Sunday Reflections: Being a Librarian Did Not Prepare Me for Parenting a Child with Dyslexia
When I learned I was pregnant with The Teen, my first thought was “I hope she likes Science Fiction.” I was 29 at the time and was in the final semester of my MLS program at Kent State University. At this time I had been working in YA services as a paraprofessional for almost 10 years. I was an avid reader with a strong interest in science fiction, both loves I was looking forward to sharing with my child. The Teen has always been a strong and natural reader and now that she is a teenager, we love to read and talk about YA literature. It makes my YA librarian heart happy.
Six years later I was once again pregnant, this time with Thing 2, and was thinking similar thoughts. By this time I was 35 and had been a MLS degree holding librarian for almost six years and had been working in YA services for 15 years. Little did I know of the struggle we would have in our future trying to build another enthusiastic reader.
As Thing 2 began Kindergarten, it became clear to me that she was exhibiting some of the signs of dyslexia. Dyslexia was not something we ever talked about in library school. As a public librarian, even one studying the youth services track in an ALA certified graduate program for library science, dyslexia was not something that we talked about. I could see the signs and felt a vague feeling that something was wrong in large part because I grew up with some family members who were themselves dyslexic. But more than that, there was just something going on at an instinctual level, that parental tickle at the back of the brain that lets you know that something just wasn’t right.
In the 1st grade, these concerns grew exponentially. Thing 2 often practiced mirror writing, she would write a word correctly, it just happened to be an exact mirror image. It wasn’t just that the letters were backwards or out of order, they were written so that if you held the piece of paper in front of the mirror, they would have been correct. Each letter was backwards and the order of the letters was backwards as well. Every time I saw her write that way, my concern grew.
It was during this year that my father came to visit. Thing 2 was happy to sit next to him on the couch and read to him from her book. She would see the word was and read it as saw. He looked at me as she left the room to get another book and said, “you should have her tested for dyslexia.” Having my worries confirmed by someone else without any prompting really validated my suspicions. Later that day, she would write her sisters name in sidewalk chalk in the driveway and he would marvel at how perfectly mirror like it was.
It took The Mr. and I almost 2 years to get Thing 2 tested and confirmed. We live in the state of Texas and it is one of the few if not the only state that has a cap on what percentage of students can be diagnosed as special needs. This cap puts pressure on the schools to keep their students undiagnosed so that they are in compliance with the state standards. In addition, in the first grade Thing 2 had a pregnant teacher who would miss many months of school and the long-term substitutes were not able to start the testing process in time for her to be tested in that year. At the end of the year the principal finally met with us and said that yes she there was sufficient reason to test her, but by this time it there was only two weeks before the end of the school year and we would have to wait until midway through the next year to get her tested. The next year, we had to start the process all over.
Thing 2 now participates in a special program which has helped her learn to read, though she still struggles and finds the overall process of reading unenjoyable. It is a fight each and every day to get her to read. She knows she is behind her friends in reading and often comments about how stupid she is. She will cry, rage, scream and cry as she struggles to read. As a parent, it is heartbreaking to see. My heart aches for my child.
During those first years when we struggled to get her diagnosed, she had teachers who would continually send home letters telling us our child was behind her peers and made helpful suggestions for us to help her be a better reader. Take her to the library, they said, as if my daughter wasn’t being raised in a library with an army of library staff. Make sure she has access to books, they said, as if she didn’t have shelves full of books, many of them signed directly to her by the authors and illustrators that I had brought home from conferences and read to her each night. Read to her each night, they said, as if I hadn’t been doing that from day one. There is an issue, I replied, please help us help her. At one point, in a moment of extreme frustration and in a rage after getting yet another note in her take home folder telling me I needed to read to her more, I looked at The Mr. and said, “do you think I should just send them a copy of my resume?” I didn’t, for the record.
The fight to get her tested took almost two years. In those two years I had to learn a lot about being an advocate and what the school process was and what a 504 plan was. It was a frustrating time in which I felt that I was failing my child, felt that I was a failure as a librarian, and worried that she would fall so far behind it would be hard for her to catch up.
As I mentioned, she now goes to a special program and has a teacher that she loves. She has made a lot of progress and we are encouraging and engaged every step of the way. But it has been hard. It’s hard to watch her struggle to read and feel discouraged. It’s hard to hear her cry and call herself stupid. It’s hard to know how to get her to read without fighting about reading and making reading an even more negative experience for her.
I have done many things along the way to help encourage her to be a reader, all the things that I have told parent after parent who has come into my library asking for help:
1. I take her to the library.
2. I let her choose her own books.
3. If we go to the store and she asks me to buy her a book and we have the money, I never say no.
4. If she asks me to read with her or to her, I say yes.
5. We listen to audio books.
6. I don’t fight with her about the books she chooses. If she wants to read the same book over and over again, we read the same book over and over again. If she wants to read a picture book instead of a chapter book, we read a picture book. There is already enough negativity in her life surrounding the concept of reading, her father and I try not to add to or be a source of that negativity.
We recently went to the store and I suggested that she read a copy of Love That Dog by Sharon Creech. This is a book written in verse that met the minimum number of pages for her school assignment, but many of the pages have short poems and have a lot of white space on the pages. This is only the second book she has ever finished reading and she loved it.
My co-worker recommended she read a Branches book and selected several that she thought Thing 2 might be interested in. Thing 2 selected and read Hank, a book that is written in a special font that is supposed to be easier for children with dyslexia to read. She loved this book as well.
She currently has to read 40 books by the end of the year, 20 by December. Half of these books are supposed to be chapter books over 64 pages. She has read well over 20 books, but I’m not sure we’re going to meet the 10 chapter books requirement. I’m trying to figure out whether or not I can be at peace with that. It’s a constant struggle for me as a parent to know when I should push her and when I should accommodate her special needs.
In library school and in libraries in general, we talk a lot about reluctant readers. We usually operate from the assumption that reluctant readers simply don’t like to read, that they just haven’t found the right book for them yet. What I am learning is that people are reluctant readers for a wide variety of reasons and I think we need to change our narrative. My child is a reluctant reader because reading is a challenge for her. When she looks at the words on a page she doesn’t see the same things that I do. She literally has to decode what she sees to make sense of it and that process is physically exhausting, emotionally challenging, and not really a lot of fun. It’s work for her in ways that it isn’t for other readers.
I have now worked in public libraries for 25 years and I have never worked at a library system that talked about working with struggling readers or, more specifically, children with dyslexia. I have seen my peers put together sensory storytimes and storytimes in sign language, but I haven’t really heard a lot of discussion about how, specifically, to help children and the parents of children navigate the world of dyslexia. Now that I feel like I’m coming to a space where I can breathe and we’ve had some successful reading moments, I want to challenge us all in the field to look at ways that we can provide better services to children and adults struggling with dyslexia.
Some of the things I recommend are:
1. Visit The Dyslexia Foundation website and learn what the basic signs are and take a look at this page which helps you understand the difference between what a dyslexic child sees on the page versus what a non-dyslexic child sees on the page.
2. Invite your local school district’s dyslexic specialist to come and do some staff awareness and training.
3. Learn about dyslexia fonts.
4. Find digital resources that you can help steer parents towards.
5. Consider making a booklist for kids with dyslexia at various ages and stages and include books like Hank, which is written specifically for kids struggling with dyslexia in mind.
Always keep in mind that not all people are dyslexic in the same way and not all tips, resources or tools work the same for everyone. There’s a lot of trial and error involved when you’re a parent and not an expert. Dyslexia is considered a spectrum disorder and knowing this information is very helpful. We were also told that dyslexia usually co-exists with other neurological differences, such as ADHD. So children who are dealing with dyslexia may also be dealing with other issues as well.
In just a few short years Thing 2 will be a teenager and people like me will be serving her in our public libraries. I wish that we talked more about ways to build a solid foundation for children like her and how to help them be successful readers in our libraries.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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