Workshop focuses on literacy, dyslexia

As each part of a word was spoken out loud and repeated, Caleb Clemens traced the letters with his finger in colored sand.

He was saying the word, hearing the word and spelling it all at once. Instead of just reading silently to himself off a piece of paper, he was using multiple senses to understand.

Caleb is dyslexic. The 13-year-old Greenwood resident gets good grades in school, but when he’s trying to read, his brain doesn’t process the words like an average person.

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“He was putting together electrical circuits when he was little, but he couldn’t do the alphabet. We started tutoring before kindergarten, and now he reads above grade level,” said Cheryl Clemens, Caleb’s mother and one of the founders of Decoding Dyslexia Indiana.

Dyslexia impacts 20 percent of all people, but many don’t even realize they’re afflicted by it. The condition can lead to educational problems in children that carry on through adulthood if not properly addressed.

To help parents, educators and the community as a whole better understand the condition, the Greenwood Public Library will host a day-long workshop focused on literacy and dyslexia.

“Parents are the best advocates for their children, so we want to make sure they understand what to look for. A lot of parents don’t know their kids have dyslexia,” Clemens said. “We want to see identification, so that if your child is at risk for it, we can do something instead of waiting too long.”

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability in which a person has difficulties with word recognition, spelling and decoding words.

Their brains lack the normal neural pathways that most people have in order to read and comprehend words. Without modified teaching to learn to read, children often fall behind their classmates in learning to read.

“Their brains are hooked up differently,” said Anne Guthrie, the assistant head of the children’s department at the Greenwood Public Library.

Dyslexia runs in Guthrie’s family. Her father, brother and son have all been affected with it. Because of her experience with it, and her education as a teacher, she has brought a multi-sensory approach to the library.

She and fellow librarian Lori Anne Booth have implemented multi-sensory teaching into preschool storytimes. Known as the Orton-Gillingham method to help them learn phonics, kids hear the sounds letters make, look to see how the elements of language appear and trace it either in the air or in sand.

“They see it, say it, feel it, all at the same time,” Guthrie said.

The method works. The National Reading Panel, a research project of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, studied how children learn and the outcomes in 1999. The panel found that the ability to spell and read words was enhanced in kindergartners who received systemic beginning phonic instruction like what Guthrie uses.

First-graders who were taught that way showed significant improvement in their ability to comprehend text.

“Parents have been told over and over again: Read to your child, read to your child, and that will cure it. But that will only get so far,” Clemens said.

When dyslexia is not addressed, it spirals into a much bigger problem. According to the National Adult Learning Survey, 57 percent of men with learning disabilities drop out of high school. Among women, 44 percent of those with disabilities quit before graduation.

The U.S. Department of Education reports that approximately 75 percent of the prison population is dyslexic.

“If we don’t teach them to read, they’ll end up in the school-to-prison pipeline. That’s really how it is,” Clemens said.

But despite how it has been treated for centuries, dyslexia is not the mark of low intelligence. Brilliant innovators such as Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and Steven Spielberg have all had some degree of dyslexia.

People with dyslexia can learn to read and thrive, Clemens said. The key is to identify it and adapt the approach to teaching to account for the disability.

“These are the kids we need to catch,” she said.

In order to advocate for her children, Clemens has been forced to become an expert in dyslexia. Three of her four kids have the disability, and she has struggled to ensure that they are taught appropriately.

Clemens didn’t know that her oldest son Matthew was dyslexic. Because the school he attended used multi-sensory learning, he didn’t fall behind.

But her second child, Joshua, didn’t have the same teaching. At the end of first-grade, it became apparent that he was lost.

“They came up to me and said, ‘You know, Joshua cries when he has to read.’ That was really painful to hear. So we started tutoring,” Clemens said. “The problem was, they move into a later grade, and the impression became that he was a bright child, he just doesn’t want to learn.”

With tutoring and additional work, her children have found success as adults. Matthew Clemens is an accountant with a master’s degree. Joshua Clemens just graduated from Lutheran High School of Indianapolis with a 3.8 grade point average.

Decoding Dyslexia Indiana was formed in 2013 as a grassroots movement of parents seeking to raise awareness about dyslexia. The organization has been active lobbying legislators and working with education policy makers all the way up to the federal government.

The goal is to improve the way schools handle children who may be dyslexic.

Decoding Dyslexia Indiana also has pushed for early screening for the disability, to reach children before they’ve fallen too far behind.

“It should be no different than hearing or vision. Then if you’re at risk, let’s start intervention then,” Clemens said.

Often, by the time a child is identified with dyslexia, it is too late to intervene and ensure they don’t get left behind their classmates, Clemens said.

A study conducted by Donald J. Hernandez, a professor of sociology at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York and a senior advisor to the Foundation for Child Development, found that students who do not read proficiently by third grade are four times as likely to drop out of high school.

“We want to catch them in kindergarten. We want to intervene and get them early on,” Guthrie said.

In order to shift the accepted thinking about dyslexia, advocates such as Clemens and Guthrie have tried to educate parents and teachers about how to approach the disability. The literacy workshop in Greenwood has been a big part of that effort.

This will be the fourth year that Decoding Dyslexia Indiana has hosted the literacy workshop. The Greenwood Public Library was a natural partner, as it has been very proactive in working with families impacted by dyslexia, Clemens said.

“Our children’s department is committed to early literacy, and we are so excited to be a part of this educational community workshop,” said Cheryl Dobbs, director of the Greenwood Public Library. “We’ve heard so many stories of kids struggling to read, who are then identified as dyslexic. Our librarians jump in with strategies to help that child develop their literacy skills and to foster a love of reading. Working with Decoding Dyslexia is a natural partnership.”

The workshop will feature sessions simulating what dyslexia is like, how to navigate assistive technology to better help kids learn and overviews of Orton-Gillingham tutoring. One program will focus on dyscalculia — a condition similar to dyslexia that makes dealing with numbers difficult.

A special session for teens will focus on study skills, technology and an open discussion with teens who have anxiety sharing their stories.

“When kids realize that there are other kids like them, it can really help,” Clemens said.

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Literacy Workshop

What: A program offered by Decoding Dyslexia Indiana and the Greenwood Public Library designed to share current information about dyslexia, dyscalculia, and strategies to use at home and school, including information on assisted technology.

When: 1 to 5 p.m. Nov. 11

Where: Greenwood Public Library, 310 S. Meridian St.

Cost: Free


1:30 p.m.

  • Dyslexia simulation: A hands-on simulation letting participants understand what it feels like to have dyslexia and try to learn in the classroom.
  • Assistive technology: A guide to the tips, tricks and applications that can help students struggling with dyslexia succeed in the classroom.
  • Teen study skills: A session focused on children ages 12 to 18 to help understand what kind of learner they are and how to best approach studying.

2:35 p.m.

  • Dyscalculia, Dyslexia and Math: Learn the signs of dyscalculia, a condition similar to dyslexia involving problems processing numbers, and how to help children who have it.
  • Assistive technology: Same as the 1:30 p.m. session.

3:40 p.m.

  • Morphology: Learn about the benefits of morphology instruction, the study of word structure, and how it can be taught using a multi-sensory approach.
  • Brief Overview of Orton-Gillingham: A facilitated conversation about Orton-Gillingham training and tutoring.
  • Teen Discussion and Activity: A chance for children ages 12 to 18 to meet other teens who have dyslexia and discuss what it means to have it.