A student’s dyslexia dilemma

By Michelle Trujillo/El Inde

Benjamin Ellis, a senior at the University of Arizona, says he grew up like any other kid. He enjoyed playing outside, playing with toys, and hanging out with his friends. But Ellis has struggled with something that 5% to 15% of people in the world experience. When he was in first grade, Ellis was diagnosed with severe Dyslexia and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Former special education teacher Valerie Trujillo says some signs of dyslexia are confusing the order of letters in words, spelling that’s unpredictable and inconsistent, problems associating letters to what sound they make and delayed speech when compared to other children of the same age.

“They have a hard time with phonics,” Trujillo said, “they have an easier time learning what we call the whole language, if it’s taught properly.”   

Ellis said his mom knew something was different about him even before preschool. She noticed that he wasn’t able to read small words nor memorize small words and letters. 

“ADHD hasn’t been nearly as much of a struggle for me as dyslexia,” Ellis said. 

Compared to other students, he received a lot more help in school and was part of a special education program from first grade to senior year of high school. He remembers being pulled out of class often and teachers aides watching over him as he took notes during class.

Even today, at age 21, Ellis struggles with reading, spelling, and trying to come up with what words to say when he speaks or writes. 

When he was a freshman in high school he read at the first-grade reading level and says he’s been able to learn how to read through probability and math. He tried about four different programs but not one worked for him and his dyslexia is so severe he still doesn’t understand what grammar is. “I just can’t remember language without seeing it through mathematics,” Ellis said. 

This is how he described it: His language is stored in the three different regions in his brain. Those regions are responsible for learning and remembering mathematical information. People who don’t have dyslexia are thinking with another part of their brain when they speak or comprehend language. It’s usually the left side of the brain. In order for him to think of the right word to use he is going through the three different parts of his brain to find it which is why it takes him longer to learn and come up with the right words to say. 

“I never mix up my words like some people think, it’s more like the words are lost in my brain and I just need to find it,” Ellis said.  

It wasn’t until freshman year of high school that he found a program that actually helped him develop his reading and writing skills. Sue’s Strategies, a program designed for all ages to help struggling readers and writers improve their skills, helped him read and write.

He is able read some words now by finding patterns in them. For example, the word ‘make’: He can figure out what sound the ‘a’ will make because the ‘e’ at the end acts like a hint since it is a vowel it is sandwiching the constant ‘k’. It’s knowing what pattern the vowels and constants make that help him understand a word. 

“It took me a while to learn this way but it’s the only way I’m able to read,” Ellis said. 

While he received a lot of help in school before attending the University of Arizona, college learning has been a different story. He said it has been really frustrating so far, and having online classes isn’t going very well for him. He finds it even harder to participate and pay attention during Zoom lectures, which ultimately leads him to feeling like he’s learning very little.

This semester, Ellis has a professor who gave out at least one writing assignment every week and is really tough on grading when it comes to grammar and spelling. 

“In that class, I’m trying my best but I’m constantly getting a 65% on my assignments and tests,” Ellis said. “I’ve explained to the professor that I have dyslexia but he’s just not very understanding.” He hopes people are more understanding of his disabilities in the professional world. 

Ellis puts about 3 hours into one assignment that would take other students who don’t struggle with dyslexia about 45 minutes to complete. He uses a digital writing assistance tool called Grammarly and a built in software feature on Google Docs called Spell-check to check his work. After writing each sentence, Ellis says he tries to Google search at least two words to see how they are spelled because sometimes not even spell check can correct what he wrote. If Google doesn’t understand what word he is trying to spell up he will ask Siri, on his iPhone, as his last option.

Ellis said people seem to think he has trouble reading because he is unable to see letters the right way. 

“Dyslexia doesn’t have anything to do with how I see things. I just can’t remember how to create words or what they sound like, that memory isn’t there for me,” Ellis said. He knows that when he spells words they are wrong. He can see that. But he doesn’t know why they’re wrong and is unable to correct it no matter how hard he tries. “I keep trying but I’m always wrong,” he said. 

“People often believe dyslexia is caused by visual perception problems but that’s not true,” Trujillo said. “Research says that dyslexia is caused by language processing problems at the phoneme level.” Phonemes are the sounds that distinguish one word from another word in a language. 

Ellis is looking forward to graduating next May with his degree in urban and regional development — and being done with online classes.

University of Arizona senior Benjamin Ellis.
Photo courtesy of Benjamin Ellis.