Illustration by Hafsa Ashfaque
Illustration by Hafsa Ashfaque

It was only because of eight-year-old Musa* that I learned to appreciate the meaning of 21st century educator Ignacio Estrada’s concept of teaching children: if a child cannot learn the way we teach, we should teach them the way they learn.

As Musa’s newly appointed teacher at his school, I had never come across anything quite as impossible to decipher as Musa’s effort at homework. It might have been Greek or Chinese, for all the sense it made to me.

In the mess of higgledy-piggledy letters, there was hardly a recognisable word amidst the crossing outs and smudges. I was not sure if the smudgy work was because Musa was left-handed and his hand brushed over his writing, or because he pressed down his little hand so hard on the paper that the marks were visible for many pages ahead.

Musa mostly looked untidy and grubby. His clothes would be clean, but with buttons in the wrong holes, tie askew, shoelaces undone, socks falling down, and shirt hanging out at the back. He looked ‘thrown together’ rather than dressed up.

When Musa had written work to do in class, he would chew his pen and gaze at his workbook with a look of perplexed incomprehension. When his class was reading, his glance would wander longingly to the tree outside the classroom.

A teacher provides a first-hand account of diagnosing a dyslexic child and how the right support changed his life

He was the only one in his class to have trouble with his reading and spelling. Musa constantly had a runny nose and couldn’t breathe properly, so his mouth would fall open. When I spoke to him, and his reply didn’t quite make sense, I figured that his ears were blocked.

Even though Musa’s written arithmetic was poor, he was quick enough with oral questions. “I know what I want to say, but I don’t know how to write it,” he said eloquently, when I encouraged him to do better. “The words won’t come out of my head into my hand.”

I tested Musa in a short dictation, and it clearly showed that he had no idea how to put words down on paper. His hand became sweaty, and his eyes filled with tears.

I worked with Musa to complete assignments because he would take a little more time than other children. I took up an additional responsibility of Maintenance and Housekeeping at school and Musa happily accompanied me wherever I went. Musa’s reading teacher pointed out that half of Musa’s problems would vanish if his blocked sinuses cleared up. Blocked sinuses cause coughs, low energy, swelling around the eyes, and brain fog.

I discussed Musa’s progress/problems with Mariyah Mazari, the school principal, and Mrs Bari, the vice-principal, who suggested getting Musa assessed at READyslexics, the first institute of its kind in Pakistan, for dyslexic children with learning difficulties.

While Musa’s learning difficulties were diagnosed and correctly addressed there, he became my inspiration to do a diploma course to learn to help children like him.

Eventually, Musa, his teachers — including me — and his mother became Team Musa. One of his teachers, Sadia Naqvi, advised Musa’s mother to take him to an ENT specialist to take care of the physical side of his problems. She also asked his mom to feed him a nutritious diet, sans junk food. He needed an organised daily routine to follow with set mealtimes and bedtime.

His mother was also told that Musa was to complete his homework himself, even if it were wrong. At this, his mother panicked, saying that she couldn’t let him do something wrong. But Sadia insisted, pointing out that, if the mother made him do what is necessary and possible for him now, soon he would achieve what she thought was impossible.

Mrs Mazari greeted Musa every day and often fixed his shirt for him. Instead of being the intimidating vice-principal, she would be kind and loving. She had also asked me to stock up on extra stationery for Musa, as he was forgetful, and would often lose his things.

As Musa spent lots of time in my office, she instructed me to make my office a ‘happy’ place that would create a conducive environment for Musa. Children learn fast when they feel their teacher believes in them, loves them and appreciates them, whereas criticism actually creates a negative environment.

Mrs Bari produced an abacus from a cupboard in her office to help him do arithmetic. Musa enjoyed being in the playground because experiential learning works well with children. The English reading teacher, Sadaf Hamid, got Musa story books with large fonts and colourful pictures. She read books with him every day in a soft-spoken voice. Musa started responding by relating to each word and, soon, they would both read together, improving his fluency and accuracy with sounds and words.

Since Musa loved to draw, I encouraged him to draw and write just two or three lines about what he drew. More writing than that would pressurise him and hamper his progress. In this way, his logical thinking skills and creative writing ability developed.

He learned fast and he learnt each day, improving in studies, and sports too. But our biggest reward was his laughter, telling us that he was comfortable with his new-found confidence.

Dyslexia is the most common learning disability and, though awareness is growing, it is still not well-understood. While dyslexic children mostly possess average to above average intelligence, difficulty in acquiring reading skills holds them back in school. Physicist Albert Einstein, artist Leonardo da Vinci and boxer Muhammad Ali were all dyslexics.

Having dyslexia does not mean your child isn’t smart. With the right support, dyslexic kids can learn to read and do very well in school. Instead of playing the blame game about the child’s learning difficulties, parents and teachers need to team up, as this child needs help from both.

**Name changed to protect privacy*

The writer is a lecturer at DHA Suffa University and a certified cognitive behavioural therapist

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 6th, 2022

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