Most children look forward to learning to read, a process whereby they learn to transform what are essentially abstract squiggles on a page into meaningful letters, then sounds, then words, and then entire sentences and paragraphs. Reading represents a code: specifically, an alphabetic code. A great number of children are able to break the code after a year of instruction. For at least one in five children, however, the experience is very different.
For them, reading, which seems to come effortlessly for others, appears to be beyond their grasp. These children, who understand the spoken word and love to listen to stories, struggle to decipher the same words when they are written on a page. They read slowly and haltingly, and words that they read correctly in one sentence may be misread in a subsequent sentence. Reading aloud may be particularly painful. Eventually, they grow frustrated and disappointed.
In the classroom, reading is king; it is essential for academic success. Teachers, witnessing the gap between good and poor readers widening, may wonder what they or these children might be doing wrong. Parents, knowing that reading problems have consequences all across development including into adult life, question themselves, feeling alternately guilty and angry.
What is dyslexia?
The term dyslexia was coined from the Greek words dys, meaning ill or difficult, and lexis, meaning word. It is used to refer to persons for whom reading is simply beyond their reach. Spelling and writing, due to their close relationship with reading, are usually included.
According to popular belief, dyslexia is a neurological disorder in the brain that causes information to be processed and interpreted differently, resulting in reading difficulties. Historically, the dyslexia label has been assigned to bright learners, even verbally articulate, but who struggle with reading; in short, whose high IQs mismatch their low reading scores. When children are not as bright, their reading troubles have been chalked up to their general intellectual limitations.
Symptoms and signs of dyslexia
• Reverses letters like b and d, or p and q, or reads words like no for on, rat for tar, won for now, saw for was.
• Puts letters in the wrong order, reading felt as left, act as cat, reserve as reverse, expect as except.
• Misreads little words, such as a for and, the for a, from for for, then for there, were for with.
• Loses orientation on a line or page while reading, missing lines or reading previously-read lines again.
• Reads aloud hesitantly, word by word, monotonously.
• Tries to sound the letters of the word, but is then unable to say the correct word. For example, sounds the letters ‘c-a-t’ but then says cold.
• Mispronounces words, or puts stress on the wrong syllables.
• Foreshortens words, for example, ‘portion’ for proportion.
• Omits prefixes, omits suffixes, or adds suffixes.
• Reads with poor comprehension.
• Remembers little of what was read.
• Cannot match the appropriate letter when given the sound.
• Often ignores punctuation, omitting full stops or commas.
Opposing viewpoints on dyslexia
The extreme viewpoints about dyslexia are what make it so difficult for parents to know how to best help their child. On the one side of the debate there is the group that believes dyslexia is a condition that cannot be cured, but endured and on the other extreme there are those who say diagnoses of dyslexia are a complete waste of time.
The British Dyslexia Association (BDA) states that dyslexia “is likely to be present at birth and to be life-long in its effects.” The association and many others like it recommend taking a dyslexia test — at a cost — and provide advice about how to cope with dyslexia and gain access to the special study allowances and benefits available for diagnosed dyslexics.
Professor Julian Elliott, from Durham University in the United Kingdom and Professor Elena Grigorenko from Yale University in the United States of America take the opposing view — that diagnoses of dyslexia add little value. In their book, The Dyslexia Debate, they write: “Parents are being misled by claims that such dyslexia assessments are scientifically rigorous, and that a diagnosis will point to more effective forms of treatment.” Elliott raises concerns about the ever-increasing number of people who are diagnosed with dyslexia. Dyslexia, according to Elliot, is a term which, “confuses, rather than clarifies, and should be discontinued.”
The science of neuroplasticity brings hope
By the turn of this century, the advancement in technology has made it possible for scientists to see inside the brain, resulting in the knowledge that the brain is plastic. New connections can form and the internal structure of the existing synapses can change. New neurons, also called nerve cells, are constantly being born, particularly in the learning and memory centres. A person who becomes an expert in a specific domain will have growth in the areas of the brain that are involved with their particular skill. Even if the left hemisphere of a person’s brain is severely injured (in 90 percent of people the left hemisphere controls the capacity to understand and generate language), the right side of the brain can take over some language functions.
With fMRI-scans it has now been confirmed that — as was always suspected — there are indeed differences between the brains of dyslexic persons and good readers. More and more research studies, however, suggest that the cause-effect relationship should be reversed, i.e. that these differences might not be the cause, but the effect of the reading difficulty.
Using brain imaging scans, neuroscientist John D. E. Gabrieli at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has found that there is no difference between the way poor readers with or without dyslexia think while reading.
In another study, published online in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers analysed the brains of children with dyslexia and compared them with two other groups of children: an age-matched group without dyslexia and a group of younger children who had the same reading level as the children with dyslexia. This suggests that the anatomical differences reported in left-hemisphere language-processing regions of the brain appear to be a consequence of reading experience as opposed to a cause of dyslexia.
When does a reading difficulty become dyslexia?
Even if a child is performing above average at school, compared to international education standards their relative ability is somewhat deceiving. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) compared the reading abilities of Grade 4 children in 40 countries and ranked South Africa last in 2006. A follow-up study in 2011, which found Hong Kong to achieve the best standard globally, revealed that our Grade 4 learners were “still performing at a low level overall on an easier assessment compared to their counterparts internationally.”
Research conducted by Edublox in Singapore a few years ago confirmed this concerning situation. A child whose reading level is considered acceptable for their age in South Africa may be diagnosed as dyslexic in Singapore. A diagnosis of dyslexia, therefore, is relative to the specific country and environment. Instead of limiting academic performance with a loosely-defined term, we should perhaps focus on developing potential. Often what appears to be dyslexia is a lack of certain cognitive skills which include directionality, form discrimination, auditory blending, and long-term memory. If these cognitive skills are practised, a reading problem may become a thing of the past.
Learning principles and cognitive skills development
To understand what causes reading difficulties we need to take note of the fact that learning is a stratified process. One skill has to be acquired first, before it becomes possible to acquire subsequent skills. It is like climbing a ladder. If you miss one of the rungs you fall off.
The first rung of the reading ladder
Unless one has first learned to speak Bahasa Indonesia, there is no way that one would be able to read the above Indonesian sentence.
This shows that language is at the very bottom of the reading ladder. Its role in reading can be compared to the role of running in the game of soccer or ice-skating in the game of ice hockey. One cannot play soccer if one cannot run, and one cannot play ice hockey if one cannot skate. One cannot read a book in a language — and least of all write — unless one knows the particular language.
If a child’s knowledge of English is poor, then his reading will also be poor. Evidence that links reading problems and language problems has been extensively presented in the literature. Research has, for example, shown that about 60 percent of dyslexics were late talkers. To prevent later reading problems, parents must therefore ensure that a child is exposed to sufficient opportunities to learn language.
The second rung consists of cognitive skills
While language skills comprise the first rung of the reading ladder, cognitive skills comprise the second. There is a whole conglomeration of cognitive skills that are foundational to reading and spelling.
Attention — or concentration — plays a critical role in learning. Focused attention is the behavioural and cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things, while sustained attention refers to the state in which attention must be maintained over time. Both are important foundational skills of reading.
Because attention is so important for reading, ADHD and dyslexia commonly co-occur. Approximately 25 percent of children who are diagnosed with ADHD, a learning difficulty known to affect concentration, are also dyslexic.
Visual processing refers to the ability to make sense of information taken in through the eyes. This is different from problems involving sight or sharpness of vision. Difficulties with visual processing affect how visual information is interpreted or processed. A child with visual processing problems may have 20/20 vision but may have difficulties discriminating foreground from background, forms, size, and position in space. He may also be unable to synthesise and analyse.
• Foreground-background differentiation. The particular letter, or word, or sentence, that the reader is focused on is elevated to the level of foreground, whereas everything else within the field of vision of the reader (the rest of the page and the book, the desk on which the book is resting, the section of the floor and/or wall that is visible, etc.) is relegated to the background.
• Form discrimination. The most obvious classroom activity requiring the child to discriminate forms is that of reading. The learning of the letters of the alphabet, syllables, and words will undoubtedly be impeded if there is difficulty in perceiving the form of the letters, syllables, and words.
• Size discrimination. Capital letters, being used at the start of a sentence, sometimes look exactly the same as their lower case counterparts, and must therefore be discriminated mainly with regards to size.
• Spatial relations refer to the position of objects in space. It also refers to the ability to accurately perceive objects in space with reference to other objects. A person with a spatial problem may find it difficult to distinguish letters like b, d, p, and q.
• Synthesis and analysis. The reader must be able to perceive individual parts as a whole. In other words, he must be able to synthesise. Although the ability to analyse, i.e. to perceive the whole in its individual parts, does play a role in reading, this ability is of the utmost importance in spelling.
The term visual dyslexia and dyseidetic dyslexia are often used to describe a dyslexic with difficulties in visual processing.
Auditory dyslexia and dysphonetic dyslexia, on the other hand, are used to describe a dyslexic with difficulties in auditory processing.
Auditory processing refers to the ability to make sense of information taken in through the ears. It is not the ability to hear, but the ability to interpret, organise, or analyse what’s heard.
Problems with auditory perception generally correspond to those in the visual area and are presented under the following components:
• Auditory foreground-background differentiation refers to the ability to select and attend to relevant auditory stimuli and ignore the irrelevant.
• Auditory discrimination refers to the ability to hear similarities and differences between sounds.
• Auditory blending (also called auditory synthesis) refers to the ability to perceive individual sounds as a whole. The child who has a deficit in auditory blending will be unable to blend the individual sounds in a word. He may know the individual phonemes but simply cannot put them together. He may, for example, sound the letters “c-a-t” but then say “cold.”
Processing speed can be defined as how long it takes to get stuff done.
Dyslexia is linked to slow processing speed. Researcher Hermundur Sigmundsson and his colleagues at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim gave two simulated driving tests to six dyslexic volunteers and 11 other people. They were shown road signs as they drove on simulated country and city roads at different speeds.
The researchers found that dyslexics were 20 percent slower to react to traffic signs during the rural drive and 30 percent slower to react in the city than the non-dyslexic controls.
Memory is the retention of information over time. Although the word memory may conjure up an image of a singular, “all-or-none” process, it is clear that there are many kinds of memory, each of which may, to some extent, be independent of the other.
• Visual memory. A good visual memory is essential to build a “visual dictionary” in the brain.
• Auditory memory involves being able to take in information that is presented orally, process that information, store it in one’s mind and then recall what one has heard.
Researchers studied 52 musicians, including 24 who are dyslexic and 28 who are not dyslexic, and compared the performance of the two groups in a variety of auditory tests. While the dyslexic musicians performed just as well as their non-dyslexic peers in auditory perception tests, they scored much lower on tests of auditory short-term memory.
• Sequential memory requires items to be recalled in a specific order. Many learners with reading difficulties have poor sequential memory.
• Iconic memory. If a line of print were flashed at you very rapidly, say, for one-tenth of a second, all the letters you can visualise for a brief moment after that presentation constitute your iconic memory. Your iconic memory, together with your ability to discriminate between foreground and background, determines your eye span. Eye span is the number of letters of words you take in at a glance.
When a person reads his eyes do not move continuously along a line of text but engage in a series of rapid movements (saccades) with intermittent short stops (fixations). The more often the eyes have to pause for fixations, the slower the reading speed will be.
Regressions occur when the eyes move towards the left to look again at words that have already been covered. A dyslexic person will be inclined to pause more often for fixations, and the duration of each fixation will also be longer than that of the typical reader. The dyslexic person is also inclined to more regressions than the normal reader.
Improving a person’s iconic memory will widen his eye span.
• While most studies in the dyslexia field focus on short-term memory, i.e. the capacity for holding a small amount of information in mind in an active, readily available state for a short period, research has shown that dyslexics also suffer from poor long-term memory.
A study, published in Dyslexia, compared performances of 60 dyslexic children to that of 65 age-matched normal readers on verbal, visual-spatial, and visual-object tasks. Results documented a generalised impairment of long-term memory capacities in dyslexic children and the results did not vary as a function of children’s age.
• The term working memory refers to the ability to temporarily hold several facts or thoughts in memory while solving a problem or performing a task.
An important and consistent finding is that working memory problems interfere with reading comprehension. Reading is a complex skill that requires the simultaneous activation of many different brain processes.
Logical thinking is the process in which one uses reasoning consistently to come to a conclusion. Problems or situations that involve logical thinking call for structure, for relationships between facts, and for chains of reasoning that “make sense.”
The skill of logical thinking gives readers the ability to make inferences, which involves using what you know to make a guess about what you don’t know, or reading between the lines. Readers who make inferences use the clues in the text along with their own experiences to help them figure out what is not directly said.
The bottom line
With the understanding that the brain is plastic and can change and develop, Edublox sees potential in each child as we can now change learning inabilities into learning abilities. With the correct cognitive training and teaching in reading, writing, and mathematics children can realise their full educational potential.
Authored by Susan du Plessis (B.A. Hons Psychology; B.D.), an educational specialist with 30+ years’ experience in the field of learning disabilities. Medically reviewed by Dr. Zelda Strydom (MBChB).
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