Category Archives: Resources

This is for the blog Beyond Dyslexia: Beyond Dyslexia: Soaring Forward Resources.

My Introduction to Jewel Kats

Published / by Mary / Leave a Comment

This past week I was introduced to an amazing woman – children’s author and disability advocate – Jewel Kats. I went right to her website and discovered Prince Preemie: A Tale of a Tiny Puppy Who Arrives Early; Jenny and Her Dog Both Fight Cancer: A Tale of Chemotherapy and Caring; Miss Popular Steals the Show: Girls in Wheelchairs Rule! And many other compelling titles.

You see, Jewel was in a car accident when she was nine-years old that left her wheelchair bound. Unable to find characters in stories who also had a disability motivated her to write children’s books and depict differently abled characters as powerful and capable. She came to my awareness when I received the following email from Reader Views:

“I have some more news!  We just received confirmation that Once Upon a Time a Sparrow is the winner of one of our sponsored awards: Jewel Kats Special Needs Award Going to a debut author whose first book is a picture book or chapter book about a child overcoming a mental or physical disability. Award: $200 cash prize, Sponsored by: Loving Healing Press. Congratulations!”

After I received this email, I began mentally composing a letter to Jewel. I then learned from Victor R. Volkman, President of Loving Healing Press, Inc. that, “Alas, the Jewel Kats Special Needs Award is a memorial to Jewel who lived a short but brilliant life until the age of 37. This award is our tribute to keep her memory alive as well as her special mission to help children feel better about themselves and confident to take on the world with all its problems no matter what their mental or physical conditions.”

Having only viewed her website, I hadn’t realized she had passed away. Here’s the letter I had hoped to send to Jewel.

Dear Jewel,

Thank you for bringing dignity and increased visibility to those of us who are differently abled. Clearly you understand how being physically and/or mentally challenged has a huge impact, but equally debilitating is the internalized sense of feeling less than. My first challenge was severe dyslexia. The second was feeling that I was an inadequate student and simply not smart. Thank you, Jewel Kats, for recognizing and equalizing this latter aspect. I did eventually learn to read, still very slow and laborious, but it took therapy to debunk the notion that I lacked intelligence and could never be a writer. The “rule” that one could not be a writer if she was not a reader was crippling – despite earning a PhD in educational psychology.

I love fiction because when it is done well it expands reader’s empathy. My impetus for writing fiction was all about imagination. Once Upon a Time a Sparrow is a fictionalized story of my life struggle with dyslexia. Much comes from lived experiences. Using metaphor and fiction, I more powerfully created situations evoking empathy, understanding, and inspiring hope.

I needed to write my story with adults in mind. I wanted teachers and others who interact with children to have the experience of being in the mind of a child with dyslexia, to expand their understanding of how difficult a school day could be. Teachers’ response to struggling readers can and does have lasting impact into adulthood.

Jewel, I love your mission to empower children through seeing themselves as hero, heroine, prince, and princess. I absolutely plan to write a version of Once Upon a Time a Sparrow for children.

Nine-year old Maddie falls in love with the fairy in a story her teacher reads, “The Fairy Angel’s Gift.” She steals the book and does her best to read a few words in it. She reads enough words to construct her own version of the story that helps her make sense of her own predicament. She is facing failure as a third grader, unable to read beyond a beginning first grade level. The child’s version of my story will be called, “The Fairy Angel’s Gift.”

Finally, I want you to know that I hid my disability for many years. I now am completely “out” about my limitations. And, having won first place in the category of General Fiction Novels for Reader Views and awarded the Jewel Kats Award, I will be a stronger advocate for other aspiring writers who may have had similar reading and writing challenges like mine.  I will remind them that if someone like me, who needed remedial help to finally pass English 101, can go on to write a successful novel, they can be just as successful if they’re willing to persist.

Thank you, Jewel for being an inspiration to so many. Your stories will live on and continue to provide children with the role models they deserve to have.

Reading Requires a Full Set of Colors

Published / by Mary / Leave a Comment




NOTE: The following is an article I wrote a few years ago following an evaluation feedback session for a second grade child with significant reading challenges. His teacher asked for an explanation of what dyslexia was. I use three examples of students I come across each year as a school psychologist working in elementary schools. Students that may initially be missed.

Reading a word is an amazing feat of coordination. No one enters the world with eyes that zero in on printed lines and curves and instantly convert patterns into meaningful words and concepts. Yet many young minds learn this skill with the same apparent ease with which toddlers advance from grasping end tables to racing across the living room floor. This is the growth we hope for all our children. And yet in every classroom, one to three children fail to experience the joy of mastering reading.

As a simple analogy, think of your home printer. When each individual ink cartridge has adequate supply, the printer can create pictures of every variation in color and nuance. We appreciate the picture without seeing the unique mix of three primary colors plus black.

Similarly, skilled reading seems a graceful unitary task. When the “primary colors,” or cognitive components, are in adequate supply, the reader does not “see” letters and sounds, but rather images and concepts. When these cognitive components (which include many more than three or four) function as a unit, readers can read most any combination of letters, even those they have never encountered before.

Dyslexia: The Missing Colors

In a printer, when one or more of the primary colors are low, a distortion detracts from the picture. When any cartridge is empty or near empty, the picture becomes unrecognizable, despite an abundance of the other inks.

Dyslexia results not from a damaged brain, but rather from an inadequate supply of the specific cognitive abilities that support the skills in learning to read.

What does learning to read look like when one or more of the “primary colors” are in short supply? Here are three students I encounter every year:

“Emma” enters kindergarten full of enthusiasm. She attended two years of preschool and is proud that she can print her first name. Midway through the school year, her teacher becomes concerned. Emma still cannot identify all twenty-six letters and sounds. In fact, she struggles to get ten of them right.

“Jason” enters first grade knowing all the letter names and sounds, and at least ten sight words. His teacher has no concerns until noticing, in February, that despite Jason’s ability to call out letter sounds, he never uses the sounds to read words—he is a master at memorizing. If he does not instantly recognize a word, he has no idea how to use sounds to figure it out. Simple “sound out” words such as “fog” or “clap” stop him cold, or he guesses wildly.

“Owen” also knows his letter sounds, and unlike Jason, he can put them to use. He is good at reading and spelling word families (“fan, tan, ran”) and can sound out most simple words. Even so, in September his second-grade teacher is alarmed when she listens to Owen attempt to read the word “was”—a word most children instantly recognize by first grade. Owen sounded out the word “was” in a letter-by-letter fashion and arrived at a word that rhymed with “pass.” He also stumbles on other common first-grade words such as “what,” “are,” and “there.” Yet, he can read words his classmates miss, such as “splendid” and “dinner.”

Emma, Jason, and Owen, like approximately 10 percent of children, are attempting to print a sunset without the full range of colors. What are the “primary colors” needed to learn to read?

One necessary color is “paired associative learning.” These three words describe an aspect of memory that supports learning a letter name with a specific letter sound. Jason and Owen have this “color,” and therefore did not come to their teacher’s attention until first and second grade. Emma does not.

There are reasons other than weak paired associative learning for children to leave kindergarten without knowing letter names and sounds. Most of these reasons have to do with circumstances such as learning a new language, absences, stress at home, or poor school instruction. Emma, however, has strong family and school support—her teacher should be concerned.

Jason’s and Owen’s reading experiences are examples of what may occur when one of two other primary colors are missing. These colors appear in the literature on learning disabilities as “phonological and orthographic processors.” Jason initially fooled his teacher into thinking he had both colors, as he spouted out his letter sounds. Yet, phonological, also called phonemic, awareness is a sensitivity much deeper than the surface expression of mimicking sounds. Children who do not grasp that spoken words are composed of sound units will not come closer to this understanding by repeating letter sounds such as “guh” for letter G and “buh” for letter B, because in fact, these letters never do make those exact sounds when embedded in an actual word.

With a profound lack of phonological awareness regarding the sound units in words, Jason relied on the color cartridge that had plenty of ink: orthography. When he encountered the frequent word “was,” Jason’s strong paired associative learning skills, combined with visual, orthographic, processing, supported his brain in strengthening the relationship among the letter combinations and whole word unit, and he became a whiz at learning to read and spell sight words.

Why Red, Green, and Blue are Necessary.

In simple terms, “orthography” can be thought of as the visual aspect of reading, and “phonology,” the sound aspect. This very simple conception has misguided some into believing that children with cognitive traits similar to Jason or Owen should be taught to read exclusively using a “visual” or an “auditory” approach. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Skilled reading involves coordination of orthographic and phonological processing, both of which interact with the language center of the brain. The persistent myth is that dyslexia is seeing letters and words backwards. Research, including brain imaging, has clearly established that dyslexia has little to do with visual processing, but rather has a lot to do with processing small sound units (phonemes) and integrating these units with larger units of language as well as its visual representation.

All beginning readers transpose letters and words. Children with dyslexia are often slow to progress beyond the beginning reader phase and therefore continue to make the developmental errors of a beginning reader.

The good news is that with targeted intervention, the necessary “ink cartridges” can be filled up. Dr. Virginia Berninger at the University of Washington has demonstrated, through before-and-after MRI brain scans that a comprehensive language-based intervention can lead to improvements in reading skills and an actual change in the structure and function of the brain .Brain Changes

If Emma, Jason, or Owen remind you of a student you have in class, or your own child, an evaluation for dyslexia should be considered. Children who have had good instruction, consistent schooling, and home support should not be experiencing the types of reading imbalance portrayed in this article.

Number-One Myth about Dyslexia

Published / by Mary / Leave a Comment

Children See Letters Backward. This is the number-one myth about dyslexia. This myth had its illustrious start with American neurologist Samuel Orton in 1925. Orton’s views helped to perpetuate the longstanding belief that letter reversals are central to dyslexia, and this belief continues today.

Two weeks ago I was stopped in the halls of one of my Seattle elementary schools by a first-grade teacher insisting that I evaluate Lexie. Ms. Barnett held a piece of lined paper with light pencil-writing full of letter reversals. Ms. Barnett has taught for twenty plus years and by all accounts, she is an effective teacher. She insisted that this writing sample and Lexie’s continuing confusion between letters b and d served as ample evidence that Lexie had dyslexia and required special education services.

Since the 1930s, multiple studies have thoroughly debunked the myth that people who have dyslexia see letters and numbers backward. Below, you will see links to a few of the many scholarly studies that should have put this persistent misguided notion to rest. Just this week a friend shared that she got lost because, she said with a laugh, “My dyslexia kicked in and I reversed your address.” Not only do accounts of reversals populate dyslexic jokes, but the media has also spread this myth. In the 2001 film Pearl Harbor, Captain Rafe McCauley (portrayed by Ben Affleck) informs the nurse administering an eye exam that he can’t read letters because “I just get ’em backward sometimes.” Even journalists get it wrong: on a National Public Radio (NPR) show on dyslexia in 2007, the host stated that the “simplest explanation, I suppose, is that you see things backwards.” More recently (November of 2016), NPR did a series about dyslexia and called out the myth about visual confusions in the NPR Dyslexia series.

Dyslexia literally means “difficulty with words” and is defined as an unexpected delay in reading in an otherwise healthy child or adult who has received a proper education. It affects an estimated 5 to 17 percent of the population (Shaywitz and Shaywitz 2004).

So why does it appear that those children with dyslexia have more difficulty than peers with letter and number reversals? For starters, all beginning readers to some extent are challenged by letter orientation. And why not? Other than letters and numbers, visual representation of objects are not defined by their orientation. Studies have shown that the number of reversals kindergartners make is not predictive of their reading performance in first grade (Simner 1982). Yet children with reading challenges continue beyond the age of their peers to display letter reversals. Not only letter reversals, however, but many other traits common to beginning readers. This is due to delayed development in reading rather than a separate issue with visual processing.

Conceiving of dyslexia as a visual issue and perpetuating the myth that dyslexic individuals see numbers and letters backward is unhelpful and needs eradicating. Dyslexic children have problems in naming letters, perceiving letter sounds, and associating phonemes (sound units that roughly correspond to individual letters) with letters, but not necessarily in copying them. Because many people erroneously believe that letter reversals define dyslexia, the children with dyslexia who do not make letter reversals often go undiagnosed.

Here is a helpful site full of tips and activities developed by Julie Vanalst, a former speech language pathologist and currently a teacher consultant for special education.

Please consider signing up to receive my blog updates.
I anticipate new material once a month to six weeks. I will also provide an occasional update regarding my novel and events related to my novel.