Learning Differently

dys·​lex·​ia (noun)

From the English stem “dys” meaning difficulty and the Greek word “lexis” meaning speech

     The dictionary continues to define the diagnosis of dyslexia as, “a variable often familial learning disability involving difficulties in acquiring and processing language that is typically manifested by a lack of proficiency in reading, spelling, and writing.” While these words are not factually inaccurate, no one-sentence definition fully encapsulates the disability. This definition is what dyslexia is. This is what dyslexia is not.

Misconception #1: “If you have dyslexia, you can’t be smart.”

     “Their self esteem tends to be impacted. They may not see themselves as intelligent because they’ve struggled in the classroom for so long. Trying to build up their ability to see themselves as intelligent people is important,” says Jenn McGuinness, a reading special educator at ORHS. When so much of the schooling process, work world, and general life is one track minded, it’s easy to get caught up in it if your brain isn’t functioning in the same way. It’s important to emphasize that the way a dyslexic brain works isn’t wrong. “We try to use the verbiage, ‘I learn differently. It doesn’t mean I’m stupid, it means that my brain learns differently,’” says Julie Leader, the mother of a dyslexic middle schooler. 

     For students in their schooling years, this is especially difficult when the focus is so much on academic achievement. “They’re smart and they have strengths in so many different areas. They might have a glitch in math or a glitch in reading but there are so many more things that these kids can do,” said Caroline Smith, a case manager at ORHS. Where dyslexia creates a roadblock in some situations, it allows for other gifts and paths of thought to emerge in areas like athletics, arts, or the ability to persist. 

Misconception #2: “Dyslexia is when people get letters mixed up or backwards in their heads.”

     Dyslexia falls under one of thirteen categorized educational disabilities recognized in New Hampshire. It is a unique term that serves as an umbrella for many specific learning disabilities to fall under. It is often compartmentalized in non-dyslexics’ heads as switching letters or words around. This can be true in some cases, but more often, it’s much more specific.

     Stacy Jones* is a dyslexic student at ORHS. Jones clarified some of her own personal challenges being that she doesn’t always hear what is said. For example, you might say ‘day’ and she might hear ‘say.’ “My greatest challenge is understanding and remembering everything about the concept or subject that we’re learning. I can’t remember it, I don’t understand the homework, or I couldn’t understand what they were saying in class. Sometimes, I will have never understood the basic principles of the last unit so when we go to the next one, it’s like starting over.” This obstacle can translate quickly into confusion and misunderstanding in a classroom (or any) setting. The cumulative effect of this, is that it is very easy to fall behind, and this can happen very quickly, so much to where it’s extremely hard to catch back up. 

     For AJ Bellabona (‘21), he struggles more with reading. He remembered reading with his parents as a young age, and coming across a simple word. “I would just either miss it and the whole sentence, or it would be a harder word that I just wouldn’t know and would spend 10 minutes trying to figure it out.” It’s important to realize that just because you’ve seen one dyslexic, it does not mean you have seen every dyslexic. If all dyslexia was simply just a mix up of letters, the diagnosis and solution for the problem would be much easier. Each dyslexic is made up of their own unique recipe of specific challenges, as well as their own set of strengths, and is not as black and white as its misconception.

Misconception #3: “Dyslexia is easy to diagnose.”

     The road to diagnosis for dyslexia is often one that is long and challenging. Leader shared her own experience diagnosing her dyslexic child. “It took years to diagnose her and it took us years to figure out which route to take.” In the Oyster River School District, the majority of screening takes place in the elementary schools. From there, STAR testing is the screening process for dyslexia from middle school until ninth grade, and the PSAT and SAT are the only school instituted screening tests from there on. Screening for dyslexia is important in order to get a headstart on creating compensating strategies. In 2016, New Hampshire passed a dyslexia law “HB1644” that requires all public schools to screen students for dyslexia in kindergarten and first grade. 

     Amy Jones*, not only the mother of Stacy Jones, but also a dyslexic, explains, “in the beginning, it was challenging because we didn’t know what was going on. We did know her reading, speech, and math skills were not that of her peers or sister at her age. We suspected she had a challenge, but didn’t know what to do. We first approached her kindergarten teacher, but she had never worked with learning disabilities and it was hard for her to identify just what the issue was.” 

     Some families will choose to seek outside screening to test their children, but it is still difficult to diagnose from there. The Jones had to poke and prod from the school’s general screening to find a specialized audiologist, who finally diagnosed Stacy with auditory processing disorder. “The school’s reading assistance wasn’t enough at the elementary level, so we sought out a Wilson reading tutor, who worked with Stacy four days a week in the summer. There was a lot of extra time, money, and effort put in by our whole family to identify the problem and get him the help he needed to succeed, even at the elementary level,” reflected Amy. 

rocky road

Misconception #4: “Not much can be done to help the schooling process for dyslexics.”

     When a dyslexic person has trouble learning to read, it may seem like they are an anomaly amongst traditional thinkers. Unbeknownst to most however, the human brain was never developed with the ability to read. According to the Scientific American, reading is a practice entirely unique to humans, that’s only been relevant for a few thousand years. A third of the brain links visual system and language regions together, otherwise known as the “wordbox.” The development of all our wordboxes starts when we begin to learn how to read, as we are trained to recognize shapes that look like words.

     The process of learning to read seems like nothing out of the ordinary – it’s what every kindergartner embarked on in their early  years of school – but for a dyslexic, that process is not quite so easy. “Someone who does well with reading and writing has a different brain set up, where those parts of their brain more active than a dyslexic student. When you teach a dyslexic student how to read, you have to make connections in their brain that haven’t existed before. That’s why that instruction is so targeted and specific, because it’s designed to build pathways between parts of the brain that a dyslexic student’s brain that isn’t generally activated,” says McGuinness. The Orton-Gillingham reading program is a well known and successful reading education approach for not only dyslexics, but is a successful and beneficial approach for all kinds of thinkers and students. Within ORHS, there are two teachers currently certified in the strategy, McGuinness being one of them, with a certification in the Wilson approach, a branch of Orton-Gillingham. Traditional reading instruction won’t always work for kids with dyslexic students because it doesn’t build those pathways, but there are strategies to give students with dyslexia the tools to succeed.  

     There are other plans that can be enacted to help dyslexic students. An Individualized Education Program, or “IEP,”  is a federal and state mandated document for most students within special education that covers goals, objectives, accommodations, and modifications. Every IEP is specific to every student.

     At Oyster River, the team behind special education makes sure that every IEP is met, and no student is left behind. This can be facilitated by the assisted study halls, a.k.a. study skills, given to every special education student, or with the help of any one of the 27 paraeducators within the building. “I really think ORHS and the district does a nice job of paying close attention to students strengths and acknowledging that we all have strengths and weaknesses. As a district, we try to meet all kids needs, regardless of IDEA (the special education federal law). There are a variety of accommodations that can be made and specific goals and benchmarks that can be implemented to support kids,” said Misty Lowe, the Assistant Director of Student Services at the high school. Lowe works beside her team of special education counselors, paraeducators, and case managers to ensure that every child is supported in a way that allows them to succeed. “There’s just a variety of people who are very gifted at what they do and are very good at helping kids.” While navigating school can sometimes feel like an uphill struggle, there is certainly a multitude of support and a range of accommodations that can be made.

Misconception #5: “Dyslexia only affects the dyslexic.”

     Dyslexia does not just affect the diagnosed, but touches their family, friends, and educators in a multitude of ways. “It can be scary as a parent. You wonder what the future holds, but because of her positive attitude, her hard work ethic, her confidence and  determination and resiliency I have no doubt my child will be a success. She is used to having to work harder and is not afraid of it,” says Amy Jones. In tandem with working with the school and her daughter’s special education team, Amy Jones will read her daughter’s English class books aloud and record them. This allows Jones to read along with the recording and absorb the information better.

“The biggest impact it has had is just learning how to see things differently. I’ve always thought about people learning in one way, and experiencing the world in one way. When I watched him go through his different experiences, I realized there’s not just one way to learn about or experience the world,” said Kate Johnson*, the parent of a dyslexic child. It is an unique experience to grow up in the close proximity of a dyslexic because it is an eye opening way to experience the world through a different thought process. 

Misconception #6: “Dyslexia is a disability.”

While dyslexia is an obstacle, it is not not a downfall. Dyslexia can serve as an opportunity to shape those people willing to go the extra mile into hardworking people. “I see it not necessarily as a setback, but as a difference where I know it makes me work harder than others, and in the end will make me go further,”    supports Amy Jones. She remembers her school experience in the 80’s. “Often I was told that something just couldn’t be done, particularly in the manner I was approaching it, because my approach to everything was very nontraditional. I just didn’t understand and do things the way other people did but I still really wanted to succeed at my goals. By the time I got to high school, when people told me something couldn’t be done [that way] I would look at them and say ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way and with me, there’s always a will.’” 

grit (noun):

firmness of mind or spirit : unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger

The definition behind the word “grit” is much clearer than that of dyslexia. Having struggles in early life tend to create “gritty” people, who often gain more from their hardships than what was lost. Dyslexia, along with many other learning disabilities, comes with its fair share of obstacles and misconceptions, but it also comes, in some instances, with grit. 

Most questions and problems that come with everyday life present some sort of roadblock. It is when these roadblocks come about that dyslexics are able to navigate alternate routes around where many traditional thinkers would stop. While grit and dyslexia are two separately defined words in the dictionary, the two often go hand in hand. The adversity of the diagnosis has the ability to reveal character, and a gritty one at that. “Without question, it’s a superpower. Without question. They think outside of the box and come out with the most extraordinary responses and answers to these incredible problems,” Johnson affirms.

     Tonight, I sit next to my brother at the kitchen island. He comes home every day brain tired, often discouraged, but always determined. He is dyslexic which does not school make school easy. After school is better, but it’s not always a relief. His determination is impressive. I have watched him persevere and endure tutors, extra help, and climbing mountains of frustrating lessons since we were little. But I have also watched him set goals, work to meet them with resolve, sticktoitiveness, determination and that I’ve seen in no other. I’ve no doubt he will meet his goals because dyslexia has taught him how to do this. 

Written by Grace Castonguay 

Artwork by Chloe Jackson