Dorothy van den Honert isn't a medical doctor, scientist or psychologist. The longtime Pittsfield educator and former city school committee member is a compassionate mother of five, who has dedicated most of her life to trying to help children and their families overcome academic and social challenges.
This year, at 88, van den Honert has published a book, "Wiping Out Dyslexia." It stems from one of her earliest teaching assignments of working with a group of young junior high school-aged boys with the developmental reading disorder.
The opening chapter of the book reads:
"Right now, about the only people who know how many dyslectic kids there are in American schools are statisticians. Teachers don't know. Parents don't know. School boards don't know. But if your bright little Alfie's reading is a disaster that is messing up his life, somebody besides statisticians better find out."
By definition of a publication of the U.S. National Library of Medicine on the National Institutes of Health website, "Developmental reading disorder, also called dyslexia, is a reading disability that occurs when the brain does properly recognize and process certain symbols."
The problems with reading occur because there are problems in the areas of the brain that help interpret language. In studies of people with dyslexia, it has been found that people are of normal, if not above-average intelligence, and that dyslexia often runs in families.
National researchers have estimated that dyslexia affects between 15 to 20 percent of the U.S. population.
Still there is limited in-depth research on the subject and even fewer reported strategies for successfully helping readers overcome symptoms of the disorder.
Anecdotally, van den Honert says students who are diagnosed as dyslexic are often enrolled in special education programs and subjected to reading materials that are below their intelligence levels.
"The thrust of my book and the thrust of my whole life really, is the education gap and how we can diminish it," van den Honert said. "There's always been a gap between scientific knowledge and education. If teachers knew what scientists know, problems like dyslexia would have been wiped out years ago."
She also claims that more attention given to dyslexia can help reduce schools,' and ultimately tax payers,' spending on remedial class work.
The author's approximately 100-page book is more of a layman's guide versus a scientific method approach to addressing dyslexia, based on van de Honert's "musings from my 40 years" of working to wipe out the disorder.
The book contains the author's personal anecdotes from working in the classroom and tutoring, as well as visual examples of students' work.
A graduate of Vassar College's mathematics program, van de Honert also shares scientific research she's found on matters of the brain, particularly an area called the corpus callosum. It is a bundle of nerves responsible for integrating motor, sensory and cognitive activity between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. It is here where some scientists say the reading process is interrupted for people who suffer from dyslexia.
Both youths and adults who can't read because of dyslexia also tend to suffer with social issues, from bullying to behavioral problems to low-self esteem.
"There's still such a stigma. They get teased badly. It's awful. And when a kid is approached by another teacher tasked to work with them they think, great, here's another person's that's going to test them," said van den Honert.
The author suggests a different approach called "enhanced lateralization" which isolates the channels through which the corpus callosum is receiving information and affects how messages are process. The teaching strategy includes small group learning by one educator teaching two kids with dyslexia at a time.
"Dyslectic children need a tutor, anybody who has no preconceived ideas of how to teach reading. They should be nice, fun, bright and strong readers themselves, and also patient," van den Honert said.
Beyond her new book, she has developed a website, dyslexia.org, which presents a program called Reading from Scratch. The website includes ways to diagnose dyslexia, phonics and other reading lessons, scientific research and more.