I remember the exact moment I learned to read. Leaning with my back against the wall of my grade one classroom, I was muddling my way through my Mr. Mugs learn-to-read book when, all of a sudden, the letters formed into words. It was a magical feeling to not have to sound out each word and be able to move quickly from one word to the next—and finally find out what that old English sheepdog was up to. I quickly moved on to longer and longer stories. By grade two, I was reading novels in my free time, and now, well, I’m a magazine editor.
So when my now seven-year-old daughter, Ann, began to learn how to read, I couldn’t wait for the “click” to happen for her. I sat by her side, patiently listening to her stutter through books, gently correcting errors, pointing out how certain letters blend to make sounds and showing her clues on the page to help nail down words. I imagined her picking up a novel and holing herself away for hours, immersed in the story, like I did. Soon she’ll be reading to herself before bed, I thought, already mourning the loss of those treasured moments of reading her picture books before tucking her in for the night.
As time went on, though, I began to wonder when and even if that “click” was coming. I had some other concerns, too. A few months into grade two, Ann started hating school. She threw tantrums in the morning, not wanting to go or even get dressed. Through her tears, she told us that the work was too hard and that she wasn’t good enough. She was also still reversing letters and numbers when she wrote them—something her teachers assured us she would grow out of—and she would read entire words backwards and complain that things just didn’t make sense when she looked down at the paper on her desk. Despite her teacher’s reassurance that everything was fine and that Ann just needed a little more time, we decided to get a private psychoeducational assessment done.
I have to admit, I thought the psychoeducational assessment would be the answer to our problems. The psychologist would pinpoint a few key areas where she was struggling, we would make some fixes at home and in the classroom and, presto, things would become easier for her and she would start flying through books.
In the end, the diagnosis was confusing and disheartening. Turns out, Ann has a significant disability in visual memory (meaning that she can’t easily remember what she sees when she looks away from it), as well as difficulties in visual-spatial processing, perceptual-motor processing and phonological processing. She has classic symptoms of dyslexia (although it wasn’t diagnosed as such) and delays in her fine motor skills.
We learned that she would not only have difficulty learning to read but also struggle with writing and copying things down from the board. She would also likely feel frustrated because her written output wouldn’t reflect her thoughts and knowledge. The psychologist spoke of assistive technology, like word prediction software, in the classroom and extra time for standardized tests, and she gave us an exhaustive list of strategies to work on at home. We were also told that, while her memory and processing skills might improve, she would have this disability for life. I was angry with teachers who brushed off our concerns and felt overwhelmed thinking about what we would have to do to help our little girl.
The first thing we had to do was learn how to navigate the school system. During the second half of grade two, we had a meeting with the school support team, another at the board level to get her officially identified as a student with a learning disability, and countless meetings and conversations with her teacher, resource teacher and vice-principal. I went into each meeting with a rock in my stomach and tears in my eyes. We had to fight for her to get time with the resource teacher—even though it was outlined in her individual education plan (IEP). And through all this, we worried: Will she ever learn to read? Do other kids notice that she is behind? Will she get the support she needs in the public system? Should we look at private schools, even though we can’t afford them? Was this our fault?
There is still a part of me that hopes this is all a big mistake, that we had her assessed too early and her brain just isn’t “there” yet. Reading was a huge part of my childhood, and I’ve had a hard time adjusting to the fact that her experience will be different from mine. As a parent, you tend to imagine that your own kids’ lives will mirror yours, but of course that’s not the case.
I’ve adjusted my expectations, increased my patience and stopped waiting for a “click.” I no longer look ahead to a day when reading and writing will become easy for her. It’s clear to me now that she won’t sail through school. She is in grade three now and, while her reading has definitely improved, her disability shines through when you see her staring at a simple word like “the” and it’s not coming to her.
While I hate to see her struggle, I’m glad we know about her disability because it’s the key to getting the support she needs. Ann’s brain works miles ahead of her ability to write things down, and the school is helping her with strategies and technology so that her disability won’t hold her back. She is working with a tutor to help solidify basic phonological and visual-spatial concepts, and we try to support her with whatever she needs every day.
Ann has always seemed a bit different from other kids to me. She is perceptive, inclusive and social. From a young age, she could make connections between concepts and engage with others in a way that amazed people who were familiar with child development. She is creative, playful and courageous. We don’t know yet how her learning disability will affect her life and career in the long run, but I have no doubt that she’ll find success in her own way. Her brain isn’t typical, but it’s wonderful, and I wouldn’t want her any other way.
Claire Gagne is acting senior editor for Today’s Parent and mom to three kids.