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Challenge: Kids with Special Needs

Inspire a Lasting Love of Reading in Dyslexic Children

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I had the privilege of speaking in Georgia at last year’s Decatur Book Festival (September 3, 2016). I spoke about the challenge that learning to read presents to children with learning differences such as dyslexia, and how we, as parents and educators, can help such children to develop a love of story. As I'll describe below, developing a love of story is the name I've given to the process of being exposed to stories and characters that light up our brain, get us jazzed, and make us want more of our favorite characters. A very appropriate quote from Kate Di Camillo highlights this teaching approach to students: “Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift.”

The sad truth is that many children view reading as a chore because of learning difficulties. How can such children be helped to see reading as a gift?

As a dyslexic, I know what it’s like to struggle to read. My grandmother spent time with me, reading with me, and helped me develop a love of great stories. That exposure to the wonder of books planted a new awareness in my brain, a thought that said, “even though reading is so hard, these stories are wonderful!” I wanted more. The reward of experiencing stories made the effort of reading worthwhile, and that love of story is what helped me persevere as a reader, and now as a writer, although reading and writing will never be effortless for me.

As a kid, reading stories helped me see myself differently. That was important, since nearly all of us who are dyslexic, or who struggle otherwise to learn, judge ourselves harshly. We constantly compare ourselves to our peers who seem to learn with little or no effort, and unfortunately, we can gain the impression from even well-meaning educators that we’re unmotivated, stupid, slow, or lazy.

But when I was immersed in a story with characters who had feelings like mine, or who struggled with challenges like mine, I learned that I wasn’t the only person who felt the way I did. It gave me hope to see that others could meet challenges and do difficult things and believe in themselves. That meant that there was hope for me!

Little did I know that I was encountering what’s called in psychology a “hero of self-reference.” While there weren’t any stories about people with dyslexia when I was a kid, reading about people who dealt with other struggles served my need to feel like I wasn’t that different from everyone else. Through stories, I learned that struggle is nothing to be ashamed of.

Today, at-risk readers and dyslexics are rarely presented with successful depictions of characters like themselves. And while I write to entertain all my readers, there’s a special place in my heart for struggling students who can’t imagine themselves ever being a good reader. I want them to see heroes of self-reference uncovering hidden strengths, dealing with their feelings and the frustrations of their own situations. I want kids to learn that if they need to do things differently to get the job done, that’s a strength, not a weakness.

Once kids actually learn to read, then, for the rest of their life, they read to learn. Reading still provides the largest educational platform. That means that for the tens of thousands of folks out there who never learn to read well, their learning opportunities diminish dramatically at a very young age.

If I had never begun to think of myself as a reader, I would have never become a learner.

I write books so at-risk readers can begin to think of themselves as readers and learners, full of potential and strength.

We can all look for opportunities to read to kids more often and thereby strengthen their love of a great story. When we are patient with them, helping them sound out words, asking questions about the story to discern what they’ve understood, we show faith in them as people. We demonstrate that we believe they can be good readers and students. Sometimes we need other people to believe in us first, before we can learn to believe in our own potential.

In conclusion, I offer the following quote by Katherine Patterson, “It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations—something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own.”

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