Tony reads

What helped Tony learn to read?

If you began at the beginning of this story, you will remember that the neurologist told us that Tony might NEVER learn to read or write. And I honestly believe that if Tony hadn’t had a great Special Ed teacher, if he hadn’t had my help to read assignments and write papers, but mostly if Tony didn’t have that incredible determination to succeed, he would never have learned to read.  He would never have gone to college. He would not have become a physics teacher. The rest of us helped, but his endless determination was the key.

Using books about Dungeons and Dragons

1. In elementary school, Tony and a friend regularly played the game, Dungeons and Dragons. Some people thought it as a terrible game. They said it was about witchcraft and encouraged people to do terrible things.  But D&D  also encourages creativity and it helped Tony begin to read.

We bought him all the books – there must have been a dozen of them.  He spent hours looking things up by trying to guess the first letter or two. Once he found the character’s page, he needed to get information about points.  He couldn’t read his books, but he learned to get the information he needed. A few years later he created his own D&D adventures which involved writing things down. Sometimes he asked for help. Sometimes is was hard to guess what he intended. In the last few years of elementary school, he also wrote his first short story. All I remember is that something like an arrow missed someone by 2 or 3 millimeters. I thought that was great. None of his classmates would have had  any idea what a millimeter was.

Books on Tape: Library for the Blind and Dyslexic

2. In seventh grade, his wonderful special ed. teacher told us that Tony could get any book he wanted on tape. With his report from a neurologist to verify that he was dyslexic, he was eligible for Recordings for the Blind… now called Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic.

He’d been eager to “read” The Lord of the Rings but I didn’t have time to read that in addition to helping him with all his homework. He insisted that we buy the books.  Tony would make himself comfortable, put on his headphones and follow along in the book as he listened…. It really was HIS idea not mine.  After reading this way a dozen or more times, he was saying the words as he listened. Finally, he read the book again without the recording. Reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy raised his reading level from about first grade to third grade level.

Now, little by little, he could read all of the books by Tolkien but he still couldn’t read his textbooks.  He could have gotten those on tape too, but he knew that by listening carefully in class, and listening as I read to him, he could learn quickly. It took many reading of Tolkien’s books, many hours of following along in his own books, before he could read them. Tony didn’t have the time to do that. Sure, he could have listened to a tape instead of me, but it was easier to stop me, ask me to go back over something, or ask me  questions. He couldn’t do that with his tape player.

Improving Self-Image and Self-Confidence

There were also many things that helped him develop a better self-image. He was allowed to participate in a program for gifted kids called College Academy, where he clearly did as well or better than the others. When he was in high school, the owner hired Tony to teach classes like Rocketry or Dungeons and Dragons but wouldn’t let him teach Fun with Physics, the class I was teaching at the time,  because the “academic classes” at College Academy were only taught by certified teachers.

But the students loved Tony. Parents would call and say their child wanted to sign up for whatever class Tony was teaching. So, to make parents and their children happy, Tony was assigned to a variety of classes and it wasn’t long before he was teaching Fun with Physics. He used a lot of the materials and activities I had developed, but he added activities I hadn’t thought of, activities I later used when teaching high school physics.  And, while he was still in college, Tony became an assistant director at College Academy.

This didn’t help him read, but students (or people of all ages) learn better and are more determined to succeed when their self-image is good. And for Tony, this teaching experience on his resume probably helped him get the first teaching job he applied for….. and helped him be an outstanding teacher.

Teaching my students about Dyslexia

Another experience helped him feel good about himself and helped him learn more about teaching. When Tony was in seventh A sketch of box: two squares with corners connected by linesgrade, he had a day off school.  The school where I was teaching did have school.

Tony asked to come with me and asked if he could teach.  I expected him to teach physics, but Tony decided to talk about dyslexia.

He drew a box on the board to illustrate how people see things differently. He explained that some people see the front of the box down low, aiming down a little and slightly to the left. Others see it on the top aiming up a little and slightly to the right. What do you see? If you try, can you see the other image?

I almost always see it the first way. Some mainly see it the second way. According to Tony, dyslexics not only see it both ways but, for them, it is constantly changing back and forth. In a similar way letters are also constantly changing, making it hard to read.

I don’t know where he got this information or if it is true that dyslexics see the box changing from one view to another. The point is that dyslexic see the letter d or b or p and they seem at the same time to see all those letters. If they always saw a b and their picture always looked like a d, they’d have no problem. They’d never realize that they saw something different from what the rest of us see. The problem is that the shapes keep shifting and the letter order often keeps shifting. That’s why “was” and “saw”  are so often confused.

When Tony tried his hardest to learn how to spell, he could say the letters, but when he wrote them on his paper in class,  the letters went down in random order. When asked to check the spelling carefully, he saw it as absolutely correct. He could spell “Chair” orally, but would write it as hcari, carhi, irhac, etc. and they all appeared to be correct.

That’s why teaching phonics, while somewhat helpful, doesn’t help someone like Tony to  get the letters in the right place.

When Tony taught my classes, he also described ways that students with learning differences could learn… and he told them they really could go to college, even with learning problems. They would just need to work harder.

Yes – he was just in 7th grade. He had spent years of struggling with reading and spelling problems, but he knew he was going to college.

My students were fascinated. After first period class, my students hurried to tell brothers and sisters and friends, especially those with learning disabilities, that they needed to hear Tony… to get out of class if they could. By the end of the day we were having up to 60 instead of 25 students in each class. Tony and I were both amazed and delighted. Soon the visitors outnumbered the students in my class.

Tony continued teaching my classes about dyslexia for about the next 12 or 13 years, through Middle School, High School, College and Graduate School.  And every year, I had students ask, “When is Tony coming?

I met the mother of one of these students several years later. She didn’t say, “Oh, you were Bill’s science teacher.” What she said was, “Oh, you are Tony’s mother. I want you to know that Bill still talks about Tony. Bill says that his learning problems aren’t nearly as bad as Tony’s. So if Tony can go to college, I could do that too.”

Tony’s talks inspired over a thousand students to believe that, if they worked hard enough, they could succeed.

When Tony finished college and began graduate school, he still wasn’t reading … at least not well enough to read college level material. I’d guess he was up to 5th or 6th grade level. So he’d come home on  weekends to dictate papers including his Master’s thesis.

Tony is given a book and teaches himself to read

I saw Tony recently and he was reading a Scientific American magazine. I asked him when he learned how to read. He said it was after graduate school.

My brother had given Tony a book by Richard Dawkins and assured Tony he’d enjoy the book. It was about science. I don’t remember now which book it was.

Tony had the  time to read. He tried to figure out the words, one work at a time. This time, he wasn’t listening to a recording of the book. He couldn’t read all the words but understood the main ideas. He read that book again and again and it really was interesting. He bought other books by Dawkins and read these too. It wasn’t easy, but he kept on working.

In spite of all that his teachers had done for him, they could never teach him to read. Tony finally taught himself how to read.

Tony went on to do exactly what he wanted. He was hired to teach high school physics. And a few years later, to my surprise, his school sent him to a special class so he could be certified to teach AP Physics.

You might realize that I didn’t say much about his college years. I will combine that in the next section along with helpful strategies for dyslexic or learning disabled students in college.

How Tony made it through college:       College and Strategies

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