Do you know that dyslexia is also known by other names such as auditory processing disorder, orthographic processing difficulties, visual processing disorder or phonemic awareness deficit? What dyslexia is called often depends on the specialist carrying out the testing and the extent of their knowledge about dyslexia.
Have you ever wondered how dyslexia develops? This was one of the burning questions I have when I was researching on ways to help my daughter. I found the answer in Ron Davis' book, The Gift of Dyslexia.
The symptoms of dyslexia that we see in our children (omitting or skipping words or lines, substituting words, inconsistent spelling, ignoring or omitting punctuation marks, difficulty making certain speech sounds, poor sense of direction, problem with balance and coordination, frequent loss of train of thought, difficulty getting the sequence of thoughts down, etc) stem from their confusion with letters, common sight words, speech sounds, punctuation marks as well as math symbols and numerals.
When they reach their threshold for confusion, false sensory perceptions kick in which affect their vision, hearing, balance/coordination and sense of time, which then translates to mistakes.
Dyslexia is a big umbrella that covers different areas of weaknesses. It's not difficult to see intervention programmes or tools that are developed to target a specific area, depending on what that specialist's specialisation is, but what the child needs is a holistic approach to resolve the root cause of dyslexia.
An explainer video based on the book, The Gift of Dyslexia by Ron Davis which explains how dyslexia develops, signs to look for and solutions that help.
What is this gift that dyslexics have? Why must they be taught the way they think? What is causing them confusion that leads to the mistakes they make when reading or writing?
Many of us probably don’t take a second look at the psychological report after we received it from the educational or clinical psychologist, or we find that there are too many technical jargons in there that are beyond our comprehension.
How do we make sense of the FSIQ, what’s my child’s ability in the areas of verbal reasoning, visual spatial, fluid reasoning, working memory and processing speed? Is my child evaluated using the WISC-V IQ test? How do I read the results?
I mentioned before that for a dyslexia diagnosis, a child’s IQ needs to be at least average. However, a below average IQ may not necessarily indicate the absence of a learning disability. Looking at the subtests would more meaningfully help us interpret the result. Ron Davis was labelled as “uneducatably mentally retarded” at the age of 12 but was later discovered to have an extremely high IQ of 137.
Here is an article that helps us understand IQ test scores. It’s important for us to know not just where our kids stand intellectually, but also what are their strengths and weaknesses. There are links to other articles at the end which provide additional reading materials if you are interested to know more.
The majority of children could tackle a question like this with ease. However, to those children with dyslexia, they may stumble over such question. Why is that so?
Dyslexics tend to think primarily in pictures and images as opposed to words. When they encounter certain symbols (and all words are symbols), they get confused by those whose meaning they cannot picture. These are often high frequency words that we use a lot of in the English language, such as ‘a’, ‘the’, ‘by’, ‘to’, etc. When they cannot begin to think with that word in picture, they do not know how to make sense of a sentence.
So in the example question above, a dyslexic may be confused by the word ‘from’. The child may be able to recognise and pronounce the word ‘from’ when he sees it, but he does not know the meaning and so he does not know what he needs to do to begin to solve the question.
After much drilling and repetition to no avail to help the child understand the question, the child is then told by a well-meaning parent or tutor that whenever he sees such questions, he just needs to take the bigger number and minus the smaller number. By doing so, the child is taught rote learning, rather than have real understanding or true mastery of the subject.
If we could acknowledge the child’s picture thinking style, we can help the child master the meaning of ‘from’ and let him create a picture of what it means. According to the American Heritage Children’s Dictionary, ‘from’ means beginning at, starting with. Once the child understands the meaning, he can now picture what the question is asking him to do.
Subtract 79 from 139 means that he has to begin at, start with (ie from) 139, and then minus or take away 79, in order to derive at the answer. Visually, he would be able to put 139 down on paper, followed by the minus sign and 79 below 139 and then do his workings to get to the answer.
By extension, a dyslexic child very often can’t do problem sums not because he does not have the skill to do arithmetic, but because he does not understand what the question is asking of him in the first place, as he can’t think with some of the words that are in the question.
More than 30 years ago, Ron Davis had it figured out that dyslexia is not something complex but rather, it is a compound of simple factors that can be resolved step by step.
He explained that dyslexia is actually a product of a dyslexic’s picture thinking style, their ability to see things 3-dimensionally and their unique way of reacting to the feeling of confusion when they see symbols that they do not recognise (and all words are symbols). Because of these 3 factors at work, dyslexics encounter the difficulties we see in them when learning to read, write and spell.
This video illustrates what picture thinking vs word thinking is like and why dyslexics do not seem to recognise the same word which they learnt just seconds ago and as a result, produced mistakes in their reading, writing and spelling. It’s only by understanding this then can we tackle the root of the problem.
Ron said that once we remove the reason why a problem exists, the problem ceases to exist. How simple and logical is that? Once I understood Ron’s explanation, I knew instinctively that he had the right solution and I did not hesitate to put my daughter through the Davis intervention programme.
Chef Khaled suffered a lot as a kid growing up in Egypt, especially in school. Not knowing that he is dyslexic, he was frequently beaten by his teachers for not doing well and was called stupid and other names by family and friends. That dealt a huge blow to his self-esteem. Not until he was diagnosed with dyslexia a few years ago did he figure out an explanation for what happened to him as a child.
Chef Khaled was very supportive when I approached him to share his story. He said that if what he went through could serve as an encouragement to someone, he would be more than honored to do so. You can also check out his restaurant at Wheelock Place and meet the man himself!
Could you share with us a bit of your background, where did you come from and what brought you to Singapore?
I was from Egypt. For the past 17 years, I have been working as a chef overseas and have travelled to about 19 countries. My last assignment was at the Four Seasons in Mumbai and Maldives. I met my Singaporean wife in Seychelles and in 2010, relocated to Singapore to work at the Shangri-La Hotel. Three years ago, I started my own restaurant called Pistachio, specialising in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. I am also an Ayurvedic chef.
I understand you did not know you were dyslexic until you were tested a few years ago, is that right? Could you tell us how that happened?
In 2012, I saw a doctor at Raffles Hospital for depression. Subsequently, I was transferred to another doctor who started asking me very detailed questions. After the three-hour session, I was told that I was dyslexic and that the cause for my depression could possibly stem from my dyslexia. To think that I merely went in for a depression consultation and came out with a severely dyslexia diagnosis! But it explains many of the issues I am facing.
Can you recall how studying was like for you when you were younger?
It was terrible. I got tortured in school. I disliked going to school since I was five, as I was afraid of getting beaten by the teachers, especially during exams. So I would run away. I never dared show my dad my exam result. I would hide the papers and tried to duplicate his signature. I even had to resort to paying the teachers in order to stop them from beating me.
I was getting frustrated in school because my other classmates were doing well. For me, I had to rely on memorisation and visualisation in order to be able to answer the questions. At a young age, I was not sure why I was like that. Was I really stupid? Nobody knew about dyslexia then. I struggled the most with Arabic and Mathematics but surprisingly, English was my best subject. I was also very good at drawing and painting.
How did your family and friends treat you?
I was humiliated by my family. They said I was stupid, playful, did not study and so on. As for friends, they did not care. They probably thought that I was stupid and did not mix with me. I was lonely in school. I did not have friends. I could not answer the teachers’ questions and I did not know what was going on in class. I was very scared. I just hid in one corner and kept to myself.
I have some adult dyslexic followers on my Dyslexia Support Group Facebook page, some of whom have not been diagnosed but suspected they may be dyslexic. They have their fair share of struggles at work. Could you share with us what are your struggles as a working adult?
Working in 5-star hotels means I had to take care of the paperwork, in addition to cooking. I had to conduct briefings in the morning, take notes and communicate with the different departments such as accounts and sales. As head of department, I also needed to communicate with suppliers from different countries through emails. This was the toughest part for me, reading and replying emails. It would take me a long time. What takes someone 10 minutes may take me an hour or more.
When speaking to me, I may appear to be looking at you but in my mind, I may be wondering what is going on in the kitchen. And often, people misunderstand us as being rude or impolite, as we may appear to be not listening. Given our curious mind, I am always looking around, especially when I am in the kitchen. I may suddenly hear a noise and tell a staff to go inside the chiller and check if the fan is working. Or I may smell someone overcooking the garlic. All these can distract me from whatever I am doing at that point in time.
Did you know that cooking was your passion and how did you discover your love for it?
After I completed my secondary school education, I enrolled in an agricultural school, firstly because my grades were not good and secondly, my family did not have the financial means to send me for other courses. My father had kidney failure then and was hospitalised. I was the eldest of four children and had to work to support the family.
I had a neighbour at that time who could not bear the thought of me going to an agricultural school, as it was for the gangsters and drug addicts. Instead, she enrolled me in the first culinary school in Egypt and told me she would pay for all the expenses for the three-year programme, which I am very grateful for. So I successfully passed the interviews and exams and was accepted into the school.
In that three years, my self-esteem went up. I love doing hands-on things and cooking works for me. In my first year of culinary school, when I saw the teachers cooking tasty meals and plating the food nicely, I told myself I wanted to be like them. I started picking up skills in choosing ingredients, using the different equipment, preparing and plating the food. My passion started developing from there and I found myself good at cooking. I considered myself successful as a chef.
As you know, dyslexics have many strengths, most notably, they are known for their creativity and imagination. What goes through your mind when you are creating a dish? Did your creativity and imagination have a big part to play in the cooking process?
Definitely. My imagination and creativity helped me a lot. I did very well in culinary school. As a trainee chef, I was given the chance to cook for the government.
When I create a dish, I put myself in the shoes of a customer. I think about whether the food tastes and looks good, is it healthy, will it benefit the customers and will they give positive feedback. These are all my considerations when I am creating a dish.
I understand you are an Ayurvedic chef and that you help people through food. I believe not many know what Ayurveda is. Could you tell us more?
Ayurveda means Science of Life. It is an Indian medical system that dates back more than 3000 years. Since young, I have always like healthy cooking. When I became a chef, I was given an opportunity to study Ayurveda in India which led me to create Ayurvedic cuisine subsequently. Ayurveda is very scientific. It looks at the root cause of an illness or disease and I help to rebuild a person’s health through the food they eat.
Being the owner of a restaurant, would you consider hiring someone who is dyslexic? Do you think there is discrimination in the society in general towards someone who has special needs?
I have no problem hiring dyslexics because I know how to work with them. There will inevitably be discrimination in society, especially if people do not know about the challenges that come with certain condition.
For example, when I was working in the hotels, nobody knew I was dyslexic. Whenever we had meetings, I sometimes did not understand their questions and might give an incoherent reply. That made people wonder if that was just the way I was or was it because of my dyslexia.
Hence I would make it a point to tell people that if I make a mistake, please excuse me because I am dyslexic. I prefer to let people know rather than let it be the cause of any misunderstanding. I also do not wish people to misjudge me.
Lastly, do you have any advice for our parents on how they can better communicate with or relate to their dyslexic children?
Parents need to always encourage and support their children if they want them to do well. Also, do not call them stupid. Even if the parents do not mean it, we take it very seriously. We are very sensitive.
We recognise dyslexia by the challenges it presents, but we must not forget its strengths. Dyslexics have the ability to think in pictures, perceive multi-dimensionally (using all senses) and experience thought as reality. They have vivid imaginations and heightened awareness of the environment. They are highly intuitive, insightful and more curious than average. Most importantly, they have the primary ability to alter and create perceptions, which make them very creative people.
Ron Davis, the man behind the Davis Dyslexia Correction Programme, taught himself to read at the age of 38. Thanks to him, his unique and revolutionary approach has helped many dyslexics learn to read and to overcome other difficulties associated with it. Read more about the history of the Davis methods and what sets Davis apart. Dr. Angela L. Gonzales, a pediatrician and licensed Davis facilitator also shared about the Davis Dyslexia Correction Programme in the video.
Working memory plays a big part in our cognitive functioning. Simply put, working memory is ‘memory in action’. We use that all the time on a daily basis.
This video explains what working memory is and the correlation between low working memory and dyslexia.
"The key to reducing the struggles a child with dyslexia experiences is early identification and intervention."
In Singapore’s context where parents started sending their children for English enrichment classes around the age of 4, they should be able to decode words phonetically, transition to read with whole words and have comprehension of what they’re reading by the time they enter primary school.
However, if they are still struggling towards the end of their preschool education, then there’s more to this than meets the eyes. Think about it. If phonics was all they needed, then they should be on the road to reading, right? If not, then it warrants further investigations.
So assuming the parents then had their child tested and intervention is given. How do we evaluate whether a programme is working for the child? Firstly, set a time frame for yourself and then assess the effectiveness of a programme by considering the following:
1) in the area of phonics, evaluate the child’s ability to associate a sound to a letter and his ability to blend (any word and not just 1 or 2 syllabus words only)
2) in the area of common sight words, observe if the child can consistently recognise the sight words learnt or does he still “trip up” whenever he encounters a certain common sight word and mistake is made immediately thereafter, be it omission, substitution or reversal
3) in the area of spelling, assess if the child can consistently retain what is learnt and not forget the next day or a week later
4) to assess whether a child is truly reading and has comprehension (or is he merely giving the impression that he’s reading but is actually guessing by looking at the pictures or he has memorized the passage), take a book the child has read before, type out the passage and get him to read from the typed passage. Thereafter, get him to retell the story and then you can ask some explicit and implicit questions to see if he can answer them.
Be honest with your evaluation. Remember, dyslexia has to do with how the brain works, and does not affect intelligence. If a programme is working for the child, it is possible to close the learning gap within a reasonable period of time. In my daughter’s case, progress was rapid and she was able to read with ease 6 months after intervention.