Vindicator Logo

Learning to tame dyslexia

By Ed Runyan

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

By Ed Runyan

Language-based disorder affects 10% of people, even the famous

Phonics lessons with flash cards are a staple of the program.

YOUNGSTOWN — Kerra Loomis of Canfield spends two hours a week at the Masonic Temple with her tutor, Delta Stoner, learning how to read better.

Kerra, a fifth-grader, came to the 32nd Degree Masonic Children’s Learning Center on Wick Avenue three years ago because of her reading troubles.

Kerra has reached Level 5 of the program — the last one — so she is due to graduate this May.

But the end of the program comes with some unease for her mom, Kathy Loomis. Over the three years she’s been coming to the center, she and Kerra have received more than just help in learning various ways to learn language.

They’ve connected with people who understand what it’s like to be different.

When Kerra was about 3 years old, Kathy noticed she was struggling with her ABCs.

For Kerra, reciting her ABCs from memory was not a problem, but looking at the letters on a flash card and saying them was.

For instance, if Kerra looked at a card with a C on it, she would have trouble telling her mom what the letter was.

“She had trouble with retrieval,” Kathy said. “Even though we knew she knew it, she couldn’t retrieve it in her brain. You could see her looking [in her mind], and she couldn’t find the word or the letter.”

The problem was later diagnosed as dyslexia, a language-based disorder affecting approximately 10 percent of the population to varying degrees. It is a problem many people probably associate with mixing up the letters b and d, but that describes just one part of it.

What many people do not know is that dyslexia has no bearing on intelligence level — or that famous artists, comedians and thinkers such as Leonardo di Vinci, Robin Williams, Jay Leno, Cher, Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein were or are dyslexic.

Loomis says her daughter has developed a number of coping skills to compensate for her reading difficulties.

For instance, Kerra can memorize hundreds of words on a written page and cite the page and column where each word can be found — despite the fact that reading that word on a flash card might be difficult.

Dorothy Tesner, director of the learning center, says people with dyslexia can never be cured. But through one-on-one tutoring, they can learn ways to recognize sounds in written language, retrieve them from their memory and understand them — something most people do with ease.

The program uses the Orton-Gillingham method of language instruction, which emphasizes phonics. One component is to have pupils practice putting sounds together to make words — whether they are real words or not — with flash cards.

Pupils spend two hours per week after school for 28 weeks of the school year with their tutor, plus an optional six-week session in the summer. Pupils range from age 5 to 18. The Masons provide the training for free, but the waiting list is about 18 months.

Tesner says people with dyslexia are frequently very creative because they are used to thinking “outside the box.” They have to, she said, because they function differently than other people do.

“They can see the same word 50 times, but they can’t bring it out [of their memory]. They can’t remember it,” Tesner said.

Some of the main characteristics of dyslexia are difficulty learning and remembering printed words, leaving out or inserting words while reading, substituting vowel or consonant sounds, persistent spelling errors and difficulty writing.

Struggling with language can creates another issue, Tesner said: low self-esteem.

“They’ve convinced themselves they can’t succeed,” she said. Frequently such children have trouble reading aloud in class, so they don’t get asked, and that hurts their self-esteem, she said.

That describes Kerra three years ago, Kathy says.

“We’ve gone from not being able to decipher words to being able to sound out words,” she said, adding that Kerra went from being below her grade level in reading to being at grade level today.

“I’m more confident in reading. It’s helped me a lot,” Kerra said during a break from her lesson recently. Her favorite subjects in school are science and social studies, she said. She loves to conduct experiments.

Kathy has learned a lot, too, especially from the parents of the 28 other children who are also being tutored at the center. Being in a supportive environment helps pupil and family, Kathy said.

Tesner says the pupils at the center take their learning center training with them to their classrooms, but teachers show varying degrees of interest in accommodating a dyslexic child’s alternative ways of learning, she said.

A Learning Center pupil is taught to tap each sound of a word on his hand or arm so that he doesn’t skip sounds. But they often try to keep such movements hidden under their desk, Tesner said.

Practicing such alternate ways of learning may be hard, Tesner concedes, but it’s a lot better than the alternative. Without treatment, many dyslexic children drop out of school or get into trouble, she said.

For more information on the program, call (330) 743-7789.