Tips for Teaching Creative Writing to Students with Dyslexia: Featuring “The Chronicles of Nova Black” by Clara Thorsen

A published author reached out to me on Twitter this week wanting to learn more about how to teach creative writing to kids with dyslexia. (Love that!) My daughter, Clara, is 13 and wants to be an author when she grows up, so I knew that she would have lots of great advice to share with the author. This afternoon, we sat on the porch and together we brainstormed ideas about how to encourage kids with dyslexia to be creative writers. I was so impressed by the candor and depth of what Clara shared. Below is what we come up with. We start with tips for teachers and below we share tips for parents for students who want to write at home.

Tips for Writing Teachers:

  • Take time to learn about what dyslexia is, and what it isn’t. Even those teachers who think the know all about dyslexia, might be surprised to learn that some of what they “know” are actually outdated myths. (No, colored overlays are not helpful and no, we can’t magically read backwards.) Educate yourself about the signs and strengths of dyslexia. Also, read up on the myths of dyslexia. Lastly, look at this dyslexia mind map to see all the ways that dyslexia impacts life and learning. Not only do we struggle with reading, writing and spelling, but we often can’t tell our right from our left and we may not be able to read a clock. The struggle is real.
  • Let them write unbound. Make sure students with dyslexia know that the creative part is the most important part of the process and tell them that your class is a safe space for their creativity to go wild. While it is very appropriate to discuss the structural elements of a good writing like character development, setting, rising action, climax, etc., make it clear that they do not have to spell well, punctuate correctly or use perfect grammar in the first step of writing. If students with dyslexia feel that they have to spell well or write quickly, they may easily feel overwhelmed.
  • Let them explore their skills. It is okay to encourage them to use dialogue, bigger vocabulary words and to push themselves, but it is important to reiterate frequently that they are in a safe place to explore, risk take and stretch without perfection or judgement. Understand that students with dyslexia may want to write a great sentence like “The book magically reappeared on her desk, and the librarian said ‘how can this possibly be?'” but, since a students with dyslexia may not know how to spell any of those words, they may just write “The book came back and the man said ‘wow’.” If they feel free to write without fear or shame, you might just be surprised by what they can produce.
  • Don’t be surprised if they write well one week and poorly the next. Dyslexia can be unexpected and frustrating to teachers who don’t understand it. What do you do if you have a student who wrote and amazing story about dinosaurs last week, but then this week she totally freezes up when you ask her to write a Halloween story? It can feel confusing, but people with dyslexia often have an area or two that they feel much more comfortable writing and reading in. Usually it is an area that holds a lot of interest from them. In the dinosaur example, a student may have always loved dinosaurs and may have a lot of background knowledge and have listened to a lot of stories in that genre, so she may feel very confident writing and spelling even very complicated words. When she writes outside her comfort area, the difference might be stark.
  • Provide easy-to-read lists of helpful words for the type of story you are writing this week. If you are writing, say, a Halloween story this week, students with dyslexia might feel intimidated if they can’t spell infrequently used words like “ghost,” “vampire” or “werewolf.” If you have a writing subject that you know you will use in a class, provide students with a list of words that might go along with that type of story. Using pictures next to the word can be helpful, especially for younger writers. This will give them confidence to incorporate some of those bigger vocabulary words in their story that they might not have been able to spell on their own.
  • Don’t get frustrated if you have to give the same reminders day after day. People with dyslexia have a really hard time retaining information about written language from one day to the next. I am a bright 45 year old woman, but I cannot for the life of me remember how to spell the vegetable word “brocli.” You can tell me today, but tomorrow I will go back to having no idea how to spell it. The same thing can hold true for grammar, punctuation and spelling rules. If you notice this in a student with dyslexia, validate it, because it is part of their disability. Be patient with them. Saying, “I just told you this yesterday!” is not helpful and actually makes them feel shame for their disability which is counter productive.
  • Give feedback on the storyline as they write, not on spelling, punctuation and/or grammar. Feel free to give constructive criticism about plot, characterization and setting as students are writing. Things like “you need describe that witch more” or “the dialogue is flat, how would the boy talk to his puppy?” are great constructive criticism that will help build them as writers. Avoid criticizing or correcting spelling, punctuation and/or grammar in the middle of the writing process because most students have built up a lot of shame around those things. They will often feel daunted and paralyzed if they are asked to keep up with these details during the often-enjoyable exercise of being creative. Save spelling, punctuation and grammar at the end of the writing process. When it is time for the red pen, follow them next tips.
  • Provide students with a editing checklist and let them try self-editing first, one item at a time. We have already established that students with dyslexia can really struggle with writing creatively while also working on spelling, punctuation and grammar. For many, that will be impossible. So, once a student has finished his story, let him practice self-editing. Students with dyslexia will not be able to tackle editing spelling, grammar and punctuation all at once. They will need to edit in steps – one type of edit at a time. The best way to do this might be to give them a checklist. For younger students, include some visual cues. Make sure this is easily accessible at all times. Ask them to print out the checklist and keep it my their computer as they write. When you let them self-edit, give them plenty of time and let them know that you can help them edit if there is a deadline and they get fatigued or feel overwhelmed.
  • Before providing teacher edits on the work of a student with dyslexia , make sure to tell them that ALL professional writers go through lots of edits to help them understand that they are not the only one who needs lots of edits. To help combat the shame that many students with dyslexia feel when getting their work edited, normalize making mistakes and tell them that all writers get severe edits and that sometimes it can hurt your feelings. Be vulnerable and be open about your mistakes and a time when you got lots of corrections and how it made you feel. Model resilience for them. Show students a mark up of your writing with lots of red marks to show them it is part of the process, not a mark on them of their stupidity.
  • If you are reading the written work of a student with dyslexia, and you legitimately cannot read it, don’t be shy – ask them what it says in a kind way. As you get used to reading the writing of a student with dyslexia (or a blogger with dyslexia, ahem), you will get pretty good at deciphering it to get to the great creative story beyond the crazy spelling and haphazard punctuation. However, sometimes you will come across a word that is so poorly spelled, you just cannot figure it out. Don’t be shy, it is okay to ask them to just tell you. They know they have dyslexia. It is not a secret and it is far worse if you don’t mention it. Be kind and acknowledge their dyslexia. Say something like “I was reading your story, and I am really impressed that at your use of foreshadowing in the second chapter – that really had me on edge. I do have a couple of questions. I know you have dyslexia, and I am really proud that you chose some great vocabulary, but can you help me read these two words? Spellcheck can be the worst sometimes.”
  • Teach students the editing symbols. This will get them familiar with common editing marks and help them understand that edits are so common, there are universal marks to help all people write better. Plus, these are really important tips to know as a writer and may help them edit their own work in the future.
  • Do not tell them to rewrite what they have written. Handwriting and typing are a very slow process for kids with dyslexia. Asking them to start over feels totally overwhelming. Ask them to edit or rewrite small bits at a time. Give them plenty of time and a clear reason they need to redo something. Clara told me recently that a teacher asked her to rewrite something and she thought to herself “Why, I will just make the same mistakes again!” If you ask for big rewrites too often, your students with dyslexia might very well check out.
  • Use Assistive Technology! I should have started with assistive technology. It is a crucial part of writing success for students with dyslexia. Extensions for Google Chrome like Co:Writer, Grammarly, Snap and Read and Natural Reader are all great tools to empower student writers with dyslexia. In my last blog post, Dyslexia in the Time of Virtual School, I share a video on how to install these on your student’s computer.
  • If students use Dyslexia as an excuse. Yes, dyslexia is absolutely real, but sometimes those of us with dyslexia (me included) can use it as an excuse. We have learned that if we say “I can’t because I have dyslexia,” there is a pretty good chance that a teacher is going to back off something we don’t want to do that feels hard. As a teacher, it is important to both embrace dyslexia as a real thing, but also to push kids in the right ways to help them grow. My advice if you have a student with dyslexia who is saying “I can’t” is likely because they are stuck in shame and feeling embarrassed. Learning when to tell a student “Thank you for reminding me” and letting it go versus learning when to push can take some figuring out. First, there are somethings that are usually off limits for students with dyslexia. These include asking them: to read a story aloud, to read their work aloud, to write on the board or in a public forum, or to share their unedited written work publicly, and to read or write in a short time. These really are things that are hard or shaming for a student to do. However, if you are asking a student to write a story on a certain subject and they say they can’t, you need to talk with them after class to learn more behind the “why.” By using some of the tips above, odds are that you will be equipped to help them verbalize what is feeling hard in what you have assigned.
  • Encourage students to self-advocate. Make your class a safe space for students to practice self-advocacy. I tell teachers to remind students frequently that their feedback is important and that they can do it in writing via email or in person via zoom or after-school meeting. Include things like “remember, when you email me, it does not have to be spelled or written perfectly, that is a safe space for you to just communicate with me.” If a student reaches out to you, help him to verbalize his struggle. Ask him: What task is hard? How does that task make you feel? Does that have to do with your dyslexia? How can we fix it to make you more comfortable? If you get a kid who just says “all of it!” Be ready to dig in. Read up on dyslexia (which you should have already done if you followed the first tip) and follow up with something like “I hear you saying it all feels hard, but two weeks ago you wrote an amazing story about dinosaurs, but this week you struggled with your Halloween story and got upset when you were trying to spell ‘ghost’. I just learned that offering a list of words for new subjects might be helpful, can we try that next week?” If you are kind and understanding, with time, kids can learn the skills to self-advocate.
  • Challenge young writers with dyslexia! Now that you have all the tips above, my last tip is to remember that students with dyslexia are bright and need to be challenged in the right ways. It is true they struggle with the technical issues around writing, but they are often highly creative and extremely bright. So while they do need to be understood and accommodated, the also need to be pushed and believed in. There is a world of success for writers with dyslexia if they have caring teachers to empower them along the way!

Tips for Parents and Caregivers

  • Writing at home can be less formal. While the teacher tips above can certainly be helpful for parents and caregivers encouraging a young writer at home, I recommend to keep the process less formal at home. Let home be a space for kids to create and write stories without the burden of having to have it be perfect.
  • Audiobook your kids like crazy! If kids only ever read books on their own reading level, they are going to miss out on lots of the things they need to be successful writers. They need to read books above their level to be exposed to great stories, rich dialog and vocabulary and complex sentence structure. While some parents enjoy reading aloud to their children, the fact is that a lot of us don’t. We may be poor reader ourselves, or we are so stressed out that reading time is not a positive experience for us to do together as a family. While I always encourage reading and modeling reading, it is okay to be honest that it is too much for your household. In that case, to help even very low readers access great books, I recommend giving your children unfettered access to audiobooks. Reading audiobooks (or listening to books you read to them) is NOT cheating, so let them do it as much as they can. Let them read and explore any books they want. If they want to only read books about astronauts, let them do it. Often, once children with dyslexia realize they have a way to access the joy and escape of a story, they will get hooked on books. Don’t worry, they will not only read “Captain Underpants” forever, so don’t force them to try to read things you liked as a kid. Keep the Where the Red Fern Grows to yourself. Audiobooks are available in a lot of formats at a lot of different price points. Explore Audible, Overdrive, Play-a-ways, Learning Ally and apps that read story books out loud to younger students like Reading Rainbow.
  • Listen to the stories your child tells you. Great ideas often don’t come first on paper. If your child likes to tell stories, listen. Ask leading questions like “what does the dragon look like?” “What does the voice of the talking cake sound like?” “How does the super hero feel when he is flying?” Once they seem to really be talking a lot about one story, encourage them to write it down. If this feels daunting for them, especially for younger kids, maybe ask if you can scribe some of the ideas for them so they can remember the story to tell again. They can also just write some bullet points of the most important scenes. Starting small and letting them feel safe in their creativity will empower them to try more. Don’t push.
  • Start with a picture. Clara often starts a story by drawing pictures of the main characters. She writes down what they look like and what their characteristics are. Oftentimes, incorporating pictures as a first step can be really engaging to children with dyslexia and can help them build the idea of their story and give them the excitement and courage to continue.
  • Give your child assistive technology if they want it. Once your child decides they want to try writing, ask them how they want to write. Clara usually will hand write in a journal for a while and then will switch to her Grammarly on her computer once her story is more advanced. Let your child write how and when they want. The goal is to let your child write however seems easiest to your child, not to you. If they show you the story and you really cannot read it, that is okay. Have them help you with words you can’t read. Don’t pretend to read it if you don’t understand it. They will learn not to trust you. If they want to start using assistive technology, as I mention in the teacher tips above, I always recommend the affordable apps and Chrome extensions Co:writer and Grammarly.
  • Put down the red pen, Dad! For some parents, it is really hard not to edit. Stop. There is nothing that will kill your child’s love of writing more than a parent who makes unwelcome corrections and makes their child feel shame. Only correct for-fun creative writing if your child asks for it. Who cares if they have multiple stories laying around the house that are poorly capitalized and have awful spelling? Taking a red pen to it will not help them, or your relationship with them. Take it easy and say things like “I would love to share this with grandma, but we might need to spellcheck it before we give it to her? Can I spellcheck it for you or can we go through it together?” If your child says, “no.” Respect it. Children are often on their own journey with their dyslexia, and they want to feel safe with you. Remember, they will learn to improve spelling and grammar through school and intervention. Your job is to help them learn to live and succeed with dyslexia. Be an ally, not a critic.
  • What to do when your child asks you to edit their writing for spelling, grammar and punctuation. It is okay to edit when your child asks you to. While I recommend for teachers to encourage kids to self-edit, after Clara writes a story, I just ask her which edits she wants me to do and I make them without her. Yes, we want our children to learn the skill of editing, and they will, but at home, I am much more concerned with her learning to love to write, so I do the edits to save her hours and hours of really hard work. After she wrote an early draft of her short book The Chronicles of Nova Black, she checked it on Grammarly and laughed as she announced “I have 187 misspelled words and it doesn’t recognize most of them!” I was able to zip through and fix it much more quickly than she could. That said, I also have dyslexia, so when Clara entered her book into a recent contest, my husband had to follow up my edits with his….and he might have caught a whole lot I missed. (The struggle is real, y’all.)
  • How to edit your child’s work for content. While in my own house, spelling and grammar edits are an easy sell, making edits to other aspects of my daughter’s writing can be a challenge. As a young author and a strong personality, she knows what she wants to write and does not like me to change substantive things without her approval. What we have learned to do is that once she has seen the grammar and spelling edits, she reads back over it for a couple of days. Then we sit down and go over it together. If I find something that needs to change, we talk about. Sometimes she agrees to change it. Sometimes she does not. I try to let her be the boss, but sometimes it can be hard since I can also be bossy and we do butt heads. That is bound to happen, so have grace with yourself and your child. Apologize if (okay, when) you get in a huff, but keep your eye on the prize: a child with dyslexia who loves to write stories!
  • Make it a family affair. If you and your child don’t work well together, engage family members to provide feedback on the book if your child is open to it. First make sure to ask your child what kind of feedback she wants from a certain family member. She might not want a younger sister fixing her spelling or a grumpy grandpa refuse to read it and hurt her feelings. Try something like “Lets ask your sister to read it to see if there is anything in the plot she thinks we missed since we have read it so many times.” Then, give the family member clear parameters on the feedback your young author is looking for. If your child just wants grandma to read it to say she loves it, make sure grandma is on the same page.
  • When the story is done. While most of our children’s stories won’t get published or submitted into contests, I still like to print them out like they are a complete book. Clara draws cover art, we make an “About the Author” page and then we print it on nice paper and put it in a folder so she can keep it on her shelf so she can feel proud of it. Sometime she choses to email it to teachers or friends, (or sometimes mom will include it in her blog) and that is fun, but I don’t like when a story she worked so hard on just gets lost in the computer. Celebrate your child’s work. Who knows – your child may be a famous author someday!
  • Find a writing class for your child. As they progress with their writing, it may be worth exploring a creative writing class for your child. We are at the beginning of this process in our house, and have found a couple online and a couple of local possibilities. SLANT, in Nashville, is for young writers and meets at the public library usually, but has been having meeting online during Covid. Clara has taken one class there and has liked it. We are just looking into online forums, like Wattpad, but I am wary and in the process of educating myself. The book website Brightly.com has a page focused on “6 Great Websites for Teen Writers” that you might like to explore. Make sure to research the place you choose to make sure that it will be a safe space for your young writer with dyslexia.
  • Encourage their dreams. If they say they want to be an author when they grow up – say YES! They can do anything with dyslexia, even be an author. Your job is to help them dream and to know that dyslexia need not limit their potential.

I hope this was helpful information for you. Below is Clara’s most recent story. She wrote it feverishly during quarantine from March through July. When a book contest suddenly came open on August 1, she raced like crazy to finish it and it was a team effort to get it edited. But she did it and I am so proud and impressed with what she created. She may read at the 12th percentile and be a very poor speller, but she wants to be an author and I know she can do it. Some of us can struggle and thrive at the same time. I hope you enjoy her creative writing. If you do, please comment below or follow her on Instagram at @chroniclesofnovablack. Thank you.

PROLOGUE

“Daddy, Daddy, what’s your favorite animal?” The little girl went up to her father and held up a small piece of paper and a blue crayon.

“Well, I have always loved wolves,” the father said as he sat down. The girl climbed on to his lap and started to ask him more questions. A knock on the door startled them both. 

“I’ll get it!” The mother sang as she walked to the front of the house and opened the door, expecting a neighbor.

A tall stranger barged in and walked straight to the father and grabbed his shirt. “Where is the money?” the stranger demanded in a raspy tone.

“I will not give you that information!” answered the father, lifting the girl off his lap. 

The tall stranger looked deviously at the little girl. He strolled over to her and smiled eerily, “Mark, I had no idea you had a daughter.” He knelt, forcefully grabbed the little girl, and pulled out a large knife. The mother screamed and begged him to leave her daughter alone as he slowly dragged the blade down the side of the little girl’s face, making a deep cut. His daughter’s cries, mixed with the shrieks of his wife, made the father flinch. 

“I don’t know where it is, I swear!” the father shouted desperately. 

The tall stranger pulled his knife off the girl’s face, letting the girl fall limp to the ground. He slowly made his way to the father. “Well, if you don’t know, then I should just get rid of you so you never find out.” The stranger quickly took the knife and sliced upwards; the thud of the father’s head made the stranger smile. 

The mother held up a gun steadily. She had done this many times before, and said in a firm voice, “Move, or I will shoot.” The stranger smiled again.

“Oh, you wouldn’t dare.” He ran to the door and slammed it with a bang. 

“Oh my god! What did he do to you?” The mother dropped the gun and ran to her daughter, who laid on the floor motionless.

CHAPTER 1

Nova – 10 Years Later

“Ambassador Lana has officially given up her seat,” the news reporter stated as she stood in the blue silk of the hologram, which cast blue shadows on her face. I turned the projection up so Mom could hear it from the kitchen. The news reporter continued, “the new Ambassador’s name is Thomas. B. Hersire.” 

I looked at Mom and shook my head, confused. “Mom, why is our Ambassador stepping down?” 

Mom checked her watch. She loved avoiding my questions every chance she got. “I have to go to work,” she said dismissively, pulling her purse from its place on the shelf in the foyer. She was out the door before I knew it, leaving me standing there to look at my reflection in the entryway mirror. My hair, red and frizzy, was up in a ponytail. My face had a birthmark running down one side; the large scar made the red of my birthmark appear even redder. The other side of my face was one you might see on a supermodel. The smooth, tan skin, and red lips made the other side of my face look garish. My sad, hazel eyes made me seem forty, not seventeen. I got up and went to the shelf where Mom’s purse once sat, pulled a book bag off the hook that was just below it, and grabbed my water bottle off the entryway stand. My book bag in hand, I walked out of my house and down the steps.

At the bottom, I closed my eyes and took a breath. As I exhaled, the wind brushed my face making the loose curls of my hair dance gracefully. I could smell rain in the air. I opened my eyes and walked down onto the sidewalks that crisscrossed my neighborhood. I remembered it was going to rain, and I needed to hurry to get to my tutor’s house so I turned to cut through the dirt path between the houses that had been worn away by my footstep 

As I walked and thought about how our cluster had banned cars a century ago and the fact that people from before the Outbreak did such awful things to our environment, a boy about my age, brought me back to the present. He jumped over a low metal fence. I glanced back, careful not to let him see my scar. He turned his head, looked in my direction, and smiled. Usually, when boys look at my left side, they want something they can’t have. Then, when I turn towards them, and they see my birthmark and angry scar, they turn away. It is satisfying to capture a cute boy’s attention, even if only for a few seconds. 

I heard footsteps, and before I knew it, the boy was walking next to me. His bronze skin glinted in the morning sun. The wind played with his hair, making a black halo around his face. He was beautiful, that was certain.

“What’s your name?” I asked him, keeping my eyes on the path so he wouldn’t see my birthmark. After my dad died, my mom’s temper got explosive. In one of her outbursts, around the time I was ten years old, she commanded me never to show my face in public. I rarely followed her advice, but its always in the back of my mind. 

He looked at me with his soft eyes. “Will. My name is Will.” 

I kept walking, determined not to be late. I had never been late, and this boy was not going to make this a first. “I really should get going,” I said as I began to walk a little faster. 

“Wait!” he exclaimed in a desperate tone. I instinctively turned to face him, and before I could even realize my mistake, Will took a step back, his face unreadable. This Will is just another guy who will walk away from me. But then, he smiled. “You dropped your water bottle….” he said as he handed it to me, our hands brushed.

“What is your name? You never said,” he asked. 

I found myself smiling. I have barely smiled since my dad died, all those years ago. “Nova. The name’s Nova.” I turned my back on him and walked up to my tutor’s house. 

As he kept walking down the path, he shouted, a laugh in his voice, “Nice to meet you, Nova!” I felt a rush of happiness. I was not expecting to feel that way.

When I got to my tutor’s house, a group of my classmates was already gathered, looking at something on the door. I maneuvered my way to the middle of the circle and saw what they were all staring at. Hung on the door were the words. “Get Well Soon!” in bright bubble letters. I gasped! This was an old code from the time of the Outbreak that everyone in my cluster knew, a distress signal passed down in hushed tones for generations. We’re not allowed to put it up except in emergencies. I had never actually heard of it being used in my lifetime. As the panic rose in the other students, I left the scene, knowing there was no class and that I needed my mom to finally answer all of my questions. 

Night had fallen by the time I heard Mom’s key in the door. I sat at the kitchen table, piles of papers from her desk scattered in front of me. I heard her quickly lock the door, her breath fast as she hurried into the kitchen. She didn’t even notice the papers or my angry face. She looked ten times older than she was; her blue eyes looked scared. “Honey, whatever happens, just know that I love you and that I’m…” A loud bang at the back door cut her off. My mom shrieked. 

“Mom! What is going on?” I demanded, getting out of my chair. Mom bounded through the hallway to the back door, going out of sight. A shot rattled the house, making me jump. I ran down the hall, over to the door, and saw the tall stranger that had visited us ten years before. One more bang and everything went black. 

CHAPTER 2

WILL

Last week, former Ambassador Lana had Holoed me out of the blue late at night. The day prior, all of the tutors in our cluster had put up their “Get Well Soon” signs on small hooks on their doors, making everyone panic. I had been in the kitchen when her Holo came. Her blue mesh-like image appeared out of my disc. “Is this the house of Will Smith?” she had asked. 

I didn’t know what to say because I was instantly nervous, so all that came out was, “Wow, oh my gosh, hi! I mean, yes, your Ambassadorship…I mean former Ambassadorship, I mean yes. This is Will Smith.” 

Without wasting a moment, Ambassador Lana proceeded to tell me that a girl by the name of Nova Black had been shot, and since I was a cluster medic, she needed my help. 

She gave me directions to her house, “things aren’t safe right now, so I brought her here with me, please come immediately. Oh, and, Will, be careful out there.” 

Her hologram vanished. I was shocked, I had always thought that our cluster was a safe place, but now I was starting to wonder. Of course, I gathered my things and biked to the address as quickly as I could. When I arrived at the mansion, I realized that Nova was the girl I had met only the morning before. She was lying on a bed in a minimalistic room. Her face was pale and covered in blood. I cleaned her and placed a bandage on her eye. She was in a coma, and with a coma, there wasn’t anything else I could do as a medic, except wait. 

***One week later***

Nova was lying down in front of me; her legs barely hung off the edge of the small airplane bed. I analyzed her face, the one I had memorized when we met just a week before. One side was spotless, beautiful: full lips and a small nose. I remembered her sad, pale hazel eyes and the way the loose pieces of her hair had spilled in little curls around her face. I looked over at the other side of her face. Her eye was swollen and purple. It looked like she just had a black eye, not a gunshot wound. A large birthmark that crept down her neck like spilled wine disappeared into her hospital gown. A long scar barely visible against the red of her skin.

I grabbed a towelette from the first add kit I had brought with me the week before. I began to clean and re-bandage her eye with a big section of gauze. I had done this many times before, so my hands worked without my brain having to say anything. The damage wasn’t as bad as I had first believed. The bullet had only grazed her eye but thankfully didn’t kill her. 

As I was finishing, Nova’s good eye fluttered open. “Will?” she asked groggily as she sat up. I could tell she regretted her movement by the grimace on her face. 

“Ah, good you are awake, I need to talk to you,” Ambassador Lana jumped right in. “I am Ambassador Lana, and I need your help. Your mother was one of the best spies I have ever known, and I was wondering if you will be willing to help me defeat Thomas B. Hersire, that rascal who stole my power and made a fool of me in front of my entire cluster.” 

I looked at Nova, expecting her to do a double-take when Ambassador Lana mentioned ‘spy,’ but to my surprise, Nova nodded, simply considering her answer. Ambassador Lana moved closer to look Nova in her good eye and placed her hand on Nova’s shoulder, her tone softened. “Honey, I am sorry to say this, but your mother has died.” 

Nova stopped nodding, and all the color went out of her face. I glared at Ambassador Lana. 

I tuned to Nova. ”Nova, are you ok?” I asked. She nodded, but her face said otherwise. 

The former ambassador went on, “Thomas B. Hersire is trying to take over all the clusters. I need you to help me stop him, and to do that we have to gain allies.” Nova turned and looked out the small window, the lights of a town twinkling 30,000 feet below. “Nova, your mother was the one working on Hersire when she died. One of the last things she told me was she wanted you to save the Eight Clusters. Can you do that for me?” 

Nova lifted her face, determined, and nodded. 

“Great. Will, tell her everything.”

CHAPTER 3

NOVA

“A party? I have to go to a party!?” I yelled angrily. I’d only been awake for 10 minutes, and I felt like I had done a marathon through hell and back. I was on a plane to nowhere, and I was supposed to save the Clusters at a party? 

“I am guessing you don’t like parties?” Will asked. 

I glared, he smiled. There was a small gap in his teeth, but other than that, he was perfect. “I have never been to a party in my life,” I said, grabbing his shirt. “I can’t do this.”

Only then did I realize how close we were, my nose almost touched his. I pulled away, muttering an apology. 

“You’ve never been to a party. Why?” He looked down at me. He was at least a foot taller than me, which is not saying much because I am 5ft: no more, no less. 

“My mom was ashamed because she couldn’t have a normal life, I guess, I don’t know,” I said with a shrug.

“Do you have any people skills?” he questioned, leaning closer. 

I thought about it even though I knew the answer. “No,” I said bluntly. 

Will suddenly remembered something. “Oh, do you want some medicine for the pain?” 

I just looked at him, “And why didn’t you ask me this earlier?”

The former Ambassador strode in and snapped her fingers. A sliding door opened, and I was surprised to see another human -being on the plane. “Yes, ma’am!” The women looked about 24 with wild pink hair and long eyelashes. 

“I need you to get her fitted for a dress.” 

I looked at the former ambassador. “Can’t we do some pants and a shirt? Do we have to do a dress?” She gave me a hard glare, and I let the women lead me back through the sliding doors. I kept one hand on my forehead so the pain in my eye did not make me collapse.

The other half of the plane was a bedroom with clothes from all the eight different clusters strewn around the room, making it look like a tornado of clothes had swept through. She walked me to the bathroom door and said, “Girl, you need a shower!” I did as I was told. I took off my itchy hospital gown and stepped carefully into the small shower. I turned on the water, and it rained hot as the sun. I gave myself time to breathe. My mom is gone. Breathe in. Breathe out. I’m supposed to save the world. 

When I got out of the shower, my gown was gone, and a towel was in its place. When I walked back into the bedroom, the pink-haired woman was there working, laying out clothes on the bed. “We have picked out your dress for the party based on your personality.” 

“Why do I have to wear a dress?” I whined. 

The pink-haired woman looked at me, “You are wearing a dress because this is a fancy occasion, and we feel like you need an upgrade.”

I was hurt, but then I looked down at the towel and saw their point. “Fine.” 

She looked down at a cosmetic bag she was holding. “We have a lot to do in one hour, so let’s get started.”

When she finally let me look at my reflection, I gasped. “How did you do that?” I looked like a real supermodel. My hair was flipped to one side, mostly covering up the right side of my face. A black eye patch with a gold rim covered my bad eye. The left side of my face was glamorous with the gold eye shadow and red lipstick. I never thought I could look so beautiful.

CHAPTER 4

WILL 

I put on my suit and pulled my curly hair into a low ponytail. I walked out of the bathroom and stopped in my tracks. The sliding door opened and the pink-haired woman stepped out, followed closely by Nova. Nova looked like Aphrodite with her red hair flipped to one side and her red lips. I let my eyes stray to the dress. The dress reflected her personality perfectly. It was black with a gold neckline, a cutout of the dress showed her tan skin, another showed her leg, and her golden high heels. A black-and-gold bomber jacket was added to keep Cluster Two’s cold out. There was not a trace of the wires that had been attached to her for the last week. 

“Well, according to the male in the room, we did a good job,” the pink-haired woman said. I felt my face go red, and Nova smiled. 

“Please find a seat immediately. We are landing,” A robotic voice said, and we all found a spot to sit. I could tell Nova had gotten some etiquette instruction because she crossed her legs and put her hands in her lap. 

“So. Your goal at this party is to get Ambassador Cleo’s agreement to be our ally against the enemy. Stick to the plan,” Ambassador Lana said, looking at her Holo. 

I nodded, and Nova said, “Got it.” When Nova spoke, I felt my heart beat faster. I silently cursed my heart for feeling. I looked out the window and saw the ground getting closer. Before I knew it, we had touched down in a snowy wonderland.

I had been to Cluster Two only once before, but I still was not ready for cold that hit me as frigid air blew in my face. I looked around and saw twinkling lights everywhere and trees decorated with small ornaments. I realized they must have been celebrating Winterfest; I never knew people in the different clusters celebrated the same holiday. We walked up to a large snow-covered gate. The bronze metal glinted in the twilight. It opened as we approached, making me wonder what we would see on the other side. 

The driveway was made out of cobblestone, and I felt like I was stepping back in time. Nova reached out and took my gloved hand. Despite the cold and my nerves, I felt warm inside. I tried to tell myself that I am just going to a party. I like parties; my parents had parties every Sunday. This is just the same. But who am I kidding? I am going to a party that will determine the fate of the world!

The driveway curved, and I stopped. I was not expecting what I saw. The building was made entirely out of glass, it was just like one of the skyscrapers back home, but more like a modern castle with plants spilling over each balcony, even though it was below freezing outside. 

“Well, that is unexpected,” Nova said with a note of awe in her voice.

As we moved closer, I saw a tree lit up in each room for Winterfest. We walked to the door, and a man in a black suit stopped us. “State your name,” the man demanded. He was buff with black sunglasses covering his eyes; his blond hair was cut short, and his thin lips drew into a hard line. 

My hands began to sweat, “Will Smith and Nova Black.” 

“You may enter.”

CHAPTER 5

NOVA 

The lobby looked like the set of an old movie from 2019. A large white fireplace lit up the room. People sat in leather couches facing towering windows that looked out over Cluster Two’s snow-covered red roofs. Plants were everywhere – on the small coffee tables and hanging on the walls. I could not believe how many people there were. There were at least 1000 people there – my worst nightmare. “Will, I don’t like this,” I said, pressing closer to him. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him smiling. He seemed more relaxed that that we were inside.

“I am going to get some drinks. You are going to be fine. You know what to do, look around to see if you can see Ambassador Cleo. I will be right back.” I looked at him, shocked that he would leave me at a time like this. He walked away, weaving through people like he had done this a million times. 

I looked at my hands, which were covered in black leather gloves. I pulled one out and saw that it was still red from the cold. I felt vulnerable.

“What are you thinking?” a woman’s voice said sternly behind me, making me drop my glove. 

I looked up with my good eye and saw a tall, spindly woman with pale white skin and white-blond hair. “Oh, you scared me!” I squeaked. I had never felt small before, but under her gaze, I felt minuscule. 

“I know,” said the woman snidely, bending down and picking up my glove. Instead of handing it to me, she tucked it into a hidden pocket in her gown. “I know why you are here, and my answer is ‘no.'” 

I looked at her, annoyed. Where was Will? This was not a part of the plan, she was not supposed to just walk up to me! I tried to get back on track. I took a deep breath and stated, “So, I am guessing you are Ambassador Cleo.” She nodded, checking her nails like she had much better things to do. I continued, “Thomas B. Hersire overthrew Ambassador Lana in Cluster One and is making it sound like she stepped down, but he is trying to take over the world, and we need your help to stop him.”

She looked at me questioningly, something in her eyes I couldn’t read. “Cluster One’s issues are not my problem.  She turned to walk away, “Oh, and Nova, here’s your glove.” She threw it to the floor, leaving me to pick it up.

Right that second, Will came up to me looking happy. “Nova, check out these drinks! Look at this! There are… Nova, what’s wrong?” He looked at me with concern and set down the flaming drinks. 

I looked at him. “The Ambassador of Cluster Two has just visited me, and she refused to help.” 

Will’s face darkened. “You can’t be serious!” Will raked a hand through his dark curly hair. 

“What are we gonna do now?” I said. I felt like I was about to throw up. I felt nervous. I have never really felt that way before. 

Will jumped like something hit him on the head. “Nova, I have an idea! Which way did she go?” I pointed, and Will walked smoothly over to her like he didn’t have a care in the world.

CHAPTER 6

WILL

Ambassador Cleo looked like an evil, tall elf who had accidentally walked out of a children’s book. “Excuse me, Madam Ambassador,” I said, trying to be polite. 

She turned her head over to me and smiled cooly. “What do you want?” 

I looked back and saw Nova staring at me from across the room with confusion on her face. I turned back. “We need your help defeating Hersire.  He is evil.  He is coming for all of the clusters, not just Cluster One. I know your cluster has been isolated since the Outbreak, and you have done nothing to change that, but if you help us, you will be considered a hero, and everyone will praise you. If you refuse to help us, your cluster will be destroyed, and you will go down in history as a narcissistic failure.” 

She looked at me, her eyes indecipherable, but almost apologetic. Ambassador Cleo snapped her fingers and hollered, “Guards!” 

Two women in black suits ran up and grabbed my arms and dragged me away. One reached for her gun, but it wasn’t there. I looked over my shoulder and saw Nova firing at one of the guards. She missed me by inches, and I shouted: “What the…!” wondering where the hell she had gotten such skills. In an instant, both guards holding me were in a heap on the floor. Nova grabbed my hand and pulled me through the set of double doors we had entered earlier. The cold air hit me, making my nose turn red as we ran.

CHAPTER 7

NOVA

“Gee, that plan worked great,” I said. 

Will, sitting in a plane seat, looked up at me confused “What do you mean? We failed.” 

“I know. I was being sarcastic.” I plopped down beside him, kicked off my heels, and flipped off my eye patch. I put my hands inside my bomber jacket and pulled out my gloves. One of the gloves made a crinkly noise. When I reached in, I pulled out a small note with hurried handwriting. It read: 

Sorry about the guards, I cannot afford to blow my cover yet. I was so glad to see you alive. I should explain. You see, your mother was one of my closest friends. We worked together in her final months on a critically important project. To eliminate the power of Thomas B. Hersire, my son. Obviously, we failed. Thomas is very powerful, but I cannot oppose him openly, so I tipped off the tutors in Cluster One to try to warn your mother that he was about to overthrow her cluster. I am so very sorry she died, and my effort was in vain. I want you to know that I will do everything in my power to help you.

You are in danger. My son is a very smart man. He knew of your father’s death ten years prior and hired the same man to kill your mother. Thomas began to suspect me, but he did not want to kill his own mother, so he killed yours instead. I don’t know why your dad died, but I think you might find that information in your travels. Sorry, there is no time to explain more. Our world needs you, Nova. Please use the training your mother gave you to save us. – Cleo

I got up and leaned against the back wall, reading and rereading the note. She had worked with Mom? 

“Everything ok?” Will asked 

“She’s in,” I said, smiling. “Will, we did it.” 

Will was smiling too, he got up and walked over to me, he smiled. “Remember the day you dropped your water bottle?” 

I looked at him, “Yea, what about it?” 

He leaned closer, “There is something I’ve wanted to do ever since that day…”

I smiled, “And what’s that?” 

He slid a hand to my face gently, carefully avoiding my bandaged eye. We were so close I could feel his heart beating as fast as mine. He placed his lips on mine and kissed me. His breath tasted like peppermint. I had never liked peppermint before, but now that was all I wanted to taste. I closed my eye and let go of my doubts. I am Nova, and I am on a journey to save the Clusters. With Will’s arms wrapped around my body, I felt like I could do anything.

TO BE CONTINUED… 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Clara Thorsen is a thirteen-year-old author and artist. Although she has severe dyslexia which makes it challenging for her to read quickly or spell well, she has loved books and stories her whole life. When she is not reading, writing or researching her next story, she spends time drawing portraits of women. Her other interests are women’s history and historic homes.  Clara lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her mom, dad, sister and dog, Odie. Visit her on Instagram @ChroniclesOfNovaBlack. 

Blog Disclaimer: I have dyslexia, so please forgive my spelling and writing errors. If I focused more on editing and perfection, I would never be able to write. I know this is a safe space.

Dyslexia in the Time of Virtual School

The beginning of a normal school year for a child with dyselixa is hard. In the viritual setting, it can feel impossible. I have an 8th grader with dyslexia who is in her 8th week of virtual learning and these are the challaneges and tips that I have compiled so far.

First, what aspects of virtual school are particularly difficult for students with dyslexia? There are a lot. Here are some of them we have encountered so far:

  1. Lots of reading with no built-in read aloud feature. Our district uses Florida Virtual School and upper grades have no read aloud, although the younger grades do have limited read aloud options.
  2. Lots of writing with no built in speech-to-text or word prediction built in. Some virtual programs do have a spellcheck option, but as those with dysleixa know, very often spelling is so far off that spellcheck simply cannot recognize the intended word. My daughter has an elaborate system where she downloads assignments into Co:wrtier, types her paragraph in Co:Writer, then cuts/pastes into Word & uploads it into Schoology. It is slow and multi-step process that is confusing and is not feasible for younger kids.
  3. Kids with dyslexia need tests and quizes read aloud. That is really hard in a virtual setting. If a parent or caregiver is not available to read, then oftentimes students will be left to struggle through on their own.
  4. Some online quizes pop up with a large ticking timer that shuts down the quiz if time is exceeded. This is stress inducing and unfair to kids with dyslexia who need extra time.
  5. Online worksheets that only accept correctly spelled answers. In many formats, if you type in “Pocahanas” instead of the correct spelling, you will get a zero on that item. Students with dyslexia should not be counted off for spelling.
  6. Many teachers ask students to post answers to discussion questions publically. This can cause a lot of shame in kids who spell or write poorly since errors are there for all to see.
  7. Some teachers say “I’ll give you two minutes to send me your response.” Students with dyslexia may take 5 minutes to write an answer and can miss class instruction while focused on typing or may be counted off for not turning items in.
  8. By the end of a long day of looking at the screen, all kids are tired. For students with dyslexia, fatigue can be severe and cause mood issues, acting out and more. Frustrated & stressed kids can affect the whole family.

The good news is that there are some solutions that can really help with most of these virtual school stressors. Here are some tips that can help:

Tip 1. Introduce and Educate.

At the beginning of the year, I always send teachers a quick snap shot of my child along with my favorite easy-to-read dyslexia info. Usually, I do this over coffee before school, but in the virtual setting, it can just be a well crafted email introducing yourself and your child.

I like to include a picture of my daughter with her likes and talents before diving into information about her dyslexia. In a virtual setting, this can be even more important since there is less opportunies for teachers to get to know the personalities of students. I also include subject-by-subject information of her struggles so that teachers can really hone in on how to support her.

In addition to providing teachers with information about my child, I also like to include information about dyslexia in general. I never assume that a teacher has an understanding about what dyslexia is or what it looks like. I avoid sending long articles, but rather send easy-to-read infographics that teachers can quicky glance at. Understood.org has some great ones, and in Tennessee, so does the MTSU Center for Dyslexia at https://www.mtsu.edu/dyslexia/.

Tip 2. Communicate.

It is harder to build relationships in a virtual setting, so thoughtful communication is key. Teachers, parents and kids are all stressed out in this year of Covid. It is important to grant other people grace while also being assertive to get your child what he needs. When you run into an issue that needs to be addressed, email teachers in a kind way to remind them what is feeling challenging and how to easily accommodate the need. In my experience, teachers don’t want children to be totally stressed out, crying and working until 10pm. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. Saying, “Math is taking my son 3 hours, which I know is not your intent, so I am going to have him do 2 of each type of problem, and stop working after an hour.” usually is well reciveved by a teacher. Please remember to make sure to email your child’s teacher with things that are going well, too. The are human and need to hear they are doing a good job, too. Several examples of the types of emails that you and your student can send are below.

Remember that older children (usually 4th grade and above) should be learning to do some of the advocacy on their own. Encourage students to reach out to teachers via email, REMIND, text message, office hours Zoom or other teacher-approved method to share with the teacher what they need and what they are struggling with. My daughter was really hating posting in-class commets that could be seen by peers. When she told her science teacher, he gave her his cell number and now she just texts him the answers and she feels so much better about particpating in class. That said, even with older children, if things go unresolved, it is appropraite for you to send an email to the teaching team as well.

Tip 3. Accommodate at Home.

Virtual learning is hard & a lot of accommodations are hard to access, so parents and caregivers need to step in to fill that role. When possible, I set aside an hour each night when she is fatigued & working slowly to read quizzes, scribe worksheets/essays & to help keep organized. It can feel like a lot, but in this Covid environment, we all need to pitch in. This can feel less daunting after you have taken steps 1 and 2 above and teachers have helped to tailor a work load and time table that is manageable. For some famillies with multiple children and busy jobs, this simply is not feasible. That is okay. Communicate with the teacher. Do your best. This is really hard.

Tip 4. Find Assistive Technology!

So much reading and writing in a virtual setting can be next to impossible for student’s with dyslexia, as outlined above. Find assistive tech tools that work to help read, spell & write. Reach out to your child’s exceptional education teacher or district assistive techonology expert for tips on what tech is available in your area.

Here are some of my brand new assistive tech favorites for virtual school that my school and district shared with me. They are extensions for the Google Chrome browser that can be used on any computer. You may have others that you like better.

  1. Natural Reader. https://www.naturalreaders.com
  2. Snap and Read. https://snapandread.com
  3. Co:Writer. https://cowriter.com
  4. Grammarly. https://www.grammarly.com

First, open the Google Chrome search engine. (It can be downloaded on to any computer.) Then, in the search bar, search for “Natural Reader Chrome Extension.” It will take you to a page that shows that you can “Add Natural Reader.” Once you click that, go to the small puzzle piece at the top right of your screen. That will show all your extensions. Click the push-pin icon for Natural Reader and an “N” will show upon the tool bar! From there, you can access the read aloud tool. I prepared this video to show how to get the extension and how to use both Snap and Read and Natural Reader. I may do a video in the future on how to use Co:Writer and Grammarly. Stay tuned!

Tip 5. Give and Get Support.

This is HARD y’all. Talk to your child about her stress and your stress. Normalize it for them, but in a solution-oriented way. Say things like “Virtual school is hard for everyone but especially for kids like you with dyslexia. The best thing we can do is to keep communicating with your teachers to help them know what you need. We will figure this out together.” I avoid saying things are untrue like “this will get easier” or “you are going to do great.” I focus on the fact that my child is loved, safe and can talk about their fears and frustrations with me. When I lose my cool, as we all are doing more these days, I come back and do some repair with my child. I say things like “I am sorry I was short with you when I was trying to help with you english essay. This is really stressful and I got angry, but not at you. We all feel angry sometimes. Lets take 10 minutes to get a snack and come back to this, okay? I love you. We can do this!”

Find other parents with struggling learners and talk to them. The best place to find other parents like you is in your local Decoding Dyslexia chapter. Reach out to get tips and help. You can always feel free to reach out to me.

That is a wrap on this blog. Follow me on Twitter at @athorsen16 for more dyslexia related information. Take care.

Note: I have dyslexia and did not take too much time to spellcheck this blog because it is exhausting. I know this is a safe space.

Struggle and Thrive*

My daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia in the 2nd grade.  She read slowly.  She spelled poorly.  Over the last 5 years she received good interventions and accommodations from her caring and supportive Nashville public schools.  Today she is in 7th grade.  She reads slowly.  She spells poorly.  But you know what? She is THRIVING and I am not worried about her one bit.

What I have learned from watching her journey and advocating for her for 5 years is that even with great interventions and accommodations, many children like her with severe dyslexia may never read quickly or spell well. That does not mean they cannot learn, read, write or love books.

Yesterday was my daughter’s IEP meeting. As I reviewed her data, I noticed that her oral Screen Shot 2020-02-21 at 12.06.43 PMreading fluency is only at the 12th percentile. On paper, she is a highly at risk student, but I know better. In reality, she is a girl who LOVES books.  If she has free time, odds are she is listening to an audiobook or reading a graphic novel.  She recently got big check from her grandma and immediately after she opened it she shouted “I AM GOING TO SPEND IT ALL ON BOOKS! BOOKS ARE MY LIFE!” Each holiday or birthday by far her favorite gift is a gift card to our local independent bookstore, Parnassus.  On the top of her bucket list is to visit Powell’s book store in Portland, Oregon – the biggest bookstore in the world.

Her IEP also says that she has “severe struggles with spelling and grammar” such thatScreen Shot 2020-02-21 at 12.06.57 PM she has a disability in written expression.  It is true that she spells very poorly, rarely capitalizes proper names and is very unclear on the purpose of commas.  Does she have a disability in written expression? No way.  She can express herself in writing in the most amazing ways. In fact, she has spent the last month writing an amazing and empowering 34-page book that she dreams of getting published.  When she comes home after school she goes right to editing and adding.  We spend dinnertimes talking about how to make a pivotal less “flat.” The writing in the book is fantastic.  I could not be more proud of her.

So let’s all be very careful when we look at struggling readers as “unteachable” or “uninterested in literacy.”

Some of us can struggle and thrive at the same time…

*Thanks to the over 1.2K who have liked and shared my Struggle and Thrive tweet. I have loved the stories you have shared with me and the well wishes you have sent.  Please keep sharing.  If you want to support Decoding Dyslexia TN, I would love it if you bought a Struggle and Thrive T Shirt.  Thanks so much.Screen Shot 2020-02-21 at 12.43.40 PM

No Billionaires – Just Me.

As I continue to push my city and my state on reading reform for students with dyslexia, the voices attacking me will get louder. They will mock me. Threaten to shoot me (like Richard Allington did). They will accuse me of being a puppet or convert agent for the rich and private companies. That is okay. I will just keep doing my work. If you want to know my story, it is below.

I am a parent with dyslexia. All the work I do, I do for free. I don’t work for anyone. I never get paid. (But sometimes a parent I speak with buys me a coffee or a muffin. ☕️) I have no affilations to any billionaires or curriculum companies.

I volunteer for @DDTN13 to help parents who are struggling to navigate dyslexia like I did.

I volunteer on the @TNedu Dyslexia Advisory Council to represent parents.

I volunteer with my sweet public school because community and public ed matter deeply to me.

I mentor a boy I have known for years who struggles with trauma and disabilities.

I volunteer with @EERocks_MNPS to be in IEP meetings with homeless youth and children in foster care.

I write stories about grieving the death a child for @TheMightySite. https://themighty.com/2016/12/coping-with-grief-after-death/

My past work and background? Any shady connections there?

After attending Vanderbilt law school I went to work at a big law firm in Nashville. I worked for four years and I was really struggling. When I was 29, I finally was diagnosed with having dyslexia which explained so much about my failings in writing and reading lengthy mergers and acquisitions contracts. Once I was diagnosed, I quickly realized that I had picked a terrible profession for my skill set. I knew that I needed to get out of the law. When I got pregnant with my first daughter, I thought it was my ticket to exit gracefully. I was so excited for my life as a new mom. Then, tragedy struck when my first born, Madeline, died. I quit work and took time to grieve. I was also having significant medical issues at the time and knew that if I wanted to get pregnant, my window was short. Seventeen months later, Ava was born – typical and healthy. My life took another devastating turn another 16 months later when Clara was born. Right after birth, she crashed hard and was in the hospital for 3 months fighting for her life. It was absolute hell. Turned out, she shares a rare medical conditions with her oldest sister. B6 Dependent Epilepsy.

My life had suffered several huge blows and I was left unmoored in my own life for a couple of years. I suffered so much grief and was stricken with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome from Madeline’s death and all the times in the hospital when Clara would code and have to be resuscitated and times she would have seizures and we would race her to the hospital in the back of an ambulance.

Life was stressful for those years. I had two toddlers at home, one of whom was very medically fragile and prone to seizures. What helped me the most was connecting with other moms who had suffered like me. In those dark days of my life, I came painfully and vividly aware of what it means to be a mother and how hard it is. The loss. The pain. The heartbreak. I knew I needed help and I need connection to other women who had been through what I had been through.
When I was emotionally able, when Clara was about 2 years old, I began to dip my toe into advocacy. I was invited to be on the Family Advisory Council at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. We helped change policies to make the hospital to improve families’ experiences. It was hard working in the place that held so many of my PTSD triggers, but I did it somehow. Once my 3-year term there ended, I searched for a new cause to take up.

A natural fit for me seemed to be the Epilepsy Foundation of Middle Tennessee. I worked there for a year as an Education Coordinator getting out into the community talking to schools, students and organizations about Epilepsy. I really enjoyed the work, but for several reasons, I knew I needed to move on. By this point, both my girls had started Elementary School and I naturally was drawn to that community. I gave up my work at the Epilepsy Foundation and jumped all-in to our school PTO. I served there as Fundraiser and eventually PTO-President for two years. I loved supporting teachers and students and building community to help get families engaged in our schools.

During my time serving our school as PTO president, Clara was diagnosed with dyslexia. Although I love our school dearly, our journey to get the school and the district to recognize her diagnosis was not an easy one. In fact, it was contentious and hard. Eventually, with a lot of advocacy, a lot of emails to legislators and one fated phone call to the Office of Special Education Programs in Washington, D.C., Clara got what she needed.

Through that process, I began to learn just how many students suffer from dyslexia and just how prevalent it is. I knew personally the shame of growing up undiagnosed. I began to spend most of my time advocating and connecting with parents to get the message out. Through an effort of many, things have improved for students with dyslexia in Tennessee. The stakes simply could not be higher for our society and there is still so much work to do so that all children can be taught to read by a method of how brains learn (known as the Science of Reading.)

My favorite part of advocacy is sitting and listening to stories. I love giving people hope one on one. I love connecting with other mothers who are in pain and telling them “I have been there. I hear you. You are not invisible to me.” I love connecting with kids who are having a hard time and telling them “I believe in you. I see you.”
I guess, looking back on it, I learned all the tools I need to be an effective advocate from my daughters, living and dead. The greatest gift that my daughter, Madeline, taught me when she died is that by sharing your story, you can heal yourself and help others who are hurting too. We are often so alone in grief and fear, we cannot pull ourselves out. We feel invisible and powerless. I learned that there is a beauty and a power to sharing your pain and connecting on a human level with others. I learned that we simply cannot make the journey of life alone. At times, we need others to be our voice to help us. And, in our turn, we need to be the voice for others. We need to look deeply at those around us who are struggling and tell them: “You are not invisible to me.”

My Clara taught me how to advocate under fire. Her medical situation was so precarious that I sat a bedside vigil for 3 horrific months. I was constantly on high alert. I was advocating for her 24 hours a day. If I had not been there – she would have been dead 100 times over. In those dark days and hours, I learned that advocating can, quite literally, save a life. Today Clara is fierce. Artistic. She teaches me the power of hope and how to keep going against the odds. She has aT Shirt she wears that says “Not fragile like a flower. Fragile like a bomb.” Power in fragility. Yes.

My Ava has taught me how to humbly show my vast skills while also finding my power through introspection. Ava had a mother who was terrified, trauma filled and viligent waiting for the next horrible thing to happen. She was left with grandparents at 17 months old while I lived in the hospital with Clara. She learned to care for herself. I deeply regret I could not be there for her more. I still apologize. Ava is highly gifted and creative but thoughtful. A deep ocean who I admire greatly and try to emulate.

The last two years have mostly been about my husband and I coming to terms with the huge traumas in our married life and in our childhoods. We have done EMDR Therapy for our PTSD. We are working through childhood trauma and attachment issues. In that time we have also dealt with the death of a parent and I have had 16 surgeries. We are healing in so many ways.

Today, it is my honor and my privilege to spend my days advocating. I don’t charge a dime. I do it because I can. I do it because I have one daughter who never had a voice. I do it because all those mothers are not invisible to me. I do it because I have been there. I have a voice and I have learned, through strife, how to use it to help others. I am proud to do so.

That to say that what I do & say on social media and in my advocacy is just me trying to do what I think is best. I try to educate myself on issues as much as I can. I am imperfect but trying. I still have a lot to learn.

I have no billionaires. No secret backing. I have no plotting secret agenda. It is just me. Working hard because my life has taught me that parents hurt and need to be seen.

What else do I do outside of what you see of me on social media?
– I garden.
– I read.
– I have a crap ton of surgeries.
– I work to heal my brokeness from childhood sexual trauma, death of a child and medical complexities.

Brene Brown says we each have a story that can bring others to their knees. It’s true. Our stories have the power to connect us- to help us heal our own pain.

I know much of this work is me battling my demons to prove I am worthy of love, but that is me and it is ok. We all do what we can to try to heal.

So. Listen to me if you will. It is just me. Thank you. 🌱

(I was grateful to get the opportunity to share my story in the @ProEdTN publication TRENDS in 2016. view.joomag.com/mag/0225219001… .You can also find my story here: https://dyslexia-untied.com/anna-thorsen-dyslexia-and-educ…/)

A Feather in My Cap

Today I added a feather to my cap. I have been volunteering my time tirelessly for almost 5 years to promote dyslexia awareness in Tennessee and today I learned that the notorious dyslexia-denier Richard L. Allington has mentioned me (this website really) by name (that he got a little bit wrong if I am being nit-picky, but I am not since I rarely spell things right myself due to my real, not imagined, dyslexia) on the first page of a 14-page anti-dyslexia tirade in a literacy journal (in which he mostly just quotes his own research in the third person which is sad but almost endearing). Now there can be no doubt that my work, a small piece of the much larger work of the amazing volunteers of Decoding Dyslexia TN and TNIDA, is having its intended effect: to upset the status quo. If he is mentioning us, we are definitely making huge gains.

Well done us.

Let’s keep adding feathers to our caps until every child can read.

PS – For what it is worth, (and this one is kind of embarrassing for Richard), when he writes  “On the website of Decoding Dyslexia – Tennessee you will see lots of photos of members in action at conferences and meeting with state legislators.  There are also numerous photos Screen Shot 2018-04-17 at 2.41.06 PMof many with [sic] children wearing bright red sweatshirts emblazoned with Dyslexia Untie“…he was actually on my personal website and not the Decoding Dyslexia-Tennessee website at all (oops, Richard.) I know because, well, I created the DDTN website and there are virtually no photos on it, but there are lots of photos exactly as he describes on this, my personal website. So all those numerous members and children he mentions? They are really all just me and my daughter. On my personal website.  In T Shirts.  That say “Dyslexics Untie! (Yikes, Richard, that is a whole lot of careless errors.) Maybe next time, Richard, have someone proofread your writing.  As a person with dyslexia, I find it to be very helpful… 

PPS – The red T-Shirts he mentions are super cute! I bought them off the internet two years before I started this website. They still sell them so get yours here! 

PPS – I also really like that he quotes the link to the Tennessee law from my website instead of going to the official TN.gov website here. (Come on now, Richard, that one is just downright lazy. My writing and websites have plenty of errors, but I am not publishing in a research journal…yikes!)

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Dyslexia’s Part in the School-to-Prison Pipeline: The Inequality Inherent in Our Education System.

Tonight I will be part of an important forum on Reading and the School to Prison Pipeline in Nashville, TN. As I prepare, I feel a hair-on-fire urgency about how our current system is teaching reading and how crucial it is that we ALL engage on this topic.Screen Shot 2019-10-28 at 5.57.16 PM.png

To prepare, I am looking anew at the statistics around dyslexia and prison. A highly disproportionate number of students with learning disabilities end up in prison because we never teach them to read and they learn early that they cannot succeed in school.  (For more statistics and information click Why We Should All Care About Dyslexia.)

  • 85% of youth in juvenile detention facilities have disabilities that make them eligible for special education services, yet only 37% receive these services while in school.  – National Council on Disabilities. June 18, 2015.  Breaking the School-to- Prison Pipeline For Students with Disabilities.
  • 80% of prison inmates in Texas are functionally illiterate. 48% have dyslexia. – Prevalence of Dyslexia Among Texas Prison Inmates. Moody KC, et al Tex Med 2000.
  • 49% of Prisoners do not have a high school diploma. – National Center for Education Statistics, Literacy Behind Prison Walls, October 1994.
  • The federal government passed the First Step Act in 2018 that requires all prison inmates to be screened for dyslexia.https://www.cassidy.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/cassidy-urges-full-implementation-of-first-step-act-dyslexia-screening
  • In 2019 in Tennessee, only 28.8% of all 3rd graders were On Track in Literacy and only 15.2% of economically disadvantaged 3rd graders were On Track.http://www.scarlettfoundation.org
  • 97.6% of Tennessee students with “Characteristics of Dyslexia” scored “Below” or “Approaching” on ELA 3-8 assessments. – Tennessee Dyslexia Advisory Council Annual Report 20017-2018.

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If we look at all these statistics, it is so clear that we simply are not teaching all students to read. There are huge groups of students who are falling through the cracks of our system. There are many complex factors that all can add to this systemic failure including race, poverty, trauma, teacher shortages and funding. But my view is that one thing that is very much in our power to change is literacy and specifically how we teach reading.

Despite the passage of our #SayDyslexia law  in Tennessee in 2016 and the creation of a 44 page Tennessee Dyslexia Resource Guide, we still are only haphazardly screening students for dyslexia and rarely giving students the explicit, systematic phonics RTI2 interventions which they are guaranteed by the law .  Our Department of Education estimates that 10% (around 97,000) of Tennessee students have characteristics of dyslexia, which means that we are currently failing to identify and educate a large group of our most struggling readers.

When I tell groups this, people get upset and can feel overwhelmed that change will never come and that we are doomed to a failed system where huge numbers of our children are never taught to read and too many end up in prison. But there is good news in this sky-is-falling story. There is hope. We can fix our system and we know exactly how to do it. We just all need to band together to push for change for all children.  The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Without going into too much detail here, the way we currently teach reading is called “Balanced” literacy.  It has a lovely name but don’t be fooled. It is not really balanced at all.  It teaches students to “read” by using picture clues to guess at words. This is sometimes called “3 – Cueing.” It has some phonics sprinkled in, but guessing does the heavy lifting. Under “Balanced” literacy children are not taught to sound out the 44 letter sounds of our beautiful language. Instead the underlying belief is that surrounding kids with books will make them love to read and once they love reading they will then read more and get practice an thereby become better readers. The problem is that for students with #dyslexia, this system will never teach them to read. Instead it teaches strategies that students with dyslexia already use quite well. When they don’t know a word – they guess.  They look at pictures.  The try to solve the sentence with context clues. This is a coping mechanism they use when they can’t break the code of our language.  It is not something we should be teaching.  We cannot just teach children to love reading.  That is not enough. We must give them the skills to do it. Instead, we need to move to a system called Structured Literacy that teaches all children explicitly and systematically the word sounds of our language in a way that builds on prior word and letter knowledge so that children can stop guessing.  So they can stop looking at pictures but rather decode the word. We know this method works for ALL children, but is crucial for students with dyslexia. But the only place the students can access this type of intense intervention is in Special Education. Structured Literacy is simply not taught in the general education classrooms of Tennessee.

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In Nashville, we have used “Balanced” literacy for years, and our students are failing.  As shown in the statistics above, only 28.8% of all 3rd graders are “On Track” in reading and 97.6% of students with characteristics of dyslexia are reading far below “On Track.”  If you look at the chart above that makes perfect sense.  Only about 40% of students can learn to read no matter how they are taught but 60% of them need a Structured Literacy to read.  So, putting all of it together, in Nashville, we are currently failing to teach the majority of kids to read. Period.

The problem is that certain members of our school board and of our district administrations are bound and determined to KEEP DOING WHAT WE ARE DOING.  They look at all the information above, and as of last week, they CHOSE to keep using “Balanced” literacy. It is my belief, and the belief of millions of educators, experts and advocates that we need to shift how we teach reading in America. We can do it. We have all the resources we need and experts on hand to help. We just need the support of the public, districts and schools boards to make this important change. Here is how we end this cycle:

1. Require all teaching colleges to ensure new teachers know how to teach Structured Literacy and the science behind how our brains learn to read.

2. Give current K-3 teachers professional development on how to teach Structured Literacy and the science behind how our brains learn to read.

3. Educate all teachers on common learning disabilities.

If we don’t make this change soon, our students will keep failing. Our students with dyslexia will still be left to struggle.  Too many students will end up in prison, dropping out of school or committing suicide.

  • 85% of youth in juvenile detention facilities have disabilities that make them eligible for special education services, yet only 37% receive these services while in school.  – National Council on Disabilities. June 18, 2015.  Breaking the School-to- Prison Pipeline For Students with Disabilities
  • Only 68% of students with Learning Disabilities leave high school with a regular diploma while 19% drop out and 12% receive a certificate of completion. – “The State of Learning Disabilities.” Third Edition, 2014. Pgs. 16-17. National Center for Learning Disabilities.
  • Students with learning disabilities like dyslexia have a three times higher risk of attempting suicide. – Suicidality, School Dropout and Reading Problems Among Adolescents. Journal of Learning Disabilities, vol. 39,6: pp 507-514. First published Nov. 1 2006.

I hope that all of you who come to the event tonight or read this post feel empowered to engage on this issue.  Start talking about literacy, dyslexia and the school to prison pipeline. Talk about it to co workers. At PTO meetings. At church. Tweet about it.  Post some of the articles referenced above to your Facebook page.  Email your school board member to encourage them to teach ALL students to read using Structured Literacy. If we all work together, we can make real change for all children and for our city.  Join us. Thank you.

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If you are a parent who read the information above and wants to learn more about how your child is reading, here are some questions you can take. If you are worried, DO NOT WAIT.

Q1. Teacher, do you use cueing (use of picture clues & guessing new words) to teach my child to read? A majority of teachers use guessing or “cueing” strategies. “Good Readers” do NOT use them. If your teachers uses these, this should be a read flag.

Q2. Teacher, you say you teach decoding & phonics. Is it taught explicitly & systematically? Teachers may teach decoding or phonics, but it is done randomly. Kids need to learn letters & sounds in small groups in a way that builds easy to hard. Make sure to look closely at HOW phonics are taught.

Q3. May I please have a copy of my child’s MAP scores? Students are tested 3 times a year on reading fluency and places in RTI tiers accordingly. You have a right to see their scores. If the score is low (under 30%) you need to ask WHY.

Q4. My child has a low MAP score but she is getting A’s and B’s on her report card. What is the discrepancy?  Many low readers get good grades so parents don’t worry. We think “My kid gets A/Bs so she can read, right?” Wrong. Report cards are deceiving. Dig deeper.

If you look at all the above information and are worried about your child’s reading, DO NOT wait. Gather the info above and then demand he/she gets tested for a learning disability like dyslexia.  Here are some great places to start to learn more about dyslexia:

These resources include links to many resources including Signs of Dyslexia, Federal Laws about Learning Disabilities, Tennessee Dyslexia Laws, advice on how to advocate for your child, assistive technology and so much more.
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If your group needs a speaker, please contact me here.

 

 

The Story of Two Families: A Look at How Reading Struggles Lead to Different Outcomes in Affluent and Lower Income Homes.

I converted this Twitter Thread to a post because it resonated with so many.

Related to reading, there is a huge inequity inherent in our system between affulent parents and poor parents. Affluent children are surviving in our schools in spite of poor reading instruction. Lower income children are failing in our schools because of it.   The reason is that affluent public school parents can afford the time & money to have their child’s reading difficulties remediated. It is common to spend upwards of $50,000 on testing & tutors. Lower income parents can’t, so many children never learn to read.

Here is how public school looks to affluent parents of struggling readers:

– Child beings struggling in 1st grade.

– Parents email teachers and set day time meetings to address concerns.

– Teachers are open to talk to parents because struggles seem unexpected.

– Affluent parent requests an evaluation by school.

– Unsatisfied with the slow pace of school, parent calls a friend who is a lawyer for advice.

– Parents then pay $1500 for a private evaluation which takes all day.

– Results come back and states the child needs tutoring.

– Parents spend several days asking friends for tutors and calling around.

– Parents finally find a tutor and pays her $85 an hour twice a week to help the child read.

– Parent begins to drive the child to tutoring twice a week.

– Next affluent parents spend time doing lots of research in what their child needs at school.

– They hire an advocate to help navigate the system.

– They have lots of IEP or 504 meetings at school, which both parents attend.

– Although the meetings are contentious, the affluent parents know their rights and get their child an IEP or 504 (if all criteria are met.)

– If the process falters, parents contact lawyers or other higher-ups they know to help them navigate the system for their child.

– If affluent parents are unsatisfied with how public schools is addressing their child’s needs once an IEP is in place, they can negotiate the complex task of getting the school district to pay for private school.
– Or affluent parents can afford private school on their own.
– Outside of school, affluent parents pay for lots of other things for their child: an iPad for audio books and writing apps, a summer camp in North Carolina for struggling readers, counseling for the stress and anxiety their child feels, art classes to build self esteem.
– After several years of tutors, camps, counselors & full services in a school, the child thrives. She learns to advocate for herself. Teachers see her as a good student. She gets into college. She succeeds. Her parents have spent well over $50k and countless hours of time.
Here is how public school looks to a low income parent of struggling readers:
– Child beings struggling in 1st grade.
– Parent worries but didn’t pay the cell bill and can’t email the teacher.
– At conference time, teacher tells parent the child is acting up at reading time.
– Teacher tells poor parent to read more at home!
– Low income parent feels shamed b/c she had a negative experience at school herself and feels angry at the teacher.
– She saves money to buy a couple of books and fights to make time to read them with her child.
– It doesn’t help.
– Low income parent spends nights at the library trying to figure out how to get her child help. She feels isolated & alone.

– She requests an S-team meeting at school. It is set for 10 am. She requests two hours off from work to attend the meeting.

– She worries about the lost wages.

– Low income parent walks into the school meeting alone. She is intimidated because there are 10 other people there.

– She knows what her child needs, she researched it, but she gets lost in all the acronyms they use & feels they blame her.

– Her anxiety ramps up. She gets angry.

– In the meeting, the form the use actually says that because her child is black and poor that those are why he can’t read.

– She knows that is not true. She knows he is struggling to read and needs help. She keeps trying to get them to listen.

– The meeting goes over 2 hours.

– She stays in the meeting but gets fired from her job for missing work.

– The meeting ends, but they schedule a follow up. She misses it so because she can’t skip work again.

– School finds her child not eligible for any IEP/504.

– He starts to act up at school a lot.

– She gets calls about his bad behavior. She is so angry at school, she doesn’t even mention she knows it is because he can’t read.

– Her son gets suspended. She misses more work to stay home with him.

– He gets farther behind.

– Teachers dread having him in class.

– Low income parent sees her son suffering b/c he can’t read. His anxiety is through the roof. She calls the mental health co-op but there is not an appointment that fits w/ her work schedule.

– Her son gets kicked out of school because he hit a teacher who asked him to read out loud.

– The low income parent’s son is sent to an alternative school.

– They don’t teach him to read their either.

– Her son makes new “friends.” They are in a gang and they recurit him.

– She sees her son on a bad path, but she is exhausted and out of resources to help him.

– The sons new “friends” make him feel strong and accepted. With him, he doesn’t feel the shame he feels in school.

– They give him a gun. They commit a crime together.

– Her son gets caught.

-After several years in and out of juvenile detention, never learning to read, the child commits a serious crime and goes to prison. He has learned what society expects of him. His mom feels helpless & knows his life would have been different if they had just taught him to read.

These examples are not far flung. They happen every single day in your town. This is the huge social injustice of poor literacy. It is breaking us – affluent & low income families alike. We should not have to work so hard for schools to teach our children to read.

Here is how we end this cycle:

1. Require all teaching colleges to ensure new teachers know the #scienceofreading.

2. Give current K-3 teachers professional development in the #scienceofreading.

3. Educate all teachers on common learning disabilities. We can do this. Join us.

When Loving to Read Isn’t Enough: A practical post for parents.

There is a common belief out there that if we read aloud to children and surround them with engaging books that they will learn to love reading and will therefore reading with only a little phonics help along the way. This belief has been gas-lighting parents for decades are we are tired of it. Parents have worn so much shame  believing the reason
that our child cannot read IS our fault.  Maybe if we had done more. Maybe if we had read more books to her.  Maybe if we had read food labels and traffic signs to her. Maybe if we had practiced those site words more. Maybe we are just bad parents.  STOP!

Parents, take in this truth: Schools must TEACH kids to read.  Human brains do not have a “reading” part like we do for listening and speaking. Reading was invented about 5000 years ago – a technological advance. It is something that all children must learn and some do it more easily than others.  If your child cannot read, it is NOT your fault.  Despite the myth out there that “it will just click one day” we know that approximately 60% of children need explicit, systematic and cumulative phonics instruction to learn the 44 sounds of our complicated language. Moreover, we know that some types of learning disabilities, like dyslexia, are inherited in about 40% of cases, so if your child struggles, odds are that you struggle too…so give yourself some grace. You are not alone. A lot of us struggle, too.

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I will never forget this day in 2016. Clara pulled books off the shelf, frowned and closed them. A sea of books she was dying to read, but couldn’t.  She had been surround by stories and books since birth, but it did not help.  School needed to teach her how to read.  They had failed to do so.

Parents, it is time to take back the power and change the conversation. We need to forgive ourselves a little, toss aside our shame, and dig deeper. We need to all begin to ask questions of our schools, look deeply at HOW they are teaching reading and ensure that ALL children are being taught how their brains can learn.

Here are some practical steps all parents can take:

1. Read Emily Hanford’s recent article “At a Loss for Words: How a flawed idea is teaching millions of kids to be poor readers.”

2. Email your child’s teacher ask the following questions:

Q: Teacher, do you use cueing to teach my child to read?

WHY: Cueing is a method by which, when a child comes to an unknown word, the teacher instructs students to guess at the word using the pictures clues, the first letter of the word and if it makes sense in the sentence. For example, imagine a 2nd grade child reading the book “Rosie Revere the Engineer.”  The illustration shows lots of different flying things and the sentence reads “Life might have its failures, but this is not it.” When the child comes to the word “failure” that she does not know, cueing teaches the child to look at the picture clues and the first letter of the word and to take a guess. In this real-life example, my daughter did both of those things and, when she got to “failure,” guessed “flutter”  Both have seven letters and some of the same sounds. In fact, “failure” and “flutter” have a lot of the same letters in them. Plus, the picture cues of airplanes make the word “flutter” make a whole lot more sense than “failure.” Screen Shot 2019-09-23 at 1.02.49 PMBut you know what? When she guessed the wrong word, the story no longer made sense.  This is a story about overcoming failure…but she had no idea because she guessed at the word wrong.  (See Clara reading Rosie Revere the Engineer.) We must teach children to read words, to sound them out, not to guess. This is why it is important for you to know if your child’s teacher is teaching cueing strategies.

Q: Teacher, you say you teach decoding and phonics. Is it taught explicating, systematically and cumulatively?

WHY: All teachers teach some phonics and decoding but the vast majority of them do it sporadically and not in a way that is connected such that students can learn all the 44 letter sounds over time in a clear way.

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This is a description of what a proper reading instruction should look like. Taken from the Tennessee Dyslexia Resource Guide. Page 19.

(Phonics is the connection between letters and the sounds they represent and decoding is the process of matching letters or letter combinations to their sounds to decipher a word.) Additionally, most teachers use a combination of phonics and cueing, which, as made clear in the Emily Hanford article in #1 above, does not work. We need our teachers to spend about 45 a day in small groups teaching students phonics in an explicit and systematic way so they can learn the sounds the letters and blends make.  Learning this way actually builds up brain pathways so children, even children with learning disabilities, can connect letters to sounds.  Teaching this way is highly effective for ALL readers when taught by highly trained teachers.

Q: Teacher, may I please have copies of my child’s RTI screening scores?

 

 

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Clara had A’s and B’s but she was reading at 9th percentile nationally.

 

WHY: Most districts screen children for reading and math three times a year. The test may be called MAP, STAR, DEIBLES or something else in your district, but the data collected is all similar and you have a right to ask for it. Lots of schools will push back and say they don’t give these scores out.  Keep asking until you get it. The reason is that these screeners are nationally normed so that you can see how your child is reading compared to children across the country. Districts have certain “cut scores” so that students will only be flagged as being a “poor reader” if  he or she is reading, say, at the bottom 15% or 25%. However, if your child has been sitting at 26% for three years and making no progress, you may have no idea and may think your child is doing okay.  You need to see the data and ask lots of questions about it.

Q: Teacher, my child has a low screener score but he is getting all A’s and B’s on his report card. What is the discrepancy?

 

WHY: Many low readers (those below 30%) can get good grades so parents don’t worry despite a nagging fear that their child isn’t reading well enough. Report cards are deceiving. If you have a concern dig deeper. Students who struggle to read, as in the case of dyslexia, actually have higher than normal IQs so they can still get good grades despite slow reading. The simply learn to compensate, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling. You need to look closer.

3. If you learn through this process that you do have a child who is a struggling reader, DO NOT WAIT. Demand that your child be tested for a learning disability like dyslexia. Demand that your child gets reading intervention everyday that is explicit, systematic and cumulative.  Educate your self about dyslexia at the Yale Center for Dyslexia or your local Decoding Dyslexia chapter.

4. Once you have your child on the right path, join the movement to make sure all teachers across America learn to teach based on the science of reading. Literacy is in crisis. We must all demand that our public schools do better.

Two Years Ago Today

Its hard to believe it has been two years since the Say Dyslexia Bill passed in Tennessee. It was such an amazing thing to be a part of.  While I cheered from the sidelines on Social Media to encourage law makers to support this important Bill, so many others did so much to get this law passed.  I am proud that much of the hard work was done by members of Decoding Dyslexia – TN.  A huge thank you goes out to Lori Smith, Julia Johnson, Representative Joe Pitts and JC Bowman with ProEd Tennessee.

The Bill was signed into Law on June 9, 2016. Stay tuned for another post then.

The new law has not made things perfect for students with dyslexia, but it has made them so much better. There is still so much to do…lets keep at it y’all.

 

To learn more about the Say Dyslexia Law in Tennessee, visit the Decoding Dyslexia TN website here.

Assistive Technology and Tips for Parents

* The information below is part of the presentation “How Technology Can Support Students with Dyslexia” that I gave with Krista Bolen at the TNIDA 2018 RISE conference on April 7, 2018.

Assistive Technology

Assistive Technology (AT) is an important tool to help people with dyslexia be successful. We recommend you start using programs and apps similar to the ones below to assist your child with reading, spelling and writing. These programs and apps can be used at home to help with homework and worksheets, or at school if your child has access to technology. Additionally, Section X of the Tennessee Dyslexia Guide gives schools guidance for the use of Assistive Technology in the classroom for students with characteristics of dyslexia.

READING: Ear reading (listening to content with your ears instead of reading it with your eyes) is one of the most important piece of Assistive Technology for students with dyslexia. Reading can be slow and inaccurate. Listening to content can improve comprehension and give children access to books and material that they could not access with eye reading. There are many great resources for ear reading including traditional audio books and “play-aways” from your local library. Oftentimes, you can access digital content for ear reading from your child’s teacher. Many families use a mix of ear reading programs and apps depending on the type and availability of the content they are seeking. We encourage you to explore the programs and apps listed below.

Screen Shot 2018-04-17 at 12.51.33 PMThere are many digital resources from your public library that incorporate audio or text to speech.  Many offer storybooks to be read aloud along with great pictures.  Some are free and others have a small fee. Check with your local school or public librarian to learn more about the options.  Some examples include Reading Rainbow, BookFlix, Tumble books, Hoopla and OverdriveKids.

 

WRITING AND SPELLING: Writing and spelling can be extremely challenging for people with dyslexia. Writing by hand can be messy, frustrating and downright illegible.  However, with technology, students can be much more successful at writing and spelling.  We encourage you to explore the apps listed below.

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Technology Tips for Parents

WHERE TO START: INTRODUCING TECHNOLOGY

  • Identify what devices your child has access to at home and at school: computer, laptop. iPad or phone. All can support dyslexia in unique ways.
  •  Explore the programs and apps available for reading, wiring and spelling. Identify two or three that you think will help your child the most.
  • Try the program or app yourself so you can teach your child in a frustration-free way.  Make sure it is appropriate for your child’s age, ability level and deficit.
  • Introduce each technology when you have plenty of time. Show your child how it works. If it has multiple features, introduce several at a time but do not overwhelm her.
  • Let your child explore the programs or app with content they choose. If it is a reading app, let them find a book on their own to choose to read.  If it is a writing program or app, let them make up a funny story or spell silly words.  Do not force them to use it right away on a big homework project. 
  • Encourage kids to practice and not give up. Technology can be frustrating. The more they use each technology, the easier it will become.
  • Once you have success at home, talk to your child’s teacher to let your child use it in the classroom or for classwork and projects.

 

WHY EAR READING MATTERS: DICK AND JANE V. HARRY POTTER: Students with dyslexia often desperately want to eye read books like Harry Potter but can barely access books like Dick and Jane with their eyes.  Over time, this can have many negative effects. It may starve them for rich vocabulary and complex sentence structure. It also can make a child feel left out socially when kids on the playground are playing Hogwarts, but she can’t join the play because she doesn’t know they story and characters. Here are some tips to make ear reading successful:

  • Give your child with dyslexia access to as much ear reading as she wants at home for books that she cannot access with her eyes, especially books for enjoyment. Treat ear reading as you would with another child asking to read a book.
  • Try not to include taking away ear reading as punishment like you would other technology. Remember, if your child misbehaved, you would not typically take away a book as punishment. Consider using Parental Controls or Guided Access to turn off everything BUT the books.
  • Encourage your child to eye read books that he/she is able to successfully with low frustration. You still want to encourage eye reading. Get high interest, short stories that he/she can read successfully and complete.  Eye reading is always wonderful!
  • Talk to classroom teachers to let your child use ear reading in school for books or chapters that need to be read quickly and accurately (think homework and classwork).
  • When people tell you “that’s cheating!” you can confidently tell them that it is not.
  • Visit www.DecodingDyslexiaTN.org for more information about Assistive Technology resources and advice.

 

HOW TO MANAGE ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY IN YOUR HOME

  • Allow lots of ear-reading for pleasure in free time.  Let your child pick the books he/she wants to read.
  • Create clear guidelines to encourage children to use their technology for homework and projects that they need to write, read or spell well.  Often kids will want to just complete a worksheet or write a story without their technology because it is quicker. Some parents make rules like “For any story you have to write over one paragraph, I need you to use your Co:Writer” or “I know you want to read that social studies article yourself, but it is really long and the answers count for a grade. So please eye read the first paragraph but then please try using your ClaroScan pen.” Talk to your child about your rules. It works best if you decide some guidelines beforehand to avoid nightly homework battles.
  • Build independence. Instead of always helping then they ask “How do you spell it?” Respond with “Please use your Easy Spelling Aid first. I am here if you still need help.”
  • Set clear technology rules and use Parental Controls. Check what they are accessing often. Be clear on the time of say they can use technology and for what purposes. For example say something like “I am excited you want to listen to your audiobook, but I need to trust you that you are not playing Minecraft while you listen.” Realize that inappropriate content can get through even the best parental control and that audiobooks may have inappropriate content.  Realize that if your family shares accounts on things like Audible, books you read can be accessed by your child. Stay vigilant.
  • If you have more than one child, explain to siblings why one child gets to use technology more often. Combat the “but it’s not fair!” argument before it starts.  You can also consider telling other children that they are welcome to type homework assignments on the computer and listen to audiobooks if they want to. Once they understand that technology does not mean games – they usually back off.
  • Talk to your child about how he/she feels using technology at school. Some kids feel embarrassed by being different. Some kids love feeling special. Let them know you are open to talk about it. The social stigma of dyslexia can be real. One teacher knew her student with dyslexia was feeling out of place so she announced to the entire class that any child could bring in a device from home to listen to audiobooks. After that, the student felt more comfortable. Be creative.

 

RESOURCES ON AUDIO BOOKS AND ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY