Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, M.D.
Right around two years ago, I realized there was a serious disconnect with my then-five-year-old son Peter. He was at the end of his second year of preschool, but this intelligent child could not learn his letters or their sounds. Today, I know that he has moderate dyslexia, and it’s been quite a journey. For my sweet boy, it’s a journey that he will continue to take for the rest of his life.
The teacher who tested Peter and helped formulate the blueprint of what the next few years will bring for him lent me her copy of Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, M.D. I recommend this book to all parents and teachers. Even after I knew that Peter had dyslexia, I still didn’t fully understand what it is – certainly more than mixing up letters, which is a common misconception.
There’s no way I can boil down every point, so I’ve chosen the ten that I found most important:
- Dyslexia Affects More People than You Think
In a 20-year study that followed 445 children from Connecticut, Shaywitz discovered “that reading disability affects approximately one child in five” (30). Some of the personal accounts that Shaywitz shares in her book are of bright kids who were left behind because they didn’t “qualify” as students who needed help reading. One was even unfortunate enough to attend a school in which the administration didn’t believe in dyslexia. There are many more children who can benefit from reading resources than are currently receiving help. If you think you don’t know anyone with dyslexia – think again. Especially if you’re a teacher, you likely have a child who desperately needs help right in your classroom.
- There’s a Reason Some Smart People Can’t Read
In her chapter entitled “Why Some Smart People Can’t Read,” Shaywitz introduces the Phonologic Model. In subsequent chapters, she breaks down why this model doesn’t work for dyslexics. They have what she repeatedly refers to as a “sea of strengths” – lots of pros surrounding one big con, the inability to decode phonemes (the smallest unit of speech). While good readers can quickly decode phonemes to make the sounds k, aaaa, and t become cat, dyslexics’ brains are not wired to do this efficiently. The frustrating part is that phonology is the lowest level of the language system, followed by semantics, syntax, and discourse. While semantics, syntax, and discourse are all intact in a dyslexic person’s brain, these higher-level abilities are trapped behind the wall of un-decodable phonemes because…
- Dyslexics’ Brains Are Wired Differently
There are now scientific tests that show just how a dyslexic’s person’s brain is wired. Starting in the chapter “Reading the Brain,” Shaywitz goes into great detail about how our brains decode words. A dyslexic person’s brain uses a different path – one that is not automatic and therefore much slower. The functional MRI (fMRI) is the test that shows exactly how dyslexic versus non-dyslexic people read. These tests aren’t necessary to diagnose dyslexia, but they prove that dyslexics aren’t missing a part of their brain, and they’re not brain damaged; they simply read in a different way than “good” readers.
- Training Kids Before School Age Helps
Unfortunately, dyslexia often goes undetected in children until they reach the third grade. At this point, they are very far behind because they are still struggling to sound out words, while their peers are transitioning from learning to read to reading to learn.
One way that we can save these kids so many years of frustration is by catching it sooner. Kids enrolled in preschool are ahead of the game (which is how we were able to catch Peter’s dyslexia so early), but even if you keep your children at home, helping them differentiate beginning, middle, and ending sounds of simple words (pig and pan, hen and pet, and hen and pin are the examples Shaywitz uses) will not only help them when they learn to read, but it will also help to identify if there is a problem.
With Peter, while I could say a word like “bird” to his four- and five-year-old classmates, and they would hear b, rrr, and d, he might only be able to pick out the beginning or the ending sound – forget the middle. Peter’s dyslexia wouldn’t let him distinguish the different sounds.
- The Severity of Dyslexia Differs from Person to Person
While “one-quarter [to] one-half of the children born to a dyslexic parent will also be dyslexic,” the way in which dyslexia manifests itself differs from person to person (99). Shaywitz writes that “the ultimate expression of dyslexia depends on an interaction between a child’s genetic endowment and his environment.” So if your child is dyslexic, don’t throw your hands in the air and give up. Continue to read aloud to him at home; expose her to as much language as you can. This particularly helps dyslexic children develop larger vocabularies because they will not read and pick up new words as quickly as their classmates who can read fluently.
- Dyslexics Have High IQs
High IQ’s and difficulty in reading just don’t seem to correlate, but that’s exactly what happens with a dyslexic person. In fact, dyslexic people are often amazing problem solvers; their dyslexia forces them to be creative in order to read, and they carry this skill into other areas of life.
Dyslexia should never discourage someone from pursuing his or her dream. The last chapter of Overcoming Dyslexia is devoted to the personal accounts of highly successful people, such as author John Irving, American businessman and finance expert Charles Schwab, former West Virginia governor Gaston Caperton, and a number of others. These men and women struggled in school and failed entrance exams that could have kept them from getting higher education – yet they persevered and proved that a reading problem would not force them to give up on their dreams.
- Retention Does Not Help Dyslexic Children
While retention is sometimes helpful for other reasons, dyslexia should not be one of them. Not only does holding a child back a year in school avoid the problem (which is decoding words), but it can also be a psychological and emotional hindrance.
Ignoring the problem is just as bad. Waiting a month or a year to see if the problem straightens itself out only robs your child of much-needed help. When I first thought that Peter might have a problem, I hoped that a little tutoring over the summer would solve it. But that tutoring didn’t address his specific issue, and the frustration we both faced the first few weeks of his kindergarten year were enough to make me wish I’d had him tested sooner.
- Common Indicators of Dyslexia
- Delay in Speech While children typically start saying words by one year and phrases by 18 to 24 months, a delay could indicate dyslexia.
- Trouble with Pronunciation This can manifest itself as baby talk, the right syllables pronounced in the wrong order, or whole syllables (such as the beginning of words) not being pronounced at all.
- Inability to Rhyme Because they have a hard time separating phonemes, dyslexics may not be able to ascertain what rhymes and what doesn’t because they are not able to distinguish what the last sound of a word is.
- Talking Around a Word If your child is a regular Mrs. Malaprop, that’s another indicator. Two examples that Shaywitz uses are lotion used in place of ocean and tornado used in place of volcano. The children who made these mistakes knew exactly what they were trying to say, but they simply could not recall the proper word. (This can be very embarrassing in dyslexic adults when speaking publicly.)
- Difficulty in Learning the Alphabet They may be able to sing their ABC’s, but when shown the actual symbols that match the sounds, dyslexics may not be able to identify them.
- Inability to Learn by Rote While dyslexics generally have strong math skills, when it comes to rote memorization of times tables, they may suddenly have trouble. The same goes for memorizing words that don’t follow the rules, people’s names, place names, and even phone numbers. I wondered, since dyslexia is a phoneme problem, why dyslexic people often dial the wrong phone number – especially since they’re often so good at math. It’s not because they can’t see the difference between the numbers but because those seven numbers seem random. There was no logical way to arrive at them (as in the answer to a math problem).
- Inability to Focus While Reading Especially in a noisy classroom or study hall, a dyslexic person may not be able to complete a homework task because she needs quiet to be able to concentrate. Dyslexics use a lot more brain power to get the job done, so it’s harder for them to focus.
- Discomfort When Reading Aloud Some kids will act out or fake being sick when asked to read aloud because it’s so uncomfortable for them. They may even be misjudged as ADHD by a parent or teacher, but the problem here isn’t inattention but discomfort. Be sensitive to dyslexic people when they ask not to read aloud.
- Misspelling Even if a dyslexic person is able to read difficult words, do not expect him to spell those same words from memory. In the same manner, if shown a new word out of context, he may not be able to read it, even if it seems simple to a non-dyslexic person.
- Terrible Handwriting This is another tell-tale characteristic of many dyslexics. The word processor is the dyslexic person’s best friend.
A dyslexic person may exhibit only a few of the above – or may have other indicators not mentioned. But if your child or someone you know shows a number of these, it would be prudent to have him or her tested for dyslexia.
- Common Strengths of Dyslexic People
In addition to the individual “sea of strengths” that dyslexic people have, there are common strengths that most dyslexic people share. Many dyslexic children fly under the radar because they are extraordinary auditory learners. They can hear a passage read aloud and memorize it, therefore making their teachers believe they’re reading. They are also usually skilled at math, and they are very creative. (Now, don’t worry if your child doesn’t fit this model 100%. Peter is a poor auditory learner, but kinesthetically, he’s off the charts. And I know some dyslexics who also aren’t skilled at math.)
What marks dyslexics as different than other poor readers is their reading comprehension skills, which are intact. Let them hear a book (instead of making them struggle with decoding all those words), and then open a discussion with them, and you will find that they understand the text just as well (or better) than a fluent reader. When dyslexics are not hindered by people who misjudge them, they are able to prove themselves just as capable as fluent readers, and many successful dyslexics wouldn’t have it any other way because they can easily think outside the box, unlike colleagues who never had to struggle to read.
- How to Help Dyslexic People in School and Beyond
The Orton-Gillingham approach of scientifically-based instruction is what Shaywitz recommends for dyslexic children. Although she lists many different ways in which parents can help their dyslexic children at home, having one-on-one instruction with a tutor who is trained in this systematic and structured method is what really helps. (Peter’s tutor uses Barton, which utilizes Orton-Gillingham and has been very beneficial to him.)
There’s also good news for dyslexic adults who have gone undiagnosed: there are programs for adult literacy, and although they do require a commitment of time, they produce dividends that improve quality of life. Many undiagnosed adults either flunked or dropped out of school and, thus, have few options for employment because of their inability to read. It’s not that they’re unintelligent, just that they were never given the proper instruction for the way that their brains are wired.
Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) of Princeton, New Jersey provides audio copies of books, so dyslexics can listen to their material and follow along with the hard copy. Requesting more time and a quiet room for multiple choice exams is also a must, although oral or essay tests are preferable. (As Shaywitz and so many others have pointed out, these multiple choice tests really only prove how proficient people are at test-taking.) Shaywitz lists a number of computer programs that help dyslexics, as well as study tips. In a world that is not very friendly to dyslexics, there are still ways in which they can excel.
There are so many more points that I wish I could list, but this post is already very long. Please, if any of this rings true for your child or someone you know, get the book! It’s scientifically-based, and one of the many case studies included may remind you of someone you know. I know the first one I read almost made me cry because it sounded so much like my son and reminded me of his early struggles.
The great news is that there is help. As I said, Peter is being tutored in an Orton-Gillingham program, Barton. After not quite five months, his reading has improved more than my husband and I ever thought possible. Over the summer, I saw that one of his friends was reading at a level two, and Peter struggled to get through “My First” books. Now, he can pick up a level two or even books that aren’t leveled readers.
Last week, we took turns reading a Magic Tree House book aloud – Peter was even the one who volunteered to read. About halfway through a chapter, he said, “Chapter books are fun!” I couldn’t agree more, buddy.