Being a teacher requires a long list of skills—patience, a loud speaking voice, the ability to write nicely on a blackboard. But one of the most important skills is reading. What would happen to a teacher if she lost that ability?
That’s the set-up of a case report in the journal Neurology this month. The story goes like this. On a Thursday morning, just like any other Thursday morning, the patient they call M.P. suddenly realized she had forgotten how to read. She first noticed something was wrong when she was holding a piece of paper in her hands and couldn’t make head or tails of it. Neurology:
It was the attendance sheet. The same sheet she had used for years, and to hear M.P. tell it, it might as well have been covered in hieroglyphs. Moments later, she found that her lesson plans, which she had spent a distinguished career in devising, were equally incomprehensible. By this time, panic had begun to set in, but the watershed moment came as she surveyed the task she had set for herself earlier in the week: Halloween was just around the corner, and she had a classroom to decorate. “I couldn't figure it out, which is not like me,” she recalls, a sadness creeping into her voice. “How can you not figure out Halloween?”
Eventually, after feeling more and more confused, M.P. went to the hospital, where the doctors figured out that a stroke had caused a rare syndrome called agraphia—also known as “word blindness.” It’s especially unusual because patients cannot read, but they can write and understand words out loud. As a teacher, and a reading specialist even, M.P. decided she would simply teach herself to read again. But she couldn’t. The doctors say that her mother, S.P., watched her struggle:
Recalling her own vexation at her daughter's situation, S.P. relates, “Ironically, with the knowledge of all these different reading programs—sight words and phonics and all these nuances—it didn't help her at all with her own disability.” M.P. made use of flash cards with word captions, writing exercises, and a number of other techniques, and while these tools together with occupational therapy aided her in recovering her ability to perform everyday tasks, she was still unable to read.
But M.P. didn’t give up quite yet. She figured out that if she was given the word and traced it with her finger, she could spell out each letter and figure out each word. The doctors describe her strategy this way:
To see this curious adaptation in practice is to witness the very unique and focal nature of her deficit. Given a word, M.P. will direct her attention to the first letter, which she is unable to recognize. She will then place her finger on the letter and begin to trace each letter of the alphabet over it in order until she recognizes that she has traced the letter she is looking at. “That is the letter M,” she declares, after tracing the previous 12 letters of the alphabet with her finger while deciphering a word in front of her. Three letters later, she is able to shorten this exercise with a guess: “This word is ‘mother,’” she announces proudly.
That doesn’t make her life easy, of course. As a former teacher, M.P. says that she misses reading to children and sharing that experience with them. But she’s moving along, and even planning to write a book about her experience—because once a book lover, always a book lover.