How we’re helping dyslexic persons get a chance at learning — Eniola Onakoya

Eniola Onakoya is the founder of Pearl Reading Centre, an organization whose primary focus is to help persons with dyslexia overcome their reading, spelling and writing difficulties. She talks about her adventure into this cause, and the denial surrounding dyslexia in this interview by PAUL OMOROGBE.


WHAT is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a neurological condition that makes it difficult for children to be able to read, spell and write in their preferred language, despite average intelligence. Causes of dyslexia could be hereditary and brain injury could also lead to dyslexia.


How did you begin training dyslexic children?

Well, as a teacher, I teach children. I teach extra-curricular activities. Apart from the fact that I studied English Language at the undergraduate level and at the master’s level where I specialised in phonetics and phonology, I also teach English. I teach people how to read, including adult literacy classes and all.

One day, I had this student who came to my husband’s office to do a computer course and he seemed to be struggling. We later discovered that he couldn’t read and write and he was 19 years old. So, my husband said, “why don’t you go ahead and tutor this person to be able to read,” and I took up this challenge. We started with one-letter words, we got to two-letter words and three-letter words. When we got to three-letter words, I was so sure we would move on to four letter words. It seemed like it was getting difficult and we just kept going back to three letter words. You know one day I told him to spell the word “CAT” and he spelt “TAC” and I said “CAT”and I was like are you sure and he said yes and I was amazed. However, we kept on going; I taught him how to spell it correctly and all.

Eventually, one day I was teaching him and I just had to step out of the class because I was frustrated. And I said; ‘Holy Spirit, You need to help me please.’

I mentioned the case to one of my lecturers in the University of Lagos, Dr Adedeji and he said; “are you sure he is not dyslexic”, and I said, “dyslexia! I don’t think so.”

So we kept on tutoring until one day that my husband just Googled symptoms of dyslexia. We checked it and it was amazing that my student had over 95 per cent of the symptoms of dyslexia.


So, we decided to go and see his parents. We told them about it and the mother said she had known that there was something different about his learning, but they really didn’t know what to do neither did she think that it was anything serious. A lot of times parents just think their children would outgrow this or that, ‘oh the child is just growing, he will get better.’ However, if it is dyslexia, it’s not something that will get better without appropriate intervention.

I remember my student’s father said,“Wow! You are the first tutor or teacher who will ever understand my son.” He confirmed that what I just said was true about all the symptoms we discussed with them. My student’s father then said “I want my son to be able to read, I really want my son to be able to read”, and that was how we started.

I started doing my research. I called my aunt based in the US and told her about it. She went as far as doing some research for me and she got an organisation that has the kit to tutor people. They have a support group. I got involved, offered courses on dyslexia, read wide about it. We then ordered the tutoring kit and started intervention. Since we started teaching him the way he needs to be tutored, he has improved drastically.

During the research, we realised that dyslexia affects every one in five persons. It is something that you see everywhere, every classroom, every church, every mosque, every workplace. So, I decided that I needed to create awareness about dyslexia. So we brought a team together and that was how we dived into it fully. We started training teachers and started tutoring people.


Tell us about the denial.

Yes, there is a lot of denial, but before the denial stage there is something that we do here in Nigeria. Dyslexia does not respect any geographical location. It’s not like it only affects people in the US or in Asia or in Europe. It is in every continent of the earth. It is in every one in five persons and this is because it is hereditary, it is in the genes. It is something that is passed on. The ignorance doesn’t really help matters because a lot of people do not know about it. Before denial, people are ignorant about what it is, that is why we are doing as much as possible to create awareness on what is dyslexia and that dyslexia is real.

When people find out that something is wrong with their child or there is something different about the way their child learns or their child has certain learning difficulty, what they do is they begin to pray. If they are spiritual people or religious people, so to say, they begin to cast out demons. Some people go as far saying it is their village people. But this thing is not necessary; it is a simple thing. It is not a medical condition. It doesn’t mean the child is sick nor has a mental instability or disability, no. It simply means the child learns in a different way from how every other person learns and a lot of parents when they realise they just want quick solutions.

Now you don’t get solutions immediately. Once your child begins to receive intervention, you do not get solution immediately; it takes a period of time, consistency, continuity. Some people live in denial, they say the child will be fine and will outgrow it. That is not how it works if it is dyslexia. There are some things children outgrow but if it is dyslexia, children will not outgrow it if they do not receive the appropriate intervention. If they do not receive the appropriate tutoring or if they are not helped, especially on time; the earlier the better, Early intervention is the key.

However, when one does not receive early intervention, it is never too late. Sometimes people live in early denial; ‘my child will be fine; he is just a child, he will grow out of it.’ That is why you have some adults who still have these challenges. Some adults still don’t know how to spell. Thank God for computer systems in offices and everywhere that have aided people’s spelling. The auto correction is helpful; and has shielded lot of people.

Dyslexia is not something that is written on the forehead; it doesn’t make a child sick, it is not obvious when you see the person because sometimes people who have dyslexia have a fantastic IQ. Sometimes they have IQ above average,  average or maybe below.

Let me give you some examples of people with dyslexia. We have Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines; Whoopi Goldberg the actress,Albert Einstein the scientist,Kobe Bryant. There are absolutely many people that have dyslexia and are excelling. They are succeeding in their different fields thanks to the advantage their right brain hemisphere has given to them. Dyslexia is not the end of the world; people can become whatever they want to become regardless of dyslexia and a child who has dyslexia can eventually become a decent speller, a beautiful writer and a fantastic reader.


How has the centre been able to help dyslexic persons?

What we have done so far is the continuous creation of awareness. The awareness is not enough,it goes on. We have started training teachers in different schools so that teachers can be aware of this learning difficulty,so that they can know how to help each child in their class who has this struggle. They will be trained on the classroom accommodations to use for a child who has dyslexia. Another thing we have been able to do so far is we have done several evaluations for children some have started intervention and there is a lot of improvement. They keep getting better, the improvement is not drastic and immediate. We always emphasise that there has to be consistency and continuity, then the awareness goes on.


What is needed to ensure that this set of people are all catered for?

First and foremost, I think the Ministry of Education should buy into the idea of training teachers to know about learning disabilities. Not just know it, but to actually understand it such that they can identify children who have this difficulty in learning. Since it is everywhere, it affects one in five persons.

It is very important that before teachers are employed in schools, they are asked certain questions to show that they know about these things; and we can also say that before students are taken into schools, they could be screened. There is a standard screening that could be done. Screen them to be sure if the child has any difficulty.

On the other hand, when children begin to show certain difficulties they could be screened and evaluated to weigh the challenges they are facing and why they have these challenges. Help is very nearby. We need to create this awareness; we need people to know; we need teachers to be able to help the children at school.

We need employers to be able to help such employees, not just discard them.

We also need parents to also be informed so that they could help their own children as well. If a child goes for evaluation, the child begins to receive intervention, class room accommodations would be given and eventually the child would catch up and begin to read up to grade level. Just as you can train children to read, you can also train adults to read, spell and write.

However, not just anybody can teach people with dyslexia how to read and write. It has to be an expert in the field because there is a right method of teaching which are structured literacy and the multi-sensory method of teaching.

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