January 2001

Living with Dyslexia
The Davis Method claims a high rate of success in teaching dyslexics to read.

Mia Stainsby
Southam Newspapers; Vancouver Sun

Accolades for a method of correcting dyslexia are beginning to roll in from parents desperate to help their children. The Davis Method is based on testimonials, but to them, The Davis Method is nothing short of miraculous.

Bob Lee, principal at Stelly's High School in Saanich, can only speak from results he's seen with his own 13-year-old son, Matthew.

"All the things they say should happen after the workshop, have happened," says Lee. "It's made a huge difference in his reading and writing. As a parent, I can endorse it 100 per cent. I don't work with dyslexic kids myself but I've never seen anything like this."

Prior to taking the week-long workshop, Matthew [and others featured in Part I of this story last Monday] suffered terrible blows to his self-esteem because of his difficulties reading and writing. His parents were helpless as he raged inside.

Dyslexics, the Davis people say, have language difficulties, but are gifted and bright in other ways. Currently, there is a controversy about whether or not U.S. President George W. Bush is dyslexic (like his brother Neil) which would explain his tortured syntax and "verbal howlers," the subject of media ridicule.

Ron Davis, who founded The Davis Method in 1982, was himself a severe dyslexic (diagnosed as autistic at one time) with a genius-level IQ. He also opened the Ron Davis Reading Research Council in California after he retired from metallurgical engineering and running three companies.

There are now 177 learning centres around the world teaching the method and proponents claim a 98 per cent success rate in helping dyslexics to read and write.

The Davis method involves two parts. The first -- Orientation Counselling -- establishes a stabilizing focal point for the "mind's eye" the vantage point from which the mind perceives the senses (except for taste).

It is a point from which vision, the dominant sense, establishes a viewpoint, like a camera in the mind when one is reading or imagining something. A dyslexic's mind, does not have a stationary focal point. Looking at a letter or word, Davis says, "is like a helicopter buzzing around, doing surveillance on a building. This is the disorientation function hard at work, trying to recognize the object."

The optimum location for this mental viewpoint or mind's eye is a few inches to a foot above and behind the head on the centreline of the body. Focusing the mind from this orientation spot (which is part of what clients are taught to do) shuts off the distorted perceptions of dyslexia, he says.

He believes the dyslexic's brain becomes confused and "disoriented" by certain triggers -- commonly letters of the alphabet, punctuation, and words that don't have picture associations, since dyslexics are highly visual. In this state of disorientation, a dyslexic might see "cat" written forward, backward, upside down and floating in space from various perspectives, then pulled apart and re-assembled in every possible configuration. In their conscious minds, the word might just be a blur or blank.

"By the time he does all the things that must be done to recognize the word 'cat,' he'll have performed at least 4,000 times more computations in his brain than the other children," Davis writes in his book The Gift of Dyslexia. The dyslexic learning style, he says, is actually a "gift," in tasks that require invention, acting, science, physical agility or creativity.

The dyslexic's dominant way of thinking is visual and non-verbal, he says. The speed of thought is 400 to 2,000 times that of "normal" word-based thought. We normally think at about 150 words a minute or 2.5 words a second.

This highly intuitive, multi-sensory thinking is what gave Einstein difficulty in school but also, his mathematical genius. It's also what enabled the dyslexic Leonardo da Vinci to conceive of submarines 300 years before they were invented and helicopters 400 years before there was an engine that could power one.

"The difficulties come in the two-dimensional world of reading and writing," says Sue Hall, of Positive Dyslexia, the only Davis facilitator in Western Canada at the moment. She and her son George are both dyslexic. She says the literature commonly establishes the numbers of dyslexics in the general population at around 15 to 20 per cent.

"I have an on-off switch for this disorientation which is instantaneous," she says.

The second component of the Davis Method is called Symbol Mastery, a multi-sensory approach to learning letters, words, numbers, punctuation marks and math symbols. It involves creating the letters, in 3-D, from clay. "To a dyslexic, a word has three parts -- what it means, what it looks like and what it sounds like. The clay model is for the meaning in picture form," Hall explains.

As well, Davis clients work in clay with "trigger" letters and words that cause disorientation, words for which there are no accompanying pictures of meaning. There are 217 such words, such as: a, about, also, am, can, do, get, have, just, other, their, and the. Clients create a scenario, showing that word in action. "The" might have a person pointing to a definite thing. "And" might show two things with a sculpted "and" between them. "Ron Davis says it's very difficult to distinguish the learning process from the creative process in dyslexics. If they create something, they learn it," says Hall.

Fran Thompson, president of the International Dyslexia Association, B.C. Branch, however, cautions against systems that are not based on science. "The 98 per cent success rate is something I would hope they can document. The Davis Method is very expensive and it would be devastating to give people false hopes."

While Thompson doesn't have a thorough understanding of The Davis Method, the IDA as well as [U.S.] The National Reading Panel, she says, favour science-based methods, most of which are based on the Orton-Gillingham approach to teaching reading.

"We say it's the best method. It's a structured, systematic phonomic approach, taught bit by bit in a sequential way," she says. This approach also uses a multi-sensory approach, incorporating visual, auditory, kinesthetic and tactile senses, she says.

Positive Dyslexia's Hall says major difference between Orton-Gillingham and The Davis Method is the Orientation Counselling and the Davis Method does not teach phonetics.

Meanwhile, Sandy Paterson, a special education teacher at Valleycliffe Elementary in Squamish, is witnessing the results of The Davis Method in Daniel Scott, a new Grade 4 student. After what she has been told and seen of his previous academic and social history at school, she is putting her support behind the Davis approach, with a teacher's assistant helping the student 40 minutes of each school day with trigger words.

"All I can say is I'm aware he used to have severe behaviour problems and low self-esteem and needed to be home-schooled. But he's fitting in nicely this year. His Mom, the teaching assistant and the childcare worker who'd worked with him before he took the workshop, all conclude that his turn-around has been amazing," says Paterson.

Lee says the one-on-one method of teaching the technique would be impractical under current funding for education but if there were a unique, creative, well-funded program, he would give it 100 per cent support.

"The best approach would be to get learning assistance teachers trained to work individually with students in the very early grades," he says.

Since Hall started giving Davis workshops a year and a half ago, she has seen 45 clients, both children and adults. She takes one client at a time for a week's duration at a cost of $2,800.

The children she has seen, she says, are incredibly angry and frustrated by the time they come to see her. She won't work with clients on Ritalin. "It's one of our big rules," she says.

The worse thing for children with dyslexia is to have to sit still and concentrate, says Hall. "The thinking process is speeded up beyond the norm and their sense of time, balance and motion is distorted. Since they feel like they're moving on the inside, they have to move on the outside.

"I've seen children who have been diagnosed with ADD and ADHD suffering from this distortion which makes it very difficult for them to sit still. In extreme cases, they can feel nauseous.

"As far as I'm concerned," says Hall, "it's not a learning disability. The information is just not presented in the way that they need it and the information isn't out there."

On that, IDA's Thompson agrees. She's dismayed at the lack of awareness amongst teachers and their educators about how to teach dyslexics how to read and write. "It's critical that we provide our faculties of education and teachers with information on how to teach reading, that we go forward and not lay blame."

As for Davis Method, there are only four facilitators in Canada. So far, there is only one in the Lower Mainland but by year's end, there will be three in Vancouver and one in Squamish.

In August, the Davis Dyslexia Association will be holding a workshop for teachers, aimed at grade school teachers.

A seven-year study on the Davis Method is currently underway and should be published soon, she says. For more information, call Positive Dyslexia, 921-1084. The Internet site is www.dyslexiacanada.com. For information on other approaches to teaching dyslexics, the phone number for the International Dyslexia Association, B.C. Branch is 669-5811 and their website is www.interdys.org.

Copyright 2001 CanWest Interactive, a division of CanWest Global Communications Corp.