Honoring gifts vs. meeting challenges Battle with dyslexia shows value of courage over talent

The Grand Rapids Press-Grand Rapids, MI
Copyright Booth Newspapers,Inc. Oct. 5, 1997

As my children's parent-teacher conferences approach, I find myself thinking about Ennis Cosby.

Last January, America lost a precious resource.

Ennis was a gifted doctoral student and the son of a famous actor, but more importantly, Ennis was a man with dyslexia who had the courage to overcome this challenge.

He graduated from college with honors and spent his spare time tutoring learning-disabled children. His steadiness and empathy already had touched many children.

In my life I have been lucky enough to know many talented people and many individuals who rose to meet significant challenges. When it's up to me I will take courage over talent every time.

I clearly remember trying to explain this to my daughter when she was just a second-grader. It was during a late night talk in her room. She was hurt and frustrated because her dyslexia made school hard, and she needed tutoring. She wondered why she had to have dyslexia like her father. She wanted to be smart and pretty like her mother and younger sister.

Taking a deep breath, I tried to shake off the guilt and all the painful memories of my school failures. Awkwardly, I began by pointing out the talents we possess. She already was an exceptional artist who could sell her friendship bracelets or clay statues to friends. I had always been bright in mathematics if I could read the problems.

These are gifts. They should be honored and used, but we deserve no credit for them. They are blessings from God. We did not earn them.

Facing our dyslexia was something to be proud of. It demanded that we face the situation that was most frustrating and frightening to us. We also had to develop discipline because we repeatedly had to drill in concepts which did not come easily and were no fun. If we could learn to face our fears and shortcomings and persist in tasks we found boring and obnoxious, then we could truly use our talents.

Ennis Cosby was such an individual. Most of us felt that we knew Ennis, between his father's comedy routines and the character of "Theo" on the Cosby show.

Like most bright dyslexics, Ennis fell through the cracks. In his book Fatherhood, Bill Cosby jokingly asked his son, "How can you flunk English?" Although elusive, the answer is simple. For dyslexics, mastering language, even their native tongue, is a struggle.

Although the concepts and vocabulary may come easily, the sounds and symbols are a labyrinth. Dyslexics are unable to hear and remember the individual sounds in words. This skill (phonological awareness) is essential to learning the rhyme, to blend individual sounds into whole words and to master the fist stage in learning to read-learning to sound out written words.

But with a bright child like Ennis, how can teachers and parents miss such a deficit. The answer is twofold. First, bright dyslexic children become masters of compensation. Even though they may be able to decode only 60 to 70 percent of the words in their text book, they can interpolate the meaning, filling in the holes. So if they can comprehend, what's the problem?

The problem is they often miss the details of what they are reading, and they have to work three or four times harder than their classmates to get the information. This means they are very slow and don't enjoy reading. They become doers instead of readers.

The second reason bright dyslexics slip through the cracks is a lack of information. For many years, schools of education have taught future teachers that dyslexia does not exist or that it is a wastebasket term with little meaning.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Ten years of research by the National Institute of Health has demonstrated that dyslexia is a genetic disorder that affects brain development. Parents and teachers can begin to identify bright dyslexic students by watching for key signs.

Dyslexia runs in families. If a child has an uncle or a parent who is clearly talented, but doesn't like to read or is a poor speller, this is a red flag.

These children are often puzzling. They may be at the top of the class in one subject and the bottom in another. Their performance also is very inconsistent. One day they seem to be progressing, and the next, they have fallen behind for no apparent reason. Clearly they are bright and creative, but they struggle with simple tasks such as reading aloud, spelling or expressing their ideas. Because of these struggles, they may seem inordinately tired or "on edge".

Ironically, the gifted dyslexic's strengths are often more obvious then the weaknesses. These children (and adults) seem to be able to think in pictures. In other words, they have a tremendous capacity to visualize three dimensional spaces. This allows them to be excellent builders, mechanics or artists. In addition to not helping enough with their weaknesses, we do not identify or challenge these strengths.

Research and common sense indicate that current educational practices do not help children with dyslexia learn literacy skills. What can parents and teachers do?

For more than 50 years a small group of clinicians have successfully used a structured, multi-sensory phonetic method to teach these children in hospitals and clinics. After two years of this kind of tutoring my daughter went from being discouraged and frustrated to winning two awards: one for reading the most books of any fourth-grader and the fourth-grade young authors' award. More importantly, she loves to read.

The National Institute of Health has found that 96 percent of children with this kind of reading problem will improve if they get the appropriate remediation. Help for such children is available through the International Dyslexia Association (410-296-0232 and, the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation (1-800-471-9545), or in Grand Rapids, at the Specific Language Development Learning Center (616-361-1182).

Ennis once wrote "The happiest day of my life occurred when I found out I was dyslexic. I believe that life is finding solutions, and the worst feeling to me is confusion."

Our educational system often is confused. Fortunately, solutions exist in the recent research studies on reading and dyslexia. We must use this information to develop the most effective program for both dyslexic and non-dyslexic children. If we fail, we will have wasted the intelligence, creativity and courage of men and women like Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, Whoppi Goldberg and Ennis Cosby.

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