Twenty years ago when Eric Cooper was a boy growing up on Chicago’s North Shore, his elementary school teachers wanted to hold him back from entering the sixth grade, believing him a class clown and a dunce.
But Cooper wasn’t failing fifth grade because he had behavioral issues: Cooper was failing because he couldn’t read.
"It was an issue with teachers because they couldn’t effectively get to me, they didn’t have the tools to teach me differently," says Cooper, founder and president of LearningAbled, an Oak Brook-based venture specializing in tutoring children with learning disabilities and training educators on alternate teaching strategies. "I don’t blame them, though, because you can’t teach something you don’t know."
Cooper was diagnosed with dyslexia, a neurological condition that commonly affects a person’s ability to decode words. Frequently there’s trouble identifying sounds in a word and connecting sounds with letters.
"(At LearningAbled) we’re trying to make a societal difference in terms of the way learning disabled people are viewed. I don’t believe I had a learning disability, I had a teaching disability," Cooper says.
With the help of teachers at a Vermont boarding school, Cooper quickly mastered reading using non-traditional strategies. He graduated from Winnetka High School and studied business and communications at University of California Santa Barbara.
Although decades have passed since Cooper’s teachers labeled him as the problem instead of identifying its root, many of today’s teachers still lack the skills to reach dyslexic students.
One such teacher was Jo Ann Paldo, now president of the Illinois branch of the International Dyslexia Association and director of remediation at LearningAbled.
Paldo, a special education instructor for 12 years, left the public school system after a senior told her no one had been able to teach him how to read and she realized she never learned how to help him, either.
"When about 30 percent of the population is functionally illiterate, we know things have to change—the teacher training is where we really need to change."
For Andrea and Rocco Smeriglio, specialized instruction was the key to unlocking 8-year-old Rocky’s language ability.
Beginning in preschool, he had trouble learning to speak and mastering the alphabet. But it wasn’t until the first grade that language problems took concrete form.
"It took him 45 minutes to complete a worksheet that should’ve taken 15, he had zero interest in wanting to do homework and he wasn’t able to translate what the teacher was saying into the worksheet in front of him," Andrea says.
The helplessness he felt in class put him in a sour mood. It was a frustration that spread throughout the family.
"A typical after-school experience was so difficult because I would need to sit with him and only him to get his homework done," Andrea says. "I couldn’t spend time with the two older children, didn’t pick up the phone, I wasn’t making dinner right away, it added stress to all of us to make sure we could accommodate his homework."
Rocky’s dwindling performance prompted testing that revealed he had dyslexia. Rocky spent that summer with Paldo learning language skills.
"She taught more of a kinesthetic way of learning—everything was tactile and hands on," Andrea says. "She started by drawing letters in sand and having him slap his arms for syllables and letters. They also separated syllables in words using different colors of ink."
The strategies immediately clicked with Rocky and he entered second grade as a completely different reader.
"In general I don’t think people realize dyslexia just means difficulty in reading or translating, it doesn’t mean he reads backwards. And there are so many different ways of learning," Andrea says.
Frustration to success
The exasperation that accompanies teaching their 8-year-old daughter Kiera non-traditional reading strategies is well worth the price to the Siepman family.
Three years ago, as a kindergartner, Kiera developed stomach pains and headaches when faced with reading exercises. Today, she’s a voracious reader.
"It’s almost to the point where it’s frustrating because we have a hard time getting her to go and do things outside," says her mother Darcy Horan-Seipman, a board member for the Illinois branch of the International Dyslexia Association.
Almost immediately after neurologists confirmed Kiera had dyslexia, a condition that also very likely affects her father Warren, she and Darcy began intensive after-school tutoring.
"Following her diagnosis, it was suggested that math could be an issue, memorization might be difficult and that she should never be held accountable for spelling," Darcy says. "But I do make my daughter work at it because I think it is important. At the same time, I’m not going to punish her for not getting a 75, which is standard at her school."
Much of their work centers on phonemic awareness, which is an understanding of the sounds that correlate with letters and words. Not only does dyslexia affect the ability to read and write, but also the ability to pronounce words.
"What we’ve come up with is singing the words," Darcy says. "We make up different songs and she can remember them because it’s a tune."
Despite Kiera’s strides, working through her learning difficulties can be an exercise in patience, Darcy says.
"She a very bright girl and there are times when I think, ‘This is so basic, why aren’t you getting it?’ and at the same time, I feel like I can’t say that because it would discourage her. Even my husband, who went through these same problems, gets angry because the things that work for him don’t work for her, so it’s like reinventing the wheel every time."
Darcy’s resigned to the fact that Kiera probably won’t win a spelling bee or grow up to be a math whiz.
"So it’s trying to guide our expectations in what she can do with the parts she can’t."
You should know
• October is National Dyslexia Awareness Month and the Illinois Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, located in Glen Ellyn, will conduct a two-day conference Oct. 16-17 at Drury Lane in Oakbrook Terrace to increase awareness about dyslexia.
• At the conference, where more than 32 sessions are planned, psychologist Dr. Michael Ryan will present a keynote presentation Oct. 16 on the social and emotional impacts of dyslexia.
• To contact the Illinois Branch of IDA about the conference and other statewide programs and services, call (630) 469-6900 or go to readibida.org.
Early warning signs of dyslexia
Chronic ear infections
Having a close relative with dyslexia
Slow to speak
Little or no interest in learning the ABCs
Jumbled pronunciation such as reversing or substituting letters. For example, saying psghetti for spaghetti; hangerburger for hamburger or contepition for competition.
Inability to rhyme
Lack of phonetic awareness: inability to hear fine, pronunciation differences or to identify sounds that comprise a word.
Poor handwriting, including slow, non-automatic hand writing; letter and number reversals; and difficulty learning cursive
Mom, kids work through dyslexia
Once Julia Nelson entered kindergarten, her cheery nature turned troubled.
She had trouble reading and the problems snowballed into difficulties with most subjects.
Diagnosed with dyslexia, she struggled through homework and constantly found herself a target of teachers’ criticisms. Still, she worked through the learning disability and earned a bachelor’s degree in therapeutic recreation and eventually a master’s in teaching from the University of Illinois.
And when her first and then third child began exhibiting familiar traits, such as delayed speech and difficulty learning alphabetic sounds, the Western Springs mom knew time was of the essence.
"As one ages, the harder it is to remediate, so the sooner you get that, the better you’re going to be," says Nelson, who tutors children with learning disabilities at the Valley of Chicago Learning Center in La Grange. "Dyslexia remains incurable, but like anything else in life, it needs to be dealt with immediately and compensated for with specific instruction. Learning with any disability is hard, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it."
Due to alternate reading strategies taught at the Valley of Chicago, her youngest son, Jake, 11, reads above grade level and her 16-year-old son, Mack, who struggles with additional learning disabilities, has learned the skill.
Theirs are successes within reach of anyone with dyslexia, Nelson says.
"As I tell Mack, that main path in your brain is under construction, so that just means you have to find an alternate avenue. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it and it will probably take you longer, but there’s still the possibility that you can get there."
Robin Huiras, a freelance writer living in Evergreen Park, is expecting her first child.