'It was like I lost my kid': Dyslexia frustrates children and families, but there's hope

Krissy McKnight, an instructor at Rolph Literacy Academy, works with a student teaching letters. Rolph Literacy Academy uses methods scientifically proven to help dyslexic children process language. (April 12, 2018)
Krissy McKnight, an instructor at Rolph Literacy Academy, works with a student teaching letters. Rolph Literacy Academy uses methods scientifically proven to help dyslexic children process language. (April 12, 2018) The Wichita Eagle

In a classroom at the Rolph Literacy Academy in northeast Wichita, 6-year-old Dorise Cullimore is turning sounds into letters.

"Swing up, stop, release, dot — I," says Leslie Stewart, a literacy intervention specialist. With a green marker, Stewart makes a row of cursive lower-case i's across a sheet of laminated paper and directs Dorise to trace over them with her black marker.

"Swing up, stop, release, dot — I," the girl repeats, writing several neat rows of letters beneath the teacher's example. "What can I do next?"

"Which letter are you wanting to do next?" Stewart says.

"Let's do 'D-dog-duh,'" the girl says, smiling.

Her reply — letter, word and sound weaved together as a package — illustrates the strategy at work in this school, where children with dyslexia learn to make connections between sounds and letters, a crucial piece of reading that may have eluded them before.

As many as one in five people show symptoms of dyslexia, a reading disorder that runs in families and ranges from mild to severe. Children with dyslexia can have trouble deciphering letter sounds, pronouncing words, spelling, writing and understanding what they read, despite demonstrating normal to above-average skills in other areas. Many also show signs of attention deficit disorders.

Kansas is one of a handful of states that doesn't require schools to recognize dyslexia as its own category of learning disability. State and local officials say the disorder is covered under federal disabilities and civil-rights laws.

But just last week, after more than a decade of lobbying by parents and teachers, lawmakers unanimously established a statewide task force that will research dyslexia and make recommendations on ways to properly screen students for reading impairments.

"This is huge," said Jeanine Phillips, director of the nonprofit Fundamental Learning Center and Rolph Literacy Academy, a private school for children with reading difficulties.

"What this is doing is allowing a group of people — parents, teachers, legislators, Department of Education people — to come together and start to learn about what dyslexia really is," she said. "Then it's, 'What do we need to be doing about it? What are other states doing about it? What's working?'"

The Fundamental Learning Center in Wichita is the only accredited dyslexia center in a four-state region and has helped more than 100,000 children in its 17-year history.

Philips launched the organization after finding a program — Alphabetic Phonics — that helped her son succeed in school despite severe dyslexia. She said she wants teachers to recognize and understand reading disabilities. She wants parents to see that they're not alone. She wants schools to confront problems earlier. And most of all, she wants children frustrated by learning disabilities to have hope.

"Dyslexia is a hidden condition, so it's easy to overlook or ignore," Phillips said. "These kids appear to be very smart, very with it. But when it comes to the basics of understanding language — mapping sounds and then transferring those to print — they struggle.

"But we know what works, and we need to get that word out to as many people as possible," she said.

Dyslexia can't be cured, but with the right strategies people with it can learn to read, write and spell, Phillips said. The Fundamental Learning Center trains hundreds of teachers and other adults each year, in everything from free lectures to graduate-level courses. It also screens children for learning difficulties, operates a summer reading program and refers children to private tutors.

The center is funded by a combination of donations, private grants, tuition and fees. It has a dozen full-time employees and several other instructors who work on a part-time contract basis.

For Sarah Collins and her 9-year-old son, Austin, the center proved life-changing. Austin's struggles with reading began in kindergarten and escalated quickly, Collins said. Within the first six weeks she heard from Austin's teacher that he was frustrated, not paying attention and wandering off during lessons.

"It was like I lost my kid," Collins said. "All we were seeing was this behavior, and we had no clue what could be causing it."

A friend whose daughter is dyslexic urged Collins to have Austin evaluated, she said. The screening showed several markers for language and reading difficulties which hadn't been obvious before.

More importantly, Collins said, staff members noted Austin's strengths — visual and spacial reasoning and a huge vocabulary — and devised a plan to tap into those to get him reading and writing.

"It was the biggest relief," she said. "Finally somebody knew what to do with him, and they knew how to teach him. He was a completely different child within six months."

A third-grader, Austin still reads below grade level but is making noticeable strides this year, Collins said. One reason is the small class sizes and one-on-one attention at Rolph, she said.

Another is the school's multisensory approach to language. For example, children learn to break down letter sounds in a word by moving blocks as they say each one aloud: "Huh-aaa-ttt. Hat."

One recent morning, instructor Denise Richilano played "Skittle sentences" with a small group of students, rewarding them with differently colored Skittles candies when they correctly identified nouns and verbs: "Birds chirp. . . . Animals play. . . . Flowers grow."

Ann Welborn, a former public school principal, directs Rolph Literacy Academy and says she's "blown away" every day by the progress students make. She said there needs to be more awareness statewide — among lawmakers and those who set education policy, as well as teachers and parents — that dyslexia exists but doesn't need to hold children back.

"These kids just learn differently," Welborn said. "When you reach them with the kind of instruction they need, it's amazing to watch."

This content was created with support from Impact Literacy, a strategic initiative of the Wichita Community Foundation.