The impact on someone's life from struggling to read creates so much daily discomfort, trauma, and anxiety. It limits so much of what you can do and who you can be. It's just too high of a price for us not to talk about it and not get it right.
Ann, a prominent marketing executive from Florida, has struggled with reading and writing in private all her life as she worked hard to climb up the career ladder. Only recently, she felt comfortable enough to open up about her challenges and was surprised to discover that she was never alone in her struggles. She has decided to raise awareness as the price of not talking about it is too high.
Ann is not dyslexic. Her story is unique. It brings to attention a significant problem in our communities; Our children are little for only a little while, and they have a short window in which they are expected to learn and master a massive amount of information in preparation for the world. In the absence of adequate support while this is happening, children often end up slipping through the cracks. Ann is the product of a lack of proper support and instruction in the classroom.
The youngest of four children, Ann was raised in a small town in the Rocky Mountains, USA. A combination of unfortunate family circumstances and poor support at school meant that young Ann slipped through the cracks. Ann shares that only 70% of high school graduates read at grade level at her school district. This is not an isolated problem. The most recent NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores in the US showed that 67% of 4th graders and 68% of 8th graders are not proficient in reading. "I wasn't able to get the support that I needed at home. If I had been given that support in a classroom, I would never have been in the situation that I'm in today. If the majority of kids are not getting the help, they need around reading, writing, and spelling. I think it's time we look at the systems and what we have in place to teach those things versus just putting it on the learner," shares Ann.
During her early years at school, rather than being offered support, she was labelled as an unruly child. She was either bored because she didn't have the skill set to participate in what was being taught or trying to get herself out of tricky situations. "If the teacher was going down the class and asking people to read in order, I'd know when it would get to me. So, I'd try to go to the bathroom or do something, even if I was not allowed to do it. I would stand up and just walk out of the classroom. My citizenship grades, which dictated behaviour in class, were always terrible."
Despite her struggles with reading and writing, Ann was a bright child. As the years progressed, she developed clever workarounds to avoid the blame, punishment and threats that were levelled at her when all she wanted was for someone to sit down and have a conversation with her to see how she could be supported in her work. "I graduated high school with a diploma of merit. I was in honours classes all through high school.
I was very good at navigating the system. The younger generation has much easier cheating mechanisms compared to the older ones, with access to computers readily available. When I had to do a book report for my honours English class, I couldn't find a book report to download, but I found that there was a movie based on the book. So, I invited all my friends who had read the book over, and we watched the movie together. Afterwards, I facilitated a group discussion about what were the differences between the book and the movie. I had convinced my teacher that I would give my report orally. Then I took all of my friend's opinions and presented the book report orally. I would do stuff like that all the time. I always had to think outside the box. I was always thinking, 'How can I do this without technically doing it?' Not because I didn't want to. My ideal preference would've been to just be able to read the book and do the book report and do what everyone else was doing, but I just didn't have the skill sets to do it."
Ann shares that college was a pivotal moment in her life. When she enrolled in a 4-year bachelor's degree in marketing, she was determined to earn her degree on her own, which meant that she had to tackle her struggles with reading. She sought help at the university, but the administrative office turned her down, saying that anybody who entered college already had the skill set of reading. Left to her device, she drafted a gruelling action plan to teach herself to read and stuck to it. "I thought to myself, 'if a six-year-old can do it, then I can do it at 18.' I completely believed that I had the ability to learn. I just didn't feel like I had been given a chance. I'd open the textbook, and when I got to words that I couldn't read, I would google the word, press the sound icon next to it, hear it, memorise it and then read on."
I thought to myself, 'if a six-year-old can do it, then I can do it at 18.'
Her technique, although tedious, paid off. By the time she graduated college, she was reading fluently at an eighth-grade level with complete comprehension solely from memorising words. She even made it to the dean's list in her senior year. Spelling and writing, however, always remained her scourge. "With reading, I was quite fluent, and my comprehension was great. But when it came to writing, it was so painful. It would take me 25 to 30 minutes to send any email. I had this whole system that I had to go through because I was recognising words by sight. I didn't know that you read words from left to right. From a reading perspective, my memory could hold anywhere between six and eight letters. So, I could memorise and recognise the first three and the back three letters of a word or the first four letters at the back. But writing would take me forever, and I would mix words up, especially if the context was coming from me, and the words had similar spellings."
Ann has always been private about her struggles. To everybody around her, she seemed to be excelling because of the coping mechanisms she had set up around her. But the demands on her were taking a toll on her emotional health. "It was really like an internal struggle for myself because I was constantly being asked to do things that required reading. People look at reading skills as 'either you are illiterate or not,' But I was very much subliterate. I fell into that category of 'I had enough of a skill set to navigate.' I always felt like everyone was demanding that I read. With the struggle came the feeling of being less than and I always felt like there was something inherently wrong with me, which is why I think we need to be really careful about the language that we use around learning disabilities and make sure that if someone does have a learning disability, that they're properly diagnosed and supported. It disrupted my entire life. I had a lot of anger and resentment."
As she continued to make a mark in the corporate world, she desperately tried to seek help year after year, only to be repeatedly turned down. "From the time I graduated college, I would obsess over how to get help with my reading. So, once every year, I would reach out to a reading tutor and I would ask them to help me. I got rejected all the time. They would message back with, 'Oh well, if you emailed me this, you don't need help with reading,' or 'if you're the one who wrote the email, you're fine.' Or they'd ask me to read a passage from a book before we set up our first meeting, and when I read fluently, they'd say, 'I don't know what's wrong, but you don't have a reading issue. Don't come to see me.' I had gotten that response so many times from so many people, so I knew I was doing something different, but I couldn't figure out what. One of my friends, who is a mum, had her kids struggling with reading. She told me that multiple letters could make one sound and that her kids were doing these exercises where they were memorising the series of letters that make one sound. And she was telling me all about the rules of a word. I didn't tell her at the time that I struggled with reading. I was so ashamed. Instead, I asked her as if I was just curious, 'Tell me where I can get the contact information?' I made the phone call the next day and went in to see them."
Ann received intervention with a program from the Print to Speech methodology for about 25 hours. She was taught all about the various sounds that each letter could make, how to split syllables, spelling rules, and exceptions to rules. She shares that this was the first time that she was taught that you could sound out words rather than memorise them. "There was this very big aha moment. I was out for a walk, and for the first time ever, I was just reading everything, all of the signs everywhere, and I was trying to grasp the concept of reading each word from left to right and sounding out a word. I looked at a Florida license plate, and for the first time, I saw the word "Florida" phonetically. On a scale of one to 10, my body's anxiety went from probably a 15 to a 4. It was drastic, and my body has never gone up to that high of anxiety ever again since that moment."
I thought about what my life would look like if I had this when I was six or seven.
She was working full time and attending therapy once a week and beginning to feel a lot more confident in her reading ability, but something felt amiss. She felt like she was thinking about every single word before she read it. "If I was reading, I felt like I was having to retrain my brain and think about every single word. I had just so much shame, anger, and sadness that I had been missing this skill set my whole life. I thought about what my life would look like if I had this when I was six or seven - Who would I be, and what would I have done? I just felt so alone. Where's the support group for people who don't read well? Where's the support group for people that have found help? It's so traumatising, and it's so anxiety-ridden, and you just don't find people that talk about it," shares Ann.
As she was reading more confidently and reflecting on support for adults who have experienced the same kind of trauma as her, she came across a video online that featured the dyslexic entrepreneur David Chalk being interviewed by Nora Chahbazi, the founder of EBLI. She reached out to David, and they instantly connected over their shared experience of being subliterate until they both learned to read in 2020. "On the video, he spoke about his experience, and I just sat there and balled. I had never had someone explain what had happened to me and how I had been living my life in the manner that David did. At the end of the video, he put his email address and said, 'reach out if you want to talk.' So, I randomly sent him an email, and he and I really connected. It was probably the most healing experience of my life to just have someone else who could relate. He was like, 'I'm going to be down in New Orleans. How far is that from you?' I immediately looked up flights and flew in to meet him. I wasn't planning on being in the documentary The Truth About Reading or meeting Nora or any of that happening. It just happened."
Following the filming of the documentary, Nora offered to help Ann improve her reading, and Ann flew out to Michigan to see how Nora could help her. Ann shares that she only worked with Nora for four hours and went from an eighth-grade reading level having to stop to think about the process of reading every word to reading at a college level. "It's just so shocking to me that we have this methodology available, and we have so many kids and adults that are struggling. There are so many problems in life we can't fix, but we have a solution to this problem. Why are we not shouting it from the rooftops? And how do we get people to become aware of it, advocate for it and prevent people from struggling."
Ann likens theStructured Linguistic Literacyapproach to driving an automatic car. "The Structured Linguistic Literacy approach is like getting in and driving an automatic, the engine and everything is working, but I don't really need to know when it's shifting gears and changing and what's happening in my mind. The approach is intuitive. I don't have to understand it to read. It's much faster for me to just kind of let my brain organically make all those shifts and transitions when it needs to rather than having to think about what rules apply here every time I read."
If you've never struggled with reading and writing, you don't realise how much you're reading and writing on a daily basis all the time for everything.
The whole experience has shifted Ann's outlook on life and her impression of herself. "When you're subliterate, you are constantly getting into trouble, doing the wrong things just because you don't have the context that everyone assumes and demands that you do. But you can't read, so you miss important information, and you're constantly in all of these situations that you never intended to be in, and then everyone's demanding to know, 'why are you doing this?' or 'why are you causing so much trouble?' If you've never struggled with reading and writing, you don't realise how much you're reading and writing on a daily basis all the time for everything. I was very upset about the fact that I didn't get this help when I was much younger. I operated from a space of being less than, which means I let people treat me 'less than.' So, it's been really transformative to know that I'm not."
Despite having to suffer all these years failed by the school system, she believes that teachers are just doing the best they can with the tools that they've been given, which is why Ann has decided to start talking openly about her struggles. She wants teachers and parents to open their minds to learning a new way of teaching. "Please be open to change. Change is an uncomfortable process. Learning how to read was a very positive change for me, but it came with a lot of disruption and a lot of discomfort in my personal and professional life. It has been a big shift."
The main message that I have for struggling readers or their parents is that it's not that something is wrong with the student. It's the instruction that is wrong.