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Learning Disability Doesn't Mean Learning Failure


Use your ears when your eyes are an issue.

If you cannot read and write as well as other students, does that mean you will fail in school and life?

Talk with Laura Grey, who has dyslexia, a learning disability that can mix up letters and make reading, writing and spelling difficult.

She is proficient in five languages: English, French, Spanish, Italian and German.She is also learning Russian, Mandarin Chinese and Dutch.

Laura Grey
Laura Grey

“I was an early reader so nobody thought that I was dyslexic for a long time,” Grey said.“They had just thought that I had terrible handwriting and was a bad speller. Not living up to my academic potential.”

The National Center for Education Statistics says 13.8 percent of students learning English in the United States have a disability.The statistics include both physical and learning disabilities.

Disabilities can be mild or severe.People can have trouble reading, writing, spelling or understanding text.They may have a hard time processing sounds or calculating numbers.

“Every dyslexic learner is different,” said Priscillia Shen, assistant head of DAS Academy, which is part of the Dyslexia Association of Singapore.Students with mild dyslexia may do well in primary school, but face problems in higher education.Lessons need to fit the needs of individual students, she said.

Brenda Bernaldez, a specialist for the Office of English Language Programs in Mexico, has taught English to students of all ages, and suggests a multisensory approach to learning English could help students.This method includes using visual, auditory and kinesthetic tools, the last being activities in which students move, play or act.

Vocabulary words can be taught with pictures to show how words are formed, she explained.

Must love reading

Students with mild learning disabilities need to “develop the love for reading,” said Lía Kamhi-Stein, a professor at California State University in Los Angeles. She helps students struggling to read.They should read what they want, whether it is comics or books about animals.Reading with someone else can help students hear how words sound.

In addition, she said students should learn text structures, or how words are arranged or ordered. Students who understand structure can identify information faster because they know where to look.

Vocabulary should come from the readings, and the words need to be repeated.Learning one word at a time is not as useful, she said.

Lessons for learners with disabilities

Although Laura Grey speaks many languages, she struggles with writing and spelling, which usually affects students’ grades the most. But Grey tapped into speaking and listening, which affect grades less.

Another way to adapt is to use technology.

“If you are, as a student, trapped in a situation where you cannot ask for anything, I would say try technology to help you deal with it,” said Bernaldez.

For students struggling to read and write, Bernaldez suggested using voice recorders to take notes.She said there are apps like Evernote that let students record and organize voice notes.

Apps like Quizlet are useful because students can learn vocabulary by reading and hearing words and looking at pictures, said Lía Kamhi-Stein.

Laura Grey said she likes the app Duolingo. “If you’re willing to keep going and keep doing it, you’re going to get there,” she said.

Dyslexia in other languages

Learning disabilities are not limited to any one language.Difficulties learning one language will likely show up in another. For example, Grey said she is a terrible speller in any language.

Priscillia Shen of DAS Academy
Priscillia Shen of DAS Academy

Chinese language learners with dyslexia have similar difficulties to English language learners with dyslexia, Shen said.While some students learning English may write ‘d’ instead of ‘b’, some students learning Chinese may reverse Chinese characters.

Chinese language learners with dyslexia may mix up stroke patterns, add or forget strokes.Some students may confuse words with the same sounds, but different meanings.

Shen said color-coding Chinese characters may help.

Many Chinese characters have semantic and phonetic parts.Semantic parts tell the reader what the word may mean, while phonetic parts tell the reader how to pronounce it.

Shen said writing semantic parts in one color and phonetic parts in another color may help.

Diagnosing disabilities

Wealthier people are more likely to have learning disabilities diagnosed than poorer people, Bernaldez said.

Learning disabilities are not well understood in Latin America, she said, and students often go without help.

“I think sometimes it’s even a relief for the father and mother or the family to be like ‘Oh, he’s not slow, he actually has something we can deal with,' ” Bernaldez said.

Laura Grey said she did not fear being judged by others when she was diagnosed.She had been frustrated before because her undergraduate grades were not good.Getting diagnosed gave her an official reason why she was having trouble.She now attends graduate school.

“You have to do it every day. And if you do it every day, it’s definitely not so hard," she said. "But if you don’t do it every day, it’s almost impossible.”

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