Letters and words hold the code for almost everything in life — road signs for driving, aisle signs at the grocery store, price boards at the coffee house, pharmacy instructions for prescriptions, and emails and letters from loved ones.

“Almost every aspect of life is impacted by the need to decode and interpret print,” said Kelly Behle, director of the Simi Valley Public Library.

In its efforts to promote literacy, the Simi Valley Public Library is among others countywide that offer programs to help individuals, including those with dyslexia, a learning challenge that makes it difficult for a person to read quickly and automatically.

“Dyslexia does not impact intelligence or creativity,” said Behle of Camarillo.

Perhaps the biggest myth surrounding people with dyslexia is that they are less intelligent than someone who isn’t dealing with that challenge, Behle said.

“We don’t tend to think of hurdles such as poor eyesight or hearing loss as impacting intelligence, so it really is an additional burden for kids and adults who have to deal with dyslexia,” she noted.

And because reading is foundational for other learning, “the inability to read fluently, unfortunately, can have a devastatingly negative impact on school success.”

Behle emphasized that she knows highly intelligent dyslexic individuals who have been taught strategies — and developed their own — for working around the challenge in order to accomplish what they want to do in life.

“If someone with dyslexia has not been taught or personally developed strategies that help them, they might be unable to read at all — which is illiteracy,” Behle explained. “However, there are other causes of illiteracy such as lack of reading material, lack of educational opportunities during childhood, parents with little schooling and difficult living situations.”

What is dyslexia?

Carol Chapman, Program Manager for the Ventura County Library’s READ Adult Literacy Program

Dyslexia is a general term for neurological disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read, spell and pronounce words, letters and other symbols, said Carol Chapman, Program Manager for the Ventura County Library’s READ Adult Literacy Program.

These disorders do not affect general intelligence, emphasized Chapman, of Ventura.

“In fact, most people with dyslexia are very intelligent and talented,” she said. “Many successful and well-known actors, scientists, inventors and artists have dyslexia. NASA actively recruits people with dyslexia because they are gifted in areas that NASA needs.”

A misconception is that dyslexia means “reading and writing backwards.”

“That is not true,” Chapman said. “People with dyslexia do have trouble learning and using written language; therefore, their letters may be formed incorrectly (and even backwards), or the spelling and writing may look messy or jumbled but that doesn’t mean they are reading backwards.”

An illiterate person cannot read or write.

“A person who is illiterate may, or may not, be dyslexic,” Chapman said. “If the person never had the opportunity to learn to read, he might learn effortlessly when the opportunity is provided and therefore he is not dyslexic.”

If an individual, however, was taught to read in school, and was unable to learn despite being intellectually capable, dyslexia is likely to be the problem.

“A person with dyslexia could be illiterate; but they could also be able to read at a high school level, but likely at a slower pace than someone who is not dyslexic,” Chapman explained.

The term “functional illiteracy” refers to a person who cannot read or write well enough to perform the daily tasks necessary to thrive in today’s work environment.

For example, “40 years ago, an illiterate person, with no reading skills whatsoever, could be an excellent auto mechanic,” Chapman said. “However, in today’s computerized world, an auto mechanic — who may be able to read the sports page — might need to read well enough to read a car’s computer manual to be considered functionally literate.”

Potential causes of illiteracy

Most people in the U.S.A. have a basic level of literacy from their elementary school years.

“But if they had learning problems — possibly dyslexia or ADHD — it may have been too difficult for them to learn in a normal classroom situation so that they never made progress beyond second- or third-grade level,” Chapman said. “Most of these people would have progressed almost normally if they had received a different kind of instruction.”

Other causes, Chapman said, may include lack of education (the individual has not had the opportunity to attend school); children who were frequently ill and missed a lot of school; children who moved often and couldn’t catch up in school; those who were too traumatized by some events in their personal lives to learn in school; or those who started school totally unprepared because they had never been read to or seen a book.

“This frequently happens in homes where the parents are illiterate or functionally illiterate,” Chapman said. “Libraries, because they provide early literacy classes with stories and singing, are a great resource for children in these families.”

As far as adults are concerned, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy Skills, a survey completed every 10 years, indicates that one out of every four English-speaking adults in the state of California is reading below the fifth-grade level, Chapman noted.

“The majority of these are probably dyslexic or have a similar reading difficulty,” she said. “Obviously any person who has trouble reading should not feel that he is the only one with this problem.”

Challenges for a person’s lifetime

Dyslexia and other learning differences can be troublesome for a person’s entire lifetime, Chapman noted. For instance, as toddlers, they may have trouble understanding what they hear or learning to talk.

In school they may have trouble paying attention, understanding directions, recalling information or understanding print.

“There are many areas that can give a child problems in school,” Chapman said. “These problems follow into adult life and can have an impact in both employment and personal relationships.”

For instance, a child who develops poor self-esteem as a result of not feeling smart and successful in the classroom may grow up carrying those same feelings of inadequacy, she noted.

“If they are ashamed or embarrassed and learned to hide their problem or learned to act out to disguise their problem they will probably continue these same behaviors as an adult,” Chapman said.

Adults who make the decision to ask for help in a local tutoring program are “very courageous,” she further emphasized.

“It is not easy to ask for help when you have felt ashamed or have hidden the problem,” she said. “We have great respect for their courage and commitment. And we are grateful that we can offer them hope because we have a specialized method of instruction that works.”

Local free resources

Libraries throughout Ventura County offer numerous programs to help children and adults with literacy.

For instance, the Ventura County Library System offers a READ Adult Literacy Program with one-on-one tutoring that’s free and confidential.

“You do not have to be illiterate to ask for help,” Chapman said. “Most people who join the READ program already have basic reading and writing skills, but they want to improve because it will make their lives easier or help them get a better job or prove to their kids that it is never too late to try.”

Through this program, adults seeking help are assigned their own personal tutors, who meet with them for about an hour once or twice each week and will help them learn or improve their skills.

“The student guides the instruction by telling us what they want to learn,” Chapman said.

For example, some want to help children with homework, others need to pass a test to get a promotion or license at work; others need to learn to use the computer or do email or want to prepare for the GED, or need to learn to fill out job applications and make a résumé.

“Whatever the need, we try to help them improve enough to meet their goal,” Chapman said. “We can get tutors for any Ventura County Library.”

She recommends the place to start is to talk to a staff member at one of these locations:

  • Hill Road Library in Ventura, 805-677-7180
  • Ray D. Prueter Library in Port Hueneme, 805-486-5460
  • Simi Valley Public Library, 805-526-1735
  • Ojai Library, 805-646-1639
  • Oak View Library, 805-649-1523
  • Meiners Oaks Library, 805-646-4804

“They don’t need to do anything but ask us for help and go to one of our staffed tutoring sites,” Chapman said. “Ask for help; it’s free. Call us at 805-677-7160 or go to your nearest library and ask a librarian for information.”

For more specifics, visit www.vencolibrary.org/special-interests/adult-literacy-read-program.

Early literacy is critical

The Simi Valley Public Library offers multiple story times a week, which give parents and children opportunities to participate in listening, singing, rhyming and playing with words and recognizing printed symbols.

“Story times are essentially parent education,” Behle said. “The program only lasts a half-hour, and that is not nearly enough time in a week for a preschooler to make strong strides in the area of preliteracy.”

Therefore, the songs and rhymes that parents learn with their children are then enjoyed at home, in the car, at playtime.

“Patterns of language found in the rhymes, chants and excellent children’s books provide the building blocks for ongoing literacy development,” Behle said.

The Simi Valley Public Library also offers an Adult Literacy Program in partnership with Ventura County READ, every Tuesday and Wednesday from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Literacy Coordinator Teri Smyres who is a kindergarten teacher by day, oversees the one-one-one tutor and student program, in which adults are paired with volunteers who assist them with reading fluency.

Other offerings at the Simi Valley Public Library and other libraries include:

  • Audiobooks: Considered an excellent option for people of all ages, audiobooks on discs can be checked out from the library, and thousands more can be downloaded or streamed on mobile devices or computers.

“Listening to an audiobook allows a person to feed their curiosity with information or be inspired by elements of a story without the challenge of decoding print,” Behle said.

  • Graphic novels: Also considered a good choice because they provide visual storytelling.

“But more than providing a simpler way of reading for a young person challenged with dyslexia, these books address the need for print motivation, the desire to read for enjoyment,” Behle said.

“We sometimes notice that parents are reluctant to encourage their children to read these books because the stories are not told in words, sentences and paragraphs, but it is quite important for children to be able to choose to read something that they are motivated to read so that a bond is built between reading and enjoyment,” said Behle, adding that graphic novels are available for all ages.

  • Controlled-vocabulary books: The library has books that are written using limited vocabularies.

“This notion began with Dr. Seuss, and he made it fun,” Behle said. “These books, for children, are generally called early readers. I highly recommend Mo Willems’ books because they are every bit as genius as Dr. Seuss’ and the visual clues found in illustrations marry perfectly with the text. There are also limited-vocabulary books for teens and adults.”

All of these programs are free.

“To borrow materials, a free library card is also needed,” said Behle, adding that staff members register individuals for library cards and assist them with finding physical materials in the building and digital materials online.

It’s never too late to learn

People with learning challenges or learning differences who are unable to learn in a normal classroom environment are usually just as intelligent as those people who learn successfully in schools, Chapman said.

“Yet they carry all kinds of insecurities and emotional baggage from having their school years,” she said. “Teachers may have belittled them, peers may have laughed at or bullied them, parents may have punished them or called them lazy and all because no one understood that they were fully capable of learning if the information had been presented to them using a method that their different brain could process.”

Take advantage of the free programs and materials your library has to offer, Behle advised.

“Explore some audiobook and movie options; ask us to help you find something,” she said.

“Adults, there is a literacy program for you: the coordinator and the volunteers are respectful and kind,” Behle continued.

“Parents, check out the programs available for your children. Bring them to the library early in life: Get the tools you need to be your child’s first teacher,” Behle advised. “You will notice if something doesn’t seem right, if your child is struggling with print and oral language more than other children. The earlier you get help, the better the outcome.”

In the Library’s READ program, “We say, it is never too late to learn,” Chapman added. “If you are willing to try again, we are ready to help.”