To mark Dyslexia Awareness Month, author Meg Mason writes about how she reacted – and what she did – when her daughter Daphne Mason was diagnosed with dyslexia at kindergarten age.
Words | Meg Mason and Daphne Mason
For most of us, reading is like breathing. Something we do every day without ever really thinking about the mechanics of it or stopping to consider the incredible fact that just by moving our eyes across tiny black squiggles on a page, shapes acquire meaning and become narrative, shape our inner life and for those of us who love words, bring enormous joy.
Even as someone who writes for a living, I don’t think I’d given it single thought until we discovered that our daughter was dyslexic when she was in kindergarten. From then on, we would think about the mechanics of reading a lot.
There is always a mixture of sorrow and relief, I think, whenever a child is diagnosed with a learning difference. On one hand, you suddenly understand why so many home readers have been thrown at the wall in despair, why a clever, articulate little person with a broad vocabulary cannot identify the simplest word on a page, why together you can laboriously study and flash-card and sound out a word like ‘the’ and one page later, it is unrecognisable again.
And then there is grief, that reading may never be easy or pleasurable, that school will be a constant and sometimes overwhelming challenge and that your job now is to protect your child’s personal and academic self-concept until they’re out the other side.
Dyslexia is an amazing, multifaceted condition and contrary to popular understanding (or the joke that’s commonly made) it’s not just an issue of letters being reversed and words appearing backwards.
Dyslexic people are visual thinkers. Thoughts pass through their minds as whole pictures which is why the symbolic alphabet and words that don’t have a picture to them – all those abstract theys and thems and whens and ifs – are so difficult to grasp that often the brain simply doesn’t see them on the page. Breaking symbolic concepts even further down into sounds – the phonetic method of learning to read – is mostly a disaster for dyslexic children.
Following our daughter’s diagnosis, she spent two years modelling every single sight word – all 160 of them – three-dimensionally in clay, the letters as well as a model representing the definition, so that the symbols became something concrete that she could ‘photograph’ with her mind and absorb into memory. It’s a method called the Davis programme and I think, without overstatement, it changed the course of her life.
Now, at 12, she is a capable reader and happily acceptant of the fact that there’s a uniqueness to her learning style. I will never fully understand what it must feel like for her to pick up a book, but as the non-dyslexic parents and teachers of dyslexic children it’s our job to keeping trying. Maybe the following, from Daphne, will help.
Q&A WITH DAPHNE MASON, AGE 12
Can you describe what it feels like when you read?
Well, physically it feels like reading in a moving car. The words move around a lot, which makes my brain and eyeballs ache, and I get headache and feel dizzy and my face feels really hot sometimes.
The first time I look at a word, there is no meaning behind it and it kind of takes me a longer time to get what the book’s saying. My brain switches letters around so a T that is at the end of the word looks like it’s at the start. Sometimes it adds letters as well.
The first time I read the sentence, I don’t see the tiny words so I have to go back and read it three or four more times, because it stopped making sense.
If I am just doing normal work in class I can block out background noise, but if I’m reading a book that is especially disinteresting, my surroundings feel louder than normal and I get less and less focused.
There is font called Open Dyslexia, which makes the words look three dimensional, so they stay still and stay on the lines and don’t jumble around. When the words look like more like pictures they’re easier to read and you can get it on Kindle.
School can be hard when you are dyslexic because reading is such a big part of every day. What are some challenges you’ve faced?
One is that my teachers really don’t know which reading group to put me in. It can feel like they’re a bit scared of me so they just put me in the highest group and those books always have really small print. But I’m not saying to put a dyslexic child in the lower group automatically. It’s not about how good they are at reading, it’s about comprehension and love of reading that really matters.
The second thing is spelling tests. There’s one we have to do every year with fifty or so words, and I once told a teacher that I shouldn’t do it because it wouldn’t prove anything about my real level. But she said ‘well, sorry you just have to’. My results kind of proved that it’s just not how my brain works. I think teachers are worried about giving us special consideration in case they’re not allowed.
What are some things people might think about dyslexia that aren’t true?
Something that I notice a lot is people will say ‘I’m so dyslexic, I can’t spell’ but it’s not an adjective that means bad at spelling. And it can’t be ‘fixed’ because it’s not a disease, it’s a whole condition. Science has proven that a dyslexic brain looks physically different to a non-dyslexic brain and that if you scan our brains while we are reading, a totally different area lights up.
What are some super-practical things teachers can do to make their classrooms happier for dyslexic students?
I once had a teacher spend some of her own time researching a bit about it and what helps dyslexics in the learning environment, which made me feel like I never had to explain it to her or say ‘oh sorry I can’t do that.’ I felt safe, if that makes sense.
My teacher this year doesn’t mind me reading the literacy book outside of school and she understands that audiobooks help me a lot. She overlooks spelling mistakes and focuses on my comprehension of the text and marks me more on that.
But I think the main thing is, never, ever make a dyslexic feel strange. I can tell you from personal experience, that it is the most horrible feeling in the world, to be made to feel like you’re special or have special needs or a problem. It’s not our fault that we can’t read and spell as easily as someone else and it’s not our fault that it’s only fair to give us different help.
And even if you are, never show that you are annoyed to have to make extra effort for a dyslexic. Maybe you are, but just please don’t show it because it makes us really guilty and dyslexics should never feel guilty.
You just mentioned audiobooks, which you listen to every single day. What do you love about them?
This would take hours to explain but I’ll try: audiobooks mean we can read the most complex books because it’s someone talking to you and telling you the story and the sore eyes and dizziness can’t slow you down. Because we are visual thinkers it means we can create movie images in our minds and the audiobook is the dialogue.
What are your favourite books of all time?
Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Tess of the D’Ubervilles, Northanger Abbey, and Jane Eyre. And all the Nancy Mitfords. I’ve tried to read them on paper but it’s really hard. Right now I’m reading Romeo and Juliet on paper but the only reason I can keep my eyes glued to the page is because it’s such a good story.
Some people say ‘oh, audiobooks is not real reading.’ What do you think about that?
Those people must have never read an audiobook. Because I think, what is the difference between the voice in your head that you hear when you’re reading to yourself, and the voice on tape that’s reading to you? I have got so much pleasure out of audiobooks so I would just say, don’t be a killjoy.
What are the best things about being dyslexic?
I don’t want to brag but these are just things that all dyslexics have. It’s easy to do maths problems because we can see it in our heads and we have really good memories and really good imaginations and we can make movies in our minds.
If you could ding a magic wand and not be dyslexic, would you?
Meg Mason is a journalist and author of Say It Again in a Nice Voice and You Be Mother.