Dyslexia Questions

There is so much confusion and myth surrounding dyslexia.  I decided to take this opportunity to answer the questions that keep popping up in my discussions with our parents and teachers.  This information comes from a collaboration of textbooks on dyslexia and my own 25 years of experience teaching dyslexic children and adults to read.

What exactly IS Dyslexia?

If you look up dyslexia in the dictionary, it simply says dyslexia is difficulty learning to read, write and spell, despite intelligence, motivation, education and/or sensory damage.  That means…. to have dyslexia, a person must be bright, motivated, educated and have normal hearing and visual skills and yet have problems with reading.  Dyslexia is not a delay in reading achievement; it will not resolve itself over time.

How many people are affected by Dyslexia?

According to recent surveys, about 3 ½ percent of all public school children are receiving special education for reading difficulties….that’s 3 or 4 out of 100.   In 1998, the National Research Council’s Committee on Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children did a study.  They gave hundreds of kids an intelligence test and a reading test.  A whopping 20% of these children were reading below their grade or ability levels.  That’s 20 out of hundred!  Clearly the public schools are not picking up the majority of these children.  That’s discouraging news knowing that dyslexic readers will NEVER catch up with their classmates without appropriate intervention.

What causes Dyslexia?

Let’s start by clarifying a common myth.  Children with dyslexia are NOT prone to seeing letters or words backwards.  Children with dyslexia do not SEE “was” as “saw” or “saw” as “was”.

The deficit responsible for dyslexia resides in the language system of the brain.  It is not an overall defect in language, but rather a localized weakness in the phonological system of the brain.  That is the part of the brain where the sounds of language are put together to form words and where words are broken down into their component sounds.  The word “cat”, for example, has 3 sounds….c-a-t.  Before a toddler can understand the meaning of cat and learn to pronounce it, that toddler’s brain must break the word “cat” into phonemes (sounds).  Children with dyslexia have difficulty doing that…. identifying the phonemes in words.

What are the earliest symptoms of Dyslexia?

Children at risk for dyslexia can be identified very early.  The first factor for parents to consider is the family history.  Dyslexia is a genetic disorder, so if any family member, including aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins, were diagnosed with dyslexia, your child has a greater chance of suffering from dyslexia too.

The first physical symptom to look for is a delay in speech and language development.  Babies should be speaking their first words by 12 months of age, 18 months at the latest.  Toddlers should be combining words into phrases by age 2.  Parents should be able to understand 50 – 60% of their one-year-old’s speech and at least 70% by the time a toddler is 2.  Children who don’t meet these standards are warning us of a potential problem.

During the preschool years, 3-year-olds should be speaking in 4 – 5 word phrases and 4-year-olds should be speaking in complete sentences with occasional grammatical errors.  Language should be almost adult-like by age 5. Parents should understand at least 80% of a 3-year-old’s language, 90% by age 4 and 98% by age 5.

Preschoolers at risk for dyslexia may also be identified by their malapropisms; they may make pronunciation errors like saying “hangaber” for “hamburger” and “puzghetti” for “spaghetti”.  Other red flags are difficulties with rhyming and learning/remembering the letters in their own names.

What symptoms are most common in kindergarten and first grade?

This is the age at which many children begin to struggle.  These are the kids who have difficulty understanding that words can be pulled apart into sounds.  Many of these kids have difficulty remembering the names for the letters of the alphabet and/or they may have difficulty learning the sounds that go with the letters…..in other words, they may have difficulty with early phonics.

Kindergarten and first grade are the years when children learn to read.  The way our schools are set up, kids better learn to read during those first years of elementary school, or they are at risk for reading failure.

Why do so many kids slip through the cracks until second or third grade?

Just as kindergarten and first grade are the years when children learn to read, in third grade and on, children read to learn.  Second grade is a transitional year when phonics acquisition is reinforced and children learn to break long words into syllables.  If children don’t have the ability to “sound out” words by third grade, they are inevitably in trouble.

To complicate the issue, their assigned stories and novels are becoming increasingly complex with fewer pictures to help them.  A second grade child who was relying on the pictures to understand the plot of a story will fall apart in third grade when the pictures are reduced to one or two per chapter.

To identify dyslexic individuals in second grade and on, look for kids who are having difficulty pronouncing unfamiliar, complicated words like “aluminum” and “obstreperous” .  Look for problems with oral language like word finding problems and slow response times.  Look for difficulty remembering isolated pieces of verbal information like phone numbers and birthdays.  Also look for disfluent speech with many “ums’ and “ahs’ or imprecise language like “stuff” and “thing” for proper names of objects.

Another big red flag is a problem with word identification strategies during reading. These are the kids who have difficulty reading unknown words that must be sounded out…this problem is especially noticeable when they try to read lists of words like spelling words, class lists or phone books.  These kids rely on contextual cues to read words, because they don’t have reliable word identification strategies.

Another common symptom is problems with writing, especially spelling.  These kids often have disastrous spelling.  They may do OK on spelling tests because of their excellent memories.  But ask them to write a story using their spelling words and their spelling goes right out the window.

Can you prevent Dyslexia?

Remember the motto…..the best intervention is prevention.  Very early intervention can prevent a potential problem with dyslexia.  And even when prevention was not possible, early intervention can nip a  problem in the bud and enable at-risk children to read.  In fact, early intervention and treatment bring about more positive changes at a faster pace than intervention provided to older children.

Can you overcome Dyslexia?

The answer is a resounding YES!  Any child with normal cognitive skills can be taught to read.  But you must start with the earliest possible diagnosis and then seek effective treatment.  The keys to successful treatment are:

  • Early intervention.  A child needs help before he fails.  Don’t use the “wait to fail” model.  There is too much at stake here.  Fluency comes from correctly and repeatedly reading the same words over and over.  Poor readers avoid reading, so the longer you wait, the farther behind your child will get.  A dyslexic child who is not identified until 3rd grade is already thousands of unlearned words behind his peers.
  • Intense instruction.  A dyslexic child must progress faster than his neuro-typical peers.  Optimally, instruction should be individualized and take place at least 4 times a week.
  • High quality instruction.  Sally Shaywitz, a leading expert in dyslexia research, says teaching IS rocket science.  The teacher’s knowledge and experience are key.  And the reading program must be based on scientifically proven methods that address phonemic awareness, decoding, spelling, memorizing sight words, fluency, written expression, vocabulary building,  worldly knowledge and comprehension strategies.
  • Sufficient duration.  The most common error parents make is prematurely withdrawing from instruction that seems to be working.  Some dyslexic children need over 300 hours of intensive instruction to close the reading gap. That’s at least 60 minutes a day for 1 – 3 years.  The longer identification and effective reading instruction are delayed, the longer the child will need intervention to catch up.

What can parents do to help?

Parents are their children’s advocates.  Parents must do everything possible to get help early and then insist on proven reading programs with qualified teachers and optimal instructional settings.

Home is the place for reinforcement of new skills and for pleasure reading.  Home is the place to build word and worldly knowledge.  Parents can do this by reading to their child at her interest/intellectual level but above her reading level.  This will enable her to gain new vocabulary words and new knowledge about the world that would otherwise be unavailable to her.  Think of how much easier it is to read the word “Yosemite” and visualize the gushing waterfalls, towering rocks and lush meadows if you have heard about it, and better yet, you’ve actually been there.

Parents number one priority should be nourishing their child’s soul and preserving his self-esteem.  That starts with helping him understand the nature of his reading problem….helping him understand that it has nothing to do with his intelligence, but rather, a very specific challenge in one little part of his brain.  Point out other people who have suffered from dyslexia including relatives, Tom Cruise, John Irving and Charles Schwab.  Help your child identify an interest or hobby in an area where he can have a positive experience…either through enjoyment or excellence.   Make sure that school is a positive experience and teach him to advocate for himself.  That starts with speaking up and asking for more time on tests or sitting closer to the teacher.  And that starts at home….by having parents who listen to their children and respond thoughtfully to their concerns.

What can teachers and schools do?

With the understanding that the best intervention is prevention, teachers can educate themselves about dyslexia and encourage parents to seek early identification and treatment.  Schools can also provide early intervention programs in their preschools and kindergartens….programs that will build phonemic awareness and mental imagery….skills that will facilitate the acquisition of phonics and reading comprehension when formal instruction begins.

How Can We Help?

The specialists at Jodie K. Schuller & Associates are professional speech and language therapists, many with over 25 years of experience in communicative disorders.  Licensed by the state of California as speech-language pathologists, our therapists have also completed advanced training in specific techniques to enhance oral and written communication.  Therapists have been trained to help children with social challenges using Michele Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking Curriculum.  To help those with delayed speech development, therapists have taken advanced training in the Talk Tools approach to oral motor therapy and the Cycles approach to phonology.  Having attended the Childhood Apraxia (CASANA) Conference, therapists have been trained to use the Kaufman, Strand and Prompt methodologies, among others, to help those with apraxia of speech.  Therapists have studied the various methodologies recommended to treat children on the autism spectrum including PECS and Floortime.  They are equipped to help nonverbal children using American Sign Language (ASL) and Alternative and Augmentative (AAC) devices.  To facilitate the development of reading and written language development, therapists have attended training programs from coast to coast including post-graduate courses offered by the Landmark School of Education, the Wilson Reading System (based on Orton Gillingham) and the complete range of programs developed by Lindamood Bell including LIPS, Visualizing and Verbalizing, On Cloud 9 Math and Seeing Stars.  Therapists have also been certified by the International Association of Orofacial Myology (IAOM) to diagnose and treat breathing and swallowing problems related to unhealthy oral resting postures, sucking habits and tongue thrust.


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