How They Learn

With care, ‘disconnect’ can be managed

Monday, March 07, 2005

Times Staff Writer [email protected]

Each school day, Korea Brunner returns home to show her parents her homework notebook. In those pages, 11-year-old Korea lists the nightly assignments and the teacher places her initials alongside. At home, Korea’s parents now know exactly what’s to be done.

“Before, there was a disconnect,” said Ernest Brunner, Korea’s father and main homework tutor this year. Before, he didn’t always know what the assignments were.

Three years ago, Korea was diagnosed with dyslexia. Korea has trouble deciphering the meaning of some words. That means like most children with dyslexia, Korea reads and learns a bit differently than other students. It also means schoolwork didn’t always go smoothly.

It’s not uncommon for children with dyslexia to develop a dislike of school and find ways to avoid homework. But lately Korea’s parents have implemented a few strategies to help her study on her own.

After dinner, Korea studies at a desk in her bedroom, away from the TV and the noise and the distractions of three younger brothers. When she’s finished working alone, her father might help her at the kitchen table to sort through more difficult questions.

Each night, mom or dad sign that assignment notebook once work has been completed.

“Those two are big helps,” said Adrienne Walls-Brunner, Korea’s mother, referring to both the notebook and the dedicated work space.

The Brunner’s are following proven methods, said Marcia Ramsey, head of Huntsville’s Greengate School for students with dyslexia.

“There needs to be a designated place for homework. A routine time for homework. The parent needs to be nearby, but not hovering,” Ramsey said.

“Parents should as much as possible let children be in charge of their homework,” she said. “With kids with learning differences it takes a fair amount of organization for that to happen.”

In years past, 15 minutes could be spent hunting a pencil or sorting out what the assignment was before work started, said Adrienne Walls-Brunner. The homework notebook eliminated some of that delay. This year, they also learned to keep a ready drawer of sharpened pencils and other tools.

“Keeping basic supplies at home is essential,” she said. “It cuts down on your frustration level.”

Korea now studies by designing her own flashcards, a history question on one side and the answer on the other. Korea said isolating the study points has helped.

One card reads: “Who was Crispus Attucks?” The card is a week old, the test has passed at Rainbow Elementary in Madison, but Korea rattles off: “A former slave that yelled ‘If you want to get rid of the soldiers attack the main guard.’ “

Her answer matches her handwriting on back of the card within a word or two. “That’s a trick right there,” said Ernest Brunner proudly. Last year, her parents wrote the cards. Now Korea does that on her own.

Korea also keeps the papers from each subject sorted in color-coded binders. And this year, her parents purchased duplicate copies of all her textbooks, so they can always find the one that’s needed. Ernest Brunner suggests Ebay and other bargain sites for used textbooks.

Of course, what works for one child may not work for all. But when it comes to dyslexia, there are some basic suggestions.

“I tell parents the best thing you can do with your kids is read to them,” said Tom Viall, director of the International Dyslexia Association. If the children are young, play word games, rhyming games, games where you finish one another’s sentences. If they are older, read together, he said.

Dr. Denise Gibbs, the director of the Scottish Rite Foundation of Alabama, trains teachers to instruct dyslexic children. She said a key to working with dyslexic children is that parents don’t make too many demands.

For example, with preschool children, this may mean holding up an item and saying its name, instead of always asking “What’s this?” The non-threatening philosophy can apply to older kids who are struggling.

So far, a few simple tips have helped the Brunners. Homework doesn’t seem to take quite as long. It used to run after dinner for two to three hours each night and demand more supervision. Korea works on her own most of the time now.

She said she likes the quiet of her room, but still calls on dad when needed. “He helps me figure out the questions,” said Korea.

That’s an important point for parents of children with dyslexia, said Ramsey.

If the assignment is to practice reading, the child should work alone. But if the assignment is to study something new, to learn about the Revolutionary War or how levers work, then a parent may help.

That can mean reading aloud for the child or reading together or simply being there, like Korea’s parents, to help navigate the meaning of certain questions or passages.

Adrienne Walls-Brunner said there was a time years ago when she became discouraged about Korea’s school work. “Now I know she can do everything. We just have to help her learn the way she learns,” she said.