Thursday, May 8, 2008

Book Review: Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, M.D.

I don't remember learning to read, though I do recall a time when reading was a chore. I was in grade 4 and had chosen a book from the library which was either too difficult or too boring--probably both. It was about cowboys and Indians. Why I ever chose it in the first place is a mystery. I suspect it was recommended by the school's pipe-smoking, lady librarian. She scared me. Nevertheless, a book report was expected Monday morning and by Sunday evening I'd read only a third. I scribbled something onto a page, writing big enough to fill it, then headed downstairs to watch the latest Disney special.

The next morning at school, while we were all working quietly, my teacher, the dreaded Mrs. Cornet, called me up to her desk. A few kids looked up from their books. Such requests were always good for a show.

"How did it end?" she asked. She held my book report in front of her, her thumb practically punching a hole straight through it.

My heart pounded in my ears as I strained to recall the picture on the last page of the book: an Indian lying on the ground, surrounded by other Indians looking sad. "The Indian died," I said.

"But how did he die?" This she said a little louder.

A few kids more kids looked up. Someone snickered. Trying to ignore them, and took a deep breath. "Of natural causes," I whispered.

(Remember, I was nine.)

The teacher then proceeded to ask one of the boys in the class to enlighten me as to the book's real ending, where the cowboy shot the Indian. She tsked at me and sent me back to my seat while the class tittered with 'better you than me' antipathy. Mortified, I slipped into my seat and swore I would never choose a tricky book again.

In Overcoming Dyslexia, Dr. Sally Shaywitz describes what I suspect I was experiencing that year: "the fourth grade slump."
"Around the fourth grade there is a tremendous surge in the proportion of words that are irregular, those that do not follow the regular rules for pronunciation and do not lend themselves to sounding out."

Fourth grade is typically when children transition from learning to read to reading to learn. A child may be able to decipher the reading code, blending the letter sounds into words, but if it is not done fluently and with good comprehension, a dip in reading performance results. One might argue that I should have skipped the Disney special and finished the story. Point taken. But the fact that I was willing to risk the wrath of Mrs. Cornet is proof to me that I was struggling. That woman was a terror.

Overcoming Dyslexia isn't about 'the fourth grade slump.' That's just where I saw a glimpse of myself in it's pages. The book is really about eliminating unnecessary suffering due to dyslexia through early screening and effective intervention.

Dr. Shaywitz walks the reader through the history of dyslexia, as well as it's neurological basis, diagnosis and treatment. Her recommendations are evidence-based, meaning the interventions have withstood scientific scrutiny. As a former physiotherapist, another profession which demands evidence-based practice, it was a comfort to me to know that teaching methods do matter, that teaching a child to read is rocket science, and that Mrs. Cornet's methods might have been lacking.

No one should have to survive grade 4, or any other grade, for that matter. With books like Overcoming Dyslexia, there's hope for us all.

No comments:

Post a Comment