dyslexia

Where Dyslexic Means Extraordinary – An Interview with Perry Stokes of the Rawson Saunders School

When I started elementary school way back in the 1960s, most educators knew almost nothing about dyslexia. An unfortunate result of this was that dyslexic children like myself were pigeonholed in a standardized learning environment that didn’t recognize the way we processed information. Not only did this make it very difficult to survive academically—let alone succeed—but it left its share of emotional scars along the way.

Last year I was stunned to discover a school in my own community that caters specifically to children with dyslexia. At the Rawson Saunders School, their motto is Where Dyslexic Means Extraordinary. I was so impressed by that because it’s such a positive, empowering motto! My inner 6-year-old was a bit jealous. I recently made the grand tour of the school and met several wonderful educators and a few of the extraordinary students as well.

rawson saunders tour
Touring the Rawson-Saunders School with Mr. Perry Stokes, Director of Academic Language Therapy

Almost as soon as I heard of this school for the dyslexic, I started to wonder how Rawson Saunders is different from other schools. What can we learn from their methods? And so Perry Stokes, the Director of Academic Language Therapy at the Rawson Saunders School, has graciously agreed to answer a few questions for this blog. I hope you find the answers to the following questions as enlightening as I did.

What is Academic Language Therapy?

Academic Language Therapy, a systematic, multisensory, phonics-based approach to teaching reading, writing, and spelling, is offered to Rawson Saunders students daily in small groups. Basic Language Skills, an Orton-Gillingham based curriculum, serves as the foundation for the program, with instruction in phonemic awareness, letter recognition, decoding, spelling, fluency, comprehension, handwriting, vocabulary and oral and written expression. The daily schedule is composed of a comprehensive literacy instructional program. Instruction is individually paced and student progress is continually monitored.

Other programs and resources may be used by our experienced therapists to meet the individual needs of students. These include instructional strategies that assist students in gaining accuracy and fluency for effective reading and writing through work with Latin and Greek roots, reading fluency with advanced vocabulary in expository passages, and practice developing metacognitive strategies for reading and writing.

Students increase their reading, spelling and writing accuracy through explicit, systematic and multisensory instruction. ALTs collaborate with Language Arts teachers to ensure each student is successful. Mastery checks and reading benchmark assessments are given to continually monitor student progress. Homework is used to practice newly acquired skills and to develop accuracy and fluency in reading, spelling, handwriting, and written expression.

What kinds of tests do you do to evaluate a child’s need for language therapy?

Our students are professionally diagnosed with dyslexia. We utilize outside testing done by diagnosticians to provide us with a comprehensive psycho-educational battery of assessments. These tests can include tests of both ability and achievement such as the Woodcock-Johnson. These assessments can also include measures of a student’s sensitivity to the oral level of language such as the CTOPP (Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing).

What sorts of exercises do you do to assist children in therapy?

Inductive Teaching Methodology – the student is charged with discovering an auditory to visual component of the English language or a sound to letter correspondence such as how the long ā sound can appear as the letter pair ay, for example.

Multisensory Learning – the student is prompted to engage two sense pathways simultaneously of the visual, auditory or tactile/kinesthetic modalities. The students are prompted to look and name the letter pattern – ay “tray” /ā/ – or to hear and name the pattern – /ā/ is spelled with a final ay – or even to name and write during spelling tasks.

What ages do you usually work with?

Our campus currently serves students from grades first through eighth. As of the 2014-15 school year, we are excited to add high school grades.

What are some preliminary evaluations you can do at home?

Play “Ear Games” – rhyming, counting words heard in a sentence, counting syllables heard within a word, isolate the first/final sound heard in a word and segmenting a word into its constituent sounds.

Naming Activities – have the students name words that fit within categories, color words or animal words, for example.

If either of the above activities are halting, difficult and/or inaccurate for a child, there is an indicator of possible reading challenges.

At what age should you start to keep an eye on your child’s language progression and how does a parent know if there’s a need for intervention/assistance?

At the preschool /kindergarten ages

According to the International Dyslexia Association Fact Sheet entitled “Is My Child Dyslexic?” here are some indicators that a young child may be dyslexic:

Oral language

  • Late learning to talk
  • Difficulty pronouncing words
  • Difficulty acquiring vocabulary or using age appropriate grammar
  • Difficulty following directions
  • Confusion with before/after, right/left, and so on
  • Difficulty learning the alphabet, nursery rhymes, or songs
  • Difficulty understanding concepts and relationships
  • Difficulty with word retrieval or naming problems

What does language therapy have to do with dyslexia?

Academic Language Therapy is an instructional methodology specifically designed to meet the literacy needs of students diagnosed with dyslexia and a number of students diagnosed with general reading challenges.

What is the best thing a parent can do to help their dyslexic child?

The best thing that a parent can do for their dyslexic child is advocate for them to the fullest extent possible; to insist that they receive accommodations and the appropriate educational supports in their school environment.

Secondly, parents should encourage and commiserate with their dyslexic children. The reading process will be much more strenuous for them at times and that is unfair and maddening but the effort will be worth it. There are strategies they can learn to utilize that can help them tame the reading beast.

How do you (or Rawson Saunders) define success for a dyslexic student?

A dyslexic student is an extraordinary and potentially successful student regardless of reading proficiency. These students have amassed an impressive set of talents; designing, engineering, problem solving, innovative approaches, drama, art, science and free-form thinking. As the author and doctor Sally Shaywitz states, dyslexics have a sea of strengths around an island of challenge—reading.

Anything else you would like to share about your work with dyslexic students?

My work with dyslexic students is a mutually beneficial reciprocity; I am taught as much as I teach. We form a great teacher/student grouping.

Thank you so much for answering these questions. Your work is much appreciated!

About the school: Founded in 1997, Rawson Saunders is the only full-curriculum school in central Texas exclusively for dyslexic students and is recognized nationally as a leader in innovative teaching methods tailored specifically to the way dyslexics learn. The mission of Rawson Saunders is to develop the full—and tremendous—potential of children with dyslexia through an extraordinary education. Visit www.rawsonsaunders.org for more information.

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