Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Week 11: What Do You See?

Billy keeps a journal of the cool and exciting things we learn each week. Today, I asked him to write down the following insight: Multiplication is an easy way to add the same number over and over again. It is an addition shortcut.
“How do you spell muh-ti-pi-kay-shun?” he asks.
“Muhl-tih-plih-kay-shun,” I enunciate slowly. “Sound it out.”
A few weeks ago, had I asked him to “sound it out”, this is what he would have done: write down the first two or three letters correctly, stare blankly at his paper, start chewing on his pencil, and then begin throwing out one random letter after another rapid-fire hoping I get so frustrated that I just spell the word out for him—and I usually do.

A few weeks ago, after many failed attempts at getting Billy to “sound it out”, I began to fear he might be dyslexic. According to Wikipedia, signs of dyslexia include difficulty counting syllables in words, called phonological awareness; and difficulty segmenting words into individual sounds, called phonemic awareness. His inability to spell polysyllabic words seemed consistent with these symptoms, but then again—it could have just been that I was a bad teacher.

So a few weeks ago, I started to pay attention, to open my eyes to the shapes and sounds of the words I saw around me. New clarity began bubbling to the surface from the depths of my unconscious mind. I began to see all handwritten, printed and pixilated words as simple sequences of easy-to-spell three- four- and five-letter sounds; for the first time in a long time, I was seeing syllables again! I had been given this tool in early childhood to help commit the spelling of new and formidable words to memory. But as the words grew more familiar, the tool lost its ubiquity, until finally it was forgotten—discarded like a pair of old training wheels.

I realized that Billy wasn’t having difficulty segmenting words into syllables because he was dyslexic; he was having difficulty segmenting words into syllables because he had no concept of syllable to begin with! He had not been taught to “see syllables” as I had; as such, he experienced an unfamiliar polysyllabic word as a single, ominous and impossibly complex “sound” that defied all attempts at decomposition. He would try to “sound it out” in its entirety, and fail, not because he was stupid, but because he couldn’t “see”.

It was truly a humbling experience to realize that my frustration at Billy’s inability to spell was rooted in my own ignorance of his situation. Not everybody can “see” syllables; it is not a trait inherent to our biology, but a skill to be mastered. I presumed that Billy could see, when in fact he was blind, and then got angry when he kept walking into walls.

A few weeks ago, I opened my eyes. And now Billy can see. 


  1. dione was pretty sure that i was dyslexic when i was young. i still can't pronounce some drugs correctly, but leo is worse. you should get billy a talking dictionary!

  2. ah, i love you

  3. as I love all my fellow man, figuratively speaking, of course.