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Dyslexia Reading Center Helps Kids Overcome Challenges

by on May 07, 2018 3:45 PM

Elayna Howell has only been receiving tutoring from the Dyslexia Reading Center of Central Pennsylvania since September, but after years of struggling she's improved by about two grades worth of reading and caught up to her fifth grade level.

Her mother, Jennifer Howell, said Elayna has always done well in school, but she knew early on that something was wrong when it came to reading. After reading intervention programs through her school only resulted in minimal improvements, Elayna was finally tested last year and determined to have dyslexia, albeit a mild form and right on the borderline.

"Elayna is on that borderline and we just lucked out in being able to get that diagnosis," Howell said. "We’re even more lucky we found the dyslexia center. Our district is blessed to have so many resources, but even then my daughter wasn’t getting the help in the way she needed it. It wasn’t teaching her brain the way it needed to be taught."

Elayna is one of about a dozen students who currently receive help from six trained tutors at the Dyslexia Reading Center, a Pine Grove Mills-based nonprofit organization that relies on community donations to continue offering specialized services to students.

The center is one of the local organizations participating in Centre Gives, the 36-hour online giving event which begins Tuesday. Tutor Joan Portelli said the center operates "on a shoestring," and Centre Gives is important to its fundraising efforts.

"Centre Gives is something we’ve been involved in for the last two years and that is critical for us," Portelli said. "We’ve had other organizations that have provided funding for buying a piece of equipment or something else. But mostly it’s been small donations. We don’t have a big overarching charitable event we’re able to run at this time."

There's more to dyslexia than people often realize, and it manifests differently in each person. It's not just reversing letters, but is a language disability that can affect reading, writing and speech, Portelli said. 

"It’s more than just a reading disability," Portelli said. "It's neurological in origin. The way that I describe it is that children’s brains are just wired differently. They have the same brain structure we all do, but how the brain works in a dyslexic individual is different."

That's why specially-trained tutors are important to helping a person with dyslexia. For some, it may be difficulty reading or spelling. For others it can be writing and the ability to transfer a word and form letters on paper. Some have difficulty retrieving a word they know.

Portelli cites as an example a child who wanted to ask for "milk" but couldn't recall the word and instead described it as "the white stuff you put on cereal in the morning."

"It’s more involved than people think," she said. "It’s really a struggle of getting at a phonological level of language, which is being able to break a word down into it’s individual sounds. Dyslexic children will struggle at that level and that’s what impacts the reading and the spelling."

Each of the tutors at the Dyslexia Reading Center goes through intense training in the Orton-Gillingham Approach, a method that is phonics-based and structured but provides for tutoring tailored to each individual child's needs. Tutors don't just pick up a book and go from lesson one to lesson two, but rather draw on different resources to design an individualized program.

That training is what drew Jennifer Howell to the center once Elayna finally received her diagnosis last year.

Howell began to notice issues as early as when Elayna was in first grade, when the family first moved to the State College area and Elayna started at a charter school. As they read together, she noticed her daughter would need to sound out simple words she should already know. When the word would come up again, she had to do it all over.

"She couldn’t say the word or even do the right sounds with it," Howell said. "It was just weird, and frustrating."

But she was told it was too early to tell and that Elayna was on track with where she needed to be. Her reading comprehension was high and she exhibited no other signs of struggling in school.

Elayna moved to Gray's Woods Elementary for second grade and within the first week her teacher agreed with Howell that there were some red flags. She started with reading intervention through the school district, but because she was doing well otherwise, they did not believe she had dyslexia.

"But she was just seeing all her friends progress and she became more and more unhappy with the idea of reading," Howell said.

The challenges continued and by fourth grade the difference between her reading capabilities and other students was obvious. She went to reading intervention more often during school and while other kids were talking about reading more advanced books, Elayna was still at a first or second grade level of reading.

"So she just stopped reading," Howell said. "Her self-esteem was shattered for a whole school year. She never wanted to pick up a book."

The struggles with reading took an emotional toll on Elayna, Howell said. Where school had once been a source of joy and excitement, it was now a regular battle to get her out the door in the morning.

Last spring she was finally evaluated for dyslexia. The test requires there to be a significant disparity between the individual's IQ and reading ability. Elayna fell just outside the prescribed range, but was diagnosed because her verbal vocabulary and other factors scored so highly.

Howell then contacted the Dyslexia Reading Center because she wanted someone who could tutor Elayna with the Orton-Gillingham Approach. After working with tutor Carol Anderson over the summer, Elayna began regular tutoring in the fall.

"Carol has been a godsend because she was able to pull in a lot of other resources to say 'This doesn’t seem to be working with Elayna. She doesn’t seem to be making sense of this. I’m going to try something different.' She had the ability and flexibility," Howell said.

She's now working with structured word inquiry, which starts with the morphology of a word. Howell explained, for example, that to understand why the word "sign" has a 'g,' Anderson explains how it comes from words like signature and signet. Then they work on the etymology to understand where the word and others like it come from. Finally it's the phonology and understanding the sounds of the word.

"For Elayna and most kids with dyslexia, they are able to see the rules and once they can make sense of the rules, that’s when things start to make sense," Howell said. "Once Carol started working with my daughter on that, she has been just flying through and understanding. It just makes sense to her. It’s taken me a year to wrap my head around it but for my daughter it just made sense."

Howell said the teachers at Gray's Woods have been great working with her daughter and she's grateful for their efforts. She just needed a specialized tutor who could work on more specific approaches with her.

"Not every child who has dyslexia struggles in the same way," Howell said. "It really is important to have services like this where they can gear their work to the individual."

Elayna still at times can be unhappy about reading, but when she goes for tutoring, her face lights up.

"She comes home feeling like she just won a marathon because she was successful," Howell said. "She comes out of her tutoring session feeling like she is good enough and she’s just getting better."

Portelli said it's about understanding a student's strengths, and that many people with dyslexia succeed not only in spite of the disability but because of their different abilities.

"The kids usually have very good strengths when it comes to other aspects of life," she said. "They’re very interesting children in that their strengths defy their weaknesses. They can succeed with the help of their disability. They tend to see things in very different ways."

Families pay $35 per session for the tutoring, which Portelli said is less expensive than many tutoring services and does not cover the costs of the operation.

The Dyslexia Learning Center is located in the basement of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Pine Grove Mills and families travel from as far away as Clinton, Clearfield and Blair counties for the tutoring services.

In December, a pipe burst on the church's first floor, causing water damage to the center's space in the basement. Portelli said the church has been helpful in giving the center rooms on the first floor, but it hasn't been an ideal situation and some tutors have held sessions in their homes and other locations. Repairs and restorations are almost complete, but it's been another challenge for an organization already operating on a tight budget.

The center does not have an age limit -- its youngest student is in first grade and Portelli recently worked with a 20-year-old Penn State sophomore. Dyslexia occurs on a continuum, Portelli said, and the center works with students with mild struggle to those with a profound disability

"Like anything else it’s far better if you can get the children early, and I’m talking first, second, third grade," Portelli said. "The earlier you can start remediation, the better for the child."

Portelli encourages anyone who thinks their children could benefit from the services to contact the center through its website, by phone at 814-237-5090 or email at [email protected].

"One of the things people just need to be cognizant of is that there are a lot more kids out there that need our services," she said, noting that some estimates put the dyslexia population at 20 percent, from mild to severe cases.

Howell said she knows there are more children like Elayna and she wants the community to know how important services like the Dyslexia Reading Center are to helping the adults of tomorrow.

"I really get passionate about this because I see how many kids struggle because they’re not one extreme or another," Howell said. "I wish I had a million dollars I could just give to the dyslexia center and they’d be able to open a center right in the middle of town where everyone could access it. They are such a service to the community, and I don’t know that the community knows they’re here... They just need the resources to keep their doors open."

"We are a small group with a small voice but we have a big mission," Portelli added.

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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