Dyslexia can be more difficult to identify than merely noticing your second grader transposes his bs and ds. While these transpositions might be the first good clue in students who have had a couple of years of exposure to reading and writing in the classroom, there might be other symptoms that cloud the issue.
One thing that can prevent diagnosing dyslexia can be language. For instance, Ms. Gates felt completely exhausted by one of her ESL students, Valentina. By the middle of second grade, Valentina’s emotional outbursts had diminished somewhat – as long as the teacher and everyone around her never asked Valentina to do anything she was unready to do. Otherwise there was hell to pay.
In first grade, the child had had screaming, crying hissy fits for no apparent reason – at least unapparent to everyone else. If Valentina perceived that her teacher or her friends were upset with her or if she was asked to transition to a new activity when she had not finished the first one, she decompensated into a heap on the floor. Any interruption could bring on these outbursts and people around her learned not to push the child’s buttons. However, when she visited the counselor’s office, Valentina behaved like the smartly dressed, beautiful young lady she was and reported no problems with classmates, teachers, or home. In fact, she seemed to thrive on the one-on-one attention from anyone, especially teachers and counselors.
When I came into the picture in Valentina’s grade two class, Ms. Gates had been begging for help for the child. If we didn’t find an answer, the little one was going to fail due to her inability to finish any assignment, her continuous and seemingly compulsive erasing of everything she wrote, not to mention her extremely slow and labored reading. All these challenges in addition to needing one-on-one directions, coaching, and prodding for nearly every assignment made it seem an impossible situation. With a roomful of second graders, Ms. Gates could only provide small amounts of individual attention and tutoring.
I was a newly certified dyslexia teacher and determined to save the world for students who were struggling with this condition. However, after working with little Valentina for a few hours, I could see why the district dyslexia committee warned us about assessing bilingual and ESL students for dyslexia. For one thing, students whose parents spoke both English and another language at home had to take all the tests in their own language as well. Valentina’s parents had indicated that they spoke English and Spanish on the home language survey that every parent completed for every student in the district. Since I also spoke Spanish, I was able to administer the tests in both languages. Unfortunately, it was very seldom that the committee approved admitting these ESL kids into the program, even though they gave the teachers who knew the student best final say. The language barrier could prevent them from being successful in the program. The committee seemed to feel that a student needed to be proficient in English to benefit from the intense instruction in the intervention program.
Luckily, however, Valentina did not speak Spanish. She also could not read it nor understand my directions nor the stories and questions I read to her in Spanish. Additionally, Valentina could not remember sounds in either language from moment to moment. Nor could she remember words she had just read in a previous sentence or paragraph. She had great difficulty repeating short sentences just read to her and tracking words and letters on a page. She exhibited some mixed dominance in her manual dexterity and her eye-hand use. In other words, she was right-handed for handwriting, but her left eye and left arm were dominantly used for certain activities. Her spelling, copying, decoding, and reading comprehension scores all pointed to symptoms of dyslexia.
All this lack of remembering and connection on this student’s part was documented carefully and after much deliberation, Valentina was admitted to the dyslexia intervention program.
Another challenge blurring the discovery of Valentina’s symptoms was the mentioned emotional immaturity. If a child refuses to complete assignments it’s hard to decide the problem is dyslexia, “dysteachia,” lack of learning, or if it is frustration on the child’s part. In this case, after admitting Valentina to the program, I would not say we ever knew for sure the causes of her problems. She changed and learned but the change was neither immediate nor dramatic. She worked in a small group with me and two other recently assessed students with symptoms of dyslexia for the rest of grade two and all of grade three.
Being no psychologist, my perception was that she was using the fits and tears, in part, to get the attention of all those around her since Valentina was a middle child in a large and growing family. Her manipulations worked because the other students tried to keep Valentina happy and would frequently let her have her way. Over time, however, her emotional outbursts matured to quiet tears streaming down pouting cheeks. Then the tears stopped after about four months replaced by silence and sulking. Eventually even this sulking subsided and happened only occasionally – like when I let Timmy erase the whiteboard instead of her.
Another behavior that slowed this student’s progress was the compulsive erasing. Nearly every letter or word she wrote on the white board or on paper was erased and corrected at least once – whether there was a mistake or not. I consulted the district committee about Valentina’s obsessive erasing for which a simple cure was suggested: give the kid an ink pen or a pencil with no eraser. Tell her to draw one line through her mistakes and continue with her work. This worked well as long as all teachers enforced it. Valentina started carrying her own pencil and eraser at all times and would substitute them for pens as soon as no one was paying attention. I remarked to her at one point that she was doing all of grade three several times with the constant ‘start-overs.’ She did not get that comment, at all ……
All in all, Valentina was able to pass grade three due to being in the dyslexia program and having the accommodations that being in the program allowed her. Her independent reading slowly continues to improve, yet she has a long way to go. It was hard to get support at home with the new baby arriving and mom having so much responsibility. Any homework or reading assignments I gave were seldom completed on time if at all. Reading practice is crucial for struggling readers, especially those with symptoms of dyslexia. I have learned to accept any forward (even achingly slow) progress as a good sign and never to force or pressure my students. When a teacher and/or parent is looking for answers and has exhausted all resources in trying to get help for her struggling student, never discount dyslexia as a possible root cause. Even if the assessment process will be long and the rewards long in coming.