Sunday, February 8, 2009

Interview by News Strait Times (14th November 2008)

Friday, 14 November 2008

Reading Dyslexic Minds

Tan Sun Sun says every time a dyslexic child acquires reading skills, she gets a sense of achievement and fulfillment.
KUALA LUMPUR: Tan Sun Sun's mission is to put light into the world of dyslexic children.

Sun Sun, as she is affectionately known, has devoted her life to helping children with learning disability.
She is never without a smile when with children, and that draws them to her naturally.
A large corner of her living room is converted into a resource centre for children who need her help.
Sun Sun is an expert in dyslexia, a disability which prevents children from learning to read.
Trained in the US, she has done much research on dyslexia and developed her own reading system for children.

Q: Tell us about yourself.
A: I'm a teacher specialising in helping students with literacy problems. My students are mostly struggling readers, dyslexic students and school children who need explicit teaching to cope and do well in their school work.
I have been a tutor for more than 15 years. While studying in the US, I took courses related to reading, psychology and remediation. I was also trained in the Orton Gillingham Reading Method which is widely used in the US to remediate students with reading difficulties.

Q: When and how did you become interested in dyslexia?
A: It started about 10 years ago when I was tutoring school children. I was concerned when I had bright students in my class having difficulty in reading. I came upon an article on dyslexia in a local newspaper and I realised that these children having reading difficulty could be dyslexic.

Q: Why did you go to the US for training?
A: Dyslexia was not a common term in Malaysia then, and there was little help here. I started researching widely on the subject and I soon got more involved and was bent on doing more. The US was a good place to study dyslexia.

Q: Tell us more about the training and courses you attended
A: I took courses related to education, cognition, psychology, remediation, assessment, reading disabilities and a research-based multi-sensory teaching method called the OrtonGillingham Approach.

It was amazing to know about the complexity of our reading processes and the amount of research work that has accumulated over the years regarding reading disabilities. Dyslexics need a more systematic, cumulative, and sequential reading system.
I have had the opportunities to work with different students in helping them to learn, organise and retain information.
The gap between what the experts say we should do and what we are practising today is wide.

Q: What is dyslexia, in your own words and what are the misconceptions associated with the disorder?
A: Dyslexia means "difficulty with language" and it is a hidden disability. Most dyslexics cannot read or spell well although they may be good in other areas such as sports, interpersonal skills and arts. Usually, they have difficulty retaining information, poor short term memory and poor phonemic awareness (the understanding that spoken words are made up of sounds called phonemes and the ability to manipulate sounds within words). Dyslexia ranges from mild to severe. So some individuals may have it but they do not know because they can read, although slower and with much effort compared to their peers.
Many severe to moderate dyslexics are unable to break the reading code if they are taught the conventional teaching methods.
Most people have the misconception that dyslexics read and write backwards. They are often branded as lazy, unmotivated or mentally challenged. Many people are unaware of dyslexics' potential. Another misconception is that learning to read is a natural process. Unlike spoken language, reading is a skill and most people do not learn how to read just by being in a literacy rich environment. The literacy gap that we see around us is evidence that acquiring reading skills is a difficult task for a lot of people and we need skilled teachers to bridge the gap.

Q: Does the Malaysian school system have the resources to help dyslexics?
A: Not yet, although there are organisations promoting the awareness and helping dyslexics.
Most of my dyslexic students do not get the right help from schools. And trained teacher to deal with this problem is definitely lacking.

Q: How do you cope with the increasing number of students coming to you for help?
A: I'm training people who would like to work with dyslexics so that more dyslexics and struggling readers get the right help.

Q: What are your plans for the future?
A: I hope to set up a centre to help dyslexic children and adults who need the right instructional approach to acquire basic literacy. The centre will also cater for anyone who needs guidance, effective teaching methods, and smaller group class to bridge his or her literacy gap.
I would also like to train kindergarten teachers on the importance of phonemic awareness during preschool. Many children who are struggling readers need phonemic awareness training before they learn phonics in order to read well. I'm also interested in doing research related to the implementation of a multi-sensory teaching method in the primary school system. I think we need to find a workable tutoring system within the school to help children with language-based learning disabilities.

Q: As awareness is important for early detection of dyslexia, how do you plan to reach the masses to create this awareness?
A: I often have discussions with individuals who are interested to know about dyslexia and reading difficulties. I also have workshops for parents and teachers. I have created a blog ( to educate people about dyslexia. My contribution may be small but I am contented that I'm doing something in my own way.

Q: Would you have chosen any other vocation?
A: No. I'm happy and fulfilled being a teacher. Every time, a dyslexic child acquires reading skills, I get a sense of achievement and fulfillment.
As learning is a lifelong process, I'm continuously gaining insight from my students. However, I wouldn't mind being a part-time gourmet chef or a cellist in an orchestra.

Q: Apart from teaching, do you have a passion for anything else?
A: I enjoy travelling, cooking, diving, listening to music and reading.