I learned I could read the summer before fifth grade. Technically, I could actually read before then, but the adults seemed to feel I was a bad reader; so I was. Being a bad reader (and not wanting to look bad) I faked it. In fourth grade I made book reports from books I had chosen for their pictures, so I could tell the story of the book without reading it.
The moment I “learned to read” is vivid still today. My mother is sitting on the couch with me reading The Battle of Britain, a Landmark Book now out of print I am sure. The story is a gripping, and I am at one with history and my mother’s undivided attention. I am in love.
Halfway through she looks up and says, “Oh, my gosh. It’s 5:30. I have to get dinner ready.”
Shocked out of my bliss, I say, “No, you can’t. Please don’t stop. We have to finish.”
“No. I am sorry. I have to make dinner, now. I’m sorry.”
There I was, right in the middle of real, historical action, and I had to know how it ended. I finished the book before dinner. From then on, “I could read.” More accurately, that moment on the couch liberated me from the notion that I could not read.
Still, the summer after sophomore year in high school, my parents, still concerned about how long it took me to get through the mountain of reading that high school required, enrolled me in the “Baldrich Reading Center” in Greenwich, Connecticut, in hopes that I could learn how to get through books faster.
Baldrich started us off with a pre-test in which I demonstrated that I could read 260 words per minute with 90% comprehension. Then, they set about teaching me the skills of reading faster: pre-reading, planning ahead, skimming, reading different material at different speeds, getting the big picture before plunging in, speed reading, focusing only twice per line—see, I remember it all. We were told that really good readers focus only once. Hoping that at the end of the summer I would be able to read fast enough so that I would not have to stay up till midnight doing my homework, I applied myself diligently.
At the end of six weeks I was given a “post test,” the results of which were that I could now read 320 words per minute with 60% comprehension. The mathematics was clear: 260 x .9 = 234; 320 x .6 = 192. Before=234; After=192. Hmmmm.
I still read word for word, sometimes rereading sentences, but the older I get the happier I am with the brain I was given. My wife says, “Sure, I can read a book in a weekend but don’t remember anything. Finishing a book takes you a long time, but you remember it all. Which is better?”
I am certain that today I would have been labeled “dyslexic.” I was twenty when educators invented it, describing those of us who have trouble reading, defining the symptoms of the “syndrome,” creating a category of person, and turning it into a field of study.
Forty-five years of professional experience helping children learn and keeping on top of the research in the field of dyslexia and other learning disabilities, has not proven to me that creating a syndrome has done much for us other than upgrading “retarded” from a catch-all label to a disability. A child can now say, “I’m not stupid; I have dyslexia,” and that is a good thing.
So what? 35% of CEO’s of American companies would “test positive” for dyslexia—maybe a dyslexic brain is an asset.
Children are not really at risk for their weaknesses, but for the notion that weaknesses put you at risk. Labeling a weakness can engrave it into one’s ego, turning a temporary inability into a permanent disability. Worrying about a weakness takes one’s eye off the core question: “How do I get this done?”
Comparing any brain with how the “normal” reading brain works and focusing on what is missing is fundamentally Procrustean. (Look up Procrustes.) For all the hundreds of children and adults I know who read in ways that are different from the ways rewarded by schools, the challenge is still the same: to figure out how your unique brain works and to make it work for you.