Passive and Sedentary Activities: Misnomers that Perpetuate Anti-Tech Bias and Punish Dyxlexic Learners

If something is passive or sedentary can it be an activity? I’ll let you parse that one. It’s probably better to call it a pastime. 

I think one of the main fears people have in acknowledging the reality of dyslexia is then having to cope with the possibility that reading will never be an enjoyable activity for those who have it. And, as everyone, from Stephen R. Covey to President Truman, have noted, reading is one of the greatest keys to success. Well, if dyslexics can’t read, then they can’t become successful…right? Wrong!

That kind of illogical leap is what philosophers call a syllogism. It assumes success is only possible if reading is present, but the truth is folks with dyslexia can be successful without ever having read a book. 

“But won’t they have to rely on those nasty alternatives: music and videos?”


Even though we pay lip service to a well-rounded education, the messages we send with testing, curriculum, and other adult-created media is that reading well and testing well are the true measures of success. In other words, most gates to greater opportunity, are barred by some kind of written exam. 

In the meantime, there are national campaigns to promote reading. I see it on billboards, in commercials, and in public programming like Reading Rainbow, as if this will somehow fix the problem that millions of school-age children with dyslexia are performing way below grade-level. 

After years of hearing this stuff, it’s not too hard to imagine why people with dyslexia get the wrong idea about success and whether their contribution is valued. Given their difficulty in language processing, many turn to the arts or recreational endeavors as outlets for their intelligence, and in the U.S. we don’t place a particularly high level of praise on those pursuits as areas of personal and professional achievement. If you say you’re an artist people look at you like “Oh, you must be broke.” My husband is an outdoor educator, and when I tell people that, I get a blank stare. 

We’ve basically been told our entire lives that reading is an active pastime that stimulates the imagination, while other forms of media, or sources of information, are passive and sedentary and, therefore, not good. This is ridiculous to me, because I love to read, and if I gave free reign to my gluttonous reading habit, I’d never leave the house. How sedentary and passive is that?! 

On the other hand, my husband learns best by watching someone do something, and then trying to do it himself. He can’t simply read about it and then do it. I can’t even read about it and do it. I suck at a lot of stuff that he’s just naturally good at. But, if he can watch a YouTube video on how to fix an engine, he can go out into the garage and do it in real life…and he does. That doesn’t seem passive or sedentary. Maybe he’s had more time to develop the skills because he wasn’t reading and filled the gap with other stuff. Maybe he is gifted because his brain left out reading and made more space for other talents. I don’t know. 

“Well, isn’t he missing the rich emotional, intellectual, and spiritual landscape of literature?” 

I’m not so sure. I had to read books to understand basic things about compassion, equity, human nature, and other stuff literature is supposed to help us understand. Curtis already gets all that, because he’s out having relationships with people and the environment. He doesn’t need to read about it, because he’s experiencing it. He takes in so much more from his environment than I do. I get so stuck in the sequence of things and tune everything else out. 

This comes in handy when I need to focus in order to accomplish something, but it’s a real liability in a high-stakes setting where you have to be aware of a big stage with lots of players…you know…like in a marriage. I quickly get into hot water because I get too deeply focused on one detail. This is in spite of my being able to read well, a skill that supposedly makes me ‘smart’ and ‘successful’.

“Well, what if he changes his mind and wants to become a doctor, attorney, or engineer?”

No problem. With audiobooks, speech-to-text, FaceTime, and other technologies, he has enough support that his language processing deficit is manageable. 

In essence, what I’m saying is that all there is to experience in life is accessible to people with dyslexia so long as they have the proper accommodation. I think a good film adaptation is just as valid an experience as reading the book itself, and we needn’t privilege one over the other. Both can be active and imaginative endeavors, and are a small part of a well-balanced learning lifestyle that usually (at least in the U.S.) lacks far more in physical and creative activity such as people with dyslexia are capable of, and excel at. 

Here’s what I really don’t want to see happen: Parents and teachers abandoning helpful technologies because they’re afraid of the technology shaming of judgy moms and teachers who don’t understand that reading is so difficult it can’t be enjoyable for most people with profound dyslexia. My husband wishes desperately that he could read with ease and watches with envy when I plop down with a book and read for hours, but as much as he wants to read, reading is never enjoyable. It’s hard, hard work, a taxing neurological exercise that exhausts him by the end of the day even if he only had to respond to one email. 

I don’t worry about him using other aides to learning besides books. I don’t worry about anyone using alternatives, so long as they’re balanced.  Books and YouTube are both in the sedentary category, but if they’re balanced well with real-life activity, they can be an active part of learning.

So, before you toss your LeapPad or get rid of your Netflix subscription or put YouTube on the restricted website list, ask yourself these questions:

1) Are the media (books, videos, music,etc.) in direct conflict with our values?

2) Does he/she use these media to the exclusion of other healthy types of learning (like play, social interaction, and exercise)?

If you answered “yes”, the real problem here is content and quantity, not necessarily the media in and of themselves. 

In other words, don’t throw the baby out with the technological bath water. You’d be doing yourself the disservice of avoiding critical thinking and punishing students who learn differently. 

When the administration and the moms and the pseudoscience come at you with technology iconoclasm in their eyes, stand fast. Your students will thank you. And…in the meantime, foster a classroom culture of media balance, where reading and watching don’t come to have more value than getting out and actually doing stuff. 

Get out and do stuff! Our reading and watching are in vain if we never get up and apply what we learned.

If this post reaches even one person who’s struggling to make a decision about how or if to use screen technology in the teacher/student relationship, I’ll count my day successful. SO! Please share.


Part Four of The iPad in Mentoring: FaceTime

Like you, I strive to serve my students with the latest and greatest in ideas and technology, but not at the expense of wisdom. This continues a series on conquering the fear of technology and embracing it for use by students in the classroom.

In part one, we explored the wonders of speech-to-text. In part two I went over the organizational benefits of the iPad, and part three was all about video tutorials and learning by teaching.

Today’s post is on FaceTime and other videoconferencing platforms, and how you can use them to accommodate your dyslexic students.

Here’s why:

Being able to see as well as be seen by the person they’re talking to, is extremely important to dyslexic students. 

If you do anything with your mentees/students that requires talking to someone remotely, a phone call isn’t enough. Forcing them to read and write letters may as well be a punishment, and you know how I hate punishment. Maybe you have pen pals in other states or countries. Maybe you do video chats with professionals in different fields on career day. Maybe you do remote field trips, where a person with an iPad can take you on a tour of a park, museum, school, or even a whole country! FaceTime can also be useful for parent-teacher conference, grandparent day (maybe grandma is in a nursing home and can’t come to school, or lives out of state), job interviews, admissions interviews, whatever!

Now, your dyslexic student, who previously hated pen pal time, because he could neither read his pen pal’s letter, nor write him a letter in which he felt fully expressed and understood, can engage with his FacePal (I should totally trademark that), and get a wonderful cultural exchange (which is the whole point, by the way).

There are a few critical factors at play, in videoconferencing, for a kid with dyslexia.

One: Because of a deficit in the ability to retrieve words (spoken and written), she compensates by attending to the parts of communication she can observe without needing the faculties of language processing.

In a nutshell: because of a difference in brain wiring, a student with dyslexia may ‘lose’ a word as its on its way from a meaning in her head to a sound in her mouth. Along the way, it may even transmorgify into a completely different word that sounds similar, but has a totally different meaning.

You can imagine the frustration of having a brilliant thought, but, as its being processed into language, it gets all muddled. Magnify that by being unable to see the person she’s communicating with, and you’ve got a pretty big mess.

To compensate, she begins to attend more intensely to body language, gesture, facial expression, tone, and inflection in order to communicate and understand. Since these modes of communication exist outside of the realm of language, and more in the sphere of emotion, the dyslexic child becomes highly ‘versed’ in recognizing them. It is, therefore critical that she be able to see the person she’s talking to.

Two: The child with dyslexia needs the multisensory feedback of seeing the effect of her communication on the listener.

Since the student with dyslexia doesn’t have the tool of easy spoken and written word smithing, she must rely on her sight.

FaceTime allows her to gauge the emotional climate her words are creating in the listener in real time. She can see the furrowing of a brow, crossing of arms, leaning away, frowns of confusion, eye rolling, or squinted eyes.

These clues give her an indication of whether her point is coming across since she can never be certain if the words are coming out right. She can try to adjust her words or rephrase them until the desired emotional climate is reached in the listener: a nod of understanding, a tilting of the head and rubbing of the chin that shows interest, or a smile of enjoyment.

An analogy: Remember the physicists who ‘discovered’ dark matter? They couldnt see it or touch it. They could only observe its effects on the universe and make an informed guess as to its shape, origins, or behavior. 

For dyslexics, language is kind of like dark matter. It’s accessible, but not through the usual channels.

Three: A student with dyslexia needs to be seen in order to be fully expressed and ensure maximum understanding.

I bet you know a kid who starts explaining something to you, but immediately begins to retrace the words and repeat them over and over. With each repetition, his tone and inflection become more and more expressive, he’s flailing his arms and acting out the drama of the story adding (highly realistic) sound effects and endless side stories and tangents. He’s seemingly heedless of how long he’s taking to tell the story, except you can see him wildly glancing at you out of the side of his eye to try and gauge your reaction. He knows he’s wearing on your patience, so he tries to wrap it up, but he’s not sure if he said the right thing or whether you understood what he really wanted to say. He seems a little dazed and introverted for a moment afterward trying to figure out what just happened.

Ring any bells?

I call this symptom of dyslexia the Double Dose.

Because word retrieval is an issue, students with dyslexia may compensate for loss of communication in language by exaggerating their body language, inflection, and other kinesthetic communication.

Imagine, for instance, that you’re hosting a birthday party. You realize, suddenly that you have no cake. Panic sets in. You know Julia Child said “A party without cake is just a meeting”.

Now what?

Well, you know people love ice cream almost as much as they love cake, so, you make up for the lack of cake, by serving everyone a double (or triple, or quadruple) dose of ice cream. You know the double down on the ice cream isn’t quite the same as having cake, but it’s close.

This is why some students with dyslexia seem so flamboyant and exaggerated in their speech and manner. Instead of saying “It was an exciting weekend.” they have to resort to a full blow-by-blow of what happened to them, complete with a foley artist and lying on the floor to act out being dead from exhaustion. The problem was, they couldn’t pull out the words “exciting weekend”.

But you still get the point that it, indeed, was an exciting weekend.

That’s why FaceTime is so important. All of these expressive gestures and mannerisms are critical for their process of making themselves understood.

As in all things, you have to use something you do understand in order to figure out something you don’t understand. That’s probably why dyslexics are famous for their ability to problem solve and see the big picture. They’re getting lots of practice day in and day out.

It seems like a weakness, but, in many ways, it’s also a strength. When language barriers are initially a problem for the rest of us sequential thinkers, a child with dyslexia is already carrying on a beautiful, warm relationship with the natives. She’s attending to their mannerisms and facial expressions and can already tell who’s friend and foe. She can note and mimic their body language and gain acceptance.

So, FaceTime! Use it early and often.

There’s really no greater tool (okay except maybe teleportation and mind reading, but those are still a few years out:) for helping a kid with dyslexia engage with the world, short of actually going there.

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Embracing the iPad: Technology in Mentoring and Why You Need to Get Over Your Fear of This Deeply Engaging and Massively Useful Tool, Part 2: Organization

For those following along, this is part 2 of a series on iPads and similar devices in teaching, tutoring, and mentoring. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that there is a sort of formula for getting this right. I say that, because I see it at work in my interactions with students, everyday.

All-In-One Organization:

As the mentor, this all-in-one Organization is fabulous, because it’s like a Mary Poppins bag. You can put so much stuff in it! I’ve got apps for everything (heaven bless the app developers). I really like having students grade their own work, so I have an app for that. We do a lot of coding and diagramming, so I’ve got an app for drawing on top of documents (Notability $2.99 in the App Store). There’s an interactive kids’ news app called News-O-Matic (an awesome free version) that has a letter-to-the-editor function, and folks actually write back! I’ll post a list of all my favorites later.

As a student or mentee, having one place to keep all your stuff is literally a Godsend. Imagine a future where no one has to drag around a nerdy wheelie backpack, because she can download all her books onto a device. No back injuries! No need for binders and paper either. We can put those things back in the fun category instead of the burden/hassle category. I love pretty paper, but didn’t know it until I was an adult, because I just stocked up on boring old college-ruled. 

For those with learning differences:

Some of my students have executive functioning deficits. That means they have difficulty making plans that account for lots of variables, then figuring out the steps in order to accomplish the plans, and actually executing them. If you’re thinking “Oh, I have that trouble all the time. Everyone does. If I didn’t I’d be rich and famous by now”.

It’s not really the same thing. To give an example, you probably know a kid who constantly forgets his backpack, or his pencil, or to brush his teeth, or when listening to a list of long complicated instructions, he checks out after the first or second item. This kid’s bedroom is probably a disaster. You’ve probably heard lots of tips on how to help this kid be more mindful, or to remember things more often. You’ve probably also been discouraged, if not disgusted by this kid. Well, I hate to break it to ya, but many of those cases are due to a disability. They really can’t help it when they tearfully try to explain why they lost yet another box of crayons or homework assignment. As a great lover of agency and freedom, I am extremely careful in using the word ‘can’t’. But I use it here, and I mean it seriously. If you are dealing with a student who fits this description, and you’ve been having feelings of discouragement and disgust, I invite you to try for compassion, and dig deep for understanding.

For a small portion of the population, executive functioning deficits are serious and lingering problems that don’t go away. If you’ve been struggling in vain through many teary school days, take heart. Your student isn’t doing it on purpose to make your life hard. He may just have an executive functioning deficit, something that often piggy backs on other learning differences, such as dyslexia. Short of a full diagnostic analysis, you’re looking for a kid who has the above-mentioned problems, but is emotionally warm toward others, has artistic and expressive talent, and genuinely doesn’t seem to know that he’s forgetting things, or lagging behind.

I had a student who wrote so painfully slow, and was yet so pleased with his work, and completely oblivious to the fact that he was several words behind everyone else. His handwriting didn’t account for the extra time and apparent carefulness he had to use. It was still barely legible. He was also warm and caring toward everyone, had a flair for drama, and was a terrific storyteller with a great imagination. But he needs an accommodation if he’s expected to do all that’s required in school and expand his talents.

One of the best ways to accommodate this child is to teach him how to simplify. The iPad is one way to do that. If most of his work can be completed on the iPad, there’s no more need for a pencil, binders, backpacks, folders, stacks of paper, worksheets, or crayons, or handwriting. By combining all of that into one device, you free the student to explore his strengths. The executive functioning energy he was previously spending on all of this stuff, is now liberated to be used on drama, or art, or storytelling, or any of the other various talents the child has.

Maybe you’re thinking that the device is an easy way out, and that this kid just has to learn how to manage lots of stuff. “How will he survive at college? Or on his own as an adult”?

This kid will survive better at college knowing how to simplify his life. He will have learned that it’s okay to not have a ton of stuff. His accommodation may be that he only has three shirts instead of 15, because managing those three shirts exacts only as much energy as he’s willing to sacrifice to stuff. Being able to take all of his notes on a device, and keep track of them by date, time or location, as one can with Apple and Android devices, will make it easier for him to find stuff, than if he were searching across six different binders, textbooks, and stacks of notes.

“But what if he forgets or loses his iPad?”

It could happen. But the kid who knows himself well, and has been taught early how to deal with his executive functioning deficits, can protect himself against this by using one of many useful functions offered by these devices. For example: Apple offers a service whereby your iPad can constantly be sending a GPS signal with a unique signature that can be found by another device. You can also back up all of your data to the cloud so if your iPad is lost, your school assignments, photos, music, notes and browsing history are still there for you.

I hope this was useful, and would love to hear other ways devices are helping your students with executive functioning trouble.

Stay tuned for the next post on the iPad in mentoring!


Embracing the iPad: Technology in Mentoring and Why You Need to Get Over Your Fear of This Deeply Engaging and Massively Useful Tool, Part 1

“The children!” “They’re addicted to these devices!” 

So the old-schoolers (and a bunch of the new homeschoolers) lament. They’re absolutely right, of course. We do get addicted to devices. Like heroin, alcohol, tobacco, porn, and any other practice or substance that provides instant gratification for our desires, electronics that feed our craving for affirmation and feedback can become a platform for destruction.

I am totally on board with the concerned adults who think of The Island and Brave New World when we see kids just consuming—glutting themselves, really—on devices. 

BUT! Plot twist!

My tune started to change dramatically when I realized what a powerful accommodation these tools are for people with learning differences. 

So, this is not a how-to for deaddicting your kids from electronics, nor will I seek to justify parents and teachers who allow totally unstructured and unsupervised tech time. Where you fall on that issue is your own affair and others have treated the subject more eloquently than I ever could. This talk by Elder Ridd is an excellent guidebook for how to maintain balance with technology in young lives.

What I would like to talk about is the specific good that technology can do for children (or anyone who wants to learn). In later posts I will also address overcoming the obstacles of cost and safety (nobody likes a cracked, dog-eared iPad).

This is a post about how much I love the iPad and personal, portable devices, and what they can do. I hope it gives you comfort and helps you incorporate technology into your mentoring in healthy ways.

Let’s jump in.


The first time my husband really became aware of punctuation, and how it operates in language (in spite of 12 years in school) was when using the microphone button in a text. He started talking into his phone and saw words appearing on the screen. Then, he came to the end of a thought and paused. Referring to the pause, he asked, “Hey, is this a comma”? It was like a lightbulb switching on. 

Suddenly, freed from the burden of processing the sounds into letters by typing, his attention could absorb how a comma works. He could notice, for the first time, that his lungs stopped pushing out air, and his vocal chords ceased vibrating, and boom! That’s a comma.

When our lips are rounded, and tongue/palate muscles tense, and the vocal chords vibrate, we call that the letter u. 

He’d never had a good name for, or other sensory schema or iteration of the concept of a comma until he was free, in that moment, to form one. 

Previously, his attention was so taken up with finding the right letters, trying to hold in memory the idea he was communicating, while manipulating a pen or pencil, that punctuation fell by the wayside. He had to make energy choices, because the amount he could devote to language processing is limited. Whew! It’s a tall order, when you think about it, for our brains to do all that at once. Add to it that the dyslexic brain is not hard wired for automatic word-processing, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. 

Sometimes, I tutor students whose verbal linguistic skills, especially as they relate to reading and writing, are profoundly impaired.

They’re totally brilliant.

But, the privileged medium of writing inhibits their ability to demonstrate their brilliance. Hand that kid an iPad though, with the Pages app and speech-to-text enabled, and prepare to be amazed. I’ve heard a kid just like that: profoundly dysgraphic, couldn’t spell to save his life, compose a salient and insightful essay on playground rules and etiquette. There were facts and details, anecdotes, quotes, the works. It was funny and entertaining, too. If the goal of writing is to be persuasive, that kid hit the student-outcome nail squarely on its proverbial head.

If you’re working with a child or young adult who struggles to express him or herself through writing, I highly recommend and support the use of a speech-to-text-enabled device.

If what we want to teach is how to be a persuasive (witty, entertaining, accurate, well-researched) communicator, then forcing a child with learning differences, such as dyslexia and dysgraphia, to slog it out in traditional handwriting or typing is tantamount to throwing a wet blanket over a kindling fire.

I used to think you just had to slog it out in order to become a good writer. Then, I learned that Agatha Christie’s manuscripts were almost illegible, she was so dysgraphic. I get the feeling she would’ve jumped all over the idea of a tool that would allow her to privately dictate her novels. 

What’s worse, I used to think speech-to-text and other ‘shortcuts’ were laziness if not cheating. Oh, how harmful toward those with learning differences this attitude is. Having witnessed the real and intense struggle to read and write by many gifted and hard-working people, I’m sure I’ve earned more than a few stripes. 

In fact, I think everyone should be able to use speech-to-text if they want to, especially as we grow through the young adult years. Once A rudimentary grasp of manual reading and handwriting is obtained, I see no reason that speech to text capability should be withheld from students. As I said before, I will address the obstacles of cost and safety in later posts. For now, I will simply tell you that I have seen children as young as seven years old have sole responsibility for an iPad without ever breaking them or abusing their use of them.

I know what some of you are thinking. They’ll never learn handwriting, that sacred art of calligraphy. The wonder of the handwritten note or letter will quietly pass away.

Folks have been saying this since the first computers became available decades ago, and yet if you troll the trendy websites of the blogosphere and communications/marketing realm, you will see that typography, hand lettering and beautiful script have never been more popular or highly-in-demand.

What’s more, these beautiful configurations of our written language are so florid as to be completely accessible to the dyslexic mind. It’s lettering as art, an area dyslexics tend to excel at.

So, if you are a mentor, tutor, teacher, or parent, and you fear that speech-to-text will bar your child from the world of artful letters, take heart. This is a myth. What the child with learning differences does with letters is to turn them into art. They do this intuitively. They notice the unified harmonious design of things, even letters. It’s just in trying to assign those letters to spoken sounds of the trouble arises. Free them from the burden of making those assignments, with speech to text, so that they will actually have time to be creative. 

Stay tuned for more on ways technology can help you in your mentoring. I’ll go over FaceTime and Skype, video-making, and other cool stuff. In forthcoming posts I’ll also compare and contrast different protective cases and even share a video tutorial on how to make your own (almost) kid proof case on the cheap!