One Aptos teacher’s innovations are a striking example of how technology—and a better understanding of how our brains work—is revolutionizing education for dyslexic students
I’ve always been a little bit dyslexic. After an exhausting day, signs that should say “Open Now” read, at first glance, something like “Nepo Ow”; “Pearl Alley” looks like “Peral Leeway.” When sources give me a callback number over the phone, it demands all of my focus and energy to translate their words to the paper in front of me—sometimes I still get it wrong. I’ve never been diagnosed; I’ve just tried to make do.
That’s kind of the problem, says Mark Rogers, a longtime Santa Cruz County educator who has developed a teletherapy program to teach dyslexic children how to read.
“One in five of the population is somewhere on the dyslexia spectrum,” says Rogers, who also holds a doctorate in education. “In a lot of ways, it’s really the level of tolerance that a child has for sub-optimum instruction.”
Many dyslexic children get by for years with gaps in their public school education, he says. But his program, Eulexic, aims to fill those gaps with a multimedia strategy that draws on the Orton-Gillingham Approach, a multisensory, cumulative cognitive reading instruction method.
Some kids will innately comprehend what they’re taught in school, says Rogers. Others—like the more than 40 million American adults living with dyslexia, according to Austin Learning Solutions—need the information broken down into basic building blocks. That’s where newer approaches have made an impact; these more individualized alternatives that have sprung up over the past 10 years include Lexercise, a program Rogers worked with before building on it to create his own approach. Without such programs, most public education can’t offer the kind of one-on-one attention children with learning disabilities need, says Rogers.
Although it used to be called “word blindness,” dyslexia has nothing to do with sight. Rather, it has to do with processing: the information doesn’t easily travel from the right side of the brain, which is partly responsible for spatial thought, to the left. It’s also hereditary and not indicative of I.Q.—Albert Einstein was dyslexic and he had an estimated I.Q. of 160. Rogers chose the name Eulexic for his program because he also strives to end the stigma associated with the disability. ”Eu” is from the Greek word meaning “good”; by replacing the “dys” in “dyslexia,” he’s helping children become “good with words.”
Through Zoom’s video conference software, I virtually sat in on a teletherapy session that Rogers led with Julie McGovern and her 12-year-old daughter, Sara. First, Rogers opens Whizzimo, a program where a set of tiles sits on the screen with single letters and combinations like “ch” and “tch.”
Sara is steely-eyed and locked in, creating “gym” when Rogers asks her to think of letters with a “j” sound, and even opting to wear a blindfold in the later part of the spelling fluency program.
Her mother tells me later over the phone from a suburb of Rockford, Illinois, that in Sara’s case, the school provided a 37-page report on her dyslexia and dysgraphia (a writing disorder) when she was in first grade.
“She would sound out pretty much every single word and she would take a word like ‘people,’ and sound it out really weird like ‘peuh-ah-eu-pleh’ and then she’d go ‘people!’ and just laugh,” recounts McGovern.
Rogers’ program unpacks each building block of a word, from the bottom-up—starting with the sounds to the word—then to the grammatical rules, rather than the other way around. This linguistic approach is also the basis for Eulexic’s spelling, reading comprehension and vocabulary instruction.
For many children with learning disabilities, there’s crossover, so a child might have dyslexia and dyscalculia. Dyscalculia makes understanding arithmetical calculations difficult, and when combined with dyslexia, things like word problems become all the more frustrating. In the McGoverns’ case, the school did conduct the examination to see if Sara was dyslexic (something public schools in California don’t do), and eventually offered to pay the monthly $395 fee for Rogers’ Eulexic—but only because McGovern wouldn’t stand for how they were treating her daughter.
“They wanted her to go up 10 points in math for state testing, and they were going to have an award for it. Well, Sara went down 10 points,” says McGovern. “They punished her, they put her in the library with three magazines that she couldn’t read for 45 minutes while the other kids got to watch a movie and eat ice cream. I went to the board of education and complained—that is uncalled for for a girl who has been diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia.”
At one point during the session with the McGoverns, Roberts turns to my tiny window on the screen and, toggling over a “k” tile and an “o” tile, asks, “what is the difference between a consonant and a vowel?”
My stomach lurches, my face flushes: “I know this, I write for a living!” I tell myself. But it’s been ages since I pondered anything about the topic beyond the scene in My Fair Lady where Eliza Doolittle has to recite vowels with marbles in her mouth. I can name them, of course, but explain the actual difference?
Not all teachers know the answer either, Rogers says. A vowel is a speech sound that comes from the vocal cords by way of the lungs and a consonant serves as a “break,” meaning it closes the vocal tract—pronounced with the lips, tongue or throat, unlike vowels. Similarly, few people can explain why the first “c” in “circle” is pronounced like an “s” and not a “k”—simplified, it’s because of the rule “soft c’s” generally come before an “i,” “e,” or “y.” The point is that though we need language to communicate, it can be extremely difficult to communicate about language, which only makes things harder for dyslexics.
The cliche is that most dyslexics see letters in the wrong order or backwards, that a “d” is a “b” and so on. However, symptoms and acuteness exist on a spectrum.
“Whatever way you label it, it’s a problem,” says Rogers. “There are parents and kids in desperate need of extra support in this area.”
Rogers has understood this in a very personal way since about age 5, when he went to school and was asked to “decipher those little marks on the page,” as he describes the process now. In those days, his teachers treated Rogers and his brother, who’s also dyslexic, as if they had a handicap. No one ever said the word “dyslexia.”
So he worked harder, and although learning to type was “a nightmare,” eventually graduated cum laude and went on to develop after-school programs in reading as a Special Education teacher and assistant principal.
The biggest problem, says Rogers, is that not a lot has really changed since he was a kid.
“Definitely in chapter books, after I read it I can’t really remember what happens,” Ryder Esquivel tells me in short bursts over Facetime, in between rolling off the back of the couch onto the floor, bouncing on his heels, waving his Santa figurine into the camera or bounding off the screen all together.
Ryder is 9 and in fourth grade in Alameda. The Esquivels moved to Alameda to be in a better school district so it was a huge disappointment when they found Ryder wasn’t getting the attention he needed.
“He spoke about feeling stupid—for a 5-year-old that can be a pretty painful thing,” says Esquivel of her son who’s now been working with Rogers since last year.
For Esquivel, it was baffling when her son’s school didn’t know what to do with him.
“It’s kind of the battle between the school system and the health industry: you go to the school and you say ‘I think my child’s dyslexic’ and they say ‘Well, we’re teachers, that’s a medical issue, we don’t test for that,” says Esquivel. “And then you go to your pediatrician and they say ‘That’s a reading issue, we’re not teachers, we’re doctors—you need to go to your school.’ The two places where you should be able to turn to are sending you to each other.”
Even after Ryder was diagnosed, the word “dyslexia” was excluded from his file. That’s just the way their district does it, says Esquivel, but between the difficulties of adjusting to the new expectations of Common Core standards instituted in 2009 and having no name for the learning disability, children get lost.
These children oftentimes have to work a lot harder, says Esquivel—to which Ryder adds, with a sigh, “That’s kind of unfair.”
I know what Ryder means: I struggled with math. I loved the subject and was so jealous of students who just got it. I went to after-school help, sought out tutors, spent hours on extra online practice and barely scraped by. No one had ever asked me how I saw the numbers—why, if the answer was 43, I had written 34.
That’s the thing about dyslexia and other learning disabilities—they can’t be cured. You just have to learn the tools to get around them, says Rogers, who still has moments of misreading signs as well. Without the tools, we end up with “Swiss cheese education,” he laughs.
“The research shows that with good structured literacy up to all but six percent of kids will respond,” says Rogers. “What happens is that we create a wait-to-fail model. If you’re behind in kindergarten, you’re stuck.”
In October, the California Assembly passed Assembly Bill No. 1369, which stipulates that teachers receive guidelines for dyslexics based on an “evidence-based, multisensory, direct, explicit, structured, and sequential approach.” It also added “phonological processing” to the list of things to evaluate in the learning disability. However, no monies are to be allocated for the addition, and in California the “guidelines” don’t have to be completed until 2018.
The tools that Rogers teaches his students help grow new neural pathways, he says. Teaching children to better identify distinctions among individual sounds helps all students spell, regardless of learning disability.
“You’re spending the first few years learning to read, and then you’re reading to learn. For a while you can treat everything like a sight word, like “the” or “in,” but then when you get into upper grades and vocabulary explodes, it starts coming to the fore,” says Rogers.
As someone who’s seen both sides of the education system, Rogers wants to expand his method to be more accessible for more children.
“It also can depend on the degree of hurt you’re suffering as you’re watching your child who is hopeful and vivacious start turning inward and feeling bad about themselves,” he says, describing his goal to create a nonprofit to support students and parents with the same resources.
“It’s hard for parents to be involved, and it’s not just ‘are they working full time?’ It’s a matter of cultural access to the schools, are the schools responsive to you? Does getting involved help your child—are you getting positive feedback for getting involved with the schools?”
Slipping Through the Cracks
Whether it’s in public school, private school, or at home, there’s no shortcut to teaching a dyslexic child, says Harbor High School psychologist Sara Rodais.
In the U.S., students can qualify for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This spells out a child’s learning needs to their school and educators. Typically the evaluations for an IEP take place before high school, says Rodais, but sometimes they’ve managed to pass through unnoticed or teachers give higher grades than they deserve.
McGovern says that in her daughter’s case, that’s exactly what happened.
“Sara got an A+ in reading, but how can you give an A+ to a kid who can’t read?” asks McGovern. “Her second-grade teacher gave her all twos (out of four) and I thanked her. I said ‘this needs to go in her file—I don’t want to see Sara being pushed through the system.’”
Rodais says that it’s a hard line for some teachers, wanting to help a student and also teach them independence.
“It’s terrible for us, because for the diploma track we have these requirements,” says Rodais. “If they’re being passed through general education classes and these things aren’t talked about, it makes it really difficult on us, and more importantly it makes it more difficult on the child.”
At Harbor, says Rodais, students with an IEP that are on a diploma track can qualify for the special education program, which is a more restrictive environment, or a less restrictive environment like the resource support class, which is more typical for children with learning disabilities.
The resource support class is a period in a child’s schedule which offers access to a teacher and case manager to help students stay organized. Typically, she says, classes are comprised of about 15 students who receive individualized help based on what they’re struggling with. Students have access to audiobooks, software programs like Read 180, and are presented with study skills at the beginning of each class.
“Their case managers will say ‘OK, what’s going on in English, you got a D?’ And they’ll know exactly what’s coming down the pike in English,” says Rodais. “There’s a fine line between teaching the kids to advocate for themselves and helping them; we try to do the best that we can. We want students to be as independent as they can be.”
It’s impossible to catch every problem all the time, she says, especially within the system of public education.
“We have a lot of interventions in place and we have a lot of people looking for those kids. I think this district does a great job of working with what they’ve got,” says Rodais. “School workers and teachers and specialists are not miracle workers, but I think parents and students need to advocate for themselves and do the best they can, too. We’re trying.”
For children with more than one disability, even alternative education schools can be a challenge.
Jim Hale’s son, Christian, is 14 and was attending a Montessori school where they live in Goochland County, Virginia, when about a year ago Christian had a complete breakdown, says Hale. On top of being dyslexic, Christian also has Tourette syndrome, so Hale was hopeful that Montessori would give him the individual attention he needed. The problem was, says Hale, that his needs didn’t fit with the philosophy of freedom and independence Montessori schools are known for.
“He had begun struggling so much socially as well as academically that we had to take him out because we feared for his long-term psychological and emotional health,” says Hale, who worked in public schools and special education in Charlottesville, Virginia. “We weren’t planning to homeschool him, but we felt that we had no recourse.”
Hale has worked in public schools and says his family is not “anti-public schools.” They just can’t individualize the curriculum like Rogers can with Eulexic.
Christian reads at a fifth-grade level, but in just the five weeks that they’ve been working with Rogers, Christian’s confidence and comprehension has skyrocketed.
“This has never happened with my son,” says Hale. “The other night we went to bed and I saw the light on his room and I said ‘Christian, what are you doing?’ and he said, ‘I’m reading!’ I was almost in tears. We celebrated that moment.”
SOUND IT OUT Mark Rogers leads a teletherapy teaching session with Christian Hale, 14, and his father, Jim, who are in Goochland County, Viriginia. Rogers works with students who have learning disabilities, most commonly dyslexia, to help overcome the gaps in their reading and writing education. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER