Dyslexic author Paul Russell is on a mission to unleash the creativity of children with dyslexia

By Renee Hollis - Exisle Publishing | Posted: Monday September 30, 2019

In Auckland this weekend, author, teacher, artist and playwright Paul Russell spoke to a large crowd of specialist teachers who work with children throughout the county who are dyslexic and have specific learning disabilities. SPELD New Zealand who focus on meeting the learning needs of those with specific learning disabilities, invited Paul Russell to inspire the crowd as he is dyslexic which has been a motivating factor for him to encourage and support dyslexic children to unleash their creativity by writing with freedom.

Paul is passionate about children's literacy and building their appetite for the written word. He wants to encourage other children with dyslexia to explore their creativity without feeling stifled by their difficulties with spelling. 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 time schools will beat that out of them with making I 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 that can be taught separately to writing”.

Paul is a primary school teacher with two degrees, an artist, playwright and children’s book author. He’s always had a vivid imagination and a plethora of ideas. But growing up with dyslexia, he struggled to spell and teachers slathered his work in corrections. “I have always written,” Paul says. “It was the only way I could get the stories out of my mind and get to sleep. I had a really supportive mother who, instead of yelling at me for not sleeping, bought me note pads and a bedside lamp. I may have turned away from writing, however, if it wasn’t for my English teacher, Clinton Max, who told an impressionable 16-year-old me that I really was quite a talented writer and if I got good enough I could always pay someone to correct the spelling. It was this simple statement that gave me the confidence to keep writing.”

With the focus removed from his spelling, Paul’s stories flowed, his confidence grew and he went on to become a teacher and writer. Paul published his first junior novel, Journey to Eos in 2014. His picture book Grandma Forgets tackles the difficult subject of dementia and was named on the Children’s Book Council of Australia Notables list in 2017. Paul’s second picture book, entitled My Storee, is based on his life growing up with dyslexia. Paul’s latest book is Incurable Imagination.

His picture book, My Storee is very much about his own experiences. “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”. Whereas he would go home and write and write with freedom. He says that in the book My Storee the misspelled words aim to show children it’s okay to have spelling mistakes. “I thought it was fair if we are going to tell kids it was okay to make spelling mistakes to actually make them ourselves”.

“I 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, whereas children who aren’t confident readers will happily sound out the words and read it fluently each time”.

Paul said that 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 positive comments”.

Paul cites Roald Dahl as his greatest influence because he proved that you don’t ever need to lose your imagination or childish spirit. It’s probably not surprising to learn that his favourite book is Peter Pan . “It’s the only book I loved as a child but it still gets better every time I read it.”

Since 1971 SPELD NZ has been helping New Zealanders overcome dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities (SLD). During the last 5 years, more than 6,000 children and adults have been assisted by SPELD NZ. In New Zealand more than 642 educators have been trained by SPELD NZ.

Paul’s picture books can be purchased online at ekbooks.org or where ever good books are sold. 

Image by: Paul Russell

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