When our youngest was assessed a few weeks back as having dyslexia, I have to admit that it wasn’t a total shock. Luke had never shown any interest in reading. Working with him on it had been a drag. He wheedled to get out of it, wiggled when we made him sit down, and then winced his way through it. And, honestly, we whimpered as he messed up words like “that” and “what” and “there” and “where.” We put him through four weeks of reading tutoring in between first and second grade. In second grade, Luke’s teacher kept him after school once a week for six weeks to review phonics with him. The kid struggled. But, he was doing so well with other things and he was making progress, so we reasoned that sooner or later he would turn that magic corner and all would be fine. What we didn’t understand then was that for Luke and all people with dyslexia there is no magic corner.
The school psychologist who tested him had very specific instructions for us when she gave us his test results. We were to get him a dyslexia tutor who specialized in a multi-sensory approach to teaching reading. We were not to penalize him for misspellings (which is a good thing because his spelling is appalling). And, to keep him up at grade level literature when he can’t read well enough to comprehend books at his grade level, we were to allow him to listen to books on CD rather than to force him to read them. One thing that struck me from our conversation with the psychologist was that, although Luke’s reading skills are about two years behind where they should be, his listening skills are more than two years ahead of most children his age. It’s not unlike that quote from The Sound of Music, “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.” Luke may not be the world’s greatest reader, but he is a phenomenal listener.
In preparation for Luke’s book report, which is due this week, we finished listening to his chosen book report book tonight. The four of us sat in the family room listening to The Mouse and The Motorcycle on our Bose home entertainment system. As we sat there, I thought about the days before television when people would gather around their radio to listen to the latest news, music, or program. When you use your ears and not your eyes, you’re more present with the other people in the room. There is something magical about hearing a story and noticing the acknowledgment and reaction in the faces of others. You’re present to share in their understanding. You’re simply more tuned in to the story and to each other. It’s pretty cool.
When I’ve mentioned to people that an accommodation we’re making with Luke now is allowing him to listen to books rather than actually attempting to read the book, I register a Hey…no fair look in their faces. Why should my kid get to listen to a book while their child actually has to read the book? I get where they’re coming from. I can see how it seems not right. Then I explain that although Luke can read words, he’s not truly reading. He spends so much time trying to figure out each and every sound in each and every word that he is unable to grasp the meaning of the sentence as a whole. Imagine trying to sound out “superficially” and then by the time you’ve finished sounding it out properly you have no idea what words preceded it. There is no fluidity. There is no comprehension. There are words, difficult, solitary, and devoid of collective meaning. Yes. He can read. But he can’t read.
I tell you what, though, that kid can listen. During our audio program tonight, I would pause the player every couple chapters to ask Luke comprehension questions. These were not easy, yes/no questions. These were designed to elicit specific contextual details from the story. What did the mouse do with his tail when he rode the motorcycle? What was the boy’s hotel room number? What killed the mouse’s father? Name some foods the boy brought back for the mouse and his family. Luke answered every question in great detail without missing a beat. When we sit and he reads text, he fidgets and squirms and has no clue regarding what he’s very clearly recited aloud. When Luke listens to a story, even when he appears to be checked out, he’s still getting it. This is the boy I’ve always known, the one who appears to be in his own world and yet when asked can repeat verbatim what was just said. Reading is an important skill. In fact, it’s crucial to becoming a successful adult. But, listening is a dying art. Luke will learn to read, but how many youth of today will learn to be effective and empathetic listeners? Luke may be living with the cloud of dyslexia, but that cloud’s silver lining may just make it worth the trouble.