It Took Me Too Long to Decode My Daughter’s Dyslexia
A mother describes the warning signs for dyslexia in her daughter that she didn't see clearly. She also shares the life-changing resources that helped her understand what dyslexia is and how to get her daughter the support she needed to thrive.
It took me too long to decode my daughter’s dyslexia.
In retrospect, the signs are clear as a bell. But no one in my daughter's school connected the dots – while compassionate and dedicated, her teachers just didn’t know the signs to look for either. In fact, they couldn’t explain why a sweet child with a good intellect and strong work ethic couldn’t read with more fluency. Thus despite the additional instruction she received, she never emerged as a successful reader from first, second, third, or fourth grade.
Throughout this time, I searched and asked for help from so many people, yet I would have never looked at a site or source with “dyslexia” in the title because that wasn’t on my radar as a possibility. I totally misunderstood what it is. If I had interpreted the following signs correctly, I could have advocated for my daughter earlier.
1. To begin, dyslexia runs in families. If you or your spouse struggled to learn how to read, and your child also struggles, take this to heart. I wish someone had told me that my observations of my daughter were not a projection of my own experiences in learning to read, but typical of an individual with dyslexia. Although environmental factors can also be responsible, 40 to 60% of cases of dyslexia can be attributed to heredity. (Scarborough, 1990; Snowling, Gallagher, & Frith, 2003; Scerri & Schulte-Körne, 2010)
2. My daughter LOVES books but she NEVER chose to read a book on her own for pleasure. Every night from the time she was an infant, we read aloud before bed. Whether we read a stack of picture books or a chapter from an adventure novel, she would hang on our every word. In a way, her appetite for stories and ability to audibly absorb meaning, gave me insights of her ability to comprehend and develop vocabulary while listening for pleasure.
3. In first grade, she couldn’t keep pace with her class work. Her folder of “unfinished work” piled up on her desk to an overwhelming mountain of reminders of how far she kept falling behind the other children at her table. She told me, “Mommy, I hope I don’t have stacks of unfinished work when I’m in 2nd grade.”
4. Homework took over an hour some nights to complete. Tears of frustration frequently consumed our family dinner table as she labored through math word problems and vocabulary worksheets.
My daughter’s disinterest in picking up a book or procrastinating over homework might strike one as being lazy. But I knew in my heart that she was a hard worker, curious about so many things, and totally in love with school and her friends. I knew she wanted it to be different – better – and that was frustrating and sad for all of us.
5. When I talked to her first grade teacher about her reading, she wasn’t alarmed but observed that she was memorizing the shapes of common words such as like, and, this, the, walk, and it, not reading them. She said, “I wish I could see what is going on inside her head when she’s trying to read.”
6. By the end of second grade, we noticed that my daughter tended to skip, guess, or substitute words that made sense for the words that she couldn’t automatically read. And the more complex the text, the more she would avoid it, especially in front of her friends.
7. Then one day, after two years of tutoring at home and “special reading help” at school, I was sitting at a conference table with the special education teacher and the school psychologist who had given my daughter a test to see if she had any signs of a learning disability. The conversation went something like this:
Teacher said, “[Your daughter] learns everything you teach her. She uses meaning beyond what is expected at her age.”
I asked, “Then why is she not learning how to read?”
"She has issues with phonological processing," answered the teacher.
8. About six months later, I was given a copy of Overcoming Dyslexia by the author, Dr. Sally Shaywitz whom I had met through a project at work. Dr. Shaywitz gave me the book because I had told her that my daughter was a struggling reader. When I opened the book, I recognized my daughter’s behavior in almost every case study of her patients. For decades, Dr. Shaywitz, who is both a pediatrician and educator, has been leading new research on how the brain works in relation to reading problems at the Yale University School of Medicine. Her book explains that “Dyslexic children and adults struggle to read fluently, spell words correctly and learn a second language, among other challenges. But these difficulties have no connection to their overall intelligence. In fact, dyslexia is an unexpected difficulty in reading in an individual who has the intelligence to be a much better reader. While people with dyslexia are slow readers, they often, paradoxically, are very fast and creative thinkers with strong reasoning abilities.” (Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, pp.13- 24.)
Furthermore, Shaywitz writes, “Over the past two decades a model of dyslexia has emerged that is based on phonological processing—processing distinctive sounds of language.” (Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, pp.40.)
BINGO! Reading that book was like getting the decoder ring. I quickly connected the dots and learned that with direct and explicit instruction using a proven science-based approach called Orton Gillingham, my daughter could get the RIGHT reading instruction for her specific reading disability.
I’m proud to say that my daughter is in the fifth grade at The Windward School learning to read, write, and engage with all subjects under the tutelage of expertly trained Orton Gillingham teachers. She has read 25 chapter books in her Language Arts class this year and reads aloud with me every single night.
People and places that gave us answers we needed to know:
About the authorTami Mount is a consulting editor and producer for PBS TeacherLine, a service that provides online professional development courses for preschool to 12th grade teachers. In her career, she has launched major digital education services including PBS LearningMedia (2010) and DiscoverySchool.com (1996), and received multiple awards in children’s and educational media, including 3 CODiEs, 1 Webby, and 5 Ed Press Awards for her work with PBS, Scholastic, and Discovery.