Reading Treasure Map

I knew that Cope might be dyslexic before I was even pregnant. Back when we were dating, Jim and I had a huge fight about how I, an aspiring writer and former spelling bee champ, could not possibly date someone who couldn’t spell “weather” on the speed dial of his phone. He grew up in the era when slow readers were labeled “dumb” and sent to the football field. He’d broken his arm in the first game. Fortunately for us, I realized you only need one good speller in a marriage.

I began reading aloud to Cope when he was just two months old. Green Eggs and Ham. He loved the rhythm of the words and bold line drawings. When he began preschool my son was quickly known as the empathetic child, the peacemaker, a leader in the classroom—but he did not like to draw on paper and was not interested in the alphabet clothesline. Our suspicions were confirmed the first time Cope proudly spelled his name with magnetic letters on the refrigerator—EPOC. When he began kindergarten, he could recite all the planets of the solar system and knew more about the big bang theory than I—but he couldn’t sing the alphabet song. We practiced with flash cards at the kitchen table many nights. In kindergarten we were given a reading chart that began with level 1, where he was now, and continued to level 44, where he should be in fifth grade. It appeared to be a simple 10-inch line but for us it seemed as far as Waco.

Cope squeaked through until the middle of first grade when we finally succeeded in getting him tested. He scored Average in most categories and Above Average in vocabulary—all that reading to him paid off!—but he fell Below Average in his Sequencing (the ability to put things in order—like days of the week or letters of the alphabet), Reading Fluency, and Rapid Automatic Naming (the skill that many of us over 40 are quickly losing). These and other things are tell-tale signs of dyslexia.

We love Cope’s school, the principal, his teachers, and his counselor—but the school system is a cookie cutter and children who learn in different ways are like lumps in the dough. Fortunately, by now we had heard of Scottish Rite Learning Center and my husband attended a lecture they sponsored by the Yale researcher Dr. Sally Shaywitz. We bought her book, Overcoming Dyslexia. We learned that reading is a fairly recent human activity, and that some of us have brains that have not fully evolved to efficiently process the multiple tasks reading requires. We learned that there were forms of instruction that could effectively re-wire the dyslexic’s brain so that when they read instead of driving to Waco and back to get to the corner store they took a more direct route.

We couldn’t wait! We found a tutor trained in the methods used at Scottish Rite, which is multi-sensory and introduces each possible letter/sound combination in the English language as if to a foreigner. But all we could afford was two hours per week—less than the three times per week recommended minimum—and less than half what Scottish Rite provides. But even this instruction cost $60 per lesson or about $500 per month. With his tutor, Cope began to make remarkable progress.

Last year when Cope started at Scottish Rite as a  second-grader his DRA—remember that long highway to Waco?—was an awesome 24 (right on grade level) but his reading speed of 25 words per minute was half of the bench mark. His homework which consisted of writing out spelling words and reading math problems took two hours every night!

The good news is that after 9 months of driving across town 5 days a week in rain, sun, and traffic Cope raised his DRA to 34 (midyear 3rd grade level) and increased his reading speed to 70 words per minute. He also earned a 92% on his writing; when asked to write about a memory he vividly described getting locked in a closet at a friend’s house when he was four. His teacher thought it was so scary she brought it home and read it to her husband! But most importantly, Cope’s self-esteem sky-rocketed. Finally, he wasn’t the slowest in his class, finally he got to read a chapter book, finally his hard work was paying off.

Results are different for every child and we are so lucky that Cope has no other issues, besides having the energy of a small tornado, that challenge his ability to learn.

Studies show that 10% of children may be dyslexic. If kids do not get this help in the younger grades they loose ground at an ever-increasing speed. The effects of dyslexia in our society are not well documented—but not surprisingly a large percentage of prison inmates are dyslexic and the annual income of adult dyslexics is much lower than that of typical readers.

I am writing this at a library which for a life-long bookworm like me is sort of like worshipping at church. I feel sad that Cope may never share my appetite for books. His Summer Reading Treasure Map gets lost behind his bed. But he understands things I’ll never get—like how a motor works, or the difference between frogs and toads—and he displays other unique talents like perfectly mimicking the accents of strangers we pass at the grocery store. I used to joke that I just wanted him to read well enough that he wouldn’t have to work at 7-11. I have no doubt he’ll have plenty of other choices besides bagging late-night six-packs. I am grateful for the privilege, stubbornness, and creativity we’ve mustered to get him this far. When Cope complains about how unlucky he is to be dyslexic, I explain that many people don’t discover their life’s challenge until they’re forty, and sometimes they never do.

Author's Note: I delivered a version of this essay at a recent fundraiser for the Scottish Rite Learning Center which provides free dyslexia tutoring for children and trains teachers. The Center is raising funds for a new building which will be larger, more centrally-located, and part of the kids’ complex by the new children’s hospital, currently under construction. When I finished reading, Cope stood and everyone clapped for him.
Robin Bradford, an award-winning short story writer and essayist, has published in Brain, Child, Glimmer Train, and many other places. You can find her in two new anthologies -- Mother Knows: 24 Tales of Motherhood and Three-Ring-Circus: How Real Couples Balance Marriage, Work and Family. Bradford works as a communications and development director for a nonprofit affordable housing provider in Austin. She lives with her husband and son, three cats and a dog in a tiny fifties house. Being the mother—of a child over the age of three!—is the best thing that ever happened to her. Contact her at motherload @ austinmama.com  And visit her site at www.robinbradford.net