Joplin Area Catholic School teachers experience dyslexia simulation

Apr. 26—Drawing a simple star shape or a few letters was made much tougher for Joplin Area Catholic Schools teachers with the introduction of a mirror.

A recent simulation at McAuley Catholic High School aimed to establish empathy and patience among teachers working with dyslexic students.

"We become teachers because we want to help," said Itzia Aparicio-Rodriguez, a certified academic language therapist who led the training. "Sometimes we just don't know, and sometimes we may think they're not trying hard enough, when students just have a learning difference. What I love about doing the dyslexia simulations is that we're giving teachers the tools to understand. I truly believe if we know better, we do better.

One in five students is dyslexic, and experts believe 20% of the population has some form of dyslexia. Aparicio-Rodriguez said it's a pressing health issue today.

Aparicio-Rodriguez has hundreds of hours in reading training and works with children who have severe learning differences. She also leads training to help teachers understand the science of reading. Dyslexia simulations are the starting point to learning how to teach reading more effectively.

The recent session included Joplin Area Catholic School teachers, pre-K through grade 12, as well as several literacy coaches from the Joplin School District. There will be a total of six coaching days, teaching the strategies to help students and complementing their Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling training.

"We know that we do have some students that have dyslexia, and we need to do everything we can to be able to give strategies to teachers so they can better help these kids and alleviate some of that frustration," said Stephen Gilbreth, principal of St. Peter's Middle School and McAuley Catholic High School.

A JACS parent is helping fund the training. Gilbreth describes them as someone with a passion for the issue who wants teachers to get the best strategies to help.

The first thing teachers experienced was the dyslexia simulation. They were tasked with tracing a shape or letters by only looking through a small mirror. The mirror switched directions around, making precise tracing next to impossible. Left became right, and up became down.

"It is eye opening to see how the simulation works," Gilbreth said. "The simulation gives teachers a hands-on idea about how kids struggle with this. They'll know first hand what those frustrations bring about."

The dyslexia simulation makes the coding of the brain more difficult, Aparicio-Rodriguez said. Coding is how the brain identifies letters, knows what sounds they make and how to read them.

"That's something simple for people who don't have dyslexia or a learning difference," Aparicio-Rodriguez said. "We made them feel like that was impossible to do, which is how some of our dyslexic people feel or some kids that have learning differences feel."

Students with dyslexia can spend ten times longer trying to read a word, Aparicio-Rodriguez said. The dyslexia simulation acquaints teachers with the feeling of how these students spend so much time decoding the word, presenting frustration and taxing their brain.

"I hope this helps them feel a little bit of empathy and understanding of how our kiddos with learning differences feel," Aparicio-Rodriguez said. "We also talk about how they now understand what their everyday life is, how can we create accommodations, how can we help them, how can we look for dyslexia signs so we can provide reading services for them."

One of the misconceptions about dyslexia Aparicio-Rodriguez discusses is that people with the learning difference are not intelligent; dyslexia has nothing to do with a person's IQ.

It is a language-based disorder, neurological in origin, she continued, and the brain has a hard time processing the sounds that go with symbols, making either blending sounds together or separating the sounds harder.

"Think about it, if you have a hard time grasping sounds you will have such difficulty matching those sounds to the symbols," Aparicio-Rodriguez said. "If it's hard for you to read words, it might take an hour to read a five minute passage. There goes your comprehension. It impacts a lot of components."

After helping teachers understand dyslexia, Aparicio-Rodriguez engages teachers with structured literacy training that follows the science of reading. This teaches the five components of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.

She said teachers have to understand and teach all five components to have effective readers. This kind of learning benefits all students, not just those with dyslexia.

Gilbreth said he's seen increasing awareness about dyslexia in his long education career. He said he knows that there's been a lot of kids who have struggled with this and probably struggled in silence. Now, the awareness of it is much more at the forefront.

"Years ago, teachers didn't know what this was," Gilbreth said. "It was also one of the things where we had to go fix the problem, but there wasn't a lot of guidance on how to do that. That's why for me, this is a great thing to bring to teachers. I think this will make Joplin Area Catholic Schools so much more powerful in our teaching and our connections with kids."