Help for a dyslexic learner from an unlikely source: the study of Ancient Greek

Help for a dyslexic learner from an unlikely

source: the study of Ancient Greek

Kate Chanock


This paper recounts the process by which a severely reading-disabled adult student taught himself to read and write Ancient Greek, and in so doing, improved his ability to read and write in English. Initially, Keith’s reading and writing were slow, difficult and inaccu-

rate, accompanied by visual disturbance. However, motivated by a strong interest in Ancient Greek literature and philosophical ideas, Keith enlisted me (his Faculty’s academic skills adviser) to help him learnthe language. Working on transliteration focused Keith’s attention on the alphabetic principle separatelyfrom meaning, while practising translation focused on

the formal markers of meaning. Relieved of the stressof performing under pressures of time and others’expectations, Keith made good progress with Greekand, after 6 months, found himself reading morefluently in English, without visual disturbance. This paper seeks to contribute to our knowledge of how adults learn to read, looking at the interplay of

motivation, phonological awareness, knowledge ofhow form conveys meaning, and the learning environ-ment. It both draws upon, and raises questions for, theneuroscientific study of dyslexia. Key words: adult dyslexia, motivation, phonological awareness, visual disturbance


Despite the success of ‘compensated dyslexics’, we know that the underlying syndrome persists into adulthood (see, e.g., Beaton et al., 1997; Morgan and

Klein, 2000; Reid and Kirk, 2001; Rice and Brooks, 2004), making adult dyslexic learners’ efforts to cope with written language slower, more difficult, more stressful and often less satisfactory than those of their non-dyslexic peers (Farmer et al., 2002, p. 224; Hunter-Carsch and Herrington, 2001; Preston et al., 1996;

Singleton, 1999, pp. 2, 17–18, 29). Yet, we also know that some dyslexic adults learn to read quite fluently, in fields that interest them (Fink, 1995). What we do not know very much about is how dyslexic adults learn to read. One reason for this is the uncertain state of knowledge about the physiological cause(s) of dyslexia (Rice and Brooks, 2004). Researchers have identified a weakness in phonological awareness, which inhibits acquisition and automaticity in using the graphemic code of written language (Snowling, 2000). They have testedthe potential of training in phonics to help people withdyslexia to learn to read, with learners making promising gains in reading (e.g. Aylward et al., 2003; Shaywitz et al., 2004; Simos et al., 2002; Tallal, 2000; Temple et al., 2003). At the same time, it has been suggested that reading itself changes the way the brain works, to increase phonological awareness (Castro-Caldas and Reis, 2003; Rice and Brooks, 2004, p. 28). Determining the relations among auditory and visual processing, cognition and learning behaviours is very much a work in progress (e.g. Pammer and Vidyasagar,2005). A second reason for our patchy knowledge about dyslexic adults’ learning is that advances in our theoretical understanding of dyslexia come largely from neuroscientists, while naturalistic observations of dyslexic learners reading are, to a large extent, made by the tutors who work with them, and there is little communication between scientists and tutors. I would like to offer the following case study, therefore, from my work as an academic skills adviser in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at an Australian university. It is an account of an adult student learning to read more fluently at a late stage in his education, by immersing himself in the study of a dead language. I will explain why he undertook this project, and describe how he went about it, and, while a single literacy narrative can only be suggestive, I think this student’s experience may have implications for under-standing the apparent plasticity of the brain that allows dyslexic adults to break through to reading. Keith, now in his 40s, has struggled since childhood with severe difficulties in handling written language.

Last year, however, he began learning Ancient Greek, with my assistance, and one result has been a notice- able improvement in his reading and writing in

English. It seems clear that information about language has played a part in making the interface of written and spoken language more intelligible. This includes information about how grammatical form signals semantic meaning, as well as information about the derivation of English vocabulary from Greek ante-

cedents. Grammar analysis has proved to be important, both for entering the target language and for improving Keith’s literacy skills. It seems possible, too,

164 Help for a dyslexic learner from an unlikely source


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that the effort to learn another alphabet is changing the way that Keith ‘sees’ written English. Keith’s learning history Although he has never been assessed by an educational psychologist, Keith’s biography strongly suggests dyslexia. Unable to learn to read or write at school, he was abused by teachers who had, evidently, never heard of dyslexia. ‘‘One teacher, in grade three, said I would never amount to anything, I’d just wind up cleaning out gutters. She said it in front of the class. In high school, . . . if I didn’tbehave myself, they’d make me stand up and read in front of the class.’’Like others who were poorly understood at school

(e.g., Edwards, 1984; Herrington, 2001, p. 109; O’Shea, et al., 1994), Keith grew angry and alienated from schooling, and left as soon as he could. He got a second

chance at education when a drug rehabilitation programme sent him to do clerical work for a local university. When staff there realised that Keith could not read, they guided him into an individual learning programme where, Keith said,

‘‘They just forced me to keep on writing – anything, the first thing that came into my head – and they went over the words. At first, I could only write one point in a

sentence, and then I had to do something else. But it took off from there . . . I still can’t sound the words out, and I haven’t had time to do all the sounds yet. It’s a slowprocess . . . ’’. Having progressed to studying school certificate subjects in an adult education programme, Keith gothis secondary certificate, and was accepted to my university where the Disabilities Liaison Office pro- vided him with notetakers in lectures, library assistance and audiotapes of the core readings required for his subjects, and referred him to me for one-to-one consultations. I have no special training in learning disabilities, but Keith and I developed strategies that helped him to complete his assignments, even though his reading and writing remained unreliable through-out his degree. While Keith had mastered some of the sound–symbol correspondences of written English, he did not have

them all. Moreover, print wiggled when he looked at it

– ‘‘like worms on the page’’, as he described it (for discussions of visual disturbance in dyslexia, see Evans, 2001; Herrington, 2001, pp. 111, 114–115; Mailey, 2001; Pammer and Vidyasagar, 2005). When he read aloud from his sources, he missed some words, got others wrong and substituted sensible alternatives for words on the page, without apparently knowing that

he was not reading what was there. When he wrote, it was much the same. He left words out, transposed letters or syllables, omitted or repeated parts of words

(omitting, especially, the endings of inflected words), and when he read his own work aloud, he often read a synonym rather than the word he had actually written

on the page. It was when Keith read his work aloud that I discovered the coherent meaning its appearance concealed and found the key to helping him edit his

writing. Because I could make no sense of his drafts, but did not like to say so, I asked him to read them to me, and what he read was perfectly sensible, but was

not on the page in front of us. For example, Keith once wrote ‘‘When a state execute one of it civitizen. It leave the execute to carried out by a few of its member hinding away society’’. When I asked him to read it, he read without hesitation, ‘‘When a state executes one of its citizens, it leaves the execution to be carried out by a few of its members, which hides it away from society’’.

He was reading what he thought he had written, from a script in his head.

We developed a routine, therefore, in which Keith read whole sections of his draft aloud to me so I knew what they were supposed to say. Then, we went over these

sentence by sentence and word by word, making repairs as necessary. Sometimes, Keith noticed missing words or misspellings as he came to them, but if not, I

showed him where a correction was needed, and if necessary I covered syllables with my thumb in order to break the word down so he could see the part that was

wrong. Occasionally, we made up time by Keith dictating a paragraph to me, which he would later copy from my transcription. While copying was slow,

he thought the act of forming letters helped him to consolidate his learning, perhaps by adding a kinaes- thetic element. Keith’s tutors gave him flexible dead-

lines, allowing him to hand in written work when hewas ready. Keith completed his BA, but then he faced the problem that other dyslexic students also face: he had a degree, but not the skills that employers expect to go along with it. Frustrated by setbacks in his prospects of further studies or employment, Keith was becoming depressed, but after some months, he rang up and told me he would like to learn Ancient Greek.


Decision to learn Ancient Greek

This was unexpected, but not inconsistent with Keith’s interests over the past several years. His initial decision to enrol at university had been triggered by a

programme he had heard on public radio, in which someone had spoken inspiringly about his education in classical literature and philosophy. Once admitted to the BA, Keith had chosen subjects in English, Philosophy and even Sociology that drew on stories,

Literacy Volume 40 Number 3 November 2006



UKLA 2006