Tucked into a tiny room, David Klein works with the concentration of a cryptologist.
David, 11, is indeed deciphering a mysterious code — the English language.
On a Thursday evening, he’s having a lesson at the Children’s Dyslexia Center, a private, nonprofit school in Ferguson Township that helps children with dyslexia or related learning disabilities unlock the secrets of reading, spelling and writing.
At a brisk pace during the 45-minute session, David and his tutor, Andrea Mills, review suffixes such as “-ful,” spell words, practice reading and analyze vowel sounds.
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“Good,” Mills says as David copies “sinking” along with other words containing the “nk” combination. “Oh, I like how you did that little ‘g’ on there.”
At one point, the sixth-grader writes a dictated sentence, practicing cursive. Frequently, at Mills’ prompt, he “codes” words: marking long or short vowels, consonants, syllable types and digraphs like “ai.”
“What’s a digraph?” Mills says.
“A digraph is two letters, one sound,” David correctly answers.
David, a bright boy from Boalsburg who loves Civil War history and historical fiction, has plenty of company in his quest to master the blizzard of linguistic rules and exceptions that most native English speakers consider second nature.
Dyslexia, a neurologically based disorder, affects about 20 percent of schoolchildren. People associate it with transposing letters, but that only scratches the surface.
According to the center, dyslexia is a disability that “interferes with the acquisition and processing of language, including phonological processing in reading, writing, spelling, handwriting, and sometimes in arithmetic.”
Dyslexic children often show huge gaps between their natural intelligence and zeal for learning and their reading and writing abilities and test scores — a common warning flag. Frustrated in school, many suffer from teasing and diminished self-confidence.
Marsha Landis, the center’s director, likens the disability to a storage problem.
Dyslexic people, she said, struggle to recognize vowel and consonant sounds, letter combinations and spellings because the information isn’t stored in their brain for easy retrieval as it is for non-dyslexics.
They also may take longer to think of the right vocabulary when speaking, leading to difficulty expressing themselves.
“I tell the kids it’s like if your mom says to clean up the room and you throw everything under the bed,” Landis said.
“Then when it’s time to get something out of there, you reach under it and it’s not the green sock. It’s the red sock because you can’t see under there and you’re just grabbing whatever it is.”
In a sense, the center’s mission since 2007 has amounted to fostering organization, building efficient mental folders and shelves so that children can recognize words faster for smoother reading and writing.
“It’s training their brains and getting (linguistic information) stored in the correct part of their brains,” Landis said.
Located in the Cato Park office complex, the center serves 15 counties, yet Landis said it’s still something of a secret among teachers and families who could benefit from the resource.
It shouldn’t be. Instruction is free, the $5,000 cost to tutor a child for one school year supported by funding from the Scottish Rite Masons of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction and tax-exempt donations.
“Word needs to get out,” Landis said. “It’s kind of ridiculous that nobody knows we’re here and we can do such good things for the kids.”
A formal dyslexia diagnosis isn’t necessary to enroll, but applications must include achievement and cognitive abilities assessments done in the recent past.
Children receive two lessons weekly from paid tutors, typically for two years but sometimes for three. Teachers and substitutes often work as tutors, taking advantage of the fact that the training counts toward the state’s required Act 48 hours for ongoing professional education. But the job is open to anyone with a bachelor’s degree.
To become certified, applicants complete 24 hours of lectures and coursework, and then about 100 teaching hours, with 10 of the last lessons observed and evaluated.
Currently, Landis said, she needs more tutors to carry out the center’s multisensory approach to building reading and writing skills — a standard practice with dyslexia instruction. During lessons, children repeat sounds, words and definitions; trace letters with their fingers and “sky write” words, often all at the same time.
“So they’re feeling it while they’re seeing it and hearing themselves say the sound,” Landis said. “Because they have to hear themselves say it, not hear somebody else say it.”
David started at the center last June. From an early age, he loved hearing stories, asking his parents to read books for older children. He loved reading, too, but began to struggle with more sophisticated material.
“Before, I would skip through books and look at the pictures,” he said.
His mother, Michelle Klein, noticed David could discuss history and other subjects eloquently, but when it came time to write, he chose “short, factual sentences using basic words.”
“Which is in no way how he talks,” Klein said. “That’s how I knew it was such a big difference for him.”
David still finds writing and spelling hard, but they’re not as perplexing as before.
“It’s been getting better,” he said. “They teach me the rules. I feel like I can get my words out on paper better.”
His mother sees the confidence. The instruction, she said, has “unlocked many doors for him.”
“I think it helped him connect to the fact that reading is a way to explore the world and find out things,” Klein said. “Now he enjoys on his own reading longer fiction books. We didn’t have that before.”
Stefania Rhoades, of Spring Mills, also appreciates the boost the center has given her 8-year-old, Luca Hipp, after about 18 months.
“Just in the first year, he grew so much,” Rhoades said. “He uses what he’s learned from the learning center every day in school.”
Like David, Luca enjoyed being read to, but he never wanted to read back.
Not any more.
“He loves to read,” Rhoades said. “We still have a ways to go. You can tell his mind gets exhausted, but I feel we have gotten so far.”
Landis treasures all her success stories — the boy who arrived practically illiterate and now holds an A average in the ninth grade and plans to go to college; the girl once unable to read or spell who’s taking Penn State courses as a high school junior.
She loves every memory of students diving into Harry Potter or Agatha Christie books by the end of their tutoring.
But she reserves a special place in her heart for the annual summer graduation picnic.
Each child receives a gift. Tutors share stories from the year. Everyone cries, parents and teachers alike.
“We all get teary,” Landis said. “It’s like we know (progress) is going to happen, and we’ve seen it over and over, but you still get that really good feeling.”