“Reading with Chaleen,” Ensign, Apr. 1997, 65
Repetition. It’s a big part of the total rhythm of life when you live with and teach a person with disabilities. But eventually results come as each lesson taught so patiently is grasped and made indelible.
My husband and I and our two older children, Holly and Marin, saw the rewards of repetition—a kind of miracle—slowly unfold in our family while all did their part to help teach Chaleen how to read.
Chaleen was born with a rare neuromuscular condition. She experienced epileptic seizures almost every day during the first several months of her life. A series of surgeries corrected many of her physical problems. Though left with a permanently straight leg, a permanently bent arm, and no biceps, she could move around well and do basic manual tasks by the time she was age seven.
But there were other problems. Our little girl, troubled in so many physical ways so early in life, did not develop mentally in normal ways. She has complex learning disabilities. For example, she sees the world differently than most people, and ordinary patterns of living make no sense to her.
The struggle to tutor this perplexing child was compounded by unknown factors. She didn’t learn to talk until she was nearly four, and neither we nor a number of experts were able to interest her in reading.
By the time Chaleen was eight years old, she was still resisting any urgings that the letters of the alphabet could be used for anything more than elements of design in her quirky, colorful, and lovely drawings.
“Please help us to teach Chaleen to read.” That compelling desire naturally worked its way into our family prayers. We needed help from someone who understood the riddle of Chaleen.
After an especially earnest effort in beseeching the Lord, we went to our stake semiannual conference. One of the speakers said, “If any of you have a child with a reading problem, I promise you that the problem can be overcome as you help the child read the Book of Mormon.” Although my recollection of much of the talk is blurred, I remember clearly that the phrase “I promise” kept resounding in my ears. But Chaleen was not merely having problems reading—she couldn’t read at all. I wondered if the speaker’s solution could work for Chaleen.
I decided to give it a try. One verse a day. I pointed to each word and said it aloud. At first Chaleen seemed to pay little attention to what I was doing or saying. But we persisted—day after day. Soon Chaleen started looking at where my finger was pointing.
I don’t recall the time frame of it all, but I do remember that remarkable day when I pointed to a phrase and was startled to hear Chaleen say, “And it came to pass.” I gasped. Chaleen had broken the reading barrier! We gave thanks. The journey had begun.
Line upon line Chaleen made her way into the world of reading. Her sheer mechanical ability to read became strengthened as she developed the skill to phonetically explore. Yet her reading comprehension remained practically zero. Chaleen simply liked the activity of reading, and that amazed us. Not long after finishing her Book of Mormon primer (of which she understood little), she was further helped in school by a specialized program.
Chaleen seems to be blessed with a gift for liking words and sounds. She utterly delights in them. She does sometimes ask what certain words mean. But as often as not, she doesn’t pay attention to our responses. She just likes how new and different words feel in her mouth. I remember the time Chaleen encountered the word omnipotent. She repeated it over and over in great delight.
What is Chaleen’s special affinity for the scriptures? Refreshment? Things lovely and of good report? I don’t know. All I know is that she really seems to like reading scriptures. She knows that some sections or verses represent chastisement from the Lord while others bespeak peace and beauty and hope. Whatever a particular passage of scripture offers, Chaleen finds satisfaction in the emotional foray.
Though Chaleen clearly doesn’t understand most of what she reads, I’m convinced that the spiritual essence gets through to her. She is very sensitive concerning what the Lord wants. When any hint of contention arises in our home, Chaleen comes forward with her admonition, “Now, you know that the Lord does not like contention.”
When Chaleen’s love of sounds and nuance and rhythm became so evident during her readings in the Old Testament, I realized that her lack of understanding had not kept her from enjoying the scriptures. Then I thought, Why should she be denied exposure to great works of literature while on earth? I knew Chaleen would comprehend very little of the action or philosophies presented in a great literacy classic, but I could give simple explanations that she could grasp. I had no doubt that she would enjoy the words and the time together with me.
One lazy Sunday afternoon I opened two books of the complete works of Shakespeare. I showed Chaleen the lists of titles of his plays and asked her which one she wanted to read. “Macbeth,” she said with decisiveness. She and I took turns reading the various parts.
In spite of her educational gaps, Chaleen has a tenacity for certain things. She has a good memory. For example, once I said, “You will be Duncan, Lennox, and Ross in this scene. I’ll be the rest of the people.” And then Chaleen would enjoy correcting me whenever I forgot which of the characters she was supposed to be.
And so we moved onward. We read only on Saturdays and Sundays for an hour or two. The miracle of the line-upon-line principle was made manifest to me. The months passed. When we finished all of Shakespeare’s plays, it was on to Dante’s Divine Comedy. In this work we each read alternating pages. Then we waded through Homer’s Iliad. We finished reading Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained and moved onward.
Chaleen was 17 years old when we started our project. Now eight years later, our list of the classics we have read fills two pages. I’m still in awe of Chaleen.
I believe that Chaleen will one day be able to recall in greater clarity and understanding much of what she is putting into her mind. At present, the bulk of what she has read embellishes her own peculiar view of life with delightful embroidery. While we were reading Shakespeare, Chaleen would often address me as “My liege.” Odd phrases from Dante or Homer or Milton show up in Chaleen’s daily comments. Sometimes the usage is strange and inappropriate. Always it causes the listener to stop and think.
In the reading of Shakespeare, Chaleen was exposed to a vocabulary of approximately 18,000 different words. While reading the Old Testament, she plowed her way past approximately 20,000 different words. They float around in her head unmoored by reason. At a recent testing, Chaleen’s reading comprehension was determined to be at a 3.3 grade level. Her vocabulary level is comparable to that of a third-grader’s. I smile at those statistics that supposedly define Chaleen’s abilities. So much more is locked inside. Someday, I believe, the fruition will come.
As Chaleen continues her adventures in reading, she always comes back to the Book of Mormon. It was the keystone. Somehow, Chaleen knows that. And by continued reading of the Book of Mormon, Chaleen is slowly yet surely gaining an understanding of basic gospel precepts. After having traversed the complexity of the Bible, reading the Book of Mormon must be refreshing for her. The Book of Mormon uses a vocabulary of only approximately 3,500 words (if we don’t count the words used in the quotations from Isaiah). An average eight-year-old has a vocabulary of about 3,600 words. The average adult is said to understand and use somewhere between 11,000 and 13,000 words.
What a blessing that a book full of eternal truth—the Book of Mormon—is presented in such clear simplicity that it can be easily read by a child.
Chaleen is often called upon to read scriptures in the Gospel Doctrine class. I locate the reference, and she reads with feeling. The class is impressed. Neither I nor any member of our family takes credit for her achievement. We were blessed of the Lord. “Wherefore, be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work. And out of small things proceedeth that which is great” (D&C 64:33).