Unravelling word blindness

Signs of dyslexia can show up as early as kindergarten


How do I help my child?

“You have no idea how many times I’ve said that,” says Lark Barker, president of Decoding Dyslexia Ontario. “Or how often other parents say that about helping their dyslexic child.” And even more frustrating for Barker: “how come it took a group of unpaid moms to get attention for this?”

The Decoding Dyslexia movement, which originated in the United States, now has chapters in five provinces in Canada, but dyslexia is a universal problem. “My story is like so many others,” says Barker. “I knew our littlest son was having problems, even in his early school years. The message I kept getting from teachers was, ‘wait and see.’ So, we waited. But by Grade 3, there were now behavioural issues, plenty of tears and our son [was] calling himself dumb.”

Barker didn’t get much help from the school, so they had a private assessment done. “Sure enough, he had specific learning disabilities in reading and writing, but no one would call it dyslexia.” Barker says there continues to be a lack of awareness around children with learning disabilities and dyslexia, and that teachers aren’t really equipped to cope in classroom situations or even fully understand what the problem could be. “Most faculties of education barely cover the issue of learning disabilities, and they don’t use the term ‘dyslexia,’” says Barker, who is a teacher.

The key is recognizing these children — and there are many of them — early, in kindergarten, if possible. “It’s estimated that about 33 percent of Grade 3 students need help reading,” Barker says. “And this has nothing to do with intelligence.” It’s about getting these children and their parents the help they need to decode spelling and words, says Barker.

In 2017, Natalie Gallimore moved from Toronto to Ottawa, and along with other parents, set up an Ottawa chapter of Decoding Dyslexia. “Our big concern was French immersion,” says Gallimore. “If you can’t read in English, you can’t read in French. It’s about neurocognitive aspects, not the language.” Gallimore says that just like using explicit, incremental sounds like cat, fat, mat — all short vowel sounds in English — the same idea can be applied to French. “My three children did go through French immersion. I kind of insisted,” says Gallimore. “But it was tough. I hired a tutor and there were certain lessons they just couldn’t learn.” Gallimore also says that no one talks about how common dyslexia is and how the neurobiological condition is often inherited. She adds that she felt let down by the system: “My children all graduated from French immersion and are now in their 20s, but it hurt when they felt they were dumb.”

Louise Brazeau, director of the Canadian Dyslexia Centre Inc., shows parents how to help their children at home, online. “I use the Orton-Gillingham method for my program,” says Brazeau. “If parents can commit to 30 minutes a day, after two to three weeks, I can have them putting words together and feeling good about themselves. And I feel good too. It’s kind of a way of decoding.”  Brazeau says her son was a poster child for ‘Johnny Can’t Read.’ “I knew my son was intelligent, but he really had difficulty reading,” she says. “So, I did what so many parents did years ago, and took him to numerous specialists. One even told me he’d never read or write. How many other parents have heard that?” Brazeau took it upon herself to find out how to help her son. “I met the best in the field of dyslexia and learning disorders, and did years of training,” says Brazeau. Through her research, she became internationally respected in dyslexia research and therapy, and in 1989, she opened Heritage Academy of Learning Excellence. She even developed the Simultaneous Multisensory Teaching method. “I guess my years of frustration and struggle paid off,” says Brazeau, who has helped hundreds of students like her son.

Today, Brazeau’s son is about to graduate with his PhD in education. His thesis is on dyslexia. “I retired in 2006 and my daughter is now the principal of Heritage Academy which has grown considerably larger, “says Brazeau. She says parents should be cautious of some programs offered that say they deal with dyslexia. “Usually by the time they reach me, they’ve been elsewhere, and they feel discouraged,” says Brazeau. She cautions parents to do their homework before signing their children up for a program.

“These are children who just learn differently,” says Jenna Richardson, B.Ed., owner and certified Barton tutor at Dyslexic Solutions Ottawa. “They’re bright and curious, but their brains are wired in a unique way so that conventional teaching methods just don’t make any sense to them.” Richardson says it’s easy to spot the child who is going to have difficulties. And she often hears from the parents themselves that they knew something was not quite right. She says that usually, the signs are there by the end of kindergarten, and that these children really start to struggle by Grade 1, but schools often don’t intervene until Grade 3. “The written word is really complex,” says Richardson, “and there is nothing natural about reading. And some reading strategies that are taught in classrooms can actually work against dyslexic children.” Richardson says it’s important to help parents understand what impairment in reading is about and know that there is support available. “Once these children understand that they simply learn differently, it can really boost their self-esteem,” says Richardson. “And then they can focus on their strengths — like the arts or athletics.”

Tanya Keto is a registered provisional psychologist and the manager for professional development and community education at Foothills Academy in Calgary. Her daughter is dyslexic. “As a special education teacher and a psychologist, I knew something was wrong early on,” says Keto. “But even I got the ‘let’s wait and see’ approach from my daughter’s teachers.” She had her daughter assessed in Grade 1 and discovered that she had problems in math, reading, writing, spelling and had ADHD. “Even though her school resisted, I pulled my daughter out of school every morning for one month when she was in Grade 2 so she could get intense one-on-one instruction using the Orton-Gillingham method,” says Keto. “After 80 hours of one-on-one instruction in phonetics and phonemic awareness, she was reading for the first time. But even though there’d been tremendous improvement, she still needed help.” Keto managed to get her daughter into Dr. Oakley School in Calgary for Grade 3 and as she says, “my daughter’s world opened up — she finally saw school as something she could do.” Her daughter is now in Grade 9 at Foothills and reading above her age, though she still does struggle with spelling. “There is no blame here,” says Keto. “But teachers often just don’t get the information or tools to spot the warning signs of dyslexia or what to do about it. They need to understand that often, problem behaviour is a cry for help from an overwhelmed child whose academic needs aren’t being met.” And COVID-19? “This pandemic has created a minefield for teachers,” says Keto. “How can you determine whether a child has dyslexia; haven’t received enough reading instruction; or they just don’t know how to work in a classroom setting?

“It’s a big problem.”


‘Right to Read’

The Ontario Human Rights Commission’s ‘Right to Read’ inquiry looked at human rights issues as they pertained to reading disabilities. The commission’s report is expected to be released in February of 2022.



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