TV documentary seeks to raise awareness on dyslexia among schoolchildren

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Ruoxi's mother found her daughter, then 6, lying on the sofa when she got back home after work one day. The daughter had a fever, refused to eat dinner, cried in a silent way and said she would not go to school the next day.

The mother then learned that due to Ruoxi's poor performance on a Chinese exam, her teacher had yelled at her and threatened to expel her from school. Ruoxi was frightened. She had studied hard daily until about 9 pm as a grade-one student but achieved low grades in Chinese compared with her peers. When scolded by the teacher, she felt overwhelmed by helplessness.

Several years later, during a discussion on helping children with dyslexia, which Ruoxi was later diagnosed with, her mother was still seized by sorrow when talking about her experience.

The story is told in a three-episode documentary, titled The Chosen One, which shows the struggles of three children with dyslexia and their families.

Produced by China Media Group's TV series and documentary center and Beijing Normal University's Documentary Center, it aired on CCTV-9 in January and got 9.4 points out of 10 on China's popular review site, Douban.

Directors Li Ruihua and Fan Qipeng found out about dyslexia in 2017 while speaking to Li Hong, a psychology professor at Beijing Normal University.

The duo learned that up to 15 percent of children in some English-speaking countries have the condition and the rate in China is between 5 percent and 8 percent. After hearing about some cases, they decided to make a documentary.

"At the very beginning, we wanted to enhance people's understanding of dyslexia and children who have this problem. On that basis, we also wanted to discuss the anxiety about family education in a modern society," says Li Ruihua.

According to Li Hong, dyslexia refers to the condition when children have ordinary IQs, equal access to schools and motivation to study but have difficulty learning words due to some mild brain dysfunction-especially memorizing, pronouncing and understanding the meaning of characters, which make it hard for them to read.

As a result, students with dyslexia usually perform poorly on Chinese-language exams at first and later in other subjects that require reading.

"People are usually born with dyslexia, and it's difficult to cure it. We can just provide intervention to reduce the influence," says Li Hong.

Since public awareness of the problem is low in China, children with the disorder are often labeled "lazy" or "stupid", leading to their parents' anxiety, counterparts' ridicule and teachers' scolding.

Pop star Xiao Jingteng, who has this problem, wrote in his autobiography: "Sometimes, for those who have dyslexia like me, others' misunderstandings can bring more harm than the problem itself."

Li Ruihua says: "We wanted to show the dilemma of the families in the documentary."

The first episode shows a rebellious Xiaoxiao's eagerness for freedom from his mother, who is strict with him. The second one shows self-disciplined and tense Qunxiao receiving recognition in school. And the third shows Ruoxi's family's efforts to overcome difficulties.

Fan and Li Ruihua chose the three families from some 10 cases that BNU recommended after speaking with the families.

It took three years to make the documentary. In the first year, the crew spent much time getting along and communicating with the families. They had meals, chatted and traveled together. This enhanced their understanding of the families' difficulties and the children's internal struggles.

"It's not easy to shoot children and families. We must win their trust, and our shooting cannot interfere with their daily lives. Moreover, some children like Ruoxi were too young to express themselves when we started shooting. We had to wait for her to grow up a bit, so she could express her feelings," says Li Ruihua.

"It was a slow process, but that also gave us more time to understand and observe the children."

Fan says he was impressed by the parents' efforts to help their children.

"Xiaoxiao's mother often organized activities inviting Xiaoxiao's classmates and their parents to join. She clarifies Xiaoxiao's problems with such activities, so that those around him would not misunderstand or laugh at him," Fan says.

"Qunxiao's parents searched documents online about this problem, and found many of them were written by psychologist Shu Hua. They sent emails to Shu, asking for help, and Shu provided professional advice for Qunxiao. They did not just wait but tried every means to help their child."

Shu says: "The most difficult stage is when the children are in primary school. If we help them to get through this period smoothly, things will get much better when they grow up since they would find their own strategies to deal with the problem, and their strengths in other areas except reading will play roles in their later development."

In the documentary, Xiaoxiao's mother says: "I'm not worried about his future, but his current performance at school makes me feel anxious."

Fan says people are generally anxious about children's education in a modern society.

"It seems there is universal anxiety about education. Parents are worried their children will not get good grades to make the most of educational resources, so they urge children to study harder. And dyslexia adds to such anxiety in families, since the children's problems make them vulnerable to failure in an exam-oriented education system. Unfortunately, this problem cannot be fixed through pure hard work," Fan says.

When such anxiety is hard to resolve, acceptance might be the better way.

"None of us is perfect, but each of us is unique. At the end of the day, we need to accept the fact that we are imperfect. So are our children," Li Ruihua says.

"Parents can only reduce their anxiety and offer effective support to their children when they respect the growth rate of each child, and give them more time and space for growth."

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