Reversing words, writing letters back to front, not being able to remember the sequence of letters in a word or sometimes reading from right to left — dyslexia is a frustrating and often embarrassing problem in our world of high-tech communications. But in the midst of differing theories of what it is, what causes it and how to overcome it, one man has a different opinion.
By CLARE O’DONOGHUE
In our age of verbal and written communication, linguistic difficulties are not easy to cope with. It’s a problem, predominantly among children, that can leave one in a terribly lonely world, feeling unconfident, insecure and like a dunce.
“I’ve always felt I was stupid,” says Elizabeth, diagnosed as suffering from mild dyslexia at the age of 17. “I went through school having disguised my difficulties, adjusting around them and keeping my problem a secret. I worked so hard in that academic environment, but felt that I just kept getting nowhere. Everybody thought I was slow and treated me that way.” In fact, a recent IQ test showed that Elizabeth was far above average.
It is a common, yet unfair misconception, for so-called dyslexics are certainly not of inferior intelligence. Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Auguste Rodin, Thomas Edison, Hans Christian Anderson and Woodrow Wilson were apparently all dyslexic.
To further complicate the issue, it is a problem that is anything but cut and dried. There is a labyrinth of differing, opposing and often contradictory theories about dyslexia, what it is, its causes and its possible correction. Originally, the term ‘dyslexia’ (from the Greek meaning ‘difficulty with words and language’) referred to disabilities thought to be a result of a central nervous system disorder, but is now used to describe any number of problems to do with reading, writing and spelling. What’s more, there are certain anomalies like why more boys have dyslexia than girls and why it’s more prevalent in inner cities than in rural areas. These have yet to be explained.
Some theorists have said that dyslexia may be a result of abnormal development of a baby’s brain during the mother’s pregnancy. The resulting abnormalities interfere with the brain’s ability to understand written material. This idea that dyslexia was a certifiable biological disorder, a physical problem that could be diagnosed and treated accordingly gained credence during the ’60s and ’70s, but has since been refuted by repeated studies and extensive research. So, it’s back to square one.
There are other hypotheses that claim that dyslexia doesn’t really exist, but is actually a conglomeration of reasons causing poor reading, including psychological problems with language. If there is such a problem, they say, it should be specifically identified and the individual trained accordingly.
What most seem to agree on though is that other possible causes for poor reading should be ruled out before dyslexia is diagnosed as the possible problem. Factors like poor eyesight or hearing, genuinely limited intelligence or psychological immaturity, inappropriate teaching methods or an unstable home environment could all be related problems.
However, while scientists argue on what it is and how to deal with it, the number of so-called dyslexics is rising. Described as “learning disabled”, latest American figures show a shocking 160% increase in cases of dyslexia since 1976.
Dealing with the problem instead of trying to find its cause seems to be the focus of the issue right now. After all, dyslexic children grow into dyslexic adults, with a future jeopardised by their difficulties. There is a plethora of tests, psychological training methods and special schools which offer remedial teaching in an effort to rectify the problem. But even endless waiting lists and rising consultation fees seem to be outstripped by the increasing number of dyslexics. The odds seem stacked.
There is one educationalist, however, who has his own approach. It is a theory that has shown unprecedented success.
“Dyslexia is not a so-called learning disability,” says Dr. Jan Strydom of the Centre for Dyslexia in Pretoria. “These children are not disabled. They are just lacking in certain basic skills that have inhibited their ability to learn to read and write.”
This was the conclusion reached by Dr. Strydom when he was working on his programme called Audiblox, a system that, despite some sideline criticism, has shown real recordable results since its inception in 1979.
“Audiblox started life as a school readiness programme for my own children. I spent a lot of time preparing them for formal school learning, as I’d always had the idea that those formative years were very important. It was developed primarily for them and not for any other purpose. But later, when I was busy with my Master’s Degree in Education, I began to develop the programme further. I started consulting as an educationalist, as I’d always been interested in children with learning problems.
“One couple came to see me very late in the year. Their child was in a Grade 3 aid class at that time, and doing very badly indeed. The child had already been referred to a special school for the next year.
“It occurred to me to try the programme on him. I gave the parents a copy, they went home and did it with their son, and the results were quite astonishing. Before the end of that year, it had become clear to them, to me and to the teacher of the child that it would be ridiculous to send him to a special school.
“The little boy was re-tested and promoted to Grade 4 in a normal class. He became a top achiever with marks in excess of 80 and 90%. I remember distinctly the year when he was in Grade 7, his father phoned me late one evening early in December. They had just returned from the school where their son had been given the prize for the best achiever. This was a child who had been so-called ‘learning disabled.'”
The Audiblox programme is based on learning principles. “No human being can do anything he has not learnt to do,” says Dr. Strydom. “Learning is a stratified process, in which one skill needs to be properly mastered before other subsequent skills can be learned.” Consequently, the learning aid teaches the fundamentals of knowing and understanding.
Basic skills like concentration, visual discrimination, accurate observation and memorising, skills of association, auditory memory (hence the name Audiblox) and lateral interpretation are all dealt with in the form of simple exercises. These are functions, says Dr. Strydom, that should be taught at pre-school level to form the foundation of good reading, spelling and communication. Unfortunately, so many children have not mastered these basics and suffer reading and writing problems as a result.
“If you confront a child who has never learnt to count with a mathematical problem,” he says, “he won’t know what to do with it, because he cannot interpret it. This is not because there is anything wrong with him, but because he doesn’t possess the necessary numerical background knowledge to make it possible for him to understand it. If you try to teach this child to solve the problem without understanding it, there is no way he will succeed.”
As a result of the effectiveness of the Audiblox programme, Dr. Strydom decided to publish it. “It was quite by accident that it became more than a school readiness programme. I started using it more and more for children of school going age and always with incredible success. From there, I moved into full-blown research to develop and expand it even further.”
Today, Dr. Strydom’s Centre for Dyslexia has a list of success stories. Many individual children have successfully been through the programme, using it as a kit in their homes, while some schools, mainly private, have initiated it in their classrooms. The materials for both environments are changed accordingly.
Over recent years, Dr. Strydom has been involved in intensive theoretical research to back up the success of Audiblox. He continually re-works, develops and improves the original concept.
“The two aspects of the programme complement each other — the theory and the practical — and the more we learn about theoretical considerations, the more it becomes possible to further improve the programme.”
His approach is not altogether new, but his methods are quite revolutionary. “There are so many syndromes doing the rounds these days,” he says. “Symptoms are clustered together and called an abnormality and suddenly people are being diagnosed with a so-called syndrome.” Dr. Strydom reacts strongly to the popular notion that dyslexia is a disability. “It is incomprehensible to me that the idea of a learning disability still exists. It is so obviously a myth,” he says.
“If a person is blind, we don’t try and teach him to see because that’s a real disability. We teach him skills to compensate for his disability. If these children had really been disabled, they would have been taught compensatory skills instead of being forced through remedial schooling. But there is nothing wrong with them. I believe there is no physical, genetic or biological reason why they have this problem. What we have to do is teach them to compensate for experiences and skills which have been lost due to drastic changes in our modern lifestyle.”
Such changes, says Dr. Strydom, like the influence of television as a passive communication medium, more mothers working and spending less time during their child’s early growing years, increasing urbanisation are all factors which result in what he describes as ‘learning deficits’ in children. This, he says, is a primary cause of dyslexia and unless parents compensate, there is a strong possibility that a child will miss out on the opportunities to acquire these experiences and skills necessary to learn later on. He explains:
“There is a whole body of everyday knowledge that we all possess which enables us to interpret everyday situations. For example, when you come into a room, you shake hands. That is based on the knowledge that it is simply good manners to offer such a greeting.
“Everything that happens in our lives is interpreted against that background knowledge, accumulated over years and years of experience and observation. They have become automatic, so we interpret daily situations without even thinking.
“But life circumstances have changed over the last few decades. The surroundings in which children grow up today are drastically different from what they were 40, 30 or even 20 years ago, and certain everyday experiences that are vital to the correct interpretation of the written word have been removed from their lives. Those are external experiences, which as a result are not understood properly. Audiblox works intensively to compensate for the gaps that have been left in the knowledge of certain children.
“Today, we also have to cope with gross inadequacies in the entire schooling system and the whole approach to learning. Many valuable things that were once part and parcel of the education system have been chucked out through the window — like drilling. Children don’t learn their tables this way any more. And they love drilling. Repetition creates confidence and builds a basis, a kind of springboard for them to conquer higher cognitive skills. You have to build that first and then branch out into creative thinking and other approaches. You need a base for the higher functions.”
To achieve success with Audiblox requires time, patience and perseverance. In the case of one-to-one working at home, it’s important that a parent takes the time to work through the kit with her child. “Parents have to be just as committed to maintaining the intensity and time with the programme,” says Dr. Strydom.
The programme is also run in groups. I sat in on a class doing the Audiblox programme. I was surprised at the children’s constant and unfailing concentration, at their sharpened attention and their ability to remember long and complicated sequences, initially of coloured blocks, and then of letters. Slowly the system branched out and competent reading and correct comprehension followed. But what struck me most about the half-hour class, was the delight and enjoyment in the faces of those children. They did not have the expression of frustrated, “learning-disabled” pupils, but of confident and cheerful children, eager to read, encouraged to learn and determined to conquer their problem.
From Underachiever to Top of the Class
Young Ruaan Verryn, who once struggled to read a sentence in even the simplest book, is now one of the Centre for Dyslexia’s greatest advertisements.
After consulting countless speech therapists, occupational therapists and having his eyes tested, his parents could still not pinpoint the nature of young Ruaan’s problem. And a problem it was — he was seemingly dyslexic, reversing words when he read, reading very slowly and not comprehending the material. When he had a spelling test every Friday, said his mother Annatjie, he would study all week and still score only about 30%. With Ruaan being in Grade 3 in a school that was in the top five in the country, the Verryns were convinced that he would have to be taken out and sent to a specialist school.
As an interim measure, they decided to try the Audiblox program. After just five months, there was a remarkable improvement in Ruaan’s reading and comprehension. To his delight, he was passing even unprepared spelling tests. Not only did his reading improve dramatically, but so did his mathematics. So much so that he was awarded the school’s mathematics prize.
Now, after 18 months on the program, Ruaan’s problem is non-existent. He is far from an underachiever for his report card now displays only A’s and B’s. He has done himself and Dr. Strydom’s program proud. In fact, he often participates in presentations, demonstrating to large audiences his remarkable auditory skills by memorising 40 coloured block combinations called out only once by the audience. And, reports Dr. Strydom, he never makes more than three mistakes. Dyslexia aside, that says a lot more than for the rest of us.