School-age

Is this what reading is like for my dyslexic kid?

This website simulates what it feels like to have dyslexia—and opens my eyes in the process.

beatrice reading

Photo: Scott Ballem

Teaching your kid to read can test even the most patient parent. When I think about how much time my husband, Scott, and I spent coaxing our now seven-year-old daughter Beatrice to look at the page and not into the air, to focus on the letters, to sound them out, I still feel terrible.

After a year of reading with little progress and tons of resistance, we came to a few realizations. She didn’t want to look at the page. She couldn’t focus on the letters. And there was no way she was going to sound them out.

That’s because Beatrice has dyslexia. We finally had her tested a few months ago at the start of this school year because we suspected there was something going on that we couldn’t quite crack. And we were right. The brain of a person with dyslexia simply works differently—the circuitry is unique. Words on a page don’t quite look the same for Beatrice as they do for me, and working through a word, let alone a whole block of text, might feel something like this.

This website was created by Victor Widell, a computer developer who was inspired by a friend with dyslexia when she explained to him that while she can read, it takes a lot of concentration, and the letters seem to jump around. Widell created this site to mimic how that looks for people who don’t quite get it. Me included.

To be honest, I’ve struggled with Beatrice’s trouble with reading. As a kid I devoured books, I have degrees in English and French literature, I’m an editor and writer. I figured that just like my curly hair, she’d inherit all that too. Instead, her experience is turning out to be very different—and this website, while it makes me feel frustrated and tired within seconds, is a good tool to help me bridge that gap.

The week after Beatrice’s diagnosis, Scott and I attended a workshop called Walk a Mile in My Shoes. The session was designed to help parents understand what it feels like to be a kid with a learning disability. The immersive activities had us trying to decipher nonsensical passages of text and figure out codes and underlying meanings in others, all while the moderator—in an unnervingly calm and even voice—admonished us for taking so long, rushed us to finish and warned us we had more exercises to complete. This took maybe 15 minutes, but it felt way longer and utterly exhausting. And it hit me: This is how Beatrice feels every day, all day long. Learning for her is challenging, confusing and draining. When something comes easy to you, it’s hard to imagine how others struggle. That workshop—and Widell’s website—have made me more compassionate, less frustrated and even less angry.

Of course nothing can totally recreate the actual experience of dyslexia, but this site gives a glimpse. Dyslexia manifests in so many ways—some people see letters that jump around on the page, others might see words that flip upside down, are backwards or appear incomplete. Beatrice has trouble differentiating between letters that look the same—b and d, p and q, for instance—and mixes up similar-looking words—there and three, where and when. She struggles with letter sounds and can’t break words up to work through them. Her reading is slow and deliberate and, I’m happy to say, improving.

Despite her challenges—the effort required for schoolwork, the tutoring sessions, the flashcards we drill at home—Beatrice says she loves reading. She loves it.

So when I get stuck on how to help us all cope with this, I remind myself that she just sees things differently. And thank goodness for that.

Read more:
Signs of dyslexia>
Learning to read: what is the “right” age?>
15 creative ways to get kids reading (that really work!)>