Emily Brooks O’Connor

Emily Brooks O’Connor is founder, owner, and operator of Advantage Math Clinic in Portland, Oregon.

What is your background? 

I would best categorize my background as dyslexic human. I’ve lived and loved in Portland, Oregon all my life. I graduated from Lewis and Clark College with my Bachelor of Arts in English in 2008, and my Master of Arts in Teaching in 2010.

What is your profession? 

I own a small business with a staff of one, Advantage Math Clinic, which strives to serve dyslexic children and their families. I specialize in teaching dyslexics mathematics, which was a subject virtually inaccessible to me as a child. I help families understand and digest diagnostic testing, advocate at IEP meetings and hold individualized one-on-one teaching sessions. I’m a big picture processor, and as such I love being able to tackle the spectrum of needs that the reality of dyslexia presents.

What are your experiences with language within your profession?

My experiences with the writing system are complex. I do not remember being able to read until I was in fifth grade. I have always struggled tremendously with spelling. However, my ongoing hiccups with the writing system (like not being able to spell “Wednesday” until I was in college) paled in comparison with my difficulty in mathematics. By the time I was in high school, I was literate enough to feel successful, and those feelings were powerful motivation for me.

I have pursued an understanding of English orthography for my entire life. My daily work is to share my understanding of the world with other people who have a brain like mine, and for this reason, everything I do in sessions is connected to everything I pursue outside of sessions. I have a few students who I do explicit word study with in order to give them the tools they desperately need to make sense and meaning out of our written language. My other students, whose needs center firmly on math, still find themselves subject to instruction that unloads “math words” like prime, decimal, composite, numerator, denominator, linear, and equation. I have found my math students love to study words.

Until 2016, I had been under the misapprehension that English orthography was a disastrous mess, in which spoken words were forced to become imperfect clusters of consonants and vowels. I had been told there are exactly six syllable types. To divide a word into syllables, I should find the vowels, then send the letters one way and try to pronounce the word. If that didn’t work, I was to send the letters the other way and then try again to pronounce the word. At the time, it seemed like a better idea to tell kids to move letters around then to just yell at them to “guess more correctly.” My success rate with this method was mixed. I had been using the Barton Reading and Spelling System, an Orton-Gillingham method, for years. Now, I affectionately refer to these materials as “lie binders” due to their almost unbelievable lack of factual information with regards to our orthographic system.

The reason I was able to put the “lie binders” aside is because I found Gina Cooke, of LEX, and Real Spelling. My life changed forever (again). I knew it was real because I felt the same way after I found Making Math Real. I recognized Structured Word Inquiry (SWI Bowers and Kirby (2010)) as a thoughtful, scholarly framework with which to pursue an actual understanding of the English writing system.

Recently, I had a student who is going into sixth grade and cannot make change for a dollar. We investigated <cent>, and built word sums for cents, century, centimeter, and percent. “Oh,” she said, “so that’s why sense is spelled different than cents.” “Yes,” I replied. “Spelling’s job is to make sense. Math’s job is to make sense. Your job one day will hopefully pay you more than just five cents.”

Where can we find out more about your work?

I have a website which is pretty cool: www.advantagemathclinic.com.