16 Aug 2018

Paul Russell's My Storee: Coaxing creativity despite dyslexia

From Nine To Noon, 11:29 am on 16 August 2018

New children's book My Storee is full of spelling errors, with the author - himself dyslexic - aiming to show children, parents and teachers alike that writing need not get in the way of creativity.

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Photo: Supplied

The book features a young boy who loves writing stories about dragons, unicorn detectives, robot pirates and alien volcanoes, but that passion is stifled by the teacher's red pen at school until a new teacher allows him to feel safe and write to his heart's content.

Author Paul Russell has been a teacher himself for 20 years, has two degrees and published five books. He's also dyslexic.

He says children are born with creativity.

"When they're actually reluctant to write, normally it means they're reluctant to spell and try and use grammar and structure.

"If you talk to them they will tell you the most amazing ideas, the most amazing stories, and they'll adapt other stories they've heard and they'll modify those stories."

He says that creativity is however often squashed out of them by the rigours of schooling.

"It's one of those things where children innately are storytellers, and I think a lot of the time schools will beat that out of them with making it have to be correct and perfect and structured, and spelling is one of those things.

"I think spelling is important but it's one of those things where I think that it can be taught separately to writing.

"Some children will pick it up ... but some children won't and I think the problem is where it will get to that year 3, year 4 level where it can just be their spelling, it can just be their structure of writing that's holding them back, and it starts holding back everything."

He says children can be taught other ways of writing, and technology is a big help.

"I think the big thing for parents and teachers alike is to let children write, let them read you that story, let them share that story with you first before you pull it all apart.

"I teach year six currently and I have a couple of children in my class who actually use their ipad.

"They talk to it, it gets out their ideas quickly, and they'll email it to themselves and they'll go back and edit those words.

"It's one of those things where if dyslexia was a really narrow thing of exactly they were all the same and all cases were the same it would be a really easy difficulty to get over."

That need to have everything spelled correctly is a bit different to how it works for adult authors, too.

"The process of actually making a book is that it goes from the creative and goes to editors and goes to publishers and goes through those steps."

Russell has struggled with dyslexia his whole life and says My Storee is very much about himself.

"I would go home and write and write and write.

"At school I discovered that if I wrote less, there would be less for a teacher to cross out … so I would always have that thing where 'I know the perfect word but I don't know how to spell that so I'll change it and use something else.

students writing

students writing Photo: 123RF

"One of the biggest things I had and sort of the inspiration for this story was I had a teacher in high school that said 'you're actually quite a good writer. If you get good enough you can pay someone to fix your spelling'."

"When I was at university I still had these teachers who would go through and help me structure out essays after I'd write them."

Despite all that, he didn't always know he was dyslexic.

"My dyslexia wasn't actually identified until I was already a teacher and I actually had a student who I knew was dyslexic, and I was trying to convince his parents that we need to do something about this and there's something we can do.

"I went through all the testing with him and suddenly said 'hey, I do that, I do that, I do that'."

He says the book's misspelled words aim to show children it's okay to have spelling mistakes.

"I thought it was fair if we were going to tell kids it was okay to make spelling mistakes to actually make them ourselves."

They noticed something interesting about the kids trying to read it too.

"One of the things that we did was we made all the spelling errors phonetically correct.

"Children that are really strong readers will actually stop and look at all the words in this book and have to figure out what they are, where children who aren't confident readers will happily sound out the words and read it fluently each time."

He says there was some initial pushback from fellow teachers over publishing a book with bad spelling in it.

"But once they see the book in print … I haven't had that feedback at all and in fact I've actually had a lot of really positive things.

"Even the words that are spelled wrong there's that conversation there too - 'how do we spell that and why might that word be spelled like that?"