Tuesday, May 23, 2000

Dyslexic kids learn through phonics

By Ben L. Kaufman
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Reading wasn't quite a root canal, but 10-year-old Jefferson Shaw “would kind of do anything to avoid it.”

        A bright youngster, he suffered the corrosive effect of dyslexia, the reading problem that left him feeling dumb and falling behind.

        No longer.

        After three months of individual after-school mul tisensory tutoring in phonics at Cincinnati's 32nd Degree Masonic Learning Center for Children, Jefferson began reading fluidly.

        “Oh my gosh, that had never happened,” his mother, Roseanna, recalled of the first time she heard his new command of the written word. “Tears came to my eyes.”

        Two years later, he's picked up all of the skills the center has to offer.

        “I've become a really good reader,” he said recently after his final tutorial. “I just took off. I'm one of the best readers in class.”

        It doesn't end there.

        Jefferson's special-education teacher at Deer Park's Holmes elementary school, Jane Miller, was so impressed that she took the center's summer training and enrolled as a volunteer tutor. She also applies the center's approach with her 10 students at Holmes.

        Exciting as the story is, Jefferson is not unique among dyslexic students coming to the center, director Jeanne Anderson said. “The thing that they get here is immediate success.”

        Dyslexia is not a disease, it can't be cured, and it defies any single definition or diagnosis. Some dyslexics have trouble reading, writing or spelling. Others have problems recalling words when they're speaking.

        It's called dyslexia when victims of any age have at least average intelligence and their language problems are otherwise inexplicable. Dyslexia is suspected of being the underlying cause for much of the nation's illiteracy.

        Betty Sheffield, the Hyde Park godmother of dyslexia tutoring in the Tristate, identified these early warning signs of language problems:

        • By age 2, a child does not string together at least two words, such as “Mommy cookie” or “red ball.”

        • If parents cannot understand their child's speech by age 3 or 4.

        • If a youngster can't identify, name and remember his or her letters by kindergarten.

        Current research — using functional magnetic resonance imaging machines that show the brain responding to language processing demands — suggests that dyslexics' brains are wired differently.

        Whatever the cause or causes, Cincinnati's Masonic center offers free training in twice-weekly 45-minute sessions.

        The center, part of a national program, opened in early 1996 in the Masonic Center, at 317 E. Fifth St., in an area remodeled with a grant from Carl and Edyth Lindner.

        It promptly accumulated a yearlong waiting list of youngsters formally diagnosed as dyslexic by psychologists.

        Since then, the Literacy Network has opened a similar, nonprofit program in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

        To illustrate their problem, Mrs. Anderson said dyslexics see “cat,” but their memories can't hold the word in ways that allow them to recall and use it without great difficulty.

        “They need another tool to de cipher that word, and that tool is phonics. ... The reality is that they can't remember that "cat' is cat.

        The center responds with a multisensory approach, teaching children to see, say, recall and write the letters of the alphabet, the 44 or 45 sounds of American English, and their 90 spellings.

        “We teach the speech sounds one at a time,” Mrs. Anderson said, as well as when a vowel is long or short, or a letter like C is hard or soft.

        For instance, they learn “cat” has three letters and three sounds. They also learn that c before a sounds like k, and a in a closed syllable is a short a.

        They learn to distinguish between “batch” — with five letters but three sounds — and “blend,” with five letters and five sounds.

        Once they've learned that phonics technique, they can rely on their intelligence to decipher words — and they don't have to rely on memory, Mrs. Anderson added.

        There is no textbook; every lesson is designed by the tutor for the individual student.

        Ages range from 7 to 15, but most students are 9 to 11 by the time parents call, Mrs. Anderson said. “They've had about three years of failure ... in the reading area.”

        For parents unwilling to wait but able to pay for private tutoring, Mrs. Anderson refers them to the Ohio Valley branch of the International Dyslexia Association.

        There also is a waiting list for the summer tutor training, Mrs. Anderson said. “A lot of teachers are seeking what is happening and are coming down for training.”

        In addition to free space, Masons provide $125,000 each year, of which 15 percent is spent on insurance, copying, supplies, telephone bills, etc. The remainder pays less-than-half-time salaries for Mrs. Anderson and tutor-assistant Becky Granger, and $40 an hour for tutors for 27 youngsters. Volunteers teach another nine.

        Typically, students spend two years at the center. Then tutors rely on parents, teachers and youngsters to carry on. “We're giving them the tool,” Mrs. Anderson said. “It's up to them to go out and use it.”

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