Problem-solving mom helps dyslexic daughters thrive in Sask. school system

Rachel Engler-Stringer's daughter Amélie did everything early. Talking and walking were a breeze for her.

She excelled later in kindergarten, too. But when she hit Grade 1 she started having trouble reading and her parents were called in because she was struggling.

She has dyslexia. She'll tell you if you ask.

Amélie, following her mother's lead, has learned to advocate for herself.

Engler-Stringer is passionate about making the Saskatchewan school system easier to navigate for children and their parents.

There would be expensive testing, bullying and real pain when she read, but eventually her family had an answer.

Engler-Stringer heard the common "Oh, she'll catch up" from some educators. But there were signs that Amélie's experience was out of the ordinary. Her progress in reading and writing halted while she thrived elsewhere.

"My kids [younger daughter Sophie also has dyslexia] are privileged enough to have grown up in a family with fairly highly educated parents. They were verbally very advanced for their ages. And yet she [Amélie] just for the life of her could not memorize spelling words," said Engler-Stringer.

Her belief is that as soon as educators or parents realize something isn't typical, some kind of screening should be triggered.

Now in Grade 7, Amélie has changed as a student, but it's been a long road to travel for the girls and their mother.

Diagnosis takes dollars

Saskatchewan's schools offer some training and testing in-house, but Engler-Stringer felt she needed more answers and more support.

"Things came to a head when my daughter was coming home crying constantly. There were kids calling her stupid."

The French school Amélie attends offers assessments for dyslexia by a speech language pathologist.

Her mother decided to go to the University of Saskatchewan where people are trained to do psycho-educational assessments.

Submitted by Rachel Engler-Stringer

"Parents following the private-sector route can expect to pay around $2,500," Engler-Stringer said.

Testing at the university is slightly less expensive. Testing at school is free but the wait list is about six months long.

"That's short," said Engler-Stringer, compared with other school divisions. "Six months was not an option."

She decided to test Sophie for the learning disorder, too. It was easier to spot and positively diagnosed because the family had done it all before.

Not all approaches effective

Engler-Stringer keeps close tabs on the various school divisions in the region.

She says some of the teaching techniques she sees in schools are not evidence-based and are focused on goals that are of little consequence to students and their learning.

"That's when it can be harmful for dyslexia because it is frustrating to not make any progress, and that is where poor mental health outcomes start to be observed."

According to a spokesperson from the Saskatoon Public School Division, its schools have programs aimed at what they call "learning disorders pertaining to reading" which are evidence-based.

The Roadways to Reading program was created a few years ago and every resource teacher is trained in the program.

She's a brilliant artist, her understanding of how things are in place is amazing. She's got an incredible sense of direction. She's really good at puzzles and anything that's 3D. - Rachel Engler-Stringer on her daughter Amélie's strengths

Amélie, 12, and Sophie, 8, are now tutored by the educator involved in creating Roadways to Reading, which Rachel says is effective so long as the groups are small enough for children to make progress.

The Saskatoon Catholic School Division takes a different approach, using both research and evidence-based resources.  One effective program, Seeing Stars, uses symbol imagery for reading and and spelling. 

In the United Kingdom, Engler-Stringer says, there is a country-wide approach to dyslexia. The program is completely evidence-based and reviewed extensively. It has increased reading levels and graduation rates.

Intervention crucial

It could be difficult to hear your child's reading and writing are within the bottom percentile, especially if you're under financial stress or dealing with a school that doesn't have the appropriate supports.

Roughly 15 per cent of people deal with dyslexia. That means a lot of bullied children without accommodation.

"When we screen the prison population it's about 50 per cent," said Engler-Stringer, referring to a study in the United States.

Submitted by Rachel Engler-Stringer

"That says a lot about who got the support, got their intervention and who didn't."

She calls her children "pretty darn privileged."

Amélie and Sophie are confident enough to tell people about their dyslexia. Amélie, for example, uses a computer in class. Her teachers often explain the accommodation to the other children.

She's a researcher and accidental advocate, but before all Engler-Stringer is a mom.

She says of Amélie: "She's a brilliant artist, her understanding of how things are in place is amazing. She's got an incredible sense of direction. She's really good at puzzles and anything that's 3D."

With or without diagnosis, she's proud of her children and like most parents, she'll tell you all the reasons why.