Dealing with Dyslexia
Dyslexia is something that I’ve heard about my entire adult life as a teacher. But my knowledge has been fairly superficial until now.
Recently I found out that several of my family members are dyslexic. Some are children, one is an adult. Seeing their struggles – at various stages of life – has triggered an interest in me to find out more about dyslexia.
One of the first statistics I came across is that dyslexia affects many children (as many as 1 in 5), so if my research can be helpful, I want to share.
What Is Dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a recent word but not a new concept. For centuries, people have described children who are bright and developmentally normal in every way but can’t learn to read. An older term for dyslexia was “word blindness” which is a pretty good way to sum it up.
A more modern way of describing dyslexia is “lack of phonemic awareness”, which basically means that the dyslexic child is unable to effectively connect letters (symbols) with their sounds.
Dyslexia as a whole is actually a complex set of issues that can include:
~ Difficulty recognizing letters and their sounds
~ Difficulty holding a pencil and forming letters (dysgraphia)
~ Difficulty with reading comprehension, i.e. determining the meaning of a sentence
~ Difficulty with spelling
~ Vision or eye tracking issues
~ Irlen Syndrome – sensitivity to black text on a white background
The World Federation of Neurology defines dyslexia as “a disorder manifested by difficulty in learning to read despite conventional instruction, adequate intelligence and sociocultural opportunity.” In other words, if a child has every opportunity to learn to read, and is smart enough to learn to read, and can’t, they are probably dyslexic.
Here is a helpful checklist of dyslexia symptoms:
~ Can read a word on one page, but not on the next page
~ Knows phonics, but can’t—or won’t—sound out an unknown word
~ Slow, inaccurate reading of words in isolation (when there is no story line or pictures)
~ When reading aloud, reads in a slow, choppy cadence and often ignores punctuation
~ Becomes visibly tired after reading for only a short time
~ Reading comprehension is low due to spending so much energy trying to figure out words
~ Listening comprehension is usually significantly higher than reading comprehension.
~ Directionality confusion shows up when reading and when writing (confusing b,d,p,q)
~ Misreads, omits, or adds small function words such as an, a, from, the, to, were, are, of
~ Omits or changes suffixes, saying need for needed, talks for talking, or late for lately
~ Substitutes similar-looking words, even if it changes the meaning of the sentence, such as sunrise for surprise or house for horse
~ When reading a story or a sentence, substitutes a word that means the same thing but doesn’t look at all similar, such as trip for journey, fast for speed, or cry for weep
In spite of these and other challenges, dyslexics are known as a creative group of people who often excel in science and the arts.
The Neurological Component
Studies have shown that the human brain is not actually wired to read. The brain is wired to learn to speak and understand spoken language. When we learn to read, we hijack those language areas and use them for reading. This is why speaking comes so naturally, without instruction, whereas reading is much more difficult.
The dyslexic child is using the visual cortex to try and read. They are primarily recognizing words based on the shape of the letters and the shape of the word, rather than the phonemic sounds the words represent. This approach works for beginning readers – and we enable this type of reading by giving children books with lots of repetition, rhyming, and pictures that provide visual clues to the text. They are often guessing the words they are “reading” but when they guess correctly, we don’t know that they are guessing and we think they are reading.
This is why dyslexia is not often detected until 3rd grade or higher. Until that point, visual reading has worked and the child seems to be “reading”. If there are struggles, it is blamed on the child’s immaturity or lack of focus. As the child gets older, words and books become longer and more complex, and often do not include pictures or other clues as to the content. Now the child is really struggling, and everyone is puzzled as to why.
Can this be corrected? Can the child learn to read using the auditory cortex rather than the visual cortex? There is research to show that with early intervention and specific instruction, the dyslexic child’s brain can be re-wired to process written language correctly. The child can begin to read using the auditory cortex, linking letters with their phonemic sounds and sounding out words phonetically. (See bottom of the post for resources).
There are many famous scientists, composers, and artists who were dyslexic.
A short list of famous dyslexics includes: Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Pablo Picasso, Beethoven, and Albert Einstein. That’s pretty good company.
These people weren’t brilliant in spite of being dyslexic; they were brilliant because they were dyslexic.
How could Leonardo da Vinci draw sketches for a submarine centuries before it was possible to build one? How was Albert Einstein able to develop his theory of relativity based on a vivid dream, while today’s scientists still struggle to understand it? How was Beethoven able to compose sublime melodies after becoming almost completely deaf?
Dyslexia enabled these men to think primarily in pictures, not words; to make lightning fast connections between seemingly unrelated ideas; and to think outside the box – really, for dyslexics, there is no box.
Many very successful people in today’s world have dyslexia, including Tom Cruise, Jay Leno, the actor Henry Winkler, and the playwright Wendy Wasserstein. If you read interviews with them, they will all report that they became successful because of their dyslexia – it motivated them to work harder than other people because they were told so many times that they would never amount to anything. They worked to prove their detractors wrong.
It is very helpful to talk to a child with dyslexia about famous, successful dyslexics. It helps them to feel that they are not alone, and that they can still achieve great things in spite of the challenge of dyslexia.
The Gender and Age Myth
Many people believe that only boys (or men) are dyslexic, but that is proving to not be the case. In centuries past, many women were never taught to read, so dyslexia never arose as a problem.
In today’s world, girls are often well-behaved in class, and as long as they do not call attention to themselves, it’s easier for them to slip by undiagnosed. Both boys and girls with dyslexia are good at coming up with coping mechanisms to get around their reading difficulties. Teachers and parents have to be vigilant in observing both boys and girls for signs of dyslexia.
Another myth is that dyslexia cannot be diagnosed until 2nd or 3rd grade, since frequently, it is not diagnosed until those grades.
However, ultra-observant teachers and parents can find signs of it sooner, as young as age 5, which include:
~ The inability to rhyme words or to hear rhyming sounds
~ A mild delay in learning to talk
~ Pauses when talking, such as “um” (more frequent than normal)
~ Difficulty breaking words into syllables
~ Family history of dyslexia
Commonly, children with dyslexia do not receive intervention quickly enough. Because the inability to read is frustrating, resulting in a reluctance to read, teachers and parents may conclude that the child just “isn’t interested in reading”, “isn’t mature enough”, “isn’t focused enough”, etc. These excuses result in a “wait and see” approach which is devastating for the struggling child.
In order to make the dyslexia diagnosis as early as possible, it’s important for educators to know that lack of interest and lack of focus are generally symptoms of reading problems, not causes of reading problems.
As soon as dyslexia is suspected, intervention is necessary. The sooner intervention begins, the better. It’s better to take action and find out it’s not necessary than to take no action at all. The dyslexic child can sense that they are struggling and they need an advocate, someone to stand with them and help them through the tricky maze of sounds and letters.
Dyslexic children do not benefit from a “wait and see” approach. Time is of the essence. Dyslexia does not go away or get better with age. The younger children are when intervention begins, the greater the chance of success due to the pliability of the brain. When intervention is delayed, the child’s brain becomes less pliable and reading success becomes more difficult.
The dyslexic child knows there is a problem. There is no way to hide it from them or pretend it doesn’t exist. Usually, when they are told that they are dyslexic, they feel a huge sense of relief that their problem has a name. Their reluctance to read turns into a willingness to work once they know that there is help to be found.
What Can Be Done?
There are many resources available for children with dyslexia. In the public school system, parents or teachers can request testing to verify the dyslexia diagnosis, at which point the child will receive special services. Many schools have reading specialists who provide additional tutoring (beyond regular classroom work) for dyslexic children.
As well, most schools provide accommodations to child with reading difficulty, including having the teacher read test questions aloud, rather than the child reading them, extra time for tests and other work completed in class, and books and textbooks on CD or MP3 so the child can listen rather than read.
Many states have specific legislation covering the testing and treatment of dyslexia. Please Google “dyslexia legislation _______”, filling in the blank with your state or country to see what services are provided and/or mandated.
Parents can and should educate themselves, even if their child is receiving specific help in school. There are numerous books, websites, training programs, and clinics where helpful information and programs can be found.
Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally E. Shaywitz – This book is mostly scientifically-based, taking a look at dyslexia from a neurological perspective. The science section is quite helpful, but the practical suggestions for working with a dyslexic child fall short.
This article with Sally Shaywitz provides a good overview of her approach and might help you decide whether or not to read her book: A Conversation with Sally Shaywitz, Author of Overcoming Dyslexia
Her book can easily be ordered online (just Google the title for sources) or found at your local library.
Orton-Gillingham Reading Method – This multi-sensory approach offers training for teachers and parents in using their method. Training workshops are available around the US. Is often used by reading specialists in both public and private schools.
The Logic of English – this is an Orton-Gillingham based reading and spelling curriculum by Denise Eide that can be done at home by a parent or at school by a teacher. It does not require training in order to use it. I attended a workshop by Denise Eide at a homeschooling conference and was very impressed by her curriculum as well as her insight into the English language.
Bright Solutions for Dyslexia – World-renowned dyslexia expert Susan Barton has her own version of the Orton Gillingham Method (the Barton Reading System) and her website is full of information, including videos, about dyslexia. The Barton Reading Method can be purchased to use at home or at school.
Easyread – This online program consists of over 200 lessons for the child to complete over a year or so. Using their unique “trainer text” (pictures that represent sounds, shown with the accompanying letters), children with reading issues are able to sound out words right away and see a dramatic improvement after 3-4 months. My personal experience is that Easyread is the best method of activating the visual cortex and making progress in reading that is available today. You can also visit their Facebook page: Easyread Facebook.
Dyslexia – Not Just About Reading and Writing – a helpful look at other symptoms and characteristics of dyslexia