For a lot of children, back-to-school is a time for excitement, learning new things and experiencing what it means to succeed. Getting an “A” on a test, a pat on the back from a teacher for a job well done and seeing the pride in their parents’ eyes not only boosts children’s self-confidence but also the feeling within themselves that they are smart and capable people.
However, this is not the case for every young student – in fact, quite the opposite is true for children with learning differences like dyslexia. School becomes a nightmare for them and their families who struggle right alongside their son or daughter to the point of desperation and despair. Being placed in special education classes can often make matters worse if the child continues to struggle, as there is often nowhere else left to go.
This was the brick wall that local mom Enid Duncan faced with her son Anthony when he was a typical grade school kid trying to keep up with his peers in education. He languished in special education classes and efforts failed to find out why Anthony could read only at a kindergarten level when he was 10 years old. He was given assessment tests, was seen by specialists and was even told he needed medications but no answers were found, and Anthony’s behavior was getting worse due to the frustration and dead-ends. He thought of himself as “stupid,” and this greatly upset his mom and his dad, Ed Duncan, who himself is dyslexic.
“They told me your son is retarded and he’s not going to learn,’” Enid said, adding that Anthony was also labeled with “learning disabled” and “intellectually deficient,” among other terms assigned to him by those from whom Duncan sought help. “That was given to my son. I never saw him as a disabled person. I saw him as a person with many gifts and talents but when it came to the correlation between letters and words he wasn’t able to capture them.”
Finding no solutions in public and private school, and two years at a Seattle school for dyslexia, the Duncan family felt they were at the end of their rope. It wasn’t until Anthony was 11 years old that Enid learned of Dr. Donald Lyman and the great success he was having with severely dyslexic children through his innovative program at the Alliance Academy of Central Florida. Dyslexic himself, Lyman dropped out of school at a young age. He taught himself how to read and write using a series of “tricks” he developed himself. These “tricks” enabled him to enroll in Catholic University where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1957. He then earned his doctorate in education at Columbia University.
Within six months of attending Lyman’s academy, Anthony excelled from reading at a 1st-grade level to a 6th-grade level. His scores went up in all subjects and he passed the WASL as well.
It turned out that physical body movement like waving the shapes of letters in the air or walking the letter shapes on the floor, coupled with verbal activities, proved to be a most effective method in helping Anthony and other students to learn their letters and to read. This is at the basis of Lyman’s teachings and practices and it has helped countless children over the years.
But how does movement help? In her Master’s thesis titled “Ending Struggles with Learning Differences” Duncan explains how the brain can be re-trained to change the lives of children with dyslexia: “People’s brain changes during their life spans, enriching and creating new neural networks; that process is called brain plasticity. Recently, scientists discovered that the hippocampus can in fact grow new neurons. The neurons make more interconnections for a more profound thinking ability. In essence, we can ‘design our own brain.’ The brain is plastic and responsive to input. …Movement, coupled with verbal activities, is an excellent way to accelerate the skills of reading and spelling. …Teaching using movement creates an emotionally positive outcome by making use of the brain’s plasticity in creating more neural connections and more neurons in the hippocampus.”
Duncan, who holds a Masters in Education, devoted much time to studying in-depth with Lyman such that, before his passing in 2007, he permanently certified her to teach his program.
“It’s not a disability. I believe, and my research shows, that the brain has decided to do something crazy and different and fun, or whatever you want to call it – it’s just different.”
She has many letters from grateful parents who were desperate to find help for their children.
A key success story is Ashley, a student in Florida who was 12 years old but reading at a kindergarten level. Under Duncan’s tutelage for one year, Ashley moved up to reading and writing at a 6th-grade level. “You know how she learned to write this way? Dancing,” Duncan asserted.
Parent Michelle Moore wrote of her two children Jessica and Cameron. “We had to rescue Jessica in the third grade and prove to her that she was not dumb and she could learn. Over the years she had become a very shy girl with no confidence, and since being helped with your program she has blossomed into a confident young lady. Yes, 5th-grade Jessica is a far cry from the kindergartener who insisted with crying, screaming tantrums that tracing letters was too hard. She now loves to both read and write.” Of Cameron she wrote: “Enid, he is performing at the top of his class for reading! He even tests at the top. He earned all threes (demonstrating proficiency of the standard at this time) in his second trimester report card. After finding success with you he behaves well in kindergarten and earns threes in effort too.”
For student Jesus Salgado, he went from a 2nd-grade to a 6th-grade reading level in less than 10 months, earning him an “Academic Excellence Award” from his school.
A teacher, Mrs. Mello, of Holy Family Catholic School, who has been teaching for 21 years, wrote to Ducan, “What a wonderful way to teach through movement! Children need to move! This program is remarkable for teaching letters, sounds and proper formulation of letters. Wow, you should see my 4-year-olds! They are reading sentences off the board and they love it!”
Frances Hagan, field supervisor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s College of Education, wrote: “ …Lyman’s techniques work. We have used them for two years from 1st-grade through adults and there is not a single person that this program has not helped.”
These are just some of the testimonials Duncan has received, including this from State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn: “I have personally talked to a few of Enid’s students who had major difficulty reading. They were diagnosed with dyslexia and through hard work and Enid’s teaching they were all able to make multiple grade-level improvement over several months.”
To help get Lyman’s teaching methods utilized by more educators and school districts, Duncan offers instructional classes for teachers. Last month she partnered with Florida teacher Jackie Miteff, whose son benefited greatly from applying Lyman’s methods. He was not dyslexic, but had other issues with attention and writing.
“They tried to label him as Asperger’s (Syndrome) because it looked like he wasn’t interacting with anything,” Miteff said. After seeing how Lyman’s program was changing the lives of pre-schoolers, Miteff asked him to train her for working with older students because she wanted to help her son. Then she held an after-school program with 12 older youth. Miteff said that after working with these students, her son’s physical and occupational therapist asked her what she was doing differently because he was “finally getting things,” Miteff said. “Things were starting to click with this kid, and suddenly his favorite thing was expressing himself through writing and he won awards for his writing. He went into middle school with no difficulties.”
In Washington State, the number of students in Special Education stands at approximately 130,000. Duncan said she is determined to change this one student at a time, and she has met with legislators, school districts and individual teachers to help instill Lyman’s teachings in schools.
Miteff advocates for the program as well. “I’ve met a lot of public school teachers with dyslexic kids and they don’t know what to do with them,” she said.
“A lot of the kids get stuck in a system that’s not really helping them because of the decisions of the professionals,” Duncan said. “And I’m not blaming anybody. It’s going to take people with an open mind to accept the research and Dr. Lyman’s work continues to be researched. I believe in goodness and I believe that together we can get there.”