The highly verbal 5-year-old who can't master the alphabet.
The bright, creative 7-year-old who's behind in his reading skills.
The talented teenager whose mediocre grades are blamed on lack of motivation.
The college student who scraped by in high school and now feels overwhelmed.
What these otherwise bright, sociable young people have in common is a disability that makes learning in the "usual" way difficult. Dyslexia, characterized by problems with learning to read, remembering what was read, spelling, and organizing thoughts, may be noticed as early as kindergarten or may never be diagnosed. Because it interferes with the ability to learn in school, dyslexia can be frustrating for both students and parents. "Trouble With Words"
A common assumption about dyslexia is that it is characterized by reading words in reversed order, i.e., "was" looks like "saw." Although this type of problem can be associated with dyslexia, the disorder cannot be explained simply as seeing letters or words backwards. Dyslexia is marked by difficulties making the basic connection between symbols (letters) and their sounds.
When most children learn to read, they use typical "decoding" skills: recognizing letters on sight and learning the sound each letter makes. Then they begin to figure out (decode) what the letters will look and sound like when they are put together to form words. For people with dyslexia, the decoding process may be a challenge for several reasons. They may be unable to differentiate between certain sounds (such as "p" and "b"), or they may see (perceive) the letters spaced incorrectly, somewhat like this:
Thew ord sare notsp aced cor rect ly
The specific cause of dyslexia is not known, and there are probably many causes. At least 14 areas of the brain are involved in reading. Learning disabilities are generally thought to be a result of subtle miscues in the organization of these areas. The messages the brain is sending seem to get jumbled up or confused. People with dyslexia may be able to hear and see (perceive) perfectly well, but what they hear and see looks different and sounds different than it would to most people. The miscues that cause dyslexia are thought to be present at birth and influenced by heredity. Approximately 5% to 10% of school-age children have some type of learning disability.
Typically, with dyslexia, there is a wide gap between IQ and school achievement. This gap cannot be attributed to deafness, blindness, poor teaching at school, lack of stimulation at home, or emotional factors. Often, a child's ability to think creatively and abstractly is quite good, but his basic reading and spelling skills are weak. Dyscalculia, or problems with math skills, may also be present.
A child with dyslexia who observes peers reading and making progress may feel "stupid" because he can't keep up. And as he continues to experience failure in the classroom, his self-esteem may take a beating. Educators emphasize the importance of identifying a learning disability as early as possible, so the child can be taught in alternative ways and achieve success in school.
Schools, community-based psychologists, and many hospitals offer testing of children who appear to be at risk for a learning disability. Candidates for testing include children with at least normal intelligence who are not doing as well in school as predicted by standard intelligence tests. The comprehensive evaluation for a learning disability involves a series of cognitive, linguistic, social/emotional, and academic tests. Once a diagnosis is made, a treatment plan can be developed. Treatment, or helping the child find ways to learn, requires the close cooperation of parents and teachers and may also involve reading therapists or tutors.
Fortunately, most children with dyslexia are able to learn strategies and techniques that allow them to stay in the regular classroom. The least restrictive environment is usually best, provided adequate and appropriate learning support is given. However, some amount of "special education" placement may be necessary for the child to get the help he needs to work with and around the disability.
Learning Strategies That Work
Compensatory strategies provide ways for the child to get around the effects of dyslexia. They include audiotaping lectures or texts, using flashcards to learn new things, positioning the child in the front of the classroom to better observe his teacher, and using a computer with spelling and grammar checks.
Remediation is a method of teaching that allows the child to get the information he needs in a way that he can learn. There are three components to remediation:
- Teaching small units
- Multisensory presentation
By presenting small units of information, the child can better concentrate on and master difficult material a little bit at a time. For example, word families are introduced, such as the "at" family - cat, fat, mat, etc. The child learns to think about the sounds of the letters and the shape his mouth makes saying those sounds. The information is taught in a meaningful context several times, more so than would seem necessary. The over-teaching component is important. The repetition helps the dyslexic student, who tends to "lose" information quickly.
As the child is saying and reading the words, he is tracing them as well - getting the "feel" of the words. Visual displays are included with verbal instructions. Hearing, saying, seeing, and touching the learned material provides multisensory reinforcement. It is sometimes difficult to determine a dyslexic child's precise area of deficit. Multisensory presentation teaches to all the senses in hopes that faster learning is accomplished. It's extremely helpful for parents to learn and practice these techniques at home as well.
Because a student with dyslexia, even with appropriate intervention, often finds school a struggle, the development of his healthy self-image is at risk. For that reason, parents are advised to focus on activities which the child may find easier and at which he may even excel, such as sports, hobbies, or collecting. Music, art, drama, or volunteering also may help the child feel and be special. Experts agree that dyslexia is not necessarily an impediment to success; many dyslexics are in fact gifted in some way. Dyslexia often provides that extra drive, that spark of creativity, that comes from developing different ways of thinking and working around a system.
There are many famous people who have achieved remarkable success in spite of, or perhaps because of, their disability. They include some of the most imaginative thinkers of our times: Winston Churchill, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Edison. Entertainers Tom Cruise, Whoopi Goldberg, and Cher have dyslexia, as do athletes Nolan Ryan and Bruce Jenner. Just because a child has dyslexia, it doesn't mean his parents or teachers should have lower expectations for him. The artists, athletes, scientists, and statesmen mentioned here were all able to achieve great things despite their trouble with reading.
Reviewed by: Susan Stine, MD
Date reviewed: April 2001
Source: KidsHealth www.KidsHealth.com is a project of The Nemours Foundation which is dedicated to improving the health and spirit of children. Today, as part of its continuing mission, the Foundation supports the operation of a number of renowned children's health facilities throughout the nation, including the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware, and the Nemours Children's Clinics throughout Florida. Visit The Nemours Foundation to find out more about them and its health facilities for children http://www.nemours.org/no/