I have a student, let’s call him Frank, with dyslexia. It’s bad. It is, in fact, it is the worst case I’ve seen in nine years of teaching by a factor of two or three. Last year, I helped him get ready for the New York State Living Environment Regents. This year, I am helping him prepare for the New York State English Regents.
Before going further, let me state clearly and unambiguously that I am not qualified to teach a dyslexic student to read and write, nor do I have any meaningful formal education in special education techniques. Fortunately, Frank goes to a school that focuses on special education for teenagers with normal intelligence but severe learning disabilities. In many ways, this school has served him very well. Unfortunately, there are still big gaps in his skill set that don’t have to be there.
Frank is 17 years old, but he doesn’t understand how to put together an essay, a letter, or a story. More fundamentally, he doesn’t know how to put together an argument that flows logically, is reasonable, and is persuasive. His dyslexia has played an important role in this deficiency because we traditionally teach these skills through writing. Writing skills can only develop with practice and because the physical act of writing is terribly labored for him, he has gotten very little practice in his life. On the other hand, physically writing down words is not the only way to learn to put together a logical argument or story.
When I work with him one-on-one, I have the luxury of being able to take dictation for him as he “writes”. We’ve been doing this twice a week for two months and I have seen a significant improvement in his essays. This makes me feel confident that a big part (maybe all?) of his difficulty forming extended arguments is due to his inexperience, as opposed to some havoc his dyslexia has wreaked on his brain.
Obviously, having one teacher not only coach a student, but also take dictation, is a time and money intensive endeavor. No matter what the benefits (and I think they are significant) this path will not be open to everyone, even in specialized schools or programs. However, as I have worked with Frank, it has become apparent that many of the skills that he lacks could be taught through oral activities. Indeed, it was once common for schools to teach rhetoric and debating. Those are exactly the sorts of activities that would allow Frank and people like him to develop the ability to create well-reasoned and insightful arguments without interference from their disabilities.
I find it especially frustrating that the skills needed to make a cogent oral argument are not being taught because it is relatively easy to envision the day when the physical act of writing is no longer the only way to get words down. Right now, voice recognition software is still not entirely practical, but technology advances quickly, and it seems reasonable to be optimistic on this front. Even if voice recognition technology does not advance, these skills are very valuable for anyone entering an information economy. I hope to see the day when humanities curriculums are revised to include these skills.