Beyond the Classroom

Educational therapies support kids’ learning variabilities

Byrne Preserve
Courtesy of Jieun Chai
Reading therapists like Jieun Chai, in her Los Altos Hills COVID-era “office,” above, work to link the brain’s visual and language centers.

During this year of studying from home, every family has gotten a new window into how their students learn: the cadence of intensity and breaks, the struggles with attention or patience or self-confidence.

The Los Altos area supports a proliferating corps of educational therapists who assist families concerned that a student might need targeted resources. The idea of learner variability assumes that all individuals are unique in how they learn, and that understanding a student’s profile can identify strengths and areas that need support, particularly if areas of difference include characteristics of dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Talking about variability instead of disorders aims to destigmatize variations that require learning adaptations, but also come with authentic strengths, according to Kathryn Gray. She serves as the interim director of Stanford University’s Charles Schwab Learning Center and prior to that directed academic support at Menlo School in Atherton.

“We all have preferences or learning styles that should be reflected in the way we teach,” Gray said. “A lot of people need to move to be able to listen. I work with doctoral students who will storyboard their dissertation on the wall. One of my students in art history working on a dissertation wants to see pictures guiding it before they can write.”

The superpowers in variation

The idea that variability can be an asset in the classroom and not just a deficit or diagnosis has grown in recent years, as educational therapy expands its scope beyond intensive remedial intervention to include planning strategically for future academic and career success. Students with dyslexia might have particularly powerful skills in visualization, narrative or analytical thinking, at the same time they have exceeding difficulty with composition or transcription.

Gray advised parents to forget about the “stigma” of acknowledging a nascent problem when they sense something is off.

“There is probably something there that needs some level of support,” she said. “We know so much more now about neurological and cognitive development and how it impacts learning, such that we can provide all of these compensatory strategies and remediation if it’s caught early enough.”

Beyond skill-specific tutoring, targeted tools can help students creatively adjust – for instance, people with language processing disorders or dyslexia might benefit from transcription apps like or composition tools like Grammarly in college and beyond.

Los Altos Hills resident Jieun Chai, an educational therapist who specializes in working with dyslexic students, sees a misperception among parents that therapy might “fix” dyslexia once a student achieves grade-level parity. Instead, dyslexia describes a learning orientation with lifelong education strategies. Technological tools help compensate for some of those differences – and might be viewed as closer to glasses to correct a vision problem, rather than a temporary crutch.

“Assistive technology is something to be used and not be afraid of,” Chai said. Similarly, she said of graphic novels or audio books, “I’m telling parents all the time, reading is reading is reading. … It’s OK to just get them picture books or comic books. They need that space to learn to love books – and hear books.”

Success is not the same as achievement

Chai said proactive attention to language learning doesn’t mean starting academics early, but it does require appreciation for the sounds of language – phonemic awareness.

“What I tell parents around here – because they do start learning to read at age 5 and at preschool, the ages 3-5 is where you learn your letters and alphabets,” she said of local norms that a perfectly strong pre-reader might not align with. “If you come in with all this advanced work and you’re already reading by age 4 or 5, to me it doesn’t mean much as an educator. You have learned reading, or decoding, early, which is just one part of reading.”

Many other elements, including reading comprehension and fluency, make necessary components of reading, Chai noted.

“It is just like memorizing facts for math – congratulations for being fast, but it’s just being fast,” she said.

Chai worked as a teacher for seven years before rebooting as a specialist after observing dyslexic students in the classroom whose evident brightness seemed disconnected from all the educational strategies that she and peers had learned in teacher training.

“We don’t really focus on phonics after first grade at all, we teach the spelling of the week – you just assume that everyone will memorize it and it will be done, but that is not how the brain works, especially the part of the brain for a kid with dyslexia,” Chai said. “It has to be logical, sequential and multisensory.”

She said an educational therapist can be akin to a “supersize tutor,” going beyond subject-specific content to teaching skills and strategies in partnership with pediatricians or speech therapists. Despite the name, the work does not involve therapy for emotional well-being, though academic adjustment can certainly contribute to a child’s sense of self-efficacy.

Cracking the code

Jane Milan
Courtesy of Jane Milan
Jane Milan's research found a home with Los Altos-based startup YokyWorks.

The “logical” methods educational therapists use to provide multisensory phonemics training – such as the Wilson Reading Program Chai uses – almost universally derive from an approach Anna Gillingham developed almost a century ago in partnership with Samuel Orton. An educational therapy startup based in Los Altos, YokyWorks, is researching a modified variation developed by Jane Milan to teach early literacy or remediate for older children, and adults who have experienced long-term difficulties with reading and spelling.

Based on a student’s awareness of language sounds and auditory perception, Milan’s method breaks the idea of “explicitly delivered literacy” into two phases, the first of which focuses exclusively on the sound of language and doesn’t use letters and written words at all.

“There is no part of the human brain genetically designed for reading – reading is a cultural invention,” Milan pointed out. “We have to repurpose neural connections in our visual and language centers in order to be able to read.”

Milan’s approach studies whether systematic remediation with language sounds can lead to substantial reading score improvements – before moving into study of written letters at all.

“When babies start to babble, they do it in syllables first, not individual phonemes. Reading and spelling is truly dependent on the human brain’s ability to take those syllables and isolate each individual sound,” Milan said. “For the vast majority of our kids, whether they’re dyslexic or not, that code is not intuitive. We have to ask, what are we doing to help our kids parse syllables into individual sounds? The answer is, not a lot yet.”

Milan said that based on her conversations with local parents in her practice, she has come to think that parents and grandparents have a gut feeling for when something isn’t going right for young learners acquiring literacy.

“Early intervention is how we change things, and it’s the hardest time for parents to identify,” she said.

Indicators that an alternative reading approach might be merited can include struggling with connecting a letter to the sound it represents; spelling that is less inventive and more haphazard; or speech differences like consonant replacements, indicating the brain is not processing word sounds typically.

Learn more about Stanford’s Schwab Learning Center, Chai’s practice and YokyWorks.

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