Odds 'n' Ends
Confessions of a Closet Dyslexic
by Steve Wood
August 27, 2013

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It happened over twenty years ago when my wife and I were attending church on a Sunday evening shortly after we had first started dating. The pastor, who later married us in our dining room with four of our six children as attendants, had asked the congregation to silently read a lengthy passage from the Bible. We were reading from Annie's pocket sized New Testament that she carries with her everywhere.

I was diligently and reverently reading the third verse of about twenty on the page when Annie turned the page. While I can be pretty emotional, I'm not a crybaby. But tears suddenly welled into my eyes and began to stream, uncontrollably, down my cheeks. I thought that this woman whom I'd come to love with all my heart in just a few short weeks would now realize that I was a dummy.

I got myself together, but Annie had noticed the tears and at dinner pressed the issue of what had happened. For the second time in my life, I had to come out and admit that I don't read well. Once I began, what I had only realized in recent years poured out. It's not that I just don't read well, I'm dyslexic. As a result, I read silently at about a hundred and fifty words a minute. If I'm a bit weary, words can dance and rearrange themselves on the page. And unless I'm looking to meet new people, I never dial an unfamiliar phone number without having my finger under the written numbers as I dial.

For the uninitiated, an average speaking speed is around 120-150 words per minute (WPM). Average elementary students often read 170-180 WPM by sixth grade, and speed readers read and comprehend at 1,000, 2,000 WPM or more. John Kennedy was said to have read at 10,000 WPM!

When in college, a speed reading teacher at Purdue University at Indianapolis (now IUPUI) did a quick WTF in class and quickly did what teachers did and do, put me on a different curriculum track for the class made up of remedial readings more suited to my reading level. Today's education experts love to expound on differentiated instruction, but that part-time instructor in the late 60s was already practicing differentiated instruction in her class with me...just without the fancy name. Under ideal conditions and with total concentration, I finally achieved one three-minute timed reading at 1200 WPM with 80% comprehension. Today, again under ideal conditions and usually while sweating bullets, I can max out at 500-600 WPM for short periods...but with really spotty comprehension.

Fortunately for me, Annie had experience with and knew about dyslexia and how debilitating it can be to a person. We celebrated our 19th anniversary this year.

The first time I came out happened when I was a 40 year old, divorced teacher. I had gone back to school evenings and summers to acquire certifications for teaching students with learning disabilities and mild mental handicaps. I was in the office of Dr. Doris Williams, a professor universally loved by both her undergrad and graduate students at Indiana State University. Her classes focused on practical, effective teaching techniques for use with students with disabilities.

When we'd finished our business about a paper I was doing, Doris...she insisted we call her that...asked me to stay and chat a bit. She inquired about my teaching position, and knowing that I was coming off a divorce and losing my farm, asked about my general emotional well being. Luckily, I was to the point that I was finally getting my mind back together after having pretty well trashed my life and those of my family.

Then Doris stunned me with the question...or request, "Steve, I'd like you to apply to be one of my doctoral candidates." Amazingly, possibly because of the rapport Doris had engendered over the years I'd had her for classes, I only paused briefly before answering. I told her, "I can't read well enough to handle doctoral studies." A look of sudden understanding, like I'd been some kind of puzzle to her previously, spread over her face. Thankfully, she didn't press the issue and never raised it again.

In later years, I castigated myself for not taking her up on the offer. My brother, who also has challenges in reading, holds a doctorate in theology from a prestigious seminary where they don't give out sheepskins to dummies. If he could, why couldn't I? But that had been the question my parents and teachers had badgered me with since elementary school. Only when I became skilled in teaching students with dyslexia did I realize the "why," and how severe my disability was.

My father passed away last year at 98 years of age, a month shy of his 99th birthday. He was a pillar of the community...almost any community he participated in. He was first a deacon and later and elder in our church, besides serving as a Sunday School superintendent and teacher. He was a Republican precinct committeeman and later a chairman. He was a trusted source of legal opinion on insurance issues for a Democratic chairman of the ways and means committee in Congress. He had access to and communicated with movers and shakers in government and industry. And when he was in his 80s and I asked him if he had trouble learning how to read, this tough man's eyes filled with tears. OMG, I realized, it's genetic in our family.

Having rather privately come out about my dyslexia on only two occasions, I continued to hide my disability for years. When the learning disabilities job opened up at the school where I taught, I jumped at the opportunity. In a very few private conversations with desperate parents, I shared my secret when appropriate to try and uplift their spirits about the future for their children. If I could become successful with a moderate to serious reading disability, maybe so could their children.

In an article on Writing.com, Confessions of a Closet Dyslexic, Percy Goodfellow gave some excellent advice for those with reading disabilities:

One of the first rules you learn as a dyslexic is not to advertise your disability. By that I mean when you screw up, don’t go blabbing it about. When you do something characteristically stupid and are called on it, go ahead and admit to as much as the error requires but don’t feel obliged to explain any more than necessary. Running off at the mouth only makes matters worse.

When you come out as a dyslexic, people often will assume you're unable to do the tasks necessary for your job, or worse, may think it's a play for getting some kind of slack. I'm retired now and don't contemplate re-entering the workforce as anything other than an occasional columnist and garden writer. I can freely admit my disability without fear of it hurting a career.

And it's true that a dyslexic may not be able to readily do some things that other, more accomplished readers do. I could say that I can't read long, academic papers, but it isn't so. I can, but only with total, somewhat agonizing concentration, rereading sections frequently and often reading material to myself aloud. And it will take me about a hundred times as long as most educated folks to read and digest such material. But I can find and read summaries and reports, going to the full documents only in part to flesh out what I need to know.

When Did I Know?

Somewhere in my first five years of teaching, while grading themes late at night written by my sixth graders, I began to suspect that there might be something wrong with my reading skills beyond just being a lazy or slow reader with poor comprehension. I stared at a paper and could not discriminate whether the written word was "was," or "saw." It conveniently rearranged its letters for me several times before I headed for bed and decided things might be more clear in the morning.

An eye test or a brain scan might have been indicated if I hadn't remembered similar experiences that I'd conveniently let pass and forget. But what struck me was that some of my students might be experiencing the same frustration as I, possibly far more frequently. Such experiences began to drive my teaching career towards gaining additional training and working with students with similar disabilities.

In the summer between my seventh and eighth years of teaching, I was blessed to go through some rigorous training on using the Project Read program. Project Read is a variant of the Orton-Gillingham VAKT (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile) method of teaching dyslexic and other students to read, spell, and write effectively. As I took the training and later taught the program, all of the odds and ends of phonics that had never coalesced into an effective word attack system for me began to fall into place and make sense.

Knowing, What Did I Do with It?

The Project Read training was required preparation for teaching a class of third graders with developmental delays. Our mission in the in-house program was to take virtual non-readers and turn them into readers in a year's time. While not universally successful, we did a pretty good job of helping a lot of kids who otherwise might have fallen through the cracks. It was an innovative program in which as the classroom teacher, I wasn't alone. I had the constant help and support of our school's administration, the school psychologist, our learning disabilities specialist, and especially my fellow third grade teachers.

Staffing meetings were held weekly to analyze progress of the class, often focusing on just one or two students. When I'd hit a particularly rough bump in the road, additional school staff (principal, vice-principal, learning disabilities teacher, etc.) would appear to observe my class, but also to co-teach, demonstrating possible solutions to the problem.

It was an incredible teaching experience.

Having been infected with farm fever, we moved to southwestern Indiana and bought a farm. I got a job as a regular sixth grade teacher, continuing to employ my reading training where possible. When our grade level was departmentalized and I found myself as the graying teacher assigned to teach social studies and science, I began recording our textbooks on cassette tape for students with challenges in reading. Tests were read to all students. When spelling was added to my teaching load, computer spelling programs were employed along with some motivational contests for good scores. (The lowly banana became the all time favorite student reward for a perfect spelling paper!)

Having felt a bit trapped in the departmentalized setting, I leapt at the chance to take the learning disabilities job at my school when it opened up. I once again was able to use Project Read, although not as well as I would have liked due to overwhelming numbers of students and disabilities far beyond LD. As computer use grew in schools, I found them to be an ideal tool for working with students with disabilities, being able to focus reading and spelling materials to students' appropriate levels. We even began to supply our students with free, take-home computers that contained spelling drills and practice tests for an entire school year, reading programs, and...a whole bunch of games.

During that time, I was offered the opportunity to write education and computer columns for several web sites who never knew they had employed a dummy.

My Advice to the Dyslexic

For students and parents of students with reading disabilities, get the help necessary and that is available, sooner being far, far better than later. Having informed, pushy parents who actively participate in a student's education and especially in IEP conferences is a big plus. Such folks were often a headache to me while teaching, but I had to frequently remind myself that we were really all on the same side. By the time I took early retirement from teaching, parents who had become close friends and I drove school administrators nuts with our "outlandish" demands that they meet the bare minimum requirements of a free, appropriate, public education for disabled students as required by law.

For adults, I pretty much have to go with Percy Goodfellow's advice quoted above. Don't open up about your disability unless absolutely necessary. Folks who you are sure will understand will amaze you with their uninformed, callus prejudices about what the dyslexic can and can't do. I was amazed throughout my teaching career by the number of good school administrators who privately expressed the opinion that a learning disability was just a scam for laziness. I was so very glad I'd hid my secret. I was also incredibly lucky in finding Annie, who truly understood. She has faithfully proofread an incredible amount of my columns and even paperwork for school over the years.

If your dyslexia is similar to mine in terms of not being able to see misspellings and the use of wrong words, develop a strong proofreading regimen. I use a spell checker for all my work, followed by traditional silent proofreading, and then have the computer read back to me what I have written. I still will have Annie proof stuff on occasion. Often, but not always, my system will catch errors such as "you" for "your" that a spell checker will never touch. Interestingly, errors such as "vary" for "very," and "possibly" for "possible" often become apparent with an oral, computer generated readback. (All three examples came from proofing this column.)

I haven't yet found a workaround for the times that I know the concept of a word I want to use, but simply can't remember the name of the word. A thesaurus helps, but it takes time. And to this day, I still spend about as much time proofing a column or blog posting as I have writing it.

In pressure packed speaking situations, the old trick of mentally writing the words on a chalkboard in your head and reading them off from there can get one over those occasional times when nerves coupled with a disability rob you of the ability to effectively communicate your thoughts. Of course, a printed script can be an absolute lifesaver when public speaking.

Postscript

I started a file and began putting down some initial thoughts on this subject that popped into my mind in the wee hours of the morning on March 6, 2012. Having previously and somewhat privately come out about my dyslexia on vary rare occasions, I continued to hide my disability from most folks, other than an occasional veiled reference to my dyslexia.

Hopefully, this column may be a help to others struggling with a reading disability. While my current advice and suggestions for dyslexics run a bit thin, one of the glories of running ones own web site is that you can always return to a column to improve and update it.

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