More Proof That Dyslexia Is Not A Visual Problem

July 23, 2013 by DrDonna

New Research Breaks Link Between Vision and Cause of Dyslexia

An enduring myth in the world of  learning is that the primary cause of dyslexia is delays in visual processing, mainly because the classic symptom of dyslexia is switching of b’s and d’s which on its surface appears to be a vision issue.

Scientists have known for many years however that the reason dyslexics switch letter sounds is not that they mix them up visually, it is that they hear them as the same.

Cause of Dyslexia
Neuroscientists at Georgetown University Medical Center have possibly produced research, reported in the journal Neuron in June 2013, that will finally mark the end of this misunderstanding about dyslexia.

The cause of dyslexia is important as it becomes the basis for treatment and learning accommodations.   And because vision-based approaches don’t work, there is a general perception that dyslexia is something you have to learn to live with, that it cannot be effectively treated.

The Debate Around Dyslexia and Vision

Experts who support the idea that dyslexia is related to visual processing focus on issues such as skipping words and reading b’s as d’s and vice versa.  They then look to correct visual disorders using colored transparencies or colored glasses which change how the child reads words on the page.

Because reading requires sight these theories and treatment options have resonated with parents.

Over the past 25-30 years, however, an avalanche of research has established that reading is a language skill and that almost all language skills stem from difficulties in auditory processing and phonemic awareness. The link between dyslexia and auditory processing has been backed up by all kinds of studies, including correlations between early processing and listening issues converting into dyslexia in later life, and fMRI scans showing that students with dyslexia have less activity in the language parts of the brain.

These language based theories on the cause of dyslexia make sense — if a child cannot process sound accurately and effortlessly, he will not be able to sound out words accurately and effortlessly, as is required for reading fluency and sound reading comprehension.   As a result, he or she can’t read, and can possibly suffer from dyslexia.

Nevertheless, despite all of this research, the myth that dyslexia is a visual difficulty has persisted.

Until now.

What Georgetown University Researchers Found

Researchers at the Center for the Study of Learning at Georgetown University Medical Center used functional MRIs to compare the brains of dyslexic children with the brains of children who don’t have the learning disorder.

Children without dyslexia appeared to have the same level of visual processing activity as dyslexic kids, when matched by reading level instead of age, they found.  Meanwhile other studies show consistent and distinct differences in language processing between dyslexic children and skilled readers.

Further, the Georgetown study showed that children with dyslexia who received intensive tutoring in reading skills experienced a subsequent increase in visual system activity.  In other words, visual difficulties are most often caused by the weak reading skills — the lack of practice in eye tracking, for instance.  And so when reading skills are improved visual skills improve also.  They are not the cause of dyslexia.

The study concludes that vision issues should be used as a symptom of dyslexia, but not targeted directly in treatment of the learning disability.  These findings will help teachers and parents understand more about the true nature of dyslexia and help them treat it accordingly.

What Gemm Learning Knows

The fact that the cause of dyslexia is language processing related is critical, because a large body of scientific research has shown that language processing skills can be strengthened with exercise.

This is how Gemm Learning works.  It uses brain-based Fast ForWord software to rewire auditory processing, phonemic awareness and related cognitive skills to  help dyslexia.

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  • Louise Hamm

    About a year and a half ago I volunteered to try to teach a 50 year old man to read. He went all through school and even graduated, but he could not read even at kindergarten level. He has gotten by with his wife’s help in filling out applications, medical forms, etc.

    I am not a teacher but was a secretary and office manager for 50 years and took it as a challenge to teach him basic reading. No one has ever diagnosed his problem, but I have recently determined he is dyslexic from reading more about the disability. I have taught him the vowels, letter sounds, and have him reading level 1 books but only with me looking on. He mixes up “b” and “d” and when I try to get him to spell simple words, he often spells them backwards. He cannot read completely alone because he does not know when he has made a mistake in the word. I am interested to know the best way to teach an adult dyslexic.

    • The reason he switches b’s and d’s is that their sound profiles are almost identical. They can only be distinguished if auditory processing skills are sound. Not to be self promotional, but a program like ours, Fast ForWord, was designed specifically to help with processing, working memory and sequencing to provide a foundation for his reading. If you are saying though, that he is a 1st grade reading level, then there is likely other factors at work here also. The best thing to do is to call in for a consult.

  • Brandalynn Garza

    My son was recently diagnosed with Visual Processing Deficit. Is this similar to Dislexia in anyway?
    What would be some strategies to help him with this?

    • This is a different diagnosis to dyslexia. The brain is plastic meaning that visual processing skills can be practiced and improved, and so it is worth pursuing a treatment. You can find vision therapy exercises online or check out programs like Brain Gym or BrainWare Safari — the latter started out as software aimed at helping visual processing.

  • Dawn Kasperski

    How is the Orton Gillingham approach different from the FastForWord program? My son has dyslexia and has show some improvement with the Orton Gillingham approach. I was wondering what is different and how your approach may benefit him more?

    • Fast ForWord works at a more fundamental level than Orton Gillingham on processing, working memory, sequencing and other processing skills — the skills needed to take advantage of what O-G has to offer. Typically you would do Fast ForWord first, and then in cases where phonemic awareness is still not fully developed, students will do O-G to help accelerate the path to reading fluency. I hope that helps.

  • Barbara dickson

    My 8yr old daughter was diagnosed with central auditory processing disorder and dyslexia at the same time from a audiologist and physchologist respectively. The recommendation from the audiologist for CAPD was the fast foreword program. The recommendation from the psychologist was the Davis program which is a “newer” or more modern extension of the Orton Gillingham approach. 20 years ago I worked at a summer camp where many dyslexic students were helped using the Orton Gillingham approach. I’m confused. What is the difference between dyslexia and CAPD? And which methods work best? Does it make sense to use Orton G. /Davis method concurrently with the fast foreword program. Or should I use one first then the other? Are they the same thing only one is Canadian, the other an American term? Thank you for your explicit clarification around these terms and treatments.
    Thank you.

    • They are different terms and there is no difference, US and Canada.

      Almost all children with dyslexia have some degree of auditory processing disorder, although often the auditory processing disorder is most often not diagnosed. Put simply, CAPD causes dyslexia — the difficulty to distinguish between sounds makes it hard to sound out words accurately and/or efficiently, often leading to a dyslexia diagnosis.

      Fast ForWord is your best starting point as it specifically addresses the CAPD that is at the root of your daughter’s difficulties. If she went through the program and still had difficulties you could seek out an O-G tutor or and O-G camp, but in most cases that is not necessary. As a follow on program, if needed however, O-G would probably be preferable to Davis. My understanding of the Davis Program is that it relies on visualization and other methods to work around the phonemic awareness skill gaps, whereas O-G would represent a continuation from Fast ForWord, continuing development of listening skills and developing the decoding skills required for reading and comprehension.

  • Cheri Lehman

    I used the fast forward program with my dyslexic grandson when I realized that he was not ready for kindergarten. He was a very bright child but he could only recognize about 10 letters of the alphabet when he was ready for school. We held him out of school and enrolled him in fast forward, 30 min a day, daily for 10 months. He now knows all his upper and lower case letters and the sounds of each. I am now starting the Susan Barton program as he starts kindergarten. He would not have been ready to start the Susan Barton (O-G related) program without fast forward first. I am so thankful that we gave him the fast forward training because he is now where he needs to be to start school. His self esteem has increased tremendously. Our school purchased the Susan Barton site license so parents can tutor their own children with reading difficulties. I am so impressed that Moshannon Valley, a small school in west central Pa and their principal Connie Godin, had the insight to dedicate funds to address this reading problem. I hear so many school horror stories but I have nothing but praise for our Title 1 teachers and school district. I am a retired teacher and mother of a dyslexic child who was not diagnosed until he was a junior in high school and went through college and law school using books on tape. With Fast Forward and Susan Barton I am confident my grandson will be a great reader. We are on the right track for his success. I hope this helps other parents who question whether their child is ready to start school and are looking for help. When in doubt hold them out. After 36 years in public education I never met a parent that regretted holding their child.