The Amazing Tale of Sven By Karen Bossick
It started with a note from a desperate grandmother.
“My grandson is 12 years old, autistic and cannot read,” wrote Catherine Hayward. “His teachers say he may never learn to read. It would be a miracle if you could teach him to read.”
It turned out that Narda Pitkethly did have a “miracle” up her sleeve—a reading system she invented based on a method created 250 years ago by the Japanese.
The Japanese system, called Hiragani, helped people learn the 10,000 characters that make up the Japanese language by putting codes under the symbols that make up their words.
Narda Pitkethly had every confidence in the world that Nardagani, a system she’d created based on those principles, could work for Catherine Hayward’s grandson, Sven Dickey.
When Narda met Sven—then in the fifth-grade the boy couldn’t even read such simple words as “a,” “at,” “me” and “it.” His teachers had tried teaching him words by sight, but he just didn’t get it.
After five lessons of Nardagani, Sven was reading five-letter words. One lesson later, he read his first full book—about a yellow dog named “Biscuit.”
He followed that up with a book about going on a safari—a feat that made him grin from ear to ear.
“I do like reading,” giggled Sven. “It used to be hard to read. It was difficult. I would go someplace and see a sign and not know what it meant. But now I like reading stories by myself.”
Nardagani uses 12 symbols that tell what sound a letter makes to allay the confusion that comes with the silent letters and other idiosyncrasies of the English language.
The letter “H”, for instance, has a main sound, as in “horse.” It is soft in “teeth,” hard in “feather” and “chair” but soft in “Christmas.” It is soft in “sheep,” helps make the “f” sound in “phone” and “laugh” and often disappears with the pairing of “gh.”
Most students can learn to navigate such idiosyncrasies in fewer than two weeks, using Nardagani. In time, they’re able to dispense with coding the words with Nardagani symbols.
Leslie Andrews, who worked with disabled children for 30 years as a social worker, said she was a doubting Thomas after her first meeting with Sven.
“I remember coming out from our first meeting and saying this isn’t going to happen,” said Andrews. “But in only four lessons, he learned the Nardagani reading program symbols and was reading full sentences. Because of his difficulties with memory and focusing, it took him a little longer than it might others, but after several months, he was reading regular fourth-grade-level books—nearly at his school level.”
Now 15, Sven reads for pleasure as enthusiastically as he pursues swimming and skiing.
Marilyn Donofro was asked to substitute in one of Sven’s high school classes. Having been aware of how difficult reading was for Sven in elementary school, she cringed as she asked Sven to read aloud a passage from a book, hoping the challenge wouldn’t be too frustrating for him.
To her surprise, he read with confidence. He read with ease. He read with pleasure.
“I had to turn away to hide the tears in my eyes—it was such an amazing accomplishment,” she said.
“Sven has such a charming, wonderful spirit. His obstacles did not result from not trying—he works very hard,” she added. “He just could not understand how the symbols on paper were related to words he verbalized because English is such a crazy language where every rule has an exception. And, for some people like Sven, that’s a high mountain to climb. It’s a miracle how quickly this program worked for him. It was like a key unlocking something within him so he could figure how to read.”
Sven’s father, Sam Dickey, says his son is reading words Sam never thought he would ever be able to read.
“He’s definitely come a long way—it blows my mind to think how far he’s come,” Sam said. “Even his teachers recognize how without Nardagani he might still be at square one. I’d say if something like Nardagani can help Sven, it can help anyone.”
In his junior year of high school, Sven became a proud member of the National Honor Society of America.
Sven says, “I once thought reading was impossible. Now, I know all things are possible.”