Living with Dyslexia

Created: Saturday, October 29, 2011 5:00 a.m. CST
Updated: Friday, May 18, 2012 8:24 a.m. CST

"He's my third of four kids, so we've known for a very long time that there was something different."

Tracy Lawyer knew there was something about her son, William, 7, unlike anything she had encountered before with her three other children. When it came to William's learning abilities, Tracy knew he struggled. He had difficulty even spelling his own name.

"His short name, Will, is sticks and dots. He couldn't write it. He couldn't spell it," the Morris mother said.

William also had some behavior issues in preschool and kindergarten.

It was a very frustrating time in the Lawyer home, but by the beginning of his first-grade year, Tracy and her husband, Mike, knew why.

William was diagnosed with dyslexia.

Contrary to popular belief, dyslexia is not a disorder in which people read or see words backwardly, Tracy said. Letters, such as "b" and "d," are often flipped when reading, because the basic structure is similar, but words themselves are not backward.

"It is the inability or the trouble with putting a sound together with the letter," Tracy said.

Dyslexia, or developmental reading disorder (DRD), is not a vision problem or an intelligence issue, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Dyslexia is an information processing problem, but has no baring on one's ability to think and understand complex ideas.

"Most people with DRD have normal intelligence, and many have above-average intelligence," the library's website said. 

Dyslexia is not a disorder that can be cured. It is something that William will have to live with for the rest of his life. There are ways to cope with it, however.

Because there are different areas of the brain that process language, a specific type of tutoring can help people with dyslexia, Tracy said.

The Orton-Gillingham tutoring approach is designed primarily for people who struggle with reading, spelling and writing.  With the help of a private tutor, the multi-sensory approach has worked amazingly for William.

"It has worked wonders on his ability to read, to sound out letters, to spell," she said.

Because it is a multi-sensory program, William benefits from the opportunity to feel and touch the letters with which he is working. The letter blocks William and his tutor use are color-coded, so he knows the difference between a consonant and a vowel because they are separated by color.

"We were talking about vowels one day and I said, 'What are vowels?'" Tracy said. "William said, 'I know! They're the yellow ones.'"

From two one-hour tutoring sessions each week, William also reaps the benefits of learning helpful spelling rules.

In school, "they give you a list of spelling words and show similarity or patterns in the words you have," she said. "Maybe it's words that all end in 'e,' but they never give you the rule to go along with it."

In his tutoring, William has learned an "e" at the end of a word makes the vowel say it's name.

For example, m-a-d has a short "a" sound, but when the letter "e" is added to the end, the "a" says it's name — made.

Another rule William has learned is called the "floss" rule.

"After a single vowel, if it's right after, you need to put a double 's' or a double 'f' or a double 'z,'" he said.

The rule tells William when to double the f, l, s and z letters. If one of those letters immediately follows a vowel, it needs to be doubled. But, of course, there are exceptions to every rule.

Rules like the "floss" rule, "milk truck" and "e and the end" give spelling structure to people with dyslexia.

William is also pulled out of class at Saratoga Elementary School for two intervention periods for extra help in reading.

"Although the teachers that William has had so far have not been trained in dyslexia, I believe that they have taken the information I've provided about dyslexia and William's particular struggle and used it to tailor his education a bit," Tracy said.

As an example, she noted if William's teacher notices he is falling behind on an in-class assignment that requires writing, the teacher will allow William to dictate his answers while she or another teacher in the room writes it on his paper.

Along with his dyslexia, William also suffers from dysgraphia, a learning disability that affects writing skills.

Dyslexia is a genetic disorder. No one else in the Lawyer family has been diagnosed with it, but Tracy and Mike believe Mike suffers from it as well.

"School was very hard for him," Tracy said in regards to her husband. "He went into the military, the National Guard, for two years really so he could get his education paid for. He went to a semester of college and just couldn't do it. It was too difficult."

So when William was diagnosed, and through personal research, Tracy and Mike have come to the conclusion on their own that Mike is dyslexic as well.

"To this day, trying to get him to pick up a book is like pulling teeth," Tracy said. "I'm famous for sending him long emails and he'll call me and say, 'I got your email. What do you want?' He won't read it."

It's not that Mike can't read, Tracy explained. It's just not something he enjoys or something that comes easily to him.

Again, dyslexia is not an intelligence problem. It is an information processing problem. Tracy said, with the right tools, William will succeed in life.

"It is our jobs as parents to make sure he doesn't give up and that he get the support he needs to be successful," she said. "If we can get him through school successfully, then he can be a successful adult."

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Dyslexia presentation set for Nov. 1

Just as Dyslexia Awareness Month is coming to a close, State Representatives Pam Roth (R-Morris) and Linda Chapa LaVia (D-Aurora), paired the University of St. Francis College of Education, are sponsoring an informational presentation on dyslexia.

Scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 1 at 6:30 p.m. in the University's Recreation Center, Drs. Sally and Bennett Shaywitz from Yale University's Center for Dyslexia and Creativity will discuss their research on dyslexia. As of Friday afternoon, 570 people were registered for the event. Pre-registration is required and will be open through Sunday, Oct. 30.

Visit www.dyslexiaIL.eventbrite.com to register.

"Really the goal is to get awareness to the school districts, awareness to parents and awareness to legislatures," said Tracy Lawyer, of Morris, Ill. "And eventually to get legislation that supports dyslexia inside of Illinois, which is currently absent."

Lawyer said the first phase of legislation they are hoping for is just a definition of dyslexia.

"Maybe through the State Board of Education we could require that teachers have so many hours of continuing education in dyslexia awareness ... I don't want them to be experts, I just want them to know what it is," she said.

Several teachers from Saratoga Elementary School, where Lawyer's dyslexic son William attends, have registered for the event.

Two CPDUs are offered to educators who attend the presentation.

There will also be a book signing featuring “Overcoming Dyslexia ” by Dr. Sally Shaywitz and Audrey G. Ratner, professor in Learning Development at the Yale University School of Medicine and co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity.

For more information contact Rep. Chapa LaVia’s office at (630) 264-6855 or Rep. Roth’s office at (815) 416-1475.

“Too often, educators and policymakers are ill-quipped to meet the needs of students with dyslexia ,” Rep. Roth said. “We are hopeful this presentation will help to better inform parents, teachers, and policymakers on the latest in dyslexia research so that we can give all those with this reading disability equal access to a quality education and a lifetime of opportunity based on their individual needs and abilities.”