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HomeLearning Difficulties

Reading, kids, and (unexpected) success

A writer and entrepreneur – who is dyslexic – advocates abolishing the stigma and shame associated with learning disabilities by looking at reading in a whole new way.

GreatSchools Blog

By Ben Foss

When I was a kid, my mom read most written material aloud to me. When I went away to college, I would fax my term papers home to her in New Hampshire and have her read them to me over the phone so I could find and correct my spelling mistakes. This is because I am dyslexic, and she was a great mom.

I went on to become the director of access technology at Intel Corporation, where I invented a device called the Intel Reader, which takes a photograph of any printed material and reads it aloud on the spot. This device was great for me and for others who have difficulty with text, either because they are dyslexic or because they have visual impairments. And it was great for my mom and dad because they didn't have to take a phone call every time I wrote a paper or report!

What type of reader is your child?

Twenty percent of all children have difficulty learning to read in the conventional way. If your child is not succeeding with standard reading instruction, you should intervene as soon as possible if you want to help her learn to love learning. In the process, you can avoid hidden costs that impact many children who have a hard time in a mainstream classroom: shame and bullying.

Dyslexia impacts 10 percent of children in our public school system, and there are over 2.3 million kids currently identified as having a specific learning disability, including dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and other reading issues.

If you find that homework with your child is a nightly ordeal, or she avoids reading aloud — or reading at all, for that matter — she may have a print-related disability. (You can check by using the quick screening tool on the website, Headstrong Nation, a national nonprofit for people with dyslexia.)

Many people don’t know that there are, in fact, three types of reading: eye reading, ear reading, and finger reading. Blind people read with their fingers, mainstream people read with their eyes. In my case, I use my ears to read. I completed both a law and a business degree at Stanford and wrote the book, The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan: A Blueprint For Renewing Your Child's Confidence And Love Of Learning. I accomplished all of this by reading with my ears, using books on tape or talking computers. (See this video demonstration of reading by ear, using a standard iPad.)

My path to graduate school, before I embraced ear reading, was a tough one. I made it by paying very close attention in lectures, talking to my friends about the reading material, and selecting courses that allowed me to avoid reading, such as film classes or other workarounds (e.g., for a class on Shakespeare, I rented videos of all the plays). I also did some things I'm not proud of, including cheating on one college calculus exam because I had such a hard time reading the book. I decided that felt unethical and dropped out of mathematics altogether, until I went to business school.

Today, you can find free digital audiobooks at Bookshare, or low-cost audiobooks at Learning Ally, a nonprofit that also provides a phone numberthat allows parents to connect with other parents whose children have learning issues. 

It is important for all children to get a chance to learn to read with their eyes. The best way to teach eye reading to people who might have difficulty, especially those with dyslexia, is the Orton-Gillingham methodology. There are many flavors of this multisensory technique, but the essential goal is to teach children phonemic awareness. If your child is falling behind in reading, it's a good idea to approach your school with a formal letter asking that your child be screened and, if she is dyslexic, taught with this methodology.

Reading and other unnatural acts

We often forget that reading with our eyes is not a natural act. Language is a natural act. Most babies will begin to speak with little prompting in their first year of life, but we spent five years teaching children how to use their eyes to read. Indeed, it's only within the last 100 years that we've had any expectation that the majority of the population would read with their eyes. So it's no surprise that a large number of people have great difficulty with it.

We tend to treat people who have difficulty learning to read as though they have a disease. We say that they are "diagnosed" with dyslexia or that they "overcame" dyslexia. Just because I’m from New Hampshire, we don’t diagnose me as being from New Hampshire. I do not need to overcome the fact that I am from New Hampshire (unless you talk to my friends from the Granite State's archrival: Vermont).

Sticking to this outdated medical model creates a sense that a person with a learning difference is somehow defective. The logic goes that if children cannot learn to read in the conventional way, they must be either stupid, lazy, or both. But no one would ever consider a person in a wheelchair lazy if he didn’t want to scale a flight of stairs. In the same way, we shouldn’t treat children as lazy or stupid because they have trouble reading with their eyes.

Narrow definition of normal

By focusing on such a narrow definition of “normal” when it comes to reading, schools may inadvertently encourage bullying. Bullies frequently target children who don’t fit the definition of “normal." Normal is only a setting on the dryer!

People with dyslexia often internalize a sense of unworthiness. When developing the Intel Reader, I interviewed over 200 people who are dyslexic. There was a pronounced pattern of self-harm among the people I spoke to, including cutting, use of drugs and alcohol, and eating disorders.

Indeed, clinical psychologists who study shame say that the level of shame associated with not being able to read well (with your eyes) as an adult — if it's related to a disability — is equivalent in magnitude to the shame felt by someone who has experienced incest. Bullies — whether on the school yard or online — attack kids who feel shame and make a tough situation worse.

Brighter futures

As a parent, you can help your child by changing your view of what literacy looks like. Consider the Tesla, the electric car Consumer Reports describes as the best car the organization ever tested.

Imagine that someone gave you a Tesla, and you didn’t understand that it was an electric car and kept looking for the gas cap. You’d likely believe, at first, that your brand new car was defective. But as soon as you understood that your car was an electric car and had a rechargeable battery, you’d recognize its convenience and ecological benefits, and you’d realize that you were the lucky owner of a fabulous mode of transportation.

If we consider eye reading the only legitimate way to learn, we’ll consign countless children to shame and failure. If, on the other hand, we embrace reading differences and help kids succeed no matter what their learning style, we’ll ensure that all kids have the opportunity to love learning and enjoy a bright future.

My native tongue

I am a dyslexic for life and proud of it. To give you an idea what it’s like to be dyslexic, I’ve included below my unedited prose — what is looks like when I try to copy text I read — because I’ve found that people have a hard time believing that I really have dyslexia when they see only the final product of my written work. Here are the first paragraphs of this article in my native tongue:

When I wans a kid my mom read most tritten material aloud to me. When I went to college I use fto fax them home to her in new hampshire and have her read them to me over the phone so I could find my won spelling mistakes. this is bcause I am dyslexic and she was a great mom.

I went on to become the direcotr of access technology are Intel, wehe I went on to develop a device called the Intel readr, whcih take a photo graph od any written matierla dn reads it aloud on the spot. This decive was great fo rme oor for other people who have difficulty with text witheir because they are dyslexic like me or because they have visual imparments. And it was great for my mom and dad becaue they did not have to take a phone call every time I had to do a papr or a report.

Ben Foss is a prominent entrepreneur and activist and the founder of Headstrong Nation, a not-for-profit organization serving the dyslexic community. Foss graduated from Wesleyan University and earned a JD/MBA from Stanford Law and Business Schools. He invented the Intel Reader, a mobile device that takes photos of text and recites it aloud on the spot. He has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fox Business News, ABC, CNN, HBO and the BBC. Represented by the Random House Speakers Bureau, he regularly speaks to Fortune 500 companies, public policy organizations, and colleges and universities across the country.

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