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The Children's Dyslexia Center unlocks the potential of bright students and debunks myths.
Katherine Pegman, Director of the Children's Dyslexia Center of West Michigan

Katherine Pegman, Director of the Children's Dyslexia Center of West Michigan /Kristin Brace

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We’ve all heard people make jokes or uninformed comments about things they don't fully understand. Topics run the gamut from culture to religion to lifestyle and, as Katherine Pegman points out, dyslexia does not escape this kind of attention.

“Even today,” says Pegman, Director of the Children's Dyslexia Center of West Michigan, “there's research there, but everyone's so slow to follow. There's still that stigma attached.”

So what exactly is dyslexia? According to Pegman, there is no simple answer.

“There isn't a checklist of things where you can say, 'Oh yes, this means dyslexia.' There's the classic perception that it means you read backwards. That's not really the case.”

The center, housed at the Masonic Temple building in downtown Grand Rapids, offers one-on-one tutoring to school-aged children. Pegman is a daily witness to the effects which detrimental experiences at school or even at home have on many of her students.

“They feel like they're not as smart as the other kids ... and really, they have average to above average intelligence. They just have their neurons lined up in a different way,” she explains, “and thank goodness, because they're the creative, right-brained people that give us all these different things.”

Pegman suggests The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity as a source of good information. Its creators, Drs. Bennet and Sally Shaywitz, are the authors of Overcoming Dyslexia, which Pegman also recommends.

While the general public might not fully grasp the concept of dyslexia, the need for its support and engagement is real. 

“I have about 40 kids on the waiting list right now,” Pegman says. “We'd like to see our program size increase to serve those kids.”

Tutors are essential to growing the program. The center offers on-site training at no cost, with the only requirement being a bachelor's degree. The training is considered graduate level work and can be used as graduate or continuing education credit.

Many trainees are teachers who can take what they learn back to the classroom. Pegman, who studied Elementary Education in undergrad, went through the training herself and tutored for three years before assuming the role of director.

She recalls sitting in the tutor training thinking, “I just went through an elementary education program. How come I didn't know any of this? I was bound to have these kids in my classroom and I wouldn't have known how to teach them how to read.”

Tutors are trained in the Orton-Gillingham method, named for neuropsychiatrist and pathologist Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham, an educator and psychologist. Orton and Gillingham observed that parents persisted in taking their children to the eye doctor for reading issues that weren't related to poor vision and worked together to devise an effective approach to teaching them literacy skills. Its basic tenets can be used with any learner, but are most helpful for someone struggling with dyslexia.

“It's a multi-sensory approach,” Pegman says, “meaning it takes as many of your senses [as possible] and incorporates them together to enhance learning. For example, we'll have someone looking at a letter, saying the letter sound, and tracing it in the sand so they get that tactile feedback. It helps train their brain to associate those sounds and symbols together.”

Reviewing previously covered material is especially important for learners with dyslexia, which is why the approach is also structured, sequential, and cumulative. In addition, the method is considered emotionally sound, providing children with much needed encouragement and support.

“It's amazing to see the potential that can unlock with these kids," Pegman says. "It takes work. And that's what we remind them, too: 'It's going to be work, it's not going to be easy, but we hope that it's going to be worthwhile for you.'”

While the hope is that students will exit the program at least six months within their grade-level reading, Pegman says that graduation is a loosely held term.

“I like to recognize everyone for their accomplishments and their efforts.”

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