Understanding this Common Learning Disability
In November 1896, a doctor in Sussex, England, published the first description of the learning disorder we now know as dyslexia. Early explanations of dyslexia held that eye defects were to blame for the typical dyslexic way of reading—the reversing of letters or words. Because dyslexia is often accompanied by letter and word blurring, doctors then prescribed eye-training exercises to overcome these alleged visual defects. Since the early 1970s, however, research conducted by numerous groups including the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), Child Development Institute, the National Institutes of Health, and the Dyslexia Research Institute has found that dyslexia is not an eyesight problem, but rather a neurological one.
The term dyslexia covers a wide range of reading disabilities, from mild to severe. What most dyslexics have in common is difficulty grasping the shapes of letters and then relating those shapes to the sounds that the letters symbolize. Many also reverse the order of the letters in a word or even leave them out.
Statistics released by the National Institutes of Health in 1996 show 25 million Americans—one in every ten—are functionally illiterate, and at least 15 percent of school-age children—one in every seven—suffer from reading failure. As many as 80 percent of all people with learning disabilities have dyslexia.
According to Tom Viall, Executive Director of the IDA, of all children who display reading problems in the first grade, 74 percent will be poor readers in the ninth grade—a problem extending into adulthood unless children receive informed and explicit instruction on phonemic awareness. ”Dyslexic children do not naturally grow out of reading difficulties,” he stresses.
What is Dyslexia?
“Dyslexia is not a behavioral, psychological, motivational, or social problem,” says Dr. Jane Peterson, an educational psychologist from New York. “And it is definitely also not a problem of having poor sight or low intelligence.”
Rather, dyslexia is a neurological problem in the lower centers of the brain. “The signals that are supposed to get from the inner ear or the eyes to the brain where they can be interpreted are somehow scrambled. And because the signals get distorted, the higher and more intelligent centers of the brain have difficulty in processing the data,” Dr. Peterson explains.
Dyslexia is also an inherited condition. If one parent has dyslexia and the other does not, parents should expect half of their children to have dyslexia. “And if both parents are dyslexic,” says Dr. Susan Shaywitz, Co-Director of the Yale Center for Learning and Attention, and author of Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level, “all of their children are likely to inherit the disorder.”
Preschool and Kindergarten Warning Signs
If two or more of these warning signs exist, especially if there is dyslexia or ADD in your child’s family tree, consider testing your child for dyslexia at age five-and-a-half. Experts say tests aren’t accurate on children younger than this because at a younger age kids’ verbal skills are still developing which might render the tests useless. Phonemic awareness games and training should be implemented as a preventive measure. Children can be tested by qualified psychologists or at any of the numerous organizations specializing in dyslexia.
- Delayed speech (not speaking any words by the child’s first birthday)
- Mixing up sounds in multi-syllabic words (example: aminal for animal, mawn lower for lawn mower, bisghetti for spaghetti, flustrated for frustrated)
- Inability to rhyme by age four
- Lots of allergies or stronger and more severe reactions to childhood illnesses than most other kids
- Can’t master tying shoes
- Confusion over left versus right, over versus under, before versus after, and other directionality words and concepts
- Lack of dominant handedness (switches from right hand to left hand between tasks or even while doing the same task)
- Inability to correctly complete phonemic awareness tasks
- Difficulty learning the names of the letters or sounds in the alphabet; difficulty writing the alphabet in order
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