingers open, till finally some parents complained.
Kids know if a teacher hates them. Miss Emmaline hated me. I disgusted her, and she told me so often, sending me to stand out the front after each day's spelling was failure, or to spend my lunchtime going over and over the words in my copy book.
Years later, I can see her point of view. I did some things so well that she must have been sure I wasn't trying. But I wasÉ desperately É and with growing anguish.
Then one night, after two hours of trying to help me with my spelling, my mother told me: 'Look, don't worry if you can't spell. When you grow up you can have a secretary, and they'll correct your work for you.'
It was magic. I began to daydream of a grown up self, with a house on an island, maybe, and at least 100 dogs, and a waterfall.... and a secretary, to whom I'd dictate all my books. It was enough to keep me going, past the year with Miss Emmaline, past report cards labeling me as: 'Careless. Daydreams. Doesn't try.'
So school continued into High School. I taught myself to spell the most crucial words by having someone sound them out for me, then turning the letters into a song. I either did very well at subjects, or very badly. Luckily by now I was in a selective school with often extraordinarily good teachers.
But even there everyone assumed that I simply didn't try at subjects I was interested in, like maths. Anything like long division was a torture – I literally became nauseous when I tried.
The careers adviser, looking at my intelligence test, said 'You can do anything you want to, dear. But if you want to do pure science you'll have start doing just a little work in maths.'
Just a little? I'd sweated through daily maths coaching in the holidays. The maths coach- seeing that I knew HOW to do my school maths – finally put me onto university level theory, never realising that theory wasn't the problem. It was the numbers, or the letters, on the page that were impossible.
By university I had an ancient typewriter. But one lecturer still asked me kindly if I was spastic. When I said 'no' he shook his head, and said he couldn't possibly give High Distinctions to anyone as careless with spelling and typos as I was. No matter how good my work was I'd only get passes till my spelling improved.
It didn't, and it hasn't since. I know HOW to spell most words now – I just can't coordinate so they come out right, and I can't focus on them long enough to tell if I've made a mistake. I don't reverse my words or letters –it's a common myth that all dyslexics must do that. My words go inside out, and when I'm tired my sentences go a bit inside out tooÉ and also, if I'm tired, I have to shut my eyes to explain things, which people can find a trifle odd...
Ten years passed. I earned my living farming, having fallen in love with the bush and growing things. I still wrote stories, but kept my writing secret, as a waste of time. My first marriage collapsed. I was desperately broke, living in a bush shed with a baby, a wombat, a black snake and a wallaby. I needed $106.44 cents to register my car, and the only way I could think of doing it was to send off a story.
So I did. The typewriter was even older now, and I didn't have a desk, so I typed sitting cross-legged on the floor. The wombat hated that typewriter. He left his droppings on it every night if I forgot to put it out of reach, and after three months of wombat droppings on the keyboard the letter 'e' was all soft and squishy when I pressed it.
So I wrote 'Rainstones' without an 'e', filling in the 'e's with biro, and hoped that my spelling had magically improved since I left school. I sent the book to Angus and Robertson – they were the first name I came across under ''publishers'' in the phone book.
I heard years later that the editor who pulled the manuscript out of the envelope took one look at the spelling and typos and biro and shrieked: 'Look at this mess!'
She took it around the entire office, then sat down to read a bit aloud to everyone, sure that it would be unintentionally hilarious.
Three weeks later Angus and Robertson offered me a very nice sum of money to publish it. I have been making my living as a writer ever since.
'Rainstones' went on to be short-listed for the NSW Premier's award, the Children's Book Council Younger Reader's Award, and has been in print ever since. I could finally afford the secretarial help my mother promised me all those years ago. And life began to be very, very good indeed.
And then the next generation began the struggle with dyslexia: my sister's kids and my own. And I realised I couldn't bear it. No kids should face what I'd been through - and certainly not the kids I loved.
It is so very, very easy to convince a child that they are dumb. Even a few years of failure leave scars that never heal.
Teachers now know that learning difficulties exist. They know there's such a condition as dyslexia. Kids aren't necessarily dumb if they can't read, or do basic maths. But few schools have the resources to give kids all the help they need. All too often kids are labelled – still – as daydreamers, or, more often now, as suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
Even more often no one finds out WHY each kid is having problems. Are they dyslexic? Have difficulty focusing, coordinating, concentrating, or distinguishing sounds? There are literally hundreds of reasons why kids may not be reading. And each problem needs a different solution.
Every time I go to schools now I speak to kids about being dyslexic. And every time I look at the disruptive kids at the back; the hopeless kids; the kids who are sure that they are dumb – and I see their faces light up when I tell them I'm can't spell or write neatly either. I tell them that kids with reading problems are often MORE verbally intelligent – not less. We just learn in different ways. And if I can do it, so can they.
So I wrote this book.
Rocket Your Child into Reading explains how to tell if your kid is having problems, and what to do about it. Your child may need a speech pathologist, or an occupational therapist, an audiologist who specialises in learning problems, or an educational psychologist, a specialist opthamologist, or any one of a dozen other specialties - as well as help to actually learn to read! There is no one way to help all kids! But they CAN be helped.
Rocket Your Child into Reading also explains how your can teach your kids to read yourself, what the best learning methods are for your particular child, and shows how to find the right books for each kid to adore. It's the book I wish had been around for my mum when she was desperate years ago,
And now? I still don't know which way to turn a lid to take it off. I still get lost in car parks, have to remind myself which side of the road to drive on, get giddy when I try to add up figures, and can't tell if a word is spelled properly or not.
But I no longer worry about it. I have gained far more from my dyslexia than I have lost. And now I know how to help other who are despairing too.
When to Worry
If your child is worried or frustrated about their schoolwork.
If your kid's best friends do much better in the classroom than your child does. Kids mostly choose friends who are of the same intelligence as they are- though they may be good at very different things. But if your kid isn't doing as well as their mates there may be a problem.
If YOU are worried. Parents are usually pretty good at suspecting that their kid may not be doing as well as they could. But teachers also have to suffer parents who are sure their child is a genius and who assume it's the teacher's fault that their kids don't do genius level work, so do be tactful.
Different ways Kids Learn
Kids - and adults - can learn in different ways.
Very active kids - usually boys - may literally only really learn well when they are moving, just like the boys of the tribe learnt best when they were out hunting with the men.
These kids don't learn well sitting at a desk! Give them a water pistol and show them how to make letters on the concrete outside, or draw giant letters in the sand. Or give them worry beads or let them doodle as they listen.
Some kids – often girls –need to discuss things with their friends, just like girls once learnt mostly by talking with the other women of the tribe. These kids often hate school where they have to be quiet, but do really well at Uni or tech where they can do group projects or discuss things in tutorials.
Some kids learn best by hearing; some so do best when things are written or in diagrams; other kids have to do LOTS of things FAST- and sometimes these kids are diagnosed as having ADD when they have the opposite- they concentrate so well they soon get bored.
All of us learn in different ways- and kids do too.
How to help babies become readers
Reading to your kids is great. It teaches them to focus on words and to associate books with love and cuddles. But reading to your kids isn't enough! Kids need MANY skills to learn to read.
Kids need to know what words sound like – and if the TV is on all the time they may not learn all the sounds that go to make up a word. You don't have to sound like the Queen every time you talk to your kids – but do make sure that sometimes you sound out words carefully, so they know what sounds go to making up, say Cat. C..a...t.
Kids need to be able to coordinate so they can track across page. Games like catch and hopping and skipping are important learning tasks too!
Most of all, kids need to learn how to concentrate – and TV doesn't teach this. TV shows are designed so that if your attention wanders – or you need to go to the bathroom – you can still pick up what's happened.
So talk to your kids – share long conversations, tell them stories, teach them how to make sausage rolls or play 'I spy'.
Take your kids to the library to enjoy story time. Or start a 'baby book club' where parents take turns reading stories to the kids – and the Mums get a chance to relax and talk to each other too.
A few more hints for all kids . . .
Getting Kids Reading
Okay, first the good news: there is a magic potion that will turn your bored kids into contented munchkins, help them perform better at school, plus make them generally happier and eager for life.
It's called reading.
Now the bad news: sadly there isn't a useful herb you can sprinkle on your kids to get them reading!
Step 1. Read to your kids!
This should start when they're a few days old. I'm serious...while you're cuddling them and feeding them, tuck yourself into a comfy chair with a good book, and read bits out to them. No, of course they won't understand it ... but they'll love the sound of your voice.
Read them a bedtime story every night too-and if you go out get the baby sitter to do it for you! Both of these steps mean that kids associate reading with being loved and cuddled...and also gets them hooked on the fun of books.
Step 2. KEEP reading to your kids!
Read stories to little kids several times a day. Even when they learn to read well, KEEP reading to them. Kids love the drama and closeness of being read to!
Step 3. Be sneaky. Read one and half stories! This will tempt them to read the other half just to see what happens!
Step 4. This is probably the hardest step. ACCEPT THAT KIDS ARE ALMOST ALWAYS DIFFERENT FROM THEIR PARENTS- and the books your kids like will be different from the ones you love too.
My son, for example, has a steady diet of books where one man single handedly overcomes etc etc. He hates books where people TALK about things- exactly the sort of book I love. (Boys mostly prefer male main characters. Girls are more tolerant!)
If I'd tried to stuff my son with the books I adore he'd probably hate reading. (My husband Bryan only likes books with diagrams and submarines. I do wish people would write more books with diagrams and submarines..)
Listen to your kids, and find out what sort of books they love....and don't shudder if they want yet another space adventure or book about horses.
Step 5. Don't underestimate your kids!
Often kids are bored because they are only given simple books, or movie tie ins (it is very rare to find a really good movie tie in!!!).
Too many parents say 'Oh, little Cedric doesn't like reading' and just give him the next Star Wars series so he reads SOMETHING. But even if little Cedric finishes it, it won't make him love reading.
Find half a dozen good solid stories at the library for him to choose from, whether they're adventure books or a 'chick's books' as my son describes them, with characters and emotions. You need real meat on the hook if you're going to catch a kid!
(If you have absolutely no idea what books your kid might like, have a chat with the children's librarian at your nearest large library, or the teacher librarian at your kid's school.)
Step 6. Make the books available! Kids can't read books that aren't there.
It's so easy for kids to turn on the TV, but books have to be hunted out...and just like our ancestors had to learn how to hunt a sabre tooth tiger, it takes time to learn book hunting, how to find the books that THEY like in shops and libraries, just by skimming the back cover and first page and a bit of the middle.
Read to your kids, take them to the library, show them how to sort through books to find the ones they like . . . then take a deep breath, because the chances are that you'll have an enthusiastic reader demanding more books NOW . . . and WHY aren't you supplying them!
(also see my book 'Rocket Your Child Into Reading', Angus and Robertson/Harper Collins 2004)