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  • Writer's pictureAdam Dayan, Esq.

Curious Incident Podcast Episode 9: Addressing Dyslexia & Language Impairments

About This Episode NYC Special Education Attorney Adam Dayan and Ruth Arberman, Founding Principal at The Sterling School, a private school in New York City that educates children with dyslexia and reading difficulties, discuss:

  • language-based learning impairments

  • defining dyslexia

  • looking for signs of a language-based learning impairment

  • educating a child with dyslexia

  • understanding the advantages and disadvantages of having a language-based learning disability.

(LISTEN) The Curious Incident Podcast Episode 9: Addressing Dyslexia & Language Impairments

Transcript Below

You can listen to our discussion on your favorite podcast player including:

Do you have questions about your child's education? Call Special Education Attorney Adam Dayan at the Law Offices of Adam Dayan: (646) 866-7157 and request a consultation with our New York attorneys today.


Speaker 1: This is Curious Incident, a podcast for special needs families and your window into the world of special education. Parenting can be challenging and we want to make it easier by providing you with the resources you need to best help your child. Let's delve deep into the world of special education with your host, Adam Dayan. Adam Dayan: I am excited to present my next guest on this podcast, Ruth Arberman. Ruth is the founding principal at the Sterling School, a private school in New York City that educates children with dyslexia, reading difficulties, and language-based learning impairments. Ruth has served in this role for the last 23 years.

Prior to that, Ruth was the Director of Reading Services at the State University of New York College of Optometry Learning Disabilities Unit. Collectively, Ruth has been helping individuals learn to read for as long as I have been alive. Ruth has a master's degree in Education and reading specialist and a master's degree in elementary and middle school administration. And she is a certified Orton-Gillingham practitioner. Ruth, it's great to have you here today. Ruth Arberman: Thank you so much for having me. Adam Dayan: So Ruth, tell me more about you. What makes your approach or outlook unique, given your particular background, skills, and experiences? Ruth Arberman: Well, I think one of the things that makes me unique is that I was a reading specialist working with adults and other people's children long before I had a dyslexic child of my own. And so, I think I naively thought that so many of the problems that parents had with the system were due to their own lack of knowledge base about how children acquire reading and how it should work. And then my own son got into the system and I was like... It was so clear that there was no plan. In kindergarten, they were telling me my son should be tested for the gifted program. He had an amazing vocabulary, his first full spoken sentence... We were actually dropping paperwork off at the Orton-Gillingham Conference in the city and a cab cut my husband off. It was snowing, it was March. And he heard this little voice in the backseat say, "Daddy, maneuver for the car carefully please." And my husband turned around and went, "What? Where's Allen Funt?", because he was like, "What? Who said that?" Adam Dayan: Very sophisticated first sentence. Ruth Arberman: Yeah, for a two year old. And then he went to school and they were calling me up saying, "I don't understand. He doesn't know the letters of the alphabet. He doesn't know the numbers from one to a hundred." And I'm like going, "Well, have you been teaching them to him?" And they're like, "Well they're on the walls of the classroom, he should learn them." And I was like, "Okay, but what if he doesn't learn that way?" And that's when I really began to realize that the system wasn't designed to deal with children who learn differently. And I was talking to the parents that I was working with at the College of Optometry and they were kind of like, "Well, wherever you go we're going." And I spoke with my husband and he said, "You know, can't be the only parent in Brooklyn who feels this way." So between... At that point in time, I decided that what I needed to do was open a program for my son that would work for other people's children as well. Adam Dayan: So I was going to ask you, how did you first discover that your son had dyslexia? And it sounds like it was feedback from his teachers, that he wasn't learning his letters and numbers. Is that right? Ruth Arberman: Correct. And then of course, I had him formally tested. I wasn't surprised because my husband's mother told me that he had trouble learning to read. And I suspect that if I was tested, I would come up as dyslexic as well. I didn't learn to read until I was going into third grade, but I came up in a school system that was in a different place. And I never really learned how to spell until I became an Orton-Gillingham specialist. My poor mother, I can remember my French teacher in high school and [inaudible 00:03:58] was a Holocaust survivor, telling my mother that she promised she'd pass me if I swore never to take French again. Because in those days, you spoke French in class, then every Friday you did dictation. And I could speak French in class and every Friday I failed the dictation. And she was so frustrated because she couldn't figure out why. I couldn't spell words in English, nevermind in French. It was hopeless. And it all has to do with orthographic recall. But of course, I didn't know that then. Here I was... Who was sophisticated about that? And I can remember my own eighth grade teacher saying to me, "Close your eyes and see the words in your forehead." And I can remember thinking, "That lady's got a weird forehead. There aren't any words in mine. What is she talking about?" And yet we insist so often that the way we learn is the way other people should learn. And that's where I think we get into trouble, because people really do learn differently. And dyslexic kids definitely learn differently. And if we're not willing to change the way we teach, then we are dooming them not to learn. Adam Dayan: Absolutely. What kinds of students do you serve at your school? Ruth Arberman: Well most of our students come in with testing, either a neuropsychological, sometimes done by a neuropsychologist, it could be a psychologist, could be a psycho ed. Sometimes it's testing from a speech and language pathologist. And the reason I say that is because sometimes the verbiage differs based on who does the testing, but the kid is the same. And so what you see is kids who may have a formal diagnosis of dyslexia. You may see kids who have that more generalized language-based learning disorder. Sometimes we'll see things that say, "phonological processing disorder". But what it really comes down to is that you have kids that are failing to acquire reading skills in the way that they would be expected to do so. They may also, unfortunately by the time we see them, have developed some school anxiety, poor self esteem. And for me, one of their biggest problems is that they haven't equated learning with success. So, they're not really willing to sometimes put out the effort and sometimes the sticktoitiveness to get themselves to learn. Because it's never paid off for them before, so why would you do it? Adam Dayan: They're feeling kind of defeated. Ruth Arberman: Yeah, and stupid. My own son spent most of third grade coming home from school and telling me he was stupid. And I asked him about it recently. He's 32, he is a college graduate, he works on contract for the Department of the Air Force in network security. And I asked him about it recently and he said to me, "Mom, I think at some level I knew I wasn't stupid, but school made me feel that way every day." That's no way for school to work for you. And one of the things we see with a lot of adult dyslexics is that they're underachievers. And they're underachievers even after sometimes their academic stuff gets dealt with, because nobody dealt with the other issues that came along with it. Adam Dayan: Well, as an educator, how would you define dyslexia? Does it affect spoken words, written words, both? Ruth Arberman: Well, the classic definition and the one that I like to use, is Dr. Sally Shaywitz's definition, which basically says that it's an unexpected failure to acquire reading skills. And what that really means is, the kid is bright, there's no intellectual reason why they shouldn't be reading. They're not blind, they're not deaf, they're not emotionally disturbed. So, what does that leave? Formal testing will show that to you, but as a parent, if you have a child who is normally developing in every other way, whose language skills, they can hold a conversation, they can follow along with what's going on at the dinner table, they can retrieve things for you when you say, "Go to the kitchen and get me an orange." Okay, you don't see anything that's really tweaking you and then they're not learning to read. That should be a warning sign. Some other early warning signs that research bears out is kids who have difficulty rhyming. So when I can't rhyme words, it's one of the ways that our brain does learn to put words together as we read, is you recognize the words you already know and then you sub in other letters for it. And if I can't do that... So if I said to you, "Say the word slid and now say it without the S." If you can't unhook that sound and end up with lid, then you might struggle learning to read because that's the process that the brain uses to learn words. Some kids, one of my professors used to say, would read if you hung them out of a third for a window by their heels. It just comes to them as naturally as breathing. And the dyslexic kid is the opposite. It doesn't come to them in a natural way. And the reason for that is because we don't have a discreet place in our brain where reading takes place. Right? There's an auditory processing center, there are motor cortexes, but reading is a relatively new, in terms of evolution speaking, task for human beings. And so, there isn't a discreet place in the brain. And from what we know from pet scanning and other work that neurologists and brain science has shown us is that dyslexics are effectively trying to read with the wrong part of the brain. And so, it's less efficient for them. And what Orton-Gillingham and a lot of these other multisensory strategies do is not only give you the reading skills, but pet scanning shows that they will ultimately reprogram you to read in a more efficient manner. Adam Dayan: So a lot of components to what you just said, and we'll break that down further during the course of our conversation. Children with dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities often go unnoticed in the classroom. So, what are some signs that students, teachers, or parents might look for to identify their child's dyslexia or language-based learning disability? Ruth Arberman: Well, I would say for a younger child, for a preschooler, definitely it's those early language skills. Most dyslexic kids can recite the alphabet, but they might struggle if you say to them, "What comes after D?" and not have to go back to A. Right? Most of us can just go E, but a dyslexic kid's going to go, "A, B, C, D." because they can't break that sequence and pull it out. You might notice that they may read something that they've read before and they'll sub out a word that means the same thing but doesn't match the print. A really common one is kids who will... the page says, "father" and they'll read, dad. But I've seen ones as interesting as a kid who was reading that the page said, "stiff" and he read, rigid. And what's happening is that the language center in the brain, the part that gets meaning is getting ahead of the coding part. Adam Dayan: Right. Ruth Arberman: Right? So, we code in a linear, in a sequential manner. But if I get to meaning first, then I'm going to pop in what it means, and it has no relationship to print. The very common, one of the very common misperceptions is that dyslexic kids read backwards. They don't. If a kid reverses letters, that means they're dyslexic. It doesn't. But lots of dyslexic kids do miss letters because they can't hold that picture, again, in their mind of what that letter is. And if you visualize for yourself putting a scissor on a table or a spoon, it doesn't matter in what position you put the spoon. You can face it towards you, you can face it the other way towards you, you can turn it over. It didn't become anything other than a spoon. But if I do that to a B, it can become a D or a P. And so, it's not that they don't understand that the direction changed, it's that they can't hold onto which direction equals which sound. So you see a lot of that reversing. In reading, it's easier for them to start fixing themselves because if I read, bad, for, dad, it doesn't really make sense. Right? So, context is going to cue me. I see a lot of kids who reverse numbers and really struggle with that because there is no cue. So that can be very frustrating, but reversals of letters are fairly common in kids until age eight. One thing that should cue parents is, if you have a family history of dyslexia or language-based learning disorders, you should be looking at your kid more carefully. Because there is research to show that there is a hereditary component to this. And there are families in Sweden that have been tracked for seven generations. So if somebody in your immediate family struggled to learn to read, you should be careful with your own kids. Speaker 1: You're listening to Curious Incident, a podcast for special needs families with your host Adam Dayan. Adam Dayan: So in your case, your son was eight years old when you realize this. When do families usually discover that their child has dyslexia? Is it common for them to realize around that age or around a certain grade? Ruth Arberman: I wish we realized earlier, and hopefully the city's promise to start testing in kindergarten will come to fruition, because you can avoid a lot of the other issues if you test early. But for a lot of parents, I would say that unfortunately third grade is often the place. And it's because the curriculum really shifts in third grade. So, bright kids sometimes can really hide the fact that they're not reading in first and second grade, because so much of first and second grade is discussion. It's the teacher talking to you about stuff and then she may give you something to read. But you probably could answer just based on what you already knew and understood from what she talked about. And there's not new information coming in that you're not being given orally first. Some kids have pretty good memory and can fake their way through a lot of stuff. But in third grade, all of a sudden you start getting science and social studies and unfamiliar words and content and more expectation to work independently. And now all the crutches that the dyslexic kid has been using, sort of fall apart. Adam Dayan: Right. The demands are greater. You're putting more things together and it's harder to hide behind. Ruth Arberman: And more if it's print-based. Adam Dayan: Right. Ruth Arberman: That's the big change really, is that it really shifts from being very verbal to very print-based. You're going to see some kids you're going to notice earlier. And certainly kids who received early intervention services, you might know from that. If they struggle to learn to have good oral language. All print is oral language on paper. So if I'm struggling with comprehension, if I'm struggling with processing language in speech, then I'm definitely going to struggle with it in print, because print is less forgiving. If I'm having a conversation with you and you say something that I don't understand or you use a word that I don't get, I can ask you to clarify it. But when I'm reading texts, I can't call the author up and say, "Hey, what did you mean in line two?" So, I have to work that out for myself. And what happens with a lot of dyslexic kids is they can maybe struggle through and read the print. What they can't do is simultaneously get meaning from it, because they're spending so much energy just figuring out what the words are, that there's none left for, what does that mean? And that's what I meant about their being so inefficient, because oh often, they have to go back and read it again, and maybe read it again. And so, it starts taking them so much time that the whole thing breaks down. And then if you look at the fact that many kids with language-based learning disorders and dyslexia have comorbid something else, maybe some intentional issues. That's a biggie because even if they're mild, if it takes me three times as long to do it and my attention is poor, I think you can see how that's not going to work. Adam Dayan: Sure. Ruth Arberman: It's going to fall apart before you can get it done. Adam Dayan: Let me pick up on something that you mentioned before about the city starting to test children for dyslexia in kindergarten. Do you think that's going to make a big difference? Ruth Arberman: I hope so. I'd like to believe it would. My concern is that the rest of that package of bills didn't get done in Albany. So the screening was part one, but the other part that has to follow is that you need to think about how we train teachers to begin with. Because I've got a master's degree in reading, I have a master's degree in school administration, but I also completed 18 graduate credit hours in special education. And none of those, not a single one of those courses had anything to do with reading. And that's really a concern. So, you're putting out all these teachers in the classroom who have degrees in special ed, who if they've taken a class in reading at all, it's kind of a theory class. It's sort of like saying, you want to learn to drive, so I'm going to tell you to go watch the traffic on Atlantic Avenue. And in a couple hours, I'm going to give you the keys. And everybody will be going, "You can't do that." They actually have to get in the car and learn to drive. Well, that's the same thing with teaching reading. It's a skill. And so, the teacher has to be taught how to teach that skill, not taught about the theory behind that skill. Adam Dayan: Right. Ruth Arberman: And so, you can do all the testing, but if you don't have people then to do something with the testing results you get, I'm not quite sure that we're there yet. The reason I'm hopeful is, once you start doing screening, there's going to be so many more parents saying, "Okay, what are you going to do next that is going to build hopefully some pressure for some change to actually take place?" I'd love to go out of business. I really would. I'm 68, I would be fine to retire. But there are so many kids yet, who there really isn't an answer for in the system that we've got at the moment. Adam Dayan: Right. So what does your school look for in an evaluation or a school record, when deciding whether to admit a student? Ruth Arberman: Well first of all, I'm looking for, is this child struggling with reading? And is the reason they're struggling with reading because they have a language-based learning disorder or dyslexia, not a child who's struggling with reading because they're primarily ADHD and they just can't sit still enough long enough to read? And I'm also looking for, is the problem severe enough to warrant the solution? Because while I love my school, we're a small school. We're not in people's neighborhoods. Transportation becomes an issue. Lots of my students are getting up at six o'clock in the morning to get to us. If their parents had a solution in their neighborhood, they'd take it. And so usually we're looking for, is this child failing at school in addition to, are they struggling to learn to read? And then, does the professional who did the evaluation feel that a setting like ours is warranted? Adam Dayan: I know from my experience it takes a certain level of commitment from the parents in working with the school for that relationship to thrive. Am I correct? Ruth Arberman: Yeah, we need a partnership. We need parents who understand that unfortunately, you've gotten to the place that it's not just going to be, "Oh, we'll send them to school and they'll fix them." We're going to have to work together. And sometimes that means parents making changes at home that they may not have thought of before. We may need them to structure the way their kids approach homework. We may need you to back up that when we're asking a child to do something, it's not because we're trying to be mean today. It's because without practice, this learning won't take place. Adam Dayan: Right. Consistency between what's happening in school and what's happening at home. Ruth Arberman: Yes. And you have to have buy in at home. And that's really important because I've worked with some families where unfortunately, one parent didn't buy in and was like, "Oh, I was dyslexic too and I turned out just fine." And that just doesn't work because that may be true for you, but we don't live in that world anymore, number one. And number two, that may not be true for your kid. But if they hear you with that attitude then it does make it harder for us to get our work done. Adam Dayan: Sure. Makes sense. How does one educate a student with dyslexia? What would you say makes an appropriate educational approach for someone struggling with dyslexia? Ruth Arberman: Almost all the research supports what we call, direct sequential and multisensory instruction. In layman's terms, that means that you're teaching something in an order with a lot of practice and repetition using visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactical reinforcement. So not just my telling it to you, not just my showing it to you, but maybe letting you touch it on a piece of sandpaper, cut it out and match it somewhere. Lots of reinforcement for that skill development, and lots of what I would call, distributed practice over time. So it's not just that I'm going to practice it today and, oh, I'm going to own it. I may have to practice it for a couple of weeks before I really own it. Because what you need to happen for the dyslexic child is that they develop automaticity. Many dyslexic kids will read a word in a paragraph, "the..." And they'll look at the word and they'll go, "The cat. The... Oh, the cat is white." And then the story will go on to say, "She sat in the sun." And then they'll get to the next sentence which says, "The cat is fat.", and they'll be back to, "The cat.", because they can't remember it from two lines before. We need to do away with that. We need them to be reading fluently. And so they not only have to practice that word, cat, today, they may have to practice it tomorrow. We try to make it fun sometimes for them, because if something is fun or novel, A, you're going to do it more willingly. And B, what we know about memory is that it holds onto those things better. So, I may send home that recognition homework for those words as Tic-Tac-Toe. And I'll take the words they're struggling with and put them on a Tic-Tac-Toe board. And the game plan is, you go home and you play with one of your sibs. And in order to put your marker on the board, you have to read the word. And then you have to write all the words you win with. So by the end of the night, you've read that word maybe 10 times, but in a fun way. The other thing that I'm looking for is engagement. Because the problem with a lot of the worksheets that kids have been given over the years that are supposed to be teaching them something, is that they're not. Because you can answer some of those worksheets without even thinking. And there's no real engagement, so there's no learning. So, you really need to get the kid to focus in on that component that you're trying to get them to understand and to work from it. And what we mean about structure is that English has a structure. You and I may never have learned it because kids who learn to read without struggle, they just absorb it. But if you went to learn a foreign language, one of the things they would be teaching about is structure. Right? In French, you put the verbs in a different place. If you don't know that and you structure that sentence as an English sentence, it won't work. So in English, you have to understand that English is a vowel-driven language. And if you switch out the vowel, you not only change the sound of the word, you change the meaning. Right? If I go from B-E-D to B-U-D, not only does the word change, but one I sleep on and the other I don't. So, you have to understand what the silent E does in English. It's a critical part, because it's in hundreds of thousands of words. And so if I don't understand it and I can't use it, then I can't read all those words. Speaker 1: If you like what you are hearing, please let us know by subscribing to our podcast and letting others know about it too. If you have thoughts, questions, comments, or would like to suggest ideas for a future episode, we'd love to hear it. So email your feedback to Adam Dayan: Following up on some of the things you just said, if we go back to some of the challenges you described earlier, kids with language-based impairments struggling with rhyming and the alphabet and certain words, which is where the meaning is first and challenges with numbers. So, does everything you just said apply to those challenges? In other words, if you're breaking it down sequentially in a multisensory way, and you're making it fun and you're keeping the student engaged and you're continuing it over time. Not just one day but over a series of weeks. Is that how you attack those challenges and help students with these issues progress in those areas? Ruth Arberman: Yeah, I mean what Orton-Gillingham is, and some of its descendants if you want to think of them, the programs that came from Orton, Orton was a neurologist and Anna Gillingham was an educator. And in the 1920s they looked at kids that they called, word blind. We know that's not, with today's neuroscience, an accurate description. But they put together this program that evidence shows works with kids who struggle to learn to read. And what it's really doing is giving you the tools to work around the things you can't do. So it's not like you're magically going to be good at rhyming, you probably never will. But on the other hand, if I can give you the tools to learn to read without rhyming, because the end game is reading not rhyming. So, you got to kind of remember where you're trying to go. And the end game is getting meaning from print, because that's what we read for. So, that's where that game is going. Now along the way, your vocabulary will improve, listen and comprehension will probably improve, which is great. Other things will... hopefully spelling will improve because you'll begin to understand why words look the way they look in English. And one of the things that we do as well is we talk about word origin. And one of the reasons we do that is because you're looking to help your students have a hook to, how do I remember how to spell certain words that are not in effect anglo-saxon words? Because English is a huge melting pot for words that came in from other places. And the problem is, we kept their spellings and changed the pronunciations. So, you get all these variants of ways that you can spell words, and a lot of them relate to word origin. So for example, almost all math and science words in English are Greek, because it was the Greeks who invented math and science, so they named them. When I went to school, it was euclidean geometry. So once you understand that, then you get that, if I'm looking at them as Greek words, the F in Greek is PH and the I in Greek is Y. So when you think of mathematical and scientific words and you hear F's in them, think PH like physician and photograph and physics. And once I get the PH I know the Y should go for the I. And so, you're giving that student who can't visualize that a hook for how to spell a huge group of words in English that are math and science words. Adam Dayan: That's a great example. So, you mentioned Orton-Gillingham. What are some other types of multisensory instruction? And what credentials should teachers have to be able to administer or provide that type of instruction? Ruth Arberman: I mean, one of the very well known ones is Wilson who worked with... they're disciples of Orton. Alphabetic phonics, PAF, preventing academic failure, out west, Slingerland's very common. That was one that came out of Texas [inaudible 00:28:15] Hospital. But they're all doing the same thing. Somewhat different, is that Wilson was originally developed for adults and although they do have a school version currently, there is a little bit less multisensory in the Wilson because adults didn't need as much. I think the biggest issue is training. If you really get somebody who's well trained in any of those direct multisensory methodologies, they should be able to teach a child to read. The problem is that so often two things happen, either somebody went to a workshop for a weekend and now, quote, they're trained. Or they did some training but there was nobody to follow up on the training with them. So to become a certified member of the Orton-Gillingham Academy, for example, like myself, you have to have done a hundred hours of instruction, then a hundred hours of supervised teaching, and then submitted what essentially is all of the work for the year with all the students that you've done for academy membership. That means that you've gotten feedback along the way. So you tried a lesson out, you got to see how it went. You got feedback as to what was working and that wasn't before the Orton-Gillingham Academy would say that you are certified and able to work without supervision. Adam Dayan: Are there any other techniques or methodologies besides the ones you've mentioned that you use in your school to meet the needs of your students? Ruth Arberman: Well we do, because you're not only looking at decoding and you're not only looking... You need to look at fluency, you need to look at comprehension. And so, you are bringing in other techniques that work with those. And you need to look at writing. We use a writing program that was developed by two psychologists in Minnesota, Tori Greene and Lee Enfield. And I like it because it is a multisensory approach to writing. So where you and I might have been taught to diagram sentences in high school as to their parts, for a lot of people, a lot of that never makes too much sense. And they never really understand what they're doing with it or why they're doing it. The program that we're looking at can be started in kindergarten and is looking at, how do you build ideas into sentences, which is really what a sentence is about. So, where's it subject, what am I talking about? Where's the action? And then what can I do to the action, is where we start. So you can tell where the action takes place, you can tell when the action takes place, you can tell how the action takes place. So once I've learned that, I can start expanding, the dog ran to the dog ran under the fence by the house. The dog ran under the fence by the house because he was hungry. So you're encouraging them to not write the sentences that so many teachers see where everything starts with I. Adam Dayan: Is there any technology that's available or useful for kids who are struggling with these issues? Ruth Arberman: There is, and we use some tech in school. I don't use as much as some schools do, I'll be honest, because I really do think that you need to learn the skill first and then the tech just makes it easier. One of my concerns about voice activated, so you never have to learn to write, you can just go to dictating to your computer and it typing for you, is twofold. One, most computer programs today still require you to read set paragraphs to them before it can learn how your speech pattern is so it can type for you. And I think you can see the problem for that. As a dyslexic kid, I can't read the paragraph to get it into the machine to have it help me. And so, it misses so many words that the student then has to go back and correct, that it actually takes longer than it would take if they wrote it and is more frustrated. Second of all, you're not always going to be in an environment where that technology exists. So, you need to be able to write a simple sentence, a simple paragraph. But definitely, we work on teaching our kids typing skills because more and more, everything is email, everything is text. People don't sit down with a pad and paper too often, so they need to learn to type. And that is very useful for students because once you're doing that, you can use word prediction software to aid spelling. So you want to write, "I went to the pharmacy." and I don't know how to spell, pharmacy, to get my aspirin. And if I put in, "I went to the PH.", it will all of a sudden drop a list of words for you and you can just, "Oh, pharmacy's the one I want." Click it. And if I didn't know how to spell it right, it's fine. Obviously, spell checking is something we all use, whether we're dyslexic or not. Grammarly, things like that that make it easier to go back and fix written text. Adam Dayan: Okay. I think we've talked about some of the academic skills that you help your students develop, for example, reading comprehension, vocabulary. How about social, emotional skills that you help your students develop? Ruth Arberman: I think they're a really important component for two reasons. One, because many kids who have dyslexia and weren't succeeding come in with a damaged sense of themselves. And two, because you're going to need to be able to advocate for yourself in your real life when you're an adult. And you can't do that if you don't understand yourself. So, we have a full-time guidance counselor who works with our students every week in a program that we call, Social Emotional Health, which deals with everything from, my best friend doesn't like me today and I don't know what to do about that, to he was gossiping or calling me names. Typical kid stuff that dyslexic kids and some kids with some language issues might find harder to work on because they can't find the words to express how they're feeling. To, how do I deal with frustration? What are some strategies I can use when I feel stressed? What are effective ways to regroup and reorganize myself? Because lots of kids who have some attentional issues may have some executive functioning stuff. I learned to use strategies to stay on track, time management, a big one. So, all those kinds of things from what I would think of as normal developmental stuff to, how does my dyslexia sometimes make me feel? What happens when you go to a family dinner? Let's say you're a Jewish student and it's Passover and you're the one who can't read the Haggadah. How do you deal with... How does that make you feel? And then what happens when you finally can? Adam Dayan: Really important. Those are all very important and necessary skills. Ruth Arberman: And the thing that I think is important is that they're actually skills for life, not skills for school. Adam Dayan: Absolutely. Ruth Arberman: So, developing grit is really a life skill. And if you can develop that perseverance, you will do well at whatever you do, despite your dyslexia. Whereas you can be brilliant, but if you've got no sticktoitiveness, it doesn't get you too far. Adam Dayan: Agreed. What has your experience been with the New York City Department of Education and the extent to which it is able to effectively educate students with language-based learning impairments? Ruth Arberman: I have to say that if the language-based learning impairments are moderate to severe, then I've got concerns, because they only seem to have really two boxes for those kids. And it's either an ICT class, which is an integrated co-teaching class where you've got somewhere between 28 and 32 children of which 40% have an IEP and have been diagnosed as needing additional help. And you have a regular teacher and a special education teacher. That works if you can keep up in all the other areas and I only need some support during the day. My problem with that is, and the DOE will admit, that they can't change the instruction, they can only modify the way that it's given. But my concern is pace, because it's a mainstream classroom and the pace of instruction is very quick. It's meant for kids who aren't struggling. And so if I'm struggling, just having an extra teacher who can come around and give me a little time doesn't make up for the fact that you're way ahead of where I am. And I can't work independently in that classroom, so that starts to make social issues. The other answer is the self-contained classroom in which there's 12 students and one teacher and maybe the possibility of adding some sets. But the issue again is, so I pull the kid out of his class, I've seen kids on their IEPs where they're out of their classroom more than they're in it. So by the Department of Ed's way of thinking that ICT with sets is less restrictive than let's say they would view my environment. But in reality, if I've got 10 sessions of sets, five for reading and five for math, maybe I've got three for speech and language, I've got OT and counseling, I'm out of my room 17 sessions out of the 30 in a week, I don't see how that child can feel that they fit in that classroom. And they often really resent being pulled out because they're often missing all the fun stuff. And they see themselves as being different in a bad way. One of the things my students often say to me is, "Oh, it feels so good to be around other people who are like me." And it makes them feel good about themselves because if I think Tommy is smart but he's like me, then maybe I can begin to believe that I'm smart. Adam Dayan: And I think you're touching on something very important, which is educating the whole child. And it's not just about academics when we're talking about someone's educational progress or also looking at the social emotional. So, how you fit in with your peers or view yourself as fitting in with your peers is very important. And your self-esteem is really important. And those things can either hinder your progress or aid your progress. And they need attention the same way the academics do. Ruth Arberman: And I think something that people don't often think about also is personality. And I know that it's hard to ask a system as big as New York City to individualize at that level. But you know can have a kid who's really competitive and maybe has pretty significant learning issues, but because they're so competitive, they don't affect them that way. But you can have a kid who's not and who's maybe more on the shy, reserved side and they're not going to step up to that challenge, they're going to step away from that challenge. And the problem is that in stepping away what they end up doing is teaching themselves to disengage. And if I disengage, I lose out not only on the stuff that I was having trouble learning, I lose out on the stuff I could learn too, because it becomes habit to be disengaged. Speaker 1: You're listening to Curious Incident, a podcast for special needs families with your host Adam Dayan. Adam Dayan: What words of encouragement do you give to families who are worried about the implications of a dyslexia diagnosis for their child? Ruth Arberman: Well, I think that they have reason to be concerned that if you don't deal with it, unfortunately the outcomes aren't great. But on the other hand, there are a lot of very famous people who speak about their dyslexia openly and who have succeeded. I think many of them have succeeded in non-traditional ways. One of the things about dyslexia is that adulthood is far easier than school. Third grade kind of says, "Be good at everything." and adulthood says, "Be good at something." And so, finding your child's passion and channeling them in that direction can really help in two ways. One, because if my kid is really interested in... My son was very interested in Greek myths. And at the time that he was young, there was a video game out called, Zeus. And I would let him play it all the time because it reinforced the vocabulary that went with the Greek myths. So then when he wanted to read the Greek myths, he already had all those names and all those concepts and it was easier for him. And they're great adventure stories. And then what happened was, he started to know more about myths than anybody else. And so in high school when they were doing myths, he knew them all. And so, that really boosted his self-esteem. And it's those things like that where you're asking them to learn in a very discreet area, that can really boost them up. My son, I knew we'd finally, ironically cracked the dyslexia when he asked to read a book that wasn't assigned for school. When you start to read for pleasure, that's when you've really kind of moved past the dyslexia holding them back. I shouldn't have been surprised that my son asked to read the biography of Google at the time, because he's a techie and he always was. He does a lot of podcasts for learning, actually he still does, but he reads as well. And so, I think that when you see a child pick up a book because they want to read it versus because they have to read it, then you've kind of really gotten somewhere. And they may always read slower, it may always take them more time. They may always enjoy... One of the things we do in school is, we will often read a book and then watch that. If the book had a movie made, we'll do a comparison because it's a great way to get kids thinking. But for other kids, it also... showing it to them gives them meaning that they would've never gotten from the page. Adam Dayan: Ruth, in the past, you've talked to me about calling a bull a bull. And we can join the debate about labels and the benefits of labels and the harms or disadvantages of labels. Can you say a few words on that subject? Ruth Arberman: Yeah, and I'm going to say I'm about it from two ways. One, for years, the New York City Department of Education would not acknowledge dyslexia. They wouldn't use that word. Now because of the new state legislature, they will, so that's really important. But it's really important to tell your kid what they've got, which is what I meant by calling a bull a bull. Because if you and I, if we went to the doctor and the doctor said, "You're telling me you're not feeling well, but I think that if I tell you what it is, you'll look it up online and you'll make yourself hysterical. So instead of labeling it, I'm just going to give you some medication. You should take that and you'll feel better." I think most of us will go home going, "I'm never seeing that doctor again. I mean, that's crazy. How can I feel comfortable taking this medication, if I don't know what it's for and what it's supposed to do?" And so when you don't label what's going on with a child, they label themselves, that's human nature. And the label they use is, stupid. And that is far more harmful than sitting down with your child and saying, "Hey. Okay, we've done some testing and it shows that you're dyslexic. And this is what that means and here's the game plan for it." Because that gives everybody a sense of power. Whereas when I don't know what's going on with me, I spend a whole lot of time trying to cover it up, often becoming the class clown for boys particularly, unfortunately, saving face because inside I feel so uncomfortable. And I can't own who I am and I certainly can't advocate for what I need, if I don't know what it is that I'm advocating for. Adam Dayan: Will students with language-based learning impairments have to work harder than most students to learn to read, understand, develop, and grow? And are there any benefits to having dyslexia or language-based learning impairments? Ruth Arberman: Unfortunately the answer is, yes, especially if they're really in the hole. I've got a fifth grade student this year who came in reading at K, maybe K one somewhere. They've got a lot of catch up to do, and that's going to take work. But it's not a bad thing, that it takes work, because it teaches them how to work. And that's something that we all need as adults. We need to know how it'll work, to how to put forth effort that effectively makes change. So, that's not a bad thing. Once the kids start to see themselves learn, then all of a sudden their attitude changes. Because once they can see themselves making success, they want more of it. And so, they don't really mind the work when work results in a positive feedback. Adam Dayan: What advice would you give teachers who are educating students with language-based learning impairments? Ruth Arberman: There's a television show that was done I believe in the 1980s on PBS called, F.A.T. City. And Dr. Rick Lavoie, who was at Eagle Hill in Connecticut, made this film to help educators in his school and other educators understand what it felt like to be a learning disabled child in a classroom. And he's got this brilliant scene where he's got like 16 educators and parents sitting around in a circle. And he turns them learning disabled for 45 minutes and he does it by really pressing them, putting a lot of pressure on people for answers in a very rapidly paced way, which is how classrooms sometimes feel to kids with learning disabilities. And he embarrasses people and he does things that as educators make me cringe, but people do. But it's a great visual and you can find the series still. You can get a DVD of it, you can probably download it. It's a great way for teachers to understand how the way they teach impacts their students. One of the things as New Yorkers is, we talk fast. The problem is, some of our students don't listen fast. So we have to be patient and to realize that if they need us to restate it, they're not being a pain in the ass. They're not doing it to be difficult, they just need to hear it again. And they may need you to paraphrase it and let them hear it again a different way. Adam Dayan: Do you have any anecdotes you can share to make this journey more concrete for our listeners? Ruth Arberman: One of my students once told me that he was pretty sure that God didn't make him to read, which was probably one of the saddest things I'd ever heard. But he came from a family where his father was severely dyslexic. And as a man in his 30s, my understanding was that the only thing his father could write was his own name. And so he had no image of himself as a reader. And when he finally began to read, he looked at his reading instructor and he said to her that she had done something that he didn't think was possible, and that he wanted to make her proud. And I think that desire to make our parents proud, to make your teachers proud, is pretty universal. But it's something that doesn't happen as often for dyslexic kids. So we have to celebrate their victories, and you have to celebrate incremental victories. But you also have to send the message that you're not going to get to use it as a crutch. You're not going to get to use it as a reason why you can't. Because too many kids fall into that trap of saying, "Well, you can't expect that of me because I have dyslexia." It's like, "No, that's not true. I'm going to expect of view what's reasonable. The difference is, that I'm going to support you to get there." Adam Dayan: Yeah. Well, that's a deeply moving story. And I think it's an important reminder that in general, kids want to please their teachers and parents. And sometimes some teachers can be dismissive of certain students, if they don't fully understand what's going on with that student. So, that's something important to keep in mind. Ruth Arberman: Well, I think I sometimes have to remind my own teachers when you're having a bad day, that most likely the kid didn't wake up in the morning and go, "I think I'll go to school and make Mrs So-and-So's life miserable." Adam Dayan: Right. Ruth Arberman: That probably is not what's going on. We always try to first, figure out, is what's happening with the child, a reflection of something that happened in school or outside of school? Because they have lives outside of school. And certainly the last two years with COVID, there's been a lot of stress outside of school. So kids come into school sometimes, not in a great place. And you may need to give them a five minute break. Sometimes I'll just say to them, "Can you walk out the door and start over again? Can you just walk back out and say, 'Hey, I'm entering school. I'm going to leave my baggage out here and come back in.'" And they kind of look at you, but they do it and it starts a better day. Adam Dayan: What do your students go on to do after graduating from your program, in terms of college, work, et cetera? Ruth Arberman: Well, I've got students who've done both. We only go through sixth grade, so a lot of our students do end up back in public education, which is great. And they have gone on, many to college. I have one student who is currently completing his PhD in civil engineering. We have a lot of kids in tech. That shouldn't be a surprise. It seems to be an area that dyslexic kids, their big picture thinking works in that field. But I also have students who have become chefs and jewelry designers and graphic designers. There's a lot of dyslexic in the arts. It has to do with that difference in the brain that may make it hard to learn to read, but makes it easier to learn other things.

And then I have students who have gone more in the trade direction. I have a student who's an electrician, probably makes more than the rest of us. I have a student who works on big trucks. He's a diesel engineer. So, I think students have gone in a wide direction, depending on their interests. What I like to say to my students is your future is kind of like a hallway with a whole bunch of doors. And my job is to get you out of elementary school with all the doors still open. If you don't learn math and you don't learn to read, you've closed a whole bunch of doors before you even started the game. And you don't know which ones you're going to want later, so we have to keep them open. Adam Dayan: Great. Before we conclude, I have to ask, what fuels your passion? Why do you do what you do? What drives you to get out of bed and go into school every day? Ruth Arberman: Well, I think it's that it's seeing that kids' expression on their face when they do something that they didn't think they could do, or when that light bulb goes off in their mind and you see it click. And you say, "Oh my God, they got it." It's that. But it's also students coming back to visit. I'm in elementary school. I get people going back to visit their high schools, but I get people coming back to visit elementary school.

And it's just really interesting because what they're often saying to me is, "This was the first place that I felt like me. This is the first place where I began to think that I could succeed." And I think that's really positive in people's lives, that we all want to feel like a success. I don't think anybody wants to feel like a failure. And so we need to send a message because it's important to society that education is a means to success. If we don't get it, if we don't have an educated population that has huge ramifications for our country. Adam Dayan: Absolutely. Ruth, what's one interesting fact about you? Ruth Arberman: I do ceramics. I have since I was 11. I really like that it's right-brained. I don't have to use any words. I can turn my brain off for a while. I did glassblowing for a while, which was really fun. I quit when I got pregnant because it was just too hot in the shop. But I have a bachelor's in fine arts, so I kind of... there's always something in my life that I'm doing that involves touching and things that are in that other realm. Adam Dayan: Nice. Where can our listeners get more information about your school? Ruth Arberman: We have a website online,, which will give you information. Or they can reach out in email People can reach out who are not members of my school community or don't have kids, but may have a nephew or a cousin or a neighbor, because we're always trying to make the knowledge more broadly available to people. I kind of believe that as parents, if we don't look out for our kids, who is going to? So, I do workshops for people. I did one for the public library last year. I'm always trying to bring a greater awareness of the importance of literacy out to the community. And so if we can help in some way, please reach out. Adam Dayan: All right. Let's bring it home. Ruth, when I first started my law firm back in 2009, I remember coming to your school to learn more about your program and speak with you about educating kids with dyslexia. I remember those conversations very fondly and have always respected the amazing work you've been doing at the Sterling School over the last 23 years. Thank you so much for coming into the studio today to be a guest on our podcast and a source of support and hope for our listeners. I wish you much continued success in the future, and look forward to keeping in touch. Ruth Arberman: Thank you so much. Adam Dayan: Thank you. Speaker 1: Thanks for listening to Curious Incident, a podcast for special needs families. Don't forget to subscribe for a new episode every month. For more resources and helpful information, check out our blog at

This podcast provides general information which is not intended to and does not constitute legal advice. You should not rely on this information for any purpose. For legal counsel, you should consult with an attorney to discuss your specific circumstances. Your listening to this podcast does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and the law offices of Adam Dayan, PLLC. No attorney-client relationship is established, unless a retainer agreement has been executed between the client and the Law Offices of Adam Dayan. This podcast may constitute attorney advertising. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. Any guest featured or resources mentioned on this podcast are for information purposes and are not endorsed by the Law Offices of Adam Dayan, PLLC.


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