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After years of teaching in New York State general and special education classrooms, and after more years directing curriculum and instruction as a school administrator, I returned joyfully to the classroom where my mission was to reengage struggling high school students. Coming to me as sophomores, juniors and seniors, my students had known failure at school since their early grades. They avoided typical high school activities and did not like school. But they came. I saw in them an inner desperation and (although well hidden) fleeting remnants of hope. I think they may have believed me when I promised them that I would find a way for them to learn better.

They believed me because in my classroom they felt some success. For years these students did not even take state assessments because with their low attendance and achievement, the district felt it would have been a punishing ordeal for them, and instead took the hit for their non-participation. No more. That remnant of hope drove them to sit down with me and devote some serious effort to learning. Together, we looked at current research on brain differences. Ideas about alternate ways of teaching and learning resonated around Room 240 like bat radar. A number of my students passed state assessments.

However…some of them continued to struggle with reading, painfully limping through passages at the second grade level. Reading was so difficult for them, I could see why they hated to do it.

During my teacher training, the standard platform was a meaning-based, whole language reading program with letter/sound correspondences and spelling rules taught incidentally.  By realigning my teaching practices to atypical learners, offering them a rich diet of background knowledge, relevant activities and respect for learning styles and processing time, I used meaning-based methods to help some find their strength as confident readers. But every year I had a few students for whom this was not effective. As my understanding of brain function deepened, I came to realize that these students may have had the structural and functional brain differences that commonly affect 5-17% of school-age children. They required something more.

A year into my own study of dyslexia, after looking at Orton-Gillingham research and practice, I concluded that bringing a multisensory, explicit, structured reading program to my students would be a promising intervention. I spent a summer acquiring my first thirty hours of training, and the following September my four struggling readers and I began.

Accustomed to failure and very suspicious of starry-eyed teachers, these young men needed first to buy in, so we started with the brain model that sat on our table. We talked pathways, white matter, and fMRI’s. We discussed how a combination of auditory, kinesthetic and visual techniques could create or strengthen brain circuits to enable them to read more accurately and fluently.  We talked about how it might feel to understand and learn with pleasure, not pain.

Even though I had rewritten all the cutsie mnemonics to reflect a young man’s taste, my students were still uncomfortable being seen using plates of sand, plastic screens, blending boards and tapping pads.  We kept the door closed and gave it a shot.

Cut to June. Of the four, one student continued his pattern of poor attendance and benefited very little and three took off like rockets. They pounded red words into their forearms and remembered them. They learned the sounds that combinations of letters make, how to break words into syllables and how to tap out each syllable under the table so no one would notice. They stopped wildly guessing after glancing at the first letter of any long word. They couldn’t wait to pick it up again in the fall. A mother cried at a parent meeting. Those three students and those after them who became successful readers in my classroom went on to finish high school and successfully join the world of work or college.

Here is the meaning of dyslexia, a rather scary word. Dys = difficulty; lexia = reading and language. That is all it means. Difficulty with reading and language. I came to an understanding of dyslexia late in my public school career. But I realize now how essential knowledge about cerebral diversity and the functioning of the reading brain is for teachers to be able to reach all of their students. All teachers, all students.

Now I am retired, but these techniques work so well and make such a difference in students’ lives, I can’t stop. I feel delighted and privileged to continue offering reading and writing instruction to all kinds of learners, this time in Chicago at Vida Learning Center.

Next blog: the advantages of having a dyslexic brain. There are many and they may surprise you. (Think of Walt Disney, Charles Schwab, Thomas Edison and Billy Bob Thornton).

Julie-Vida learning tutor

Julia Costanzo, MS, SDA