Learning Different

By:  Staci Stallings

When I was in my 20’s, my sister-in-law decided to teach me to crochet.  Oh, I wanted to learn so I was motivated enough, and I was pretty good with my hands–having sewn and cross-stitched and embroidered.  So we sat down one afternoon, and she proceeded to show me how.

Now I’m one who usually learns quite quickly.  Yeah.  Not that day.  She showed me, I tried.  She showed me again, I tried.  But the stitches kept slipping out and away from me.  For about an hour we tried, and I had learned pretty much what I had known when I sat down.  My “potholder” looked pitiful, and sis-in-law and I were both totally frustrated.  Then my other sis-in-law showed up and asked what we were doing.

“Trying to teach Staci to crochet, and it’s NOT WORKING.”

Second sis-in-law watched for a moment and then she said to me, “I didn’t know you were left-handed.”  “I’m not.”  “Oh, well, there’s your problem.”

You see, first sis-in-law IS left-handed, so she was teaching me the only way she knew how to do it.  Now, I’m sure her way would have worked like a charm for anyone who was left-handed.  For me, it was just a frustrating disaster.

For any of you who have been following the blog for awhile, you know that back in November and December my son went through a really frustrating time in school.  He was struggling mightily to learn to spell and read, and it wasn’t working.  We ended up at the doctors with seizures and trying some alternative things, which helped, but the schoolwork was still a struggle.

In April, I decided to do Hooked On Phonics because his reading skills were so poor.  We did that for two months, and for the first 6 weeks, it looked like it was helping.  And then, we started going downhill again.  He could read the lessons on the 3rd or 4th pass through them, but each lesson seemed to weigh him down more and more.  He got whiny and defensive and totally frustrated.

Then came that fateful Monday about two weeks ago.  I had previously talked with a mom whose daughter is dyslexic, and she talked about how her daughter “moves” when she reads.  Well, that Monday as we sat trying to read, my son was “moving.”  Up.  Down.  Leaning on me.  Laying on the floor.  Holding a stuffed thing.  Putting it down.  It was like his attention was everywhere but on the words.  Something in me clicked, and I knew we needed to find solutions to dyslexia.  It was the only thing that made any sense–although I still couldn’t wrap my mind around how this bright, intelligent child could have trouble reading.

The next 48 hours were like a bolt from the sky into my life.  I found a website by a woman whose nephew was dyslexic.  She got into the field to help him, but she ended up helping us!

The first thing she explained was why a person is dyslexic.  Their right brain is bigger than their left.  (In most people left is bigger than right.)  Well, right there, that set off a million bits of understanding in me.  I’ve studied right brain/left brain.  In fact, I used to say it was the difference between and English person and a Math person–with the math person needing step-by-step and the English person being, “just start somewhere.”

The right brain is your creative center.  It allows you not just to think outside the box, but to think as if there were no box in the first place.  It sees things intuitively, even though it can’t always tell you how or why.  It is immensely curious and creative.  In fact, I think it is a direct link to our spiritual self, the self that knows without knowing how it knows.  I’ve always had great respect for the right brain as it is also the storehouse for artistic ability and musical ability and kinesthetic ability.

As I researched this fascinating new way of learning, I found that children who access their right brains to understand their worlds think in pictures.  They don’t think with words so much or even at all.  That was news to me.  I think in words, and then if I have to in pictures.  Not right-brain dominant kids.  They think in pictures so much that to them words ARE pictures.

When they see the “word” CAT, they don’t grasp that it’s made up of C  A  T.  They see cat–one unit, and they memorize THAT word as if it has no connection to any other word on the planet.  And they have an incredible memory.  That’s why at first things with my son made no sense.  He could “read.”  Only he wasn’t reading, he was memorizing… EVERYTHING!

This became obvious though I didn’t understand it as we did the HoP program.  He would be able to “read” a word on one page, and then have no clue on the next (because he was using context clues on one, and the other had no context clues).  When he would hit a word he knew (had memorized), he would say it, and he would be right until we “learned” a new word that looked like the old word.

So for example, he would see bag, and say bag.  Now to him at the time, bag was “starts with a b, has a little letter and then a long letter.”  Then we’d “learn” beg.  So when we’d get to beg, he would say “bag I mean beg.”  Well, when you add bog, boy, and bay to the mix, he was shuffling cards in his mind’s Rolodex on nearly every word!  Some words, he only knew by the letters present.  So “of” might end up… “for”  “from”  “off”  “Oh, I mean ‘of’!” Or “on” might end up “no, not, on.” He was stumbling through every lesson, and the more new word pictures he added, the more he had to sort through them when he read.

One of the things they talked about on the Bright Solutions website was how these bright kids learn to use context clues and any other clues and then when all else fails, to guess.  That night as I lay in bed with my son, I started asking him some questions.  “Reading’s kind of tough, huh?”  “Yeah.”  “Do the other kids read better then you?”  “Yeah.  They brag a lot.”  “How do they brag?”  “They say, ‘Look, I can read this.'”  “How does that make you feel?”  “Kind of bad.”  Then I asked, “So when you read, do you ever guess at the words?”  To which he looked a little perplexed and said, “Mom, that’s all reading is–a lot of guessing.”

NO WONDER!  No wonder.  He had been trying to memorize EVERYTHING.  Then he would guess which of the things he’d memorized the next word was!

So I got the program, learned about it, put some of my own together, and started afresh working with my son.  I can honestly say that in five days he has learned more than in two years!  He is now reliably sounding out words.  Many have become automatic already.  In fact, yesterday we started two-syllable/both closed words (like tomcat and traffic).  I showed him how to split the word, splitting the vowels first and then the middle consonants.  We did the first one and he said, “Oh, cool!”  As if he never knew you could break apart longer words to figure them out.

What I’m learning is that kids who have dyslexia simply learn differently.  They don’t intuitively grasp that each letter has a sound and when you put them together, they form a word.  They look at a word and think it is a word–whole unto itself, having nothing to do with any other word on the planet.  In fact, my son was so cute the other day.  He said, “Mom, how many words ARE there anyway?”

“Millions.  Okay.  Not millions.  Thousands.”

“Oh.”

I could just see him in his mind saying, “And I was going to try to memorize all of those?!”

My thought exactly.  The “bad” news is, my son learns differently.  The GREAT news is, now I understand HOW he learns and I can help him learn that way.  We’ve got about 5 weeks until school starts.  We’ll see, but yesterday he read a piece that was at the end of the first grade year in the HoP program with only a couple of stumbles.  Somehow I never thought we’d make this much progress in this little time, so who knows where this is going.  Further, who knows how many kids might benefit because my son’s mom had to search out a new way to teach him.

I don’t.  But God does.

God is so cool.

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