Saturday, July 28, 2012


The Bookstore Was A Closed Book To Me

The Bookstore Was A Closed Book To Me
James R. Nuttall, Ph.D.

University Book Store -- a closed book to me.

The books looked like gemstones with their red, green, black, and blue covers. They lay in orderly stacks on the white metal shelves under bright fluorescent lights at the University of Chicago Bookstore. Few took noticed of me that day, a pale thin young man with thick glasses and black hair. Everyone's attention was focused outside on the sunny spring day and the lines of graduates in their plumb reddish robes. Proud parents and excited college students waiting for the ceremony that marked the completion of an education at one of America's most prestigious universities. In the graduation line stood a large number of young adults with robes having three-stripes-on-the-arms signifying their Ph.D.s, Doctors of Philosophy, of Science, of Knowledge. At my own university I had watched mid-winter graduation ceremonies. The president of the university wanted us to see students graduating and to see the faculty with their striped robes parade down the chapel aisle. The doctoral robes from Europe were especially bright, dazzling, and colorful. Watching the professors process down the long aisle, I felt transported into some distance past where regal kings and queens of Europe pass by in colorful royal robes.

Knowledge everywhere but out of my reach.

I didn't spend my time looking at the line of graduating students. Instead I moved in a trance state up and down the aisles of the bookstore; picking up one book and then another. My hands and my heart molded themselves around each book, feeling its size, its weight, its thickness and sensing its importance. Each book a treasure. In an awe filled voice, I slowly sounded out the titles: College Grammar, Calculus, Human Anatomy and Physiology, The History of the Middle Ages, Anthology of English Literature, Fluid Mechanics, Business Law... on and on and on. The titles both excited and overwhelmed me numbing my mind. Books, knowledge, all were closed to me, placed outside of my ability to read and absorb them.

The Reading Clinic.

The time came to go back across the tree lined campus to the University Reading Clinic for the rest of my evaluation. There was an I.Q. test. Whenever you have an educational evaluation, there are always I.Q. tests. Then I also sat in front of a large machine with words projected on a screen. I read each line as the machine photographed my eye movements. I became aware of how frightfully often my eyes went backwards looking at the same words over and over again instead of moving fluidly forwards. With all my might I tried to make my wondering eyes to go forward. But neither my eyes or my brain would obey my will. A great sense of relief came when over me when the test ended.

Then the examiner and I sat at a small table. In front of me, he placed tiles with symbols on them: a star, a square, a circle, a triangle. He starting only with two or three in a line. Mixing them up, he asked me to place them back in the correct order. Then he lined up four... There were pictures to place in sequence and block designs to make sense out of. This part of the test seemed fun and unrelated to my reading problems. As we finished I asked, "What's this test called." "The Illinois Psycholinguistics Test," he replied. "We can tell how you process information with this test.".

Struggling to read the words.

Inevitably there were paragraphs of words to read aloud. Aware that I stumbled and stopped at each word, I prayed for smoothness to come to my speech. As a young man of twenty, I filled with anxiety. I struggled to sound out the simplest of words. The examiner recorded my voice on an old disc recording machine as I read, "The man tr a v ve l ed, traveled a great a great dis dis tan ce to see the won to see the won der fu wonderful cas castle by the D D Dan (Danube) River. (Deep breath) The man had plannnned this trip to Gerrrmany for many years. (Deep breath) He had saved his re re his re re his retiremmment money." Soon tears of frustration, embarrassment and longing flowed down my cheeks. The examiner stopped the recording machine and put his hand on my shoulder. "That's O.K., we can stop for now. I think I've got enough material to do my evaluation report." "How soon will the report be done." I asked. "Several weeks from now. I will mail you a copy at your home," With that we parted and I took the long train ride back to Indiana to my university dorm room.

The report arrives.

The clinical report was to difficult for me to understand. So, I asked my mother to read the report, saying, "I want to go to this clinic and get help with my reading. I can't get through college without being able to read faster." She and my father spend the next day with the report. Then, they called me in for a conference. They read sections of the report to me, especially emphasizing the part of the letter and report which stated that the clinic could do nothing for me. I had something called dyslexia. The report concluded, "Since you seem to learn and pass you classes using readers, we strongly support your continued use of readers in pursuing your education."

Devastated I took the report and went to my room. Sitting on my bed with tears welling up in my eyes, I struggled for hours through every line of the report, hoping to find the answer for a cure to my reading problems. Couldn't anybody fix me? Couldn't someone, some where teach me to read better -- to read faster? These questions with no answers swirled in my head. I felt dizzy and heart sick.

I just want to be like the other students, to read as they did. If I could read well, surely I could pass my classes. Reading faster was the key to becoming an programmer since I wanted to work with computers. Reading could to allow me to pass classes to become a biology teacher since I loved biology. But all of these things were out of my reach. I could not read the required books. For me the most memorable paragraph of the report was on my "Reading Achievement." After two years at the university, my reading test indicated that I only read at the third grade level. The third grade level and the words "we can do nothing for you" created a deep pain that shocked me from head to toe.

Learning to use readers, using both EYES and EARS!

I returned to the university in the fall armed with a new tape recorder. I recorded my readers and listened to the books over and over again. I had to read every chapter of my assignments twice to be ready for classes and tests. My readers read to me my books, my class notes, my underlinings; and supplementary materials. My grades moved from C's to B's. I could only take a little over half the credit load others took. After the end of that year, I returned home still very shaky as a student.

My parents decided that I should live at home and go the University of Denver. At the University of Denver, I attended year round, all four quarters. There was much work to make up and complete. I developed my formula for getting A's. All chapters, papers, and books had to be read at least four times. On the first reading, I would follow along as my reader tape recorded the book giving me an introduction to the material. Upon a second reading of the book now on tape, I would make a check next to important points. The third time through, the rereading cemented the information in my memory and really allowed me to digest what the author was writing about. Then fourth time in reading gave me the security of knowing that I owned the ideas and concepts expressed in the books. Answers and essays flowed more easily from my pen as I completed examinations.

Learning to cope with a disability.

If you or your learning disabled child are told to "simply try harder" or to "study harder", this will not solve the problem of the lack of reading. Over coming the barriers and coping with a learning disability are very challenging. It is correct to tell someone with a learning disability that learning can be hard work. Real learning is not easy. Additionally, a young child or adult with a learning disability will need to have others give them a lot of help in learning. Don't be afraid to accept help. Accepting help will make a big difference in succeeding in learning.

When I entered college reading at the third grade level, I wasn't simply under prepared or lazy. I was illiterate. My journey has been a tumultuous struggle from illiteracy to literacy.

I could not read the college texts: I couldn't write in complete sentences. 30% of the words I wrote were misspelled. Although my parents did not understand all of the facts about a learning disability, they knew I needed to cope. So, they provided readers for me through out my undergraduate days and even through my many years of graduate school. Using readers did not open up all the wondrous books that I held that day at the University of Chicago. But my many, many faithful readers opened up the books that I needed to complete my first college degree, then a masters degree and finally a three-stripes-on-the-arms Doctor of Philosophy degree in Psychology. A learning disability sets up real barriers to learning. Being read to and listening to books on tape opened up a vast world of knowledge for me.

Reading to your child, whether they have a learning disability or not can open up the world of knowledge to them. At, 65, I still love being read to and I am still learning. In fact most of my friends say, my most notable characteristic is my desire and willingness to learn new skills and knowledge.

Every child wants to learn.

When you cannot read. It is heart wrenching! There are alternatives for your learning disabled child. I recommend reading to your child and use digital books or books on tape. Many people will still tell you about your child, "He or she simply needs to try harder, to pay attention, or to stop being lazy, or to do it on his own without help." Do not believe them. I repeat, "Don't believe them!"

I have found that every child wants to learn and wants to be successful at learning. Open wide the book covers, read aloud, listen to books, and begin the learning process. As you and your child read books aloud over and over, again and again, this will not only increase knowledge your child has, but in the long run you will also improve his or her reading. I have spent thousands of hours listening and actively following the words as others have read to me. The many hours of listening, learning, and "reading-along" now allow me to write this article. Even more wonderful, I can also read this article fluently and meaningfully to others.

Hi Jim,
I read your posts on QIAT and you've been helpful when I've had a question. Thanks for your blog. Reading about your struggle with dyslexia as a student was very enlightening. I am an Orton Gillingham reading tutor and I wor with dyslexic students. I also have a Masters in Tech in Ed and integrate technology with my students (Dragon, Kurzweil and anything free i Can find. It's all about access. I try and get all my students prepared to meet the demands for college. Thanks so much for your story and your insight.
Thanks much
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