Imagine trying to read a story printed backward, with each and every letter turned around, or trying to write your letters staring into a mirror rather than looking at the page. The ensuing frustration might come close to the experience of a dyslexic student trying to decode school work.
While puzzling out backward words, a group of adults struggled to follow a simple story at The Liberty School’s recent open house. The school, a private institution for dyslexic and gifted students, held the event to help spread awareness about the challenges of dyslexia.
At the open house, literate adults exchanged exasperated looks while muddling through exercises that asked them to draw shapes with their nondominant hands and parse an invented language.
“It seemed like, to a person, everyone felt exhausted and overwhelmed after going through all the stations,” Head of School Christian Holmen said.
The exasperation sparked by the activities was meant to replicate some of the frustration felt by about 13% to 14% of children in school who have dyslexia, a learning disability that can make it difficult to read, spell, write and pronounce words, according to the International Dyslexia Association.
The exact causes of dyslexia are not known, but brain scans have shown physical differences among those with dyslexia, according to the association.
Liberty School founder Joyce Bilgrave first learned about dyslexia in the 1960s when she took her son to a psychologist to determine why he was having such trouble learning to read. The word dyslexia scared her at first.
“My heart clutched, and I said: ‘Is it fatal?’” she recalled.
Bilgrave, a first grade teacher when her son was diagnosed, went on to become an expert in dyslexia education. She founded three schools, including The Liberty School, and four camps for dyslexic students. She also lobbied for change in public schools to better serve dyslexic students.
In the decades since, awareness about dyslexia has improved, but dyslexic students can still struggle, in part, because it takes them much longer than nondyslexic students to learn the basics of reading, Bilgrave said.
A nondyslexic student can grasp a concept such as the role of a silent e in words after it’s presented eight or 10 times, she said. A dyslexic student may need to be exposed to the same material 20 to 40 times.
So, most dyslexic students have just barely started to grasp concepts when their teacher is moving on. By second grade, a dyslexic student can be left floundering, Bilgrave said.
Each person with dyslexia experiences it differently, and it can range from mild to severe symptoms. Some dyslexics have trouble with not only writing and reading, but understanding spoken language and completing math problems, according to the International Dyslexia Association.
However, those with dyslexia can also have excellent conceptualization, reasoning, imagination, abstraction, the ability to get the “big picture” and a high level of understanding information read out loud, Holmen said. Some with dyslexia can also be gifted in music and art.
Despite some of the gifts dyslexic students can have, many often feel disengaged from school and drop out, Bilgrave said.
“They feel dumb and stupid because everybody else can read,” she said.
Illiteracy can make finding a job difficult and can lead to some dyslexics to get involved with crime, she said.
A study of inmates in Texas found about 48% of the prisoners were dyslexic.
To better educate dyslexics, Bilgrave said she would like to see every kindergartner screened for dyslexia and those identified as dyslexics placed in specialized classrooms to master the basics of literacy before fourth grade using the Orton-Gillingham approach to teaching reading.
“It’s simple and easy and successful and should be implemented in every elementary school in the country,” she said. The method, used at The Liberty School, is described as direct, explicit and multisensory by the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators.
After decades in education, Bilgrave, 89, said she is still tutoring students and advocating for better services for dyslexics.
“When you work with these little dyslexic children who are so confused. ... And let them know that they are competent, capable people and change the trajectory of self-defeatism, that is a huge motivator. I see that happening over and over and over,” she said.
Across the region, services for those with reading delays have improved in recent years, said Adrea Bogle with the San Juan Board of Cooperative Educational Services. The board provides special education services to schools in the region.
The state’s Reading to Ensure Academic Development Act provided funding for elementary schools in the region to hire reading specialists to work with students in small groups, she said.
Many elementary schools have also increased the amount of time schools spend on reading to 90-minute blocks, she said. Those blocks allow students with reading delays to spend more time with the lessons.
“It’s a big commitment for everybody – the kids and the staff,” Bogle said.
Special education teachers with San Juan BOCES have also been selected by the Colorado Department of Education to receive additional training and coaching in the Orton-Gillingham method over the next two years.
To help those students struggling to learn and feeling dejected, Bogle said her staff tries to help the child identify where they can excel in school.
“Our special education teachers are the biggest advocates and supporters of identifying strengths in students,” she said.
Parents who think their children between 5 and 6 years old could have dyslexia can look for delays learning the alphabet, difficulty with pronunciation and difficulty learning to read, even though the child has normal to above-normal intelligence, Holmen said.
In children 7 years old and older, parents can look for poor spelling, illegible handwriting and distractibility when reading. These symptoms can be paired with excellent conceptualization and reasoning skills.
The Liberty School is currently full and has a full waiting list. But interested families can call the school about admissions at 385-4834.
Parents can also seek help for their students through individual tutoring and the Durango Mountain Camp. The camp provides a six-week language immersion experience.