An invisible weakness: Learning with dyslexia

An invisible weakness: Learning with dyslexia



The biggest revelation for Jan Stickney happened just a couple years ago.


Regional Editor

“If you have a giraffe, lay it with the face turning to the left turn then turn that giraffe around so the face is to the right, it’s still a giraffe. Think about a b, you turn it around and it would look like a d.” –Jan Stickney, retired Plevna teacher

The biggest revelation for Jan Stickney happened just a couple years ago.

Less than a year before her retirement from the Plevna School District, Stickney had been struggling with a third grader’s inability to read and spell. This student was bright, energetic and social so she questioned the difficulty.

Her granddaughter’s similar troubles led Stickney on a path to Jonesboro, Ark., where she discovered the reason these children were having difficulty. It made her recall the other students with similar troubles from over her 45 years of teaching.

It was dyslexia, defined by the Mayo Clinic as a learning disorder characterized by difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words.

It’s a common disorder, occurring in children with normal vision and intelligence. Sometimes dyslexia goes undiagnosed for years and isn’t recognized until adulthood.

There’s no cure for dyslexia. It’s a lifelong condition caused by inherited traits that affect how your brain works. However, most children with dyslexia can succeed in school with tutoring or a specialized education program. Emotional support also plays an important role.

The information about dyslexia both opened Stickney’s eyes and upset her.

When she discovered that up to 20 percent of the students she taught over the years would have benefitted from a different style of teaching, “I was upset that this information had yet to be shared with the teachers who are working with these students on a day-to-day basis,” she said.

Schools weren’t talking about the problem. They hadn’t even acknowledged it.

In Jonesboro a mother-daughter team had created a nonprofit organization to address the needs of struggling readers. Stickney, a resident of Plevna, took its five-day course and later a screening class that was offered.

She grew passionate about dyslexia and its effects. She wanted to make a difference in the lives of those struggling students so she brought what she learned back to Fallon County.

Before last year the state of Montana “didn’t even want to talk about it,” she said. One of the biggest reasons was that they didn’t have any way to address it since it’s a challenge; there’s no one solution to dyslexia.

But in September 2016 the Montana State Office of Public Instruction put together a document recognizing that dyslexia does exist and that the children do need some different type of teaching.

That was at least a step in the right direction, she thought.

The biggest problem with the education system in the country is that it’s based solely on text, writing and reading, she said. When struggling with dyslexia, that’s a big source of discouragement and tended to leave the students feeling different, below average and stupid, she added. And they shouldn’t have to feel that way.

It’s a myth that dyslexia is simply when a child switches letters when reading. Though that does happen, the same thing happens with most children when they begin reading at a young age.

What dyslexia does is make a child unable to decode words, to take words apart and put them back together.

“When they see a new word that they’ve never seen like ‘fantastic’ the average child can look at the -fan, look at the -tas, then look at the –tic,” she explained. “For a dyslexic child, it’s all blended together.

“However their brain functions they cannot break the words apart into small enough pieces to decode the language.”

What the students need instead of endless textbooks is a 3D approach to thinking, she offered. These students see objects, not flat pictures.

Stickney said she considers students with dyslexia gifted.

“They’re bright people but the decoding of the language, the reading, interferes with people seeing their capabilities, talents and gifts,” she said.

They go on to become skilled professionals, artists and musicians. So while they are perceived to be behind the curve, students with dyslexia are often possess incredibly high IQs.

Research has shown that many top minds throughout history have been dyslexic, such as President John F. Kennedy and Albert Einstein.

This weakness, as Stickney called it, should not be considered a learning disability because that invites the school systems to pull these students out of the regular classroom to do their learning elsewhere.

That’s not what those students need. It would actually make the problem worse, she said.

But there’s a way to make it not quite as devastating.

Stickney said if these students could be caught at a kindergarten age — there are some markers to show if dyslexia is present — and there is some intense, hands-on phonics education, then the students could proceed to the regular classroom for their education, without necessarily being straight-A students in reading and spelling.

“But we have to get the education system to realize that this is the direction we need to go,” she said. “And they do fight it.”

The next step is to bring this awareness and information to colleges that train teachers and to teachers who are already in the classroom, she said.

Dyslexia does go unnoticed, as Stickney realized had been the case with many students over her four decades of teaching in Fallon County. But those students tend to compensate for the trouble. They’re extremely bright and figure a way around the problem.

“There are things you can watch for to see if a child has dyslexia,” Stickney said. “They will misuse words. They’ll be looking at a picture of a volcano and call it a tornado. Then when corrected they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s right.’”

Stickney is already taking an approach to ease the difficulty for dyslexic students.

She has started working with students after school using a program called Connections: OG in 3D. That program is not affiliated with the school; they only provide a space for Stickney to see students. But she’s hopeful that administrators will favor giving the program a try in Fallon County’s schools.

Through her work with the program she has encountered several parents of dyslexic children that have been able to breathe a sigh of relief, just now understanding why their student had been struggling.

“I’ve had parents break into tears,” she said. “It’s not bad parenting, it’s not children who aren’t trying, it’s not children with low IQs. It’s children whose brains do not connect with the language as quickly and easily as most people do.”