Don’t Make This Mistake With Your Dyslexic Child

June 15, 2015 by Geoff Nixon

Thinking Of Dyslexia As Temporary Or Permanent Influences The Dyslexia Parenting Role

Whether it comes from living life as a dyslexic or from reading about dyslexia online, we believe it is a mistake for parents to accept at an early age that their child’s dyslexia is going to be permanent and unmovable. Dyslexia is not a medical diagnosis.  It is an educational diagnosis, which implies almost by definition that real progress is possible.

Dyslexia Treatments Have Come A Long Way

Over the past 10-15 years, the advent of the fMRI, which can see the dyslexic brain at work, and numerous cognitive research and neuroscience advances, there has been a proliferation of treatments that can significantly reduce dyslexia symptoms.  This summary report on the NIH website describes 16 scientific studies, all of which produced gains.  Similar scientific compilations can be found to support the more popular dyslexia treatments today — Davis, Orton-Gillingham, LearningRX, Lindamood Bell and Fast ForWord.

It is understandable that parents think of dyslexia as a condition that cannot be changed.  First, that is the experience of many dyslexic parents as adults.  Second, it’s a natural outgrowth of the liberal use of dyslexia label in today’s learning vocabulary. It was intended to be a description of symptoms, but is now commonly thought of as a disease or a condition.

In most cases, just as speech issues eventually fade and basic spelling is gradually mastered, some dyslexia symptoms can reduce over time as cognitive skills gradually develop, albeit on an uneven and delayed path. However, significant gains will only come from exercises or therapies deliberately aimed at reducing dyslexia symptoms.  Only through those treatments will the dyslexic brain get out of the box it is in, struggling to make reading progress — the many treatments out there lead the brain in a new direction, on cognitive skills that lead to easier and more natural reading.

There is still a lot we don’t know about dyslexia, and any investment in a treatment aimed at significantly reducing or even eliminating dyslexia symptoms is somewhat a leap of faith and be quite expensive, not to mention requiring a major effort for the already strained child and family.  However, it is fair to say dyslexia treatments have come a long way and we are making progress in being able to reduce dyslexia symptoms for many children.  This has huge implications for parenting a dyslexic child.

The Issue With A Coping Strategy

If you are managing your dyslexic child for a lifetime of dyslexia, you will understandably focus on coping strategies which includes reading work around techniques and developing the mindset, the resilience needed to cope with dyslexia.  You might also treat the stress and anxiety involved with “keeping up with the class” as unavoidable even though this risks disengaging their child from learning and can have longer-term negative consequences.

These are all valuable skills, but they are managing for an undesirable outcome.

Given the advances in dyslexia treatment technology, managing for a better outcome should be considered.  In this scenario parents would manage for a time in their child’s life when reading, writing and learning will be easier. The alternative is what most do — whatever it takes to help their child keep up today, most often creating a negative connection to reading and learning from which many dyslexic children do not recover.

The “Dyslexics Are Wired Differently” Misconception

Misconceptions about the fixed nature of dyslexia are understandable.  There are hundreds of dyslexia resources and websites these days to help parents make the right decisions about bringing up their dyslexic child.  And so parents feel more informed than ever about what dyslexia is, and what they can do to help.  Unfortunately, much of their new-found knowledge and confidence is built around a misunderstanding about the nature of dyslexia, generally expressed something like this:

A dyslexic brain is normal and healthy. It just works differently.

Sound right?  Well, it’s not. This all too common statement suggests that a dyslexic brain is different in two significant ways:

  1. Dyslexic brains are different, and
  2. Dyslexic brains won’t or can’t change.

Different brain wiring is a tidy way to explain why dyslexic children respond unusually, never mind that most 6 year-olds make many of same errors and yet their wiring is not questioned.

This view on dyslexia, driven most recently by the connection of certain genes to dyslexia, is fed by the stubborn misconception that dyslexia is some kind of condition.  It’s not.  It is a description of where a child stands on a reading continuum — it’s an unexpected reading difficulty that is out of step with an individual’s other learning abilities.

Part of the doctrine around dyslexia being a whole different issue is the professional mantra that dyslexia can’t be cured — once a dyslexic, always a dyslexic.  Providers who claim to “cure dyslexia” are accused of unfairly raising parental expectations or of promising what can never be delivered.  This policing of the dyslexia-is-a-life-sentence mantra goes a long way to preserving the public misconceptions about the true nature of dyslexia.

Why the public generally believes the idea that individuals can’t work their way out of dyslexia is harder to explain.   It  is now well accepted that the brain is always changing and improving — surely this should include dyslexics?  Furthermore, a great many dyslexics go on to lead highly productive (and often over-achieving) lives and many come to enjoy reading.  Nevertheless, talking of a dyslexia cure is frowned upon.

Dyslexia parenting requires a long term visionFact #1: Dyslexics Are Not “Wired” Differently

There is a flaw in the perception of dyslexia being somehow separate from other learning difficulties. Scientific consensus as articulated by University of Michigan is that dyslexia is a language-based learning disability primarily caused by delays in auditory processing skills that impact listening and reading. Language-based learning difficulties are far and away the largest learning disability category.

Dyslexic children do not enter school able to process at natural language speed, meaning they find it hard to keep up with the teacher.  They also struggle to hear the sounds inside words, i.e., they have weak phonemic awareness, the essential reading skill.

This misconception that dyslexics have different wiring is based on observations about how these children who lack in the basic language processing skills respond using alternative methods — often visual, often creative. But these responses are at a point in time, whereas learning happens on a continuum.

If you compare the fMRI of the brain of a good reader while reading and the brain of a dyslexic, you will see a huge difference. While the good reader has activity concentrated in one part of the brain, the language region, a dyslexic brain lights up all over when reading (Richlan, 2012).

This does not mean there a dyslexic brain is different, just that while reading it is choosing to use its available skills differently.  The severity of reading and learning ability is related to the level of cognitive skill development. As cognitive skills improve, the brain will make different choices and the fMRI will change as the brain moves along the continuum towards proficiency.  Dyslexic children are on this fluid continuum, not part of some other brain configuration that cannot normalize.

Fact #2: Research Is Piling Up — Brains Can Rewire, Even Dyslexic Brains.

This second aspect of dyslexia, i..e, that it is fluid, always changing, is basic biology.  Everything about us is changing — our bodies and our brains.  Newly established science around neuroplasticity shows that the brain not only changes, it self-organizes and self-improves.  Dyslexics are not immune to these basic laws of nature.

This means that through lots of hard work along with the support of others, many individuals are able to reduce their dyslexia symptoms to the point that they are far more manageable, even just background noise.

Unfortunately, many dyslexic students do not go on to be capable readers or learners, even as their language processing skills gradually improve with age.  After years of frustration at school and stress over disappointing their parents and teachers, they do not have the motivation or belief to invest more time or money in yet another dyslexia treatment, even though in later life their chances of success may be higher.

Many other dyslexics do stay engaged. Their relationship with reading is much better in their adult life. Look no further than to numbers of famous dyslexics who have prospered in all kinds of fields.  While many of them still describe themselves as dyslexic, most have seen their cognitive skills mature and are at least good readers.

Brain plasticity can accelerate the reduction of dyslexia symptoms

A number of dyslexia interventions have been developed in the last 10-15 years.   These programs reduce the severity of  dyslexia symptoms through improvement in underlying cognitive skills.  They use cognitive exercises that tap into neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to self-improve.

The availability of these dyslexia programs is helping more individuals overcome dyslexia, using intensive exercises that take advantage of the brain’s potential to change and improve.

A Better Way To Think About Dyslexia As A Parent

Rather than thinking of the dyslexic brain as wired differently and of dyslexia as a life sentence, consider this statement about dyslexia:

A dyslexic brain is normal with delays that can resolve over time.

This is an important distinction.  First, it changes the way parents might think about trying to resolve dyslexia.  When dyslexia is thought of as a point along a continuum, the idea is not so much to overcome dyslexia as to improve skills to the point that a child goes from being regarded as “dyslexic” to the less severe “struggling reader” to “reading with proficiency.”

There is no step-change required, no miracle transformation from one brain to another, just natural biological progress along the same continuum that most children travel, albeit from a more frequent and error-prone starting point. This opens up a different dyslexia parenting approach.  It suggests any interventions that accelerate the natural development of cognitive skills are likely to be helpful and therefore worth trying.  It also suggests that parents should manage their children towards a life of reduced or eliminated dyslexia symptoms rather than settling into a coping strategy from day one.

A Different Parenting Strategy

Seeing Dyslexia As Temporary Requires A Different Parenting Vision

Because most dyslexic children can develop the foundational skills needed for reading, as parents you should have a long-term vision for your dyslexic child:  keep your child engaged until the foundations are in place. The emphasis should be on accelerating fundamental skills (real change is possible) while keeping your child engaged in his own learning.

This is made possible by finding strengths to build confidence and by avoiding frustration, anxiety and tension. This is not the strategy of many parents of dyslexic children.  They are doing what their neighbors and friends are doing —  frantically helping their children keep up, whatever the cost.  While parents of dyslexic children generally recognize that these tactics are not working for their child, they follow the same path as others because they assume dyslexia is “incurable” and no other path is available.

Dyslexic children need to be allowed to follow a boldly different path

Dyslexic children need to be able to take a different path to their peers. Good readers develop fundamental cognitive and pre-reading skills before entering the school system, and then learn to read relatively painlessly over 3-4 years.  They also enter the school system as enthusiastic and confident learners; learning risk takers who are not afraid of trying new things.

This is not the path to life success for children with learning difficulties. Dyslexic children do not enter school with essential cognitive skills or robust learning confidence. Parents are pressured by schools to have their dyslexic child focus on “keeping up” with national standards, constant testing and all kinds of content that is not only beyond them, but can be soul destroying.  By the time they are truly ready to learn they have given up on themselves and are no longer engaged.

Is dyslexia permanent or temporaryParenting For The Dyslexic “Long Haul”

As the parent of a child with dyslexia or any other learning difficulty, you already know the day-to-day dyslexia parenting role is different than most.  You have to pick your battles and recognize that many normal parenting techniques around discipline and school routines just don’t work.

Less understood, dyslexia parenting requires a different longer-term philosophy.  Instead of making sure your child is  “keeping up” consider this approach:

  • Favor work on fundamentals to augment natural growth
  • Nurture lifelong learning

Strategy #1: More time on fundamentals, less time on homework or test results

The single most important educational goal for any struggling learner and for dyslexic children in particular is to master the reading fundamentals — phonemic awareness, spelling, cognitive skills such as processing, attention, working memory and sequencing.

Once mastered, homework is easier, reading is easier, writing is easier and so-called read to learn is possible —  in short, school is a whole lot less stressful. Your struggling child needs more stimulation of language processing and other fundamentals than other kids.

Fundamentals come from phonics training, reading grade level books (particularly books that might spark an interest in reading) and programs that focus on cognitive skill and language development. Fundamentals are not helped by memorization for a test, cut and paste projects or reading books that are too difficult.

Just being aware that these activities have no learning value for your struggling child is a helpful insight for parents of dyslexic children.

Strategy #2: Nurture lifelong learning

There are two aspects to helping your child maintain a love of learning that can kick in when the fundamentals are in place: (1) Protect him from negative learning experiences, and (2) Find strengths to stimulate confidence and interest in learning.

Protect From Negative Connections to Learning One of great challenges in managing after-school hours is that for most dyslexic children the school day is exhausting — very little of the day is easy or rejuvenating and so they come home tired.

Furthermore, the frustration of children with dyslexia often centers on their inability to meet expectations.  Parents need to recognize that day-to-day life is a challenge for their dyslexic child — they can help by resisting adding stress around learning, especially when it is not related to building fundamentals.

But then there is homework to do or review for a test.  Homework and studying for a test are real challenges, and often a time of family stress and drama for the family of a dyslexic child.

As much as possible, dyslexia parenting means protecting their child from homework that does not help the fundamentals and creates unnecessary stress, particularly in elementary and middle school where there is a lack of substantial scientific evidence to support the value of homework.

If you make a case to the school that the homework is eroding your child’s confidence and undermining his love of learning, they should be sympathetic.  In any event, it is important for parents to find an equilibrium between the immediate realities and demands of the school and your long-term ambitions for your child to be a healthy lifelong learner.

The argument around preparing for tests is different.  This is where the parent of a dyslexic child needs to have the confidence to focus on the long game.  Sure, your child may be posting lower grades now, but the goal here is to keep your child engaged and willing to learn when he is ready.  Again, balance is important.

Finding strengths Parents should explore their dyslexic child’s strengths and talents as a way to build confidence and the potential for success to balance academic failures.  As we have discussed before many dyslexic children are creative, which in itself opens up myriad opportunities.

In addition, it may be possible to use a strength to access a weakness. A perfect example would be singing — by having to read words and sing in tempo and in tune, a dyslexic child may learn how to read automatically, the key to reading comprehension.

Finding The Different Parenting Track

While we think a longer-term parenting strategy that builds towards a day when your child is learning-ready and learning-willing is intuitively appealing, it is not an easy path. It is a different path than most other parents — who conscientiously get their children through the homework, the assignments and the tests.

Remember though, these parents are dealing with much more robust learners who can handle a bit of extra effort and even a bit of failure.  Generally these kids are doing something they are good it — reading and learning – -and so they like it or at worst don’t mind it.

Your case is different. This long-term vision for your dyslexic child may also vary from the one counseled by your school.  Remember here, schools have their own pressures.  A school is measured based on its success rates now, and that includes your child, now.

In addition, your child’s teacher’s income depends on progress against standards — never mind how impossible it is for your child — now, this year.  Your interests are not aligned.  You will have the same problem with a different teacher next year.

While it’s a tougher path in relating to peers and the school, it will be a much easier path for you and your child at home day to day —  less unneeded stress over difficult homework assignments, no crushing of spirit as you make your child flail and struggle.  It is an opportunity to connect positively with learning.

Finally, this long term vision has the promise of the long-term reward, a frustrated learner just waiting to be unleashed when he is eventually learning-ready. This is the secret sauce of so many dyslexia success stories — these are individuals who had parents who kept them engaged through those tough years or who found an interest to sustain them, who were then able power onto greatness once the learning foundations finally clicked into place.

  • Phoebe’s Mom

    Excellent post – thank you for sharing this.

  • cherylslife

    Very great post!

  • Karee Atkinson

    As a dyslexic adult I find some of the statements in your article very upsetting. I am dyslexic, it is as much as part of me as my eye color. I am successful by building on my strengths and accommodating for my weakness. However, I won’t ever “get over” my dyslexia (case in point I am willing to bet that there are several spelling and grammar mistakes in this post because I am dyslexic!). Its is a life sentence, as I will live and die who I am; luckily I am ok with that. I like who I am. I wish my children didn’t face the same struggles I do, but 3 out of 4 of them do. While I agree with the strategies you suggest, I find your underlying assumptions about what is means to be a dyslexic incorrect. Our brains are amazing, and we can learn, develop and change the brain. That is entirely true, but we can’t change who we are. I don’t ever want my child believe one day they will no longer face the challenges that come with being dyslexic, because that is a lie. It also opens the door to shame and hiding who they are and what they are feeling. I believe someday my children will excel in whatever vocation they choose, but it will because they build on the strengths they find within themselves as they discover who they are. And they are dyslexic.

    • Thanks for sharing, Karee. The last thing we intended to do was upset anyone. For sure, there are a lot of strengths and creativity that come out of struggling with reading. Have you seen the report linked below which summarizes a number of studies of dyslexia treatments where gains were made? http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19079567

  • Wow. As a lifelong undiagnosed dyslexic and mother to a profoundly impacted Dyslexic 13 year old with co-morbid disabilities like Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia, Low Working Memory, Executive Function and ADD – I am not happy at all with such an article. I echo Karee Atkinson’s assertions that we 1in5 are never ‘cured’ and the term ‘get over’ is actually offensive and only shows me this is one of the many organizations that are either looking to capitalize on this disability and not having taken seriously the scientific facts about dyslexia.

    In fairness, maybe you haven’t been doing this long enough to know the plethora of information…and I hope you see this an an opportunity to join forces with International Dyslexia Association “IDA” or Decoding Dyslexia “DD”, which is in every state. I hope you consider doing a follow-up to this article with some additional proven scientific facts….like Orton Gillingham…..remediation is established….

    I am greatful to IDA and DD for the well researched and strong advocacy they do for our dyslexic children and hundreds to thousands of families in each state. I am proud to live, breath and learn more and more each day to help dispell myths and inaccuracies. I like the idea of the article, just not the content.

    • Suzanne, I don’t think it’s fair to say we are looking to “capitalize on this disability” because we have a different perspective to you. One thing you find in the world of learning and education is that pretty much everyone has their heart in the right place and their motives are pure. We like to think that includes all of the folks at Gemm Learning also.

      We did not mean to say that all cases of dyslexia can be resolved or even most, but that it is possible and that over time symptoms do change.
      As for scientific evidence take a look at this summary of studies on dyslexia treatments in a report on the NIH website (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4330793/) and also at this list of research support the Davis method (http://www.dyslexia.com/science/researchlist.htm). There are a lot of others, but these serve as an illustration that there is research to support our different view.
      As I mentioned to Karee, we really did not intend to upset anyone and please accept our apology for any offense. In hindsight I think we could have written this post a little more carefully.

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  • Michele Ippoliti McNamara

    Please remove the Davis method from your list of science based programs. There is no scientific evidence to show that this program has anything to offer dyslexic students. Many parents will waste time and precious resources on programs with no merit. We have found that an Orton Gillingham curriculum with an AOGPE certified tutor has made a profound impact on my daughters abillity to decode and read fluently.

    And Learning Rx has been fined for making claims that it can “cure” autism and adhd.