Terrill Jennings, a founding teacher of the prestigious Landmark School in Boston, USA and co-founder of the school’s Expressive Language Program, has been teaching and directing language arts programs for children with dyslexia for more than 40 years. She has authored two books on writing with her colleague Dr. Charles Haynes and is an accomplished presenter who has given workshops nationally and internationally. She comes to Dubai to conduct a three-week-long summer school on Written Expression Skills at Lexicon Reading Center, Jumeirah Lakes Towers.
How did you start teaching dyslexic kids?
I first started out as a teacher in an international nursery school in Tokyo, where my husband was assigned to a business contract. Upon returning to the United States, I volunteered as a reading tutor in the public schools and worked with children who were slow to learn and experienced poor reading comprehension. The professional reading specialist who supervised my volunteer work recommended that I apply as a student in a new tutoring programme sponsored by the recently opened Landmark School, a school for dyslexic children. The challenge of helping students with language-based learning disabilities motivated me to remain at Landmark for over 40 years.
What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterised by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from an inability to understand words from pronunciation or the way they sound. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.
Can dyslexia be cured?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for dyslexia, which remains a lifelong condition. But it is important for dyslexic children and their families to understand the nature of their dyslexia and seek the best remedial help available. With guidance from special education teachers, students will learn strategies to accommodate their language deficits in reading and writing. This could be a long-drawn process, which might take several years in some cases.
Are there any tests to determine the condition? What should the parents do if they suspect their child could be dyslexic?
Testing for suspected dyslexia is available. The Community Development Authority of Dubai has granted the Lexicon Reading Center the license to diagnose and remediate children with learning disabilities such as dyslexia and dysgraphia. The moment parents suspect their child is experiencing a developmental delay, they should seek professional help, especially if there is a history of dyslexia in a family.
While seeing the improvement in dyslexic kids must be a source of happiness, is there anything that exasperates you?
It is unfortunate that many parents feel that dyslexia can be cured with short-term intervention. It is also unfortunate that many educators feel that a kid who is in the primary and early grades, and is not learning to read or write, is merely a bit slower than his peers and will catch up eventually. This could potentially mean that by Grade 3 such a kid might begin to lose self-confidence and by Grade 4 he will not be ready to learn and will fall further behind.
What advice would you give to such parents and those who are around dyslexic kids?
I would like to tell them that dyslexia is not a ‘quick fix’ situation and there are no such thing as quick results. Teaching a dyslexic child requires hours of remediation under the guidance of a highly trained and experienced tutor-teacher. It is important that a dyslexic child be tested as soon as possible by a certified psychometrician and that the family be educated about the specifics of the testing results. The child needs to be reassured that his dyslexia means he learns differently and that a modified educational plan can be organised for him.
It is commonly believed that kids with a learning disability are extremely talented in other areas. Is that true?
Yes, in fact many dyslexic children are exceptionally talented in the visual and performing arts as they don’t rely on difficult words to express what they feel and know. Often such talent is evident at a young age and they should be encouraged to continue and improve these artistic skills. They also do well in singular sports such as karate or golf where they compete against themselves and are recognised for their efforts.
There are several personalities and celebrities who are dyslexic, too. Any favourites?
Not really, as there are many more successful dyslexics who have not been recognised.
If there is one thing you could change about this complex problem, what would it be?
The education of dyslexic children demands the best trained and certified professionals usually requiring a master’s degree in special education. Such professionals are required to take additional courses as well so that they are aware of the latest research in the field. Although teacher’s aides may provide a helpful service in a classroom, most do not possess the skills necessary to remediate the many and specific weaknesses that the dyslexic child brings to class. Teaching dyslexic children to read and write is a complex process with slow progress.