La Jolla Elementary School hosts dyslexia expert


Literacy coach Katherine Casey Spengler spoke to La Jolla Elementary School parents and a handful of dyslexic adults Dec. 14 in the school library about the complex brain mechanics associated with dyslexia, and ways they can help facilitate their child’s learning.

Katherine Casey Spengler
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Spengler told the audience that she moved to San Diego in 2000 after nearly a decade as a New York public school teacher and has been a literacy consultant all over the country. But her foray into dyslexia didn’t start until her daughter was in first grade and wasn’t making enough progress in reading.

“I raised the issue and people said ‘she’s lovely.’ I told them, ‘I know she’s lovely, but she’s not reading,’ and they told me to give it time. By the end of second grade, I knew something was off. Here I was, a literacy expert who couldn’t teach my child to read,” she said.

Soon after, her daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia and Spengler set out to learn everything she could about the learning disorder (all the way up to her current work that includes getting a Ph.D.).

In the course of her studies, Spengler said she learned that “reading is the process of visually bringing information in … which enters through the eyes to the occipital part of your brain and then it travels a long way. There are a lot of places that could go wrong.”

But it’s not a vision issue; dyslexia is a language-based learning disability, according to the International Dyslexia Association. Its website explains: “Dyslexia refers to a cluster of symptoms, which result in people having difficulties with specific language skills, particularly reading. Students with dyslexia often experience difficulties with both oral and written other language skills, such as writing, and pronouncing words and writing.”

In a dyslexic brain, Spengler added, once the eyes send the information that is letters as they come together to form words, they don’t land in the brain in the same order as they came in.

“It’s not how you see the words, it’s what happens once it is in your brain. It either doesn’t land in the order the letters should be … or for some children, it’s remembering that PH has an ‘F’ sound whereas a P has a ‘Puh’ or ‘Pee’ sound. It’s the ability to map the visual and the sounds together. They don’t map automatically,” she said.

To help the brain, sometimes children with dyslexia need to use their hands, mouths, ears and memorization involved.

“Typically, our occipital lobe can piece things together and recognize those as words then we map it to sounds then we build meaning, if that part doesn’t work well, the brain compensates. The part that compensates … uses the hands, the mouth, the eyes and the ears all together to fire those neural pathways and build a brain that compensates for areas that are not as strong,” Spengler said.

To fire all these parts of the brain, she suggested different exercises.

* To encourage usage of the hand to create letters, Spengler recommended tracing books, and showed a video during her presentation of a young girl tracing the upper case and lower case letters of the alphabet with her finger. “D, D, Dog,” the little girl in the video practiced.

“In 1943, doctors theorized that what we trace, we remember. How many of you were memorizers in school where you wrote words over and over? That’s because the physical act of writing that kept a memory trace,” Spengler said.

* She also said using magnetic letters on a board can create that tactile experience. “Have them manipulate the letters, put out in different orders. Visually, the student is looking at the letters and hearing the sounds of the letters, and either using their hands to touch or build the words.”

* To get the eyes and the ears to work together, she said read aloud to children — even until they are in fifth grade and beyond and use closed-captioning on certain programs.

“Common Core state standards find that listening comprehension is stronger than reading comprehension in elementary-aged students. That means what you can listen to surpasses what you can read until about age 13,” she said. “Kids are developing as readers, but they can still listen to complicated ideas and bring it in other ways.”

For digital reading or audiobooks, Spengler said having closed captioning or a yellow bar that highlights words as they are read so children can read and listen at the same time and bridge that connection.

* Lastly, for words that do not follow the rules of phonics (those can be “sounded out”), she said memorizing can be a resource.

“ ‘Said’ is not pronounced “sah-id,” right? So some have to be memorized,” she said. Similar to how the alphabet has a sing-song style and requires memorization, she advocated for working with children on things like “said, s-a-i-d, said.”

She said those worried about their child’s progress should keep samples of their work and bring it to the child’s teacher. “Tell the teacher what you’re worried about, what you’re seeing, and ask them if it is normal or not?” she advised.

She also recommended visiting — a resource website for parents with information based on the child’s challenges and age. To receive a copy of her presentation, e-mail