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Few things are as heart-wrenching as seeing your child suffer. A child who is not learning, especially learning to read, suffers. Not just now, but for years. Although there are some great professionals—teachers, therapists, etc—, a parent needs to be very involved in the process every day.

One of the things we’ve struggled with is dyslexia. The first child I taught to read was very, very smart and yet could not remember a letter sound for more than 2 minutes or recognize the letter again when we came back to it. It was very confusing for both of us. What was going on with my child? Through much trial and error, we were led to a program I cannot praise highly enough: Wanda Sanseri’s Spell to Write and Read. Thankfully, since that time, a few more excellent resources have come available to further help parents and dyslexics, including our two seriously and one mildly dyslexic student.

One important key to diagnosing dyslexia: bright kids not learning to read.

Here are my 3 biggest recommendations and the biggest key to my kids doing so well in overcoming their dyslexia to the degree they have:

The spelling program that was literally a godsend for us, the one that turned my dyslexics into strong students* and my good readers into stellar spellers is Wanda Sanseri’s Spell to Write and Read. This solid program is built on the premise that good spellers become good readers. It works consistently. It seems pricey, but to me it bought my children a future. What price can you put on that? Also, once you make the initial investment of around $100, you only need to buy composition or spiral notebooks for students each year. So, for a large family, it’s actually a great bargain. (Check Amazon or look for a used one too.) Looking at it, it can seem a bit daunting from the teaching side, but it has a proven track record. It is very important to get both Spell to Write and Read AND The WISE Guide for Spelling. The first walks you, literally step by step, through “how-to”, the second is the spelling words. It is helpful to buy the 70 phonogram cards (one set for teacher), and you need a composition notebook (from Walmart/Target) for each child. The phonogram cassette tape would only be necessary if you (the teacher) struggle with reading.

There are 2 important tweaks I made to this program, which is a very no-frills, no fluff program: when my dyslexics write a spelling word, I have them orally spell it back to me, including the markings and syllables (the program explains those, do not skip them). With traditional students, I just look at their papers. Second, when they are first learning the phonograms (aka letters and combinations), instead of just seeing the cards, I had them shape the letters in playdough and/or write them in cornmeal that we kept in a Tupperware style container (like sandwich size container) or trace them on fine-grit sandpaper WHILE saying the sounds. Combine the tactile, visual and oral in learning letter/phonogram sounds and words every day.

The phonograms sounds need to be drilled every day and the spelling program needs to be done most days for consistency—even if this is something you do at home to “supplement” what is happening at school. Another small tweak: the program is heavily Christian. If you are not, it is easy to change the example sentences if you want to.

One other “trick” for all children: I made a chart with 50 circles for the steps in the program and we crossed off a circle for each step. The steps are mostly separate from the spelling section.

BTW, this program includes diagnostic spelling tests so that you can pinpoint your child’s grade level (down to the month). My regular students always tested several grades above level for spelling; the dyslexics because of this program were always on or slightly above grade level (instead of way behind as would be expected). I really need to write Mrs. Sanseri a thank you note!

*For the record, one of my dyslexics is in grad school pursuing a science degree, the other just won an academic scholarship to a prestigious university based on ACT scores and is planning on medical school.

Traditional school homework is a nightmare for a dyslexic. He has to work more than twice as hard as an average student because the neuro-pathways in the brain are wired differently for him. It literally takes the brain twice as long to make the circuits needed. It’s exhausting! The following should help parents better understand and empathize with the challenges while forging a path to success for their child. I’ve listed them in the order I find most helpful.

  1. Read Overcoming Dyslexia, by Sally Shaywitz, MD.  This came out in paperback a few years ago, but is still a huge book. Shaywitz is billed as “one of the world’s leading experts on reading and dyslexia” which is believable because this book is an amazing resource. Be aware that the first half is heavy technical stuff (explaining what happens differently in the dyslexic brain when it is learning to decode, etc). If you must take quick action, you may want to skip to the second half which deals with diagnosing, treating, interfacing with school personnel, etc. The table of contents is broken down to help you focus on “Early clues” and “Later clues”, etc. (This book came out when I was working with our 2nd dyslexic—he had almost every early sign on the list.) Anyhow, if you start with Part 2-4, be sure to go back and plow through part 1 because it is so important to understanding what is happening. One important key to diagnosing dyslexia: bright kids not learning to read.

2. Ben Foss is an author who has done some collaboration with the Eides (next item) and is himself a dyslexic with strong ideas that will challenge some of what you may be thinking about how to “deal” with dyslexia . The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan: A Blueprint for Renewing Your Child’s Confidence and Love of Learning encourages us to use more tools that are coming available while enlarging our definition of successful learning . I enjoyed reading his book more than The Dyslexic Advantage. One thing about it that made me uncomfortable: he seems to suggest abandoning eye-reading for dyslexics. I think it is important for them to have the skills for eye-reading, if at all possible, even while adapting technologies that allow them to read more quickly and better comprehend written materials. Those technologies are not available for every situation. They should be used whenever possible, but having the eye-reading skills is invaluable in our culture both for processing information and minimizing social embarrassment. Yep, I went there. Children and teens are the targets of much teasing and whatever we can do to minimize that is worth looking at.

3. Another relatively new work, The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain, by Brock L. Eide M.D. M.A., Fernette F. Eide M.D., helps parents and children recognize that this is simply a different learning style with strong advantages that should be capitalized on instead of exclusively focusing on the disadvantage of eye-reading difficulties.

4. The Gift of Dyslexia helps give a parent and child some perspective, but for me, the “overcoming it” aspect was not as helpful as the above resources, although it is where I initially found the idea to use playdough and other resources to enforce the tactile experience when learning to read.

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