"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.
There are 3 ways people learn - visual, auditory and kinesthetic (tactile). This is different to the 2 thinking styles - pictures or words (or a combination of both).
A dyslexic is primarily a picture thinker, but can be a tactile learner, even though he/she is highly visual, and weak with auditory information.
This video, which is created by a dyslexic, shows a dyslexic’s way of thinking (not learning). Knowing how their brain works enables us to work with their strengths, not weaknesses.
Chef Heman aka Ironman Chef, is multi-talented. He is first of all an accomplished chef who runs his own restaurant, and author of three books, with another on its way. To add to the list, he is also a ceramic artist, with an upcoming solo exhibition, and a triathlete. One less known fact is that he is also dyslexic.
How did you first find out that you are dyslexic?
I was not as fortunate to have discovered that I am dyslexic during the early days. I found out only after my youngest son was diagnosed. After his diagnosis, I started tracing back some of the problems I faced when I was younger and found similarities with what my son is experiencing. Thereafter, I went for an assessment that confirmed my dyslexia.
What was going to school like for you?
It was very tough for me back then. As you know, dyslexics tend to learn more slowly and require more time to digest information. We are definitely not as fast as the normal kids. Especially in a classroom, most of the time teachers expect their students to be able to understand and grasp what was being taught quickly. But unfortunately, it does not work that way for us. We need a lot more enlightenment and guidance. Even today, although schools know more about dyslexia, how many teachers really have the patience to teach and guide our children?
What kind of psychological or emotional struggles did you have to deal with?
As I start to recall, I actually felt scared. I could not even complete and submit my homework properly. I would copy, cheat and do all sorts of funny things. Today, it would be even more scary. Why do I say that? We have google now and everything can be found online. If the students don’t know how to do their homework, they can google. But does that mean they understand what they’re learning?
During my time, the teachers were not as good or patient. They only knew that I’m stupid and that I don’t get it. I have had one Chinese teacher who took a blue tac, threw it at me and said, “你去死吧! 你这辈子会成功, 我的头砍下来给你.” (Translation: To hell with you! If you will ever be successful in life, I’ll give you my head). But today I’ve made it. One of the lessons I learnt is this, that even if you’re ahead of others, you do not need to be so proud of it. I was lagging behind then, but today, I’ve achieved something. I want to encourage all dyslexics that you can do better than the normal people, once you understand the ingredients properly. That’s the power of dyslexia.
What kind of help did you receive with your learning?
No help at all.
We know that dyslexics are very creative. How did you discover your passion for cooking, ceramic and sports?
All these were discovered over time. We are not born to be like that. Somebody asked me. They know that I’m a triathlete and wanted to know whether I was bothered if I was not amongst the top 10. I told them no. Not that I don’t have the fighting spirit. End of the day, I believe that somebody is born to be the top, 2nd, 3rd. We are all specially designed by God. If we know that, then we hold the design properly and do what is the best for ourselves.
You said you discovered your passion over time. Which one did you get into first?
Definitely cooking. It was what I got into first in my career. My dad and uncle are vegetable dealers. We supply vegetables to restaurants. That was when I was exposed to restaurant and cooking. I was very young then, about 12, 13 years old. Ceramic was when I was at the halfway house. I met Dr Ng who got me started.
Amazingly, all three categories help me along in my difficult journey. For example, when I take part in ironman races, it helps to make sure that I polish my skills properly because there is no short cut. Imagine having to swim 3.9km, cycle for 180km and finish off with a 42km run. When you’re preparing and training for the race, you need to figure out where you need to fine tune and do better at.
What advice would you give our parents to help them discover what their children are good at?
I would encourage parents to look at their children’s interests. I think at the end of the day, parents need to have patience and spend more time with their children. If you don’t, how do you know their talents? Busy parents like us work very long hours. I always ask parents why they want to have children. If it’s just to fulfill your obligations, then it is a little bit miserable. I think our children are our property. Not only our property, they are also Mother Nature’s property. We grow as a whole, we teach, we do it together, we learn. That is human kind. So spend time with them and find out what their interests are and from there, groom them.
Did you discover what your son is good at creatively?
Some gifts don’t come so fast. That’s why I say you need to take time to observe and let them develop. Because we change. Maybe at this point of time, we find that they’re very good in reading. But maybe in another five more years, they may be good in Science. While you know that they are good in reading, good in Science, I think you hold the 2 subjects back and along the way, you can continue to fine tune and see what is good.
I am a good example myself. Today, if my son is my kind of character, I would have a problem as a parent. Because I love cooking, ceramic art and sports, so what is my love? What is my specialization? I always tell people my specialization is all those. But unfortunately most of the time, the world wants a specialist. I think for dyslexics, you can’t just limit them to one area of creativity. So the answer is, we just need to have a little patience. Stay with them but along the way, they have to talk to people to fine tune and self-discover.
Is there someone in your life that plays a big part in influencing your outlook in life and belief that you can achieve whatever you put your mind to?
If you read my book, Dr Ng is one person who influences me a lot. He influenced me in ceramic art. If you know the whole entire art, first ceramic is 3D, not 2D. It involves a lot of techniques. Not just an art, art. You need to understand clay properly so that it will not dry up or crack along the way. You also need to learn how to fire properly, learn how to glaze and how to join. So the whole entire art teaches me, like what I said earlier on, that understanding the ingredients is very important.
Being a parent as well as someone with dyslexia, could you give our parents some advice on how to handle their children who are facing low self-esteem issues and are struggling academically?
I think the important thing is first, work with DAS. Let them help with certain techniques but along the way, while the help is in place, understanding your child and spending time with them is the other key thing. Don’t throw them aside. 不要让他们自生自灭 (Translation: don’t leave them to their own devices).
I don’t have a chance to really talk to the schools. The community is also important. They have to be more lenient to children with dyslexia.
I know that you were bullied as a kid. What would you say to these school bullies?
My classmates and the people around me thought that I was slow and stupid and that was why I was being bullied. But I changed my character and I became a bully myself. When I bullied back, it was because I was fed up, I wanted to defend myself. But that makes the entire world worse. That’s something I don’t encourage. But what I want to share is put in more love. The whole entire community needs to be more understanding of dyslexia.
Lastly, what words of encouragement would you give our dyslexic children?
The most important of all is understand yourself, polish your strength and build up your weakness. Do your best and be your best, regardless of how little you can contribute.
Some of you may have heard about Irlen syndrome and how colour overlays are used to treat reading difficulties.
What is the theoretical basis behind the treatment and how does it work? Does it really resolve most, if not all, of the issues associated with dyslexia?
I’ve had parents share that their child’s headache is gone or that the words no longer float or jump around on paper, while others said nothing has changed for their child.
The cost of a pair of Irlen lenses is not cheap. In Singapore, it’s in the ballpark figure of $1,000. You also have to get the lenses refitted, so there’s an ongoing cost.
Dysgraphia vs Dyslexia. Often, the symptoms overlap, but they translate to one common denominator, learning difficulties. Do you know what are the differences between the two conditions?
Q: What intervention programme should I let my child go for? There are so many out there. Any criteria I can use to assess if those programmes are going to help my child?
A: Parents do get overwhelmed when it comes to deciding which intervention programme to put their child through.
Having gone through the process myself and having learnt what dyslexia truly is, not just from a pure research perspective, but also through a first person’s experience (Ron Davis himself), this is what I think.
Many intervention programmes being offered today can be generally summed up as seeking to teach a child how to learn. Sounds perfectly legit right? However, to correct dyslexia (yes, it is possible), it is important to recognise the cause of the dyslexic symptoms and to remove that cause. In another words, the starting point is not to teach a child how to learn but to remove what is preventing their ability (we all know they are smart cookies) to learn. Once the obstacle to learning is removed, then easeful learning can take place.
If a child is being taught how to learn without first removing the obstruction to learning, it will be an uphill task and the progress is slow. Time is not on their side, especially if they have already entered our Singapore education system.
Putting my daughter through the Davis programme was a game changer for her and I cannot be more thankful for that. If you are at the crossroad now, why not find out more about that programme?
Q: Can you explain with an example, how a dyslexic gets confused when reading, and how that leads to disorientation when the threshold for confusion is reached, and subsequently mistakes are made in the process?
A: Let me unpack this for you by using Ron Davis’ step-by-step breakdown of what happens when a 10-year old dyslexic reads the sentence, “The brown horse jumped over the stone fence and ran through the pasture”.
The first word “the” caused the mental imagery to go blank, because there was no picture for it. A blank picture is the essence of confusion. Using concentration, however, the child pushes past the blank picture and says “the” and forces himself to skip to the next word.
The word “brown” produces the mental image of a colour, but it has no defined shape. Continuing to concentrate, he says the word “brown”.
The word “horse” transforms the brown picture into a horse of that colour. Concentration continues and “horse” is said.
The word “jumped” causes the front of the brown horse to rise into the air. He continues concentrating as he says “jumped”.
The word “over” causes the back of the horse to rise. Still concentrating, he says “over”.
The next word, another “the”, causes the picture to go blank again. Confusion for the dyslexic has increased, but the threshold for confusion has not been reached. He must now double his concentration so he can push on to the next word. In doing so, he may or may not omit saying “the”.
The word “stone” produces a picture of a rock. With concentration doubled, he says “stone”.
The next word, “fence”, turns the rock into a rock fence. Still with doubled concentration, he says “stone”.
The next word, “and”, blanks out the picture again. This time, the threshold for confusion is reached. So the child becomes disoriented. The child is stopped again, more confused, doubly concentrating, and more disoriented. The only way he can continue is to increase his concentration effort. But now because he is so disoriented, the dyslexic symptoms will appear. It is very likely that he will omit saying the word “and”, or just as likely that he will substitute “a”, “an”, or “the” instead. At this point, he is no longer getting an accurate perception of the words on the page. He is now expanding a tremendous amount of effort and energy on concentrating, just to continue.
The next word, “ran”, because he is now disoriented, is altered into the word “runs”. He sees an image of himself running, entirely unrelated to the picture of the hovering horse. Then he says “runs”.
The word “through” is altered into “throws”. He sees himself throwing a ball and says “throws”.
The next word, “the”, blanks out the picture again, even more confused, and still disoriented. His only recourse is to quadruple his concentration. In doing so, he omits saying “the”.
By now, his disorientation has created a feeling like dizziness. He is feeling sick to his stomach, and the words and letters are swimming around on the page.
For the last word “pasture”, he must track down each letter, one at a time, so he can sound out the word. Once he does, he sees a picture of a grassy place. Even though he is disoriented, because of the extra effort and energy he puts forth in catching and sounding out each letter, he says it right, “pasture”.
Having competed the sentence, he closes the book and pushes it away. That’s enough of that! When asked what he just read, he is likely to answer with something like “a place where grass grows”. He has a picture of a horse in the air, a stone fence, himself playing ball and a grassy place, but cannot relate the separate elements in the sentence to form a mental image of the scene described.
To everyone who saw or heard him read the sentence or heard his answer to what it was about, it’s obvious that he didn’t understand any of what he just read. As for him, he doesn’t care that he didn’t understand it. He’s just thankful that he survived the ordeal of reading out loud.
Do you see some similarities between what was described above and what you see in your child when he/she attempts to read?
The end objective of reading is to have comprehension. In the case of dyslexia, most children could not even read, let alone have any comprehension. And so, we continue drilling them in phonics, hoping that they will eventually get it and is able to decode.
I am not about to invalidate the merits of phonics. It has its place in the process of acquiring literacy for most people. But we need to acknowledge that while it works for some, it may not work for others, dyslexics being one such group. My daughter struggled with phonics and many parents have shared the same observations. If that’s the case, giving them more phonics programme isn’t going to work for them.
What do you need to consider before you buy into any phonics programmes?
You may have heard this before: when something is repeated often enough, it gets perceived as the truth.
There are some misconceptions about learning difficulties that are accepted by parents as the truth and so they figured there is nothing they can do about it and accepted things as they are.
It is important for us to question what we are reading or hearing. Don’t just accept what you’ve been told, especially if you have a nagging suspicion that something does not sound quite right.
The mistakes we see a dyslexic make when reading, such as omissions, substitutions, insertions and reversals, are as a result of disorientation.
Disorientation causes perceptual distortions in our various senses: vision, hearing, balance/movement and sense of time.
Just like the idea depicted in the picture, dyslexics need a way to ‘refresh’ their sensory perceptions so that they can turn off the disorientation, and have accurate perception.