Edena Goh was bullied and had low self-esteem over her learning condition, but found that embracing it inspired others
By any standard, Edena Goh is an accomplished student. She studied triple science in secondary school, was head pre- fect and scored seven points for her O levels. She did it all while being dyslexic.
“It’s been a difficult journey,” says the articulate 18-year-old junior college student. Her mother Christina Tan, 51, says her younger daughter has al- ways had a big vocabulary.
The teachers at the phonics enrichment programme she at- tended when she was around age five were impressed enough to recommend her for a grade jump, but every time Edena had to sit a reading or written test in a one-to- one setting, she threw a tantrum.
Ms Tan noticed differences between Edena’s reading and writing abilities and those of her other daughter, who is 18 months older and whom she declined to name. “What she could verbalise, she could not recognise, even if they were very basic words, high frequency words, even nouns,” she says.
The lawyer-turned-entrepreneur pressed for answers from the enrichment centre, childcare centre and doctors. Everyone said the girl was fine. Edena remembers that Chinese lessons during her kindergarten years were especially taxing. “I had no idea what they were saying. It was like an alien language to me,” she says.
During her Primary 1 orientation, Edena was one of two children who cried as she was over- whelmed. She could not complete the activity sheets given. Ms Tan then decided to defer her formal education for a year, having realised Edena was possibly dyslexic after speaking to a psychologist friend.
“Because we saw how lacking in confidence she was, we didn’t want to push her into primary school. I was really concerned about her mental well-being. That’s some- thing that will have a long-term effect,” Ms Tan says.
One in 10 people worldwide have dyslexia, a lifelong learning condition that affects reading and writing.
Of this group, 4 per cent have dyslexia severe enough to warrant im- mediate intervention, says Ms Sere- na Abdullah, assistant director (curriculum) in the English language and literacy division of the Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS).
It supports almost 4,000 pre-primary to tertiary students with dyslexia and other specific learning differences, but this is just the tip of the iceberg, she adds.
Based on the Department of Statistics Singapore’s figures, there were 656,369 students enrolled in educational institutions in 2020, which suggests that an estimated 26,255 students may need dyslexia support.
BULLIED IN SCHOOL
Edena went for occupational therapy for a few months and had a full assessment by an educational psychologist. She also attended the Davis Reading Programme for Young Learners, a modified Davis Dyslexia Correction programme, as her mother felt phonics-based programmes had not worked.
The Davis Dyslexia Correction programme was founded in the United States in 1980 by Mr Ron Davis, who developed a way to overcome his own severe dyslexia in adulthood.
Ms Tan says the Davis approach believes that dyslexics are mostly picture thinkers who experience perceptual distortion – in terms of vision, hearing, time, balance and coordination – when disoriented.
It teaches dyslexics how to reorient themselves using visualisation techniques as well as master high frequency words using clay to make customised “pictures” they can think with, thereby replacing confusion with certainty, she adds.
However, the non-traditional approach is not widely recognised and critics have said it lacks inde- pendent evidence-based studies to back its claims.
The Orton-Gillingham approach, which was founded more than 80 years ago, is more commonly used for teaching dyslexics. It is diagnostic, structured and multisensory, and uses systematic phonics instruction, says Ms Serena of DAS.
Edena remembers dreading evenings when her mother would return home and drill her with assessment books and reading materials. Ms Tan admits she was strict and impatient at the time.
Now, she tells parents she works with to “cut the kids some slack. It’s not that they are not trying hard enough. They are, they just need time and we need to recognise that they learn differently”.
Ms Tan became a Davis method facilitator four years ago and runs Singapore Dyslexia Intervention Services. She also supports special- needs caregivers as a CareConnect champion under CaringSG, an initiative for the special needs community.
A year later, Edena was back in school, this time with the ability to read a book during silent reading time – using a ruler so she would not skip lines.
But her struggles with learning brought on unwanted attention in the form of bullying. “I used to be called ‘stupid’ for not being able to learn Chinese and for being a slow- er learner than my peers. I think that lowered my self-confidence. Since then, even with a decent PSLE score, I carried this burden of not being good enough,” says Edena, who had a score of 237 and was exempted from Mother Tongue.
Ms Tan says that while her daughter was a slower learner in the beginning, she is a “big picture thinker” like many dyslexics she has seen in her practice.
Edena easily grasps concepts and thinks out of the box, which has helped her excel in school.
Her condition still flares up during stressful times such as examinations, when she gets “a bit disoriented sometimes”.
But she says: “My parents have always encouraged me to just do my best. That helps to ease my anxiety as well, thinking that I don’t have to be the best – I just have to do my personal best.”
EMBRACING HER GIFT
Still, dyslexia was not something she volunteered to share with her class- mates. The turning point came in Secondary 3, when she organised a camp for school leaders. During the camp, participants shared their insecurities and realised it was all right for leaders to have weaknesses as long as they sup- ported one another.
Edena says: “Whenever I share about being dyslexic with others, most of the reactions I get are those of shock because they see that I’m doing well. It encourages me even further that others draw inspiration from me.”
As she embraced her condition, her dreams grew larger. Edena was one of eight finalists in the Halogen Foundation’s National Young Lead- er Award 2020. The foundation is a charity that nurtures young leaders.
If she could, she would aim for the stars. Her eyes light up as she shares that her “ultimate dream” is to be an astronaut. She also hopes to be an engineer as she enjoys robotics.
“Entering a male-dominated industry is something that is very empowering. And I think that follows my story of trying to inspire other people,” she says.
Looking back on her journey, she says: “Although it was a tough journey, struggling with all this self- doubt, I wouldn’t change anything.”
But she says she hopes that dyslexic kids starting Primary 1 in 2023 “won’t feel so insufficient and insecure about themselves”.
“You are special, even though you do not realise it now.”
PREPARING YOUR DYSLEXIC CHILD FOR PRIMARY 1
GET HELP EARLY
Starting primary school can be a source of anxiety and stress as dyslexic children navigate a new environment and get used to new expectations, says Ms Serena Abdullah from the Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS).
She says “a lot is required of a child even at Primary 1. Students are expected to have ac- quired emergent literacy skills and be able to read, write and spell fairly proficiently by the time they embark on their primary education”.
Timely intervention, either through school- based dyslexia remediation programmes or edu- cational therapy at DAS (das.org.sg), is important.
She encourages parents to set up an “eco- system of support” with their child’s school. They should also look out for challenges in literacy, behaviour, executive functioning and social skills, and seek help early.
ACCEPT YOUR CHILD
Many parents have a traditional view about learn- ing, which is to learn the lesson ahead of the teacher’s class, says Ms Frances Yeo, principal psychologist and programme director of Thom- son Kids Specialised Learning (www.thomsonkids.com).
It is part of Thomson Medical Group and offers help for children with learning differences.
This mindset does not work with dyslexic kids as their fundamental literacy skills lag behind those of their peers. “When students with learning disorders are given academic instruction that is beyond their level, they feel over- whelmed and stressed,” says Ms Yeo.
Over time, this builds up and can cause every- thing from low self-esteem to thoughts of suicide.
What is more important is that parents accept that their children learn differently, even though it may be hard to hear negative feedback from teachers or deal with feelings of helplessness, she adds.
TRUST THAT THEY ARE TRYING
“Overcoming a learning disorder is very difficult and takes time. There are no quick fixes, no medications that can make it go away,” says Ms Yeo.
Parents who support their children even through the smallest of wins help them develop “a growth mindset or an internal narrative that encourages them to see learning difficulties as a challenge that they can someday overcome”, she adds.
Learning is a long journey and not doing well in primary school may not be the catastrophe parents fear, she notes.
“Children need space to grow physically, emotionally and academically. This also means par- ents must trust that their children are trying their best, even though the improvement in grades may not be obvious.
“I feel that the hardest thing for many parents is to learn to manage their own anxieties and not project these onto their children.”
Professional services described as Davis™, including Davis™ Dyslexia Correction, Davis™ Symbol Mastery, Davis™ Orientation Counseling, Davis™ Attention Mastery, Davis™ Math Mastery, and Davis™ Reading Program for Young Learners may only be provided by persons who are trained and licensed as Davis Facilitators or Specialists by Davis Dyslexia Association International.