Help, My Child Has Dyslexia (Part 4)

African schoolgirlImagine how a parent feels if, despite doing all the right things – such as buying them lots of children’s books and reading to them every night – their child struggles to learn to read when they start school. It comes as a total surprise in that there is no apparent reason why this should happen.

The child seems normal in every respect, they have a wide vocabulary, they have a really good understanding of things explained to them or read to them, and yet they find it hard to get into reading and writing. As time goes on at school the young reader starts to lose confidence and thinks they never will learn to read and write. They may get grumpy, not want to go to school, and avoid reading and writing altogether. This is often the profile of a child with dyslexia.

In the Part 3 we discussed two fundamental principles that make it possible to interpret dyslexia: The first is that there is nothing that any human being knows, or can do, that he has not learned. The second is that human learning does not take place at a single level, but is a stratified processOne 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.

Language: The first rung of the reading ladder

Di dunia kini kita, tiap orang harus dapat membaca….

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.

The second rung is 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

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 discriminationThe 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 regard 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 bdp, 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 or dyseidetic dyslexia is often the used to describe a dyslexic with difficulties in visual processing.

Auditory processing

Auditory dyslexia or dysphonetic dyslexia, on the other hand, is the 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

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 actually many kinds of memory, each of which may, to some extent, be independent of the other.

Visual memory involves the ability to store and retrieve previously experienced visual sensations and perceptions when the stimuli that originally evoked them are no longer present. That is, the person must be capable of making a vivid visual image in his mind of the stimulus, such as a word, and once that stimulus is removed, to be able to visualise or recall this image without help.

Skilled readers can recognize words at lightning fast speed when they read because the word has been placed in a sort of visual dictionary, say Georgetown University Medical Centre (GUMC) neuroscientists. The visual dictionary idea rebuts the theory that our brain “sounds out” words each time we see them.

GUMC researchers tested word recognition in 12 volunteers using fMRI scans. They were able to see that words that are different, but sound the same (like “hare” and “hair”) activate different neurons, akin to accessing different entries in a dictionary’s catalogue. If the sounds of the word had influence in this part of the brain we would expect to see that they activate the same or similar neurons, but this was not the case; ‘hair’ and ‘hare’ looked just as different as ‘hair’ and ‘soup’. This suggests that, once we know a word, we use the visual information of a word and not the sounds, lead author Laurie Glezer, Ph.D. explained.

In Part 5 we’ll discuss auditory, iconic, short-term, long-term and working memory, the other building blocks of reading and spelling.

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