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Columbia Missourian

Learning specialist helps dyslexia patients through art

By Marian McPherson
November 13, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST
Cathy Cook works on making clay letters while her grandson Jeremiah Hartz, 5, draws in her office Thursday. Cook started her business, OnPoint Learning Center, in 2005 to help children and adults with dyslexia. She uses the "Davis Method," which utilizes a dyslexic person's visual thinking skills and hands-on methods to learn the alphabet and to read.

COLUMBIA — On any afternoon, you can find Cathy Cook standing in the middle of the hallway, playing catch, standing on one foot or fiddling with a ball of clay.

Cook isn't trying to find her inner child; she's doing a focusing exercise with Jeremiah, her 5-year-old grandson who is coping with dyslexia.

Information about dyslexia

Dyslexia is a well-known disability, but many don't know the details. Mary Brotherton of Churchill Center and School for Learning Disabilities in St. Louis shares her knowledge.

Q. How many people have dyslexia?

A. One in five, and dyslexia counts for 80 percent of all learning disabilities.

Q. Why is it so prevalent?

A. It's hard to say. Dyslexia is hereditary, which means it can be passed down to children. That could be a reason.

Q. When was dyslexia recognized as a learning disability?

A. The term appeared in 1887, and it was thought to be an eye problem. Doctors thought dyslexics saw words backward, and that's why they had difficulties reading. It turned out that dyslexics see the same way nondyslexics do.

Q. When did that perception change?

A. About 20 years ago, Sally Shaywitz, a well-known dyslexia therapist from Yale, discovered that dyslexia is a neurobiological condition after a functional MRI study.

Q. What's a functional MRI?

A. A patient is placed in an MRI with a screen that flashes two words. The words can be real or nonsensical. The patients have a box with a yes/no function. After the pair of words flash, they must identify whether the words rhyme. They realized that dyslexics' brains "fire" differently than normal readers. The connection isn't as automatic.

Q. How did that discovery change treatment options?

A. We realized that expert teaching is the only solution. Using colored lenses or paper doesn't work. Intensive remedial practice is the best way to combat dyslexia. Teaching techniques include spiraling back, sequential and systematic practicing and multisensory activities.

Q. What are some specific treatment program options?

A. There's the Gillingham-Orton program, the Wilson Language Training System and some other options. All of them focus on multisensory learning.

Q. What are schools doing to help students?

A. Public schools have something called "response to intervention," which means teachers must try every option available to help students improve before they having them tested, diagnosed and treated. It's great for students who would have been misdiagnosed, but it's bad for students who actually have dyslexia.

Q. Why?

A. The earlier you diagnose someone, the better it is. The process can take up to two years, which is lost time.


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After the focusing exercise, Cook takes Jeremiah into the office, pulls out a gray ball of modeling clay and gives him a sizable chunk to play with. During the session, he grabs bits of the clay and rolls it in his tiny hands until he's made every planet.

Afterward, he goes down the row, from Mercury to Neptune, and then he explains why Pluto is still a planet.

Jeremiah, who can make a model of the solar system — moons included — doesn't know the difference between the letters U and V.

He and other dyslexic children motivated Cook to open a center on Buttonwood Drive where she uses art to help them get focused, gain confidence and view dyslexia as a gift, not a disability.

Cook's OnPoint Learning is based on the Davis method of dyslexia connection, developed by Ron Davis in 1982.

Davis then wrote "The Gift of Dyslexia" in 1994 to teach instructors to use art, not phonics, to help students become skilled readers and speakers.

Dyslexics try to solve problems by looking at the whole, rather than working step-by-step, Davis noted. They think in pictures rather than words, which fosters creativity and imagination.

Dyslexia is more than switching letters

According to The International Dyslexia Association, dyslexia is "a cluster of symptoms, which result in people having difficulties with specific language skills, particularly reading."

Students with dyslexia usually experience difficulties with other language skills such as spelling, writing and pronouncing words.

Cook said this is the most common understanding of dyslexia, but it's much deeper.

"People think dyslexia is just about switching your letters," she said. "It's an emotional response to the world. It affects your focus, vision, hearing and motor skills."

Cook explains that difficulty with these skills is the result of mental and emotional sensory overloads.

“Dyslexics can process 32 images per second, while non-dyslexics process four to five images, on average,” she said. “They’re always storing images or symbols that can easily get mixed up, if they saw them while they were unfocused. These mental glitches are called triggers.”

In Jeremiah’s case, his triggers for this exercise are the letters U, V and J.

“U and V are triggers for Jeremiah because they look so much alike,” Cook said. “When he sees either letter, he has to pull an image from a series of mental pictures. Sometimes he pulls the wrong one. I’m teaching him how to create a new picture.”

A gift, not a disability

While dyslexia makes skills necessary for everyday living, such as reading, difficult, Cook sees a bright side to the disability.

"Although they easily lose focus, they are very creative," she said.

According to a recent New York Times article, new research suggests that there are "advantages" because of the highly visual nature of dyslexics. These advantages prompt them to excel in the arts, design and science.

Dyslexics who have excelled include: Danny Glover, Jay Leno, Keanu Reeves, John Lennon, Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein.

Mary Brotherton, an instructor at Churchill Center and School for Learning Disabilities in St. Louis, agrees that dyslexic children often have a creative edge.

"We see that with our students at Churchill," Brotherton said. "We increased our extracurricular activities to include art and drama programs after reading new research. We want them to know their strengths."

Cook believes the visual nature of dyslexics is a perfect match with the emphasis on multisensory learning in the Davis method.

Davis himself battled severe dyslexia for 38 years. After failed attempts to learn reading through phonics, he developed his technique to fit the creative nature of many dyslexics.

The basis of his method is a series of exercises involving 3D clay sculpting of letters, numbers and other objects to help students build an image of what a word looks like, sounds like and means.

Working through the alphabet

At each session, Cook pulls out an alphabet strip and and two sets of clay letters — one she made and another assembled by the student.

She carefully places her letters at the top of the strip while the student puts his at the bottom. Together, they go from A to Z, touching each letter as they say it out loud. Once they get to Z, they start again, going backward.

"This exercise helps them create a new picture," she said. "The goal is to get them to say the alphabet without looking at it. They can look at the picture in their head."

Jeremiah is almost there, but he still gets mixed up at V, U, I, J and L.

"Jeremiah's very smart," she said. "It's just his way of doing intelligence can be different at times."

Throughout the session, Cook emphasizes the importance of confidence, telling the boy that he is smart, despite what some may think.

"There's a common misconception that people with dyslexia are dumb," she said. "Instead of blaming the kids, we need to learn how to teach in a different way."

Before opening OnPoint Learning, Cook worked with Columbia Public Schools as a learning specialist for six years.

She collaborated with school psychologists, speech therapists and special education teachers to ensure they followed Individual Education Program guidelines. The guidelines require schools to provide "free and appropriate public education" for children with health and learning differences.

Cook discovered that was often easier said than done.

"I remember going into the school psychologist's office and seeing two IQ reports for students on the desk," she said. "The children were in third grade, but they read at kindergarten level."

How new techniques made a big difference

Cook knew a transformation had to take place.

"I went home that night bothered," she said. "I thought, 'It's my fault that I'm not teaching them in a way they can understand. I had to change.'"

That night, Cook re-read "The Gift of Dyslexia," and decided to complete the year-long Davis method licensing program. Over the next year, she used the techniques in her special education classroom and with IEP students in other grade levels.

One of those students was Isaac Bentley, a fifth-grader who was reading at second-grade level. Issac's mother, Karen Bentley, knew her son needed help.

"One day he could read a sentence, and the next day he couldn't read a word," Karen Bentley said. "I found an article on Cathy and the Davis method and realized my son had many common dyslexic traits."

Karen Bentley took Isaac to Cook, and she began teaching him using the Davis method. They spent more than 30 hours doing focusing, alphabet and confidence exercises to help the boy improve his reading and speaking skills.

"The biggest turn around happened the first day," Karen Bentley said. "Until then, my son thought he was stupid, and Cathy taught him that he just learned differently, and she also told him about famous dyslexics, such as Albert Einstein, which helped him to gain confidence."

After six months, Isaac was reading at grade level and began speaking up in class about his dyslexia. Isaac, now 16, continues to share his story and excel despite his disability.

"It still takes longer for him to do things," his mother said. "But he recently became an Eagle Scout, which requires a lot of reading. I hope someone can be inspired by his story."