Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” This first line from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is just the beginning of a riveting series, which millions of teenagers across the world continue to devour. Attempting to read just those opening lines, however, would cause 14-year-old Vinayak Narayanswamy enough frustration for him to give up on the book altogether.
The teenager suffers from Sturge-Weber Syndrome - a rare neurological condition he’s had since birth - which hampers his physical and mental development. Vinayak with the aid of the special needs section at the Vasant Valley High School in Delhi, has managed to improve his reading skill. But, as is the case with every child with a learning disability (LD), he is still reliant on words from the Dolch list, also referred to as sight words (refer to box). This leaves him with little reading material to choose from when he walks into a bookstore.
The Dolch Project, an initiative by 29-year-old copywriter Bodhisatva Dasgupta, aims to alter this reality. Through a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/projectdolch), Dasgupta, backed by Grey Worldwide, the advertising agency he works at, has openly invited people to write stories for children with a learning disability using the 220 Dolch words.
Taking the initiative
About a year ago, Vinayak’s father Bala Narayanswamy, who works as a market researcher, sent out a mass e-mail to his network of colleagues suggesting the idea. “There are thousands of books out there that children with learning disabilities (LD) might enjoy. But the trouble is that none of them are culturally appropriate.
For instance, there’s a lovely Australian series of books that begins with a story about a cook at the zoo. While this is a universal story, book no. 16 talks about clams,” exclaims Bala. Every time Vinayak tags along to the bookstore with his father and brother, he buys himself a book too. “He really wants to read, but he is unable to decipher most words. So most often, he makes up his own stories,” explains his mother Geetha.
Although Vinayak’s condition is a rare and an extremely complicated one, thousands of children across the country suffer from several other learning disabilities. “Most times, when a child with an LD comes across a word he is unable to pronounce or recognise, his brain makes an effort to read it, trying to decode it. Sometimes the effort is so exhausting that the child loses his train of thought, missing the meaning of the entire sentence. Think of how much the child would struggle if every fourth word was one he didn’t recognise,” explains Joyeeta Dutta, Special Educator, Ummeed Child Development Centre.
Realising the need of the hour, Narayanswamy’s email titled ‘Stories for Vinayak; requested his friends and colleagues to spread the idea of writing stories using Dolch words in the Indian context. When the email reached Dasgupta, it touched a chord, and he decided to take up the initiative. “Save for the larger institutions, schools in the city lack a separate special needs section with well-trained teachers. As a result, most children with an LD end up feeling inadequate,” says Dasgupta.
Taking Bala’s idea to the next level, Dasgupta aims to compile all the stories he receives into a book. “I’m already in talkswith several publishers, all of whom have loved the project,”he reveals happily. Launched a little over three weeks ago, the project has received a positive response. “At the end of two weeks, we already had 30 stories. Technically, we already have enough for one book. But the entire process will take at least four months or so, and in the meantime, I’m encouraging as many entries as possible,” says the copywriter, who insists that pictorial references are just as important. While he uploads each of the 500-800 word stories along with a little drawing, he insists that this is just a sample of what the final copy will look like, envisioning more detailed illustrations for the upcoming book. “We’re not targeting a child who grows up reading Secret Seven or Hardy Boys. Probably the last thing he/ she might have read was A for apple, B for ball. The idea is to slowly pull the child into the reading culture,” he explains.
The next step
Motivated by the encouraging response, Dasgupta and his colleagues at Grey Worldwide hope to take the Dolch books to the less privileged. “While awareness of these disabilities is gaining momentum in the cities, those in small towns continue to suffer helplessly,” rues Dasgupta. “A lady who runs a school in a remote coal belt in Chattisgarh wrote on the Facebook page. She said she had a few kids with a learning disability. I’ve promised to send across copies of the books once they’re published,” he says. But getting a book published isn’t the end of the road for Dasgupta. “It is necessary to have a Dolch list in regional languages too. Creating one in these Indian languages, and getting regional authors to write keeping those words in mind, would be the logical next step.”
What is the Dolch List?
The Dolch List is a list of 220 words and 95 nouns, compiled by Edward Dolch in 1938. It is a compilation of the easiest, most common words used in children’s literature. Dolch words are also referred to as sight words. These are simple words that children recognise visually and not analytically or phonetically. A child with a learning disability would know what the word looks like, but not be able to spell it out. This also leads to the child confusing similar looking words with each other — for instance “was” and “saw”.
>> Familiarise yourself with the list before you begin writing. Take a printout and keep it accessible while you write, continuously cross checking difficult words.
>> Try and stick to the list, but you’re allowed a 20 per cent concession of non-Dolch words. After all, the child must be encouraged to learn new words too.
>> Remember you’re writing for ages seven to 14. Keep in mind, most 14-year-olds you’re targeting have the reading ability of a 10-year-old.
Writing it right
One of the stories uploaded on the page, titled Rahul Can Run, is a heart-warming tale of a dejected little boy who is given a new lease of life after a stranger tells him he is the fastest runner there can be. Gurgaon-based Manish Kinger, also a copywriter, claims he took less than five minutes to write the story. “I took a quick look at the key words before I began writing. While I was typing my story, I made an effort to keep it simple and wrote like a child would,” says the 27-year-old.
“I thought about what I’d say to a child if I had just five minutes to say it. I wanted it to be something that would make him feel better about himself and wrote the story conversationally,” explains Kinger, who reveals the story is an extremely personal one. “Growing up, I was also a victim of conventionality. I was never good at maths, something my brother and father excelled at.
Back then, it took me a long time to gain confidence in myself — my inability to play a sport didn’t help either. I took the conventional path — graduated from engineering college and took up a software job. It wasn’t until a friend played the external trigger and pushed me to pursue writing that I finally found my true calling,” Kinger reveals candidly. His story, he hopes, will encourage children suffering from learning disabilities to understand that everyone has at least one special ability.