Last year, our Grade 5 students began a module looking at different kinds of autobiographical writing. Studying autobiographical writing not only develops literacy skills in children but it also reinforces the message that everyone is different and everyone is special in their own way. This is particularly important for children who have learning difficulties like dyslexia.
After looking at different stories, the students were then asked to write their own story based on an aspect of their life. For eleven year old Gal, who had recently been diagnosed with dyslexia, this was a challenging task and he didn't know what he could write about.
One of the books studied as part of this module was Thank You, Mr Falker by Patricia Polacco, a world renowned children's author who is dyslexic and did not learn to read until she was fourteen years old. The book tells of Polacco's struggles at school, and hearing this story was a real inspiration to Gal, who was able to see that a successful author had been through exactly the same things that he was going through.
Gal went on to write his autobiographical story based on Polacco's book; he spent all evening working on it and typed it out on a computer to make it easier for him to get his thoughts down. As well as helping with his literacy skills, the writing process encouraged Gal to work through and make sense of his diagnosis. "Ever since I was little”, said Gal, “my parents took me to lots of different people to find out what was wrong. I really didn't like it and didn't know why I had to go. Now I can see that it was just to help me, and now I know why I think differently to other people."
Here is an unedited extract from Gal's story (the diary format is eleven-year-old Gal's literary device):
Have you ever had a problem that you can’t escape from? Well I do and it isn’t a pretty picture. My name is John Carpender, I am 8 years old and probably the dumbest kid in school. My teacher spends hours a day trying to get me to read and you know what I can’t even bother to try any more. I know that I’m only 8 but I would like at least to be able to read one sentence without getting 50 mistakes and take half an hour. I still don’t know why I’m writing in this stupid journal anyway because I have way better things to do than sit in my stupid bed room and write on a piece of paper my life story.
The way I see things is what my mum and dad call "special" for me it’s simple stupidity, for example when you see an orange I see a 3D ball that is orange in colour and eatable, when you see a car I see a metal thing with wheels that you can sit on it and it will take you places. Words are a whole different story. First English has no sense in it! I mean why does e & a or t & h together makes a different sound? It’s impossible to remember all of it while reading. Secondly pronouncing all those letters at the same time is practically impossible with long words, so it takes forever to say words like inconsistently or incontrovertibility or counterproductive, well you get the point. Finally every time I start to read a sentence, my eyes jump down a couple of rows and that’s not even half of it!!!!!
The only real thing that is special about me is that every while I come up with an idea of some sort. I have always been a loner and my imagination is what is keeping me sane in recess. Ever since a while ago, I’ve started to admire movies because it’s like a book with a personal reader for people like me, if there are any.
From the time I started watching movies it encouraged my imagination to think about stories myself so one day hopefully I will get to watch them on the big screen. So for now I said all what I had to say...
I am nine now and since last year my parents are bringing me to all this people that they say are “specialist” for people in my sort of “condition”. Basically, since I start going to those people, I HATED IT!! And in my definition for my parents “condition” is a less harmful way of saying stupidity.
Children in my class have already finish reading Harry Potter and I can’t finish one full page even with the help of the extra support, and reading is not my only problem, I’m finding as hard as reading writing. Also, without the attention of the teacher in a tinny room I will simply wonder off without even finishing a quarter of my homework. I’m starting to get worried about my future because yesterday after school in the car drive home I asked if I can be a grown up without reading and mum said “Reading is a very important part of your future” and then I thought to myself, “if I don’t get a serious improvement in the next year or so I’m seriously done for.”
So basically I’m doomed for now.
Half a year passed since my last entry and the only reason that I’m starting to write again is because I just learned a very important thing. What happened was that I went to this place that they asked me all these questions and made all these tests and after we left my mum told me I had this thing called dyslexia. You know what I actually felt very good about it because I finally had a reason to blame my problems on, except from myself.
Writing his story was clearly a big step for Gal, who had previously found it difficult to put his ideas on paper. The confidence that this has given in all aspects of his school work has been clear to see. Gal is a keen storyteller and now wants to be a film director when he grows up.
I believe that studying autobiographical stories by authors like Polacco can be of great benefit to all children with dyslexia; it can reassure them that they are not the only ones that feel the way they do and show them that they can be successful in literacy and story telling. Getting children to write their own autobiographical stories about how they feel about their dyslexia can also help them to accept their condition and understand that they may think differently to other people, but that this is not a bad thing.
Helen O'Donoghue is Principal of Hampstead Campus, Southbank International School:
This article was first published in issue 48 (September/October 2010) of SEN Magazine.