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The Starting Point To Helping Your Dyslexic Child Is Separating Fact From Fiction

Helping your dyslexic child comes down to a choice between trying to beat the dyslexia, teaching coping strategies or a bit of both.  Before spending a lot of money and effort on tutoring (coping) or treatments (beating dyslexia) you should first make sure you understand what you are up against.  Here are some key facts to focus on.

You are probably aware by now that dyslexia refers to an unexpected difficulty with reading – unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. (Lyon, Shaywitz, & Shaywitz, 2003, p. 2).

However, there are a number of less understood or misunderstood facts about dyslexia that have major implications for how your child’s dyslexia should be managed, short-term and long-term.

#1. Dyslexia is an Educational Term, not a Medical Diagnosis

Dyslexia is a description of a learning disability, an unexpected difficulty with reading. It is an educational assessment that is arrived at through the observation of symptoms, like almost all educational evaluations.  These symptoms are typically gathered through formal testing — reading skill levels, phonological awareness, cognitive testing of working memory, language processing — and through behavioral surveys and feedback from student and parents.

The important point to note here is the entire diagnosis rests on symptoms. This is very different to a medical diagnosis, where for instance symptoms of a virus might be observed (fever, upset stomach, etc.) and then testing is done to confirm the existence of a specific virus.  This will lead to a course of treatment.

And so, while medical diagnoses start with symptoms that lead to testing for specific issues, in dyslexia, there is no such confirmation.

Why does this matter?  It means dyslexia is not disease or a condition.  There is no dyslexia virus, no dyslexia condition.

One of the most controversial phrases in the world of learning disabilities is cure for dyslexia.  Yes, it’s true, cure for dyslexia is misleading.  However, this is not because dyslexia can’t be helped. It’s because cure is a medical term and dyslexia is not a medical condition.

#2. Dyslexia Is A Language-Based Disorder

Sally Shaywitz, the leading researcher on dyslexia at the Yale Center of Dyslexia and Creativity, issued this finding in 2006:

Within the last two decades, evidence from many laboratories has converged to indicate the cognitive basis for dyslexia: Dyslexia is a disorder within the language system and, more specifically, within a particular sub component of that system, phonological processing.

This makes sense.  fMRI’s of brain activity when reading match almost perfectly with fMRI’s of the brain listening. The two activities –reading and listening – are almost identical. They are the two ways we take in information in language formats –one spoken, one written.

Since dyslexia is largely a language-based learning disability, the most common delays causing dyslexia are related to language processing (Science Daily, Max-Planck-Gesellschaft).

Unfortunately, while this should be settled science, it is not.  There are dyslexia treatments that are not language based and they keep circulating articles trying to cast doubt on the language processing origins of dyslexia, tapping into the public misconception that letter reversal is the main symptom of dyslexia and letter reversal is a visual issue (Rayner, Foorman, Perfetti, Pesetsky, & Seidenberg, 2001).  No doubt there are visual issues contributing to dyslexia in some cases, in most instances that is what they are, contributory.  They are not the likely source of the dyslexia.

It is also doesn’t help that researchers are still announcing studies connecting dyslexia to phonological processing and language processing.  This should not be news anymore.

The definition of dyslexia as a language-based difficulty matters because it points to what should be the primary target of any dyslexia help.  At least starting out, absent any clear evidence of sensory integration or visual issues, helping your dyslexic child should focus on dyslexia treatments, therapies or software that aim at improving language processing and phonological awareness.

#3. Because The Brain Is Plastic, Dyslexia In Not Hardwired

Dyslexia is caused by cognitive skill delays that in most individuals develop naturally through daily language interactions.  However, for children with dyslexia these daily interactions are not enough to stimulate full development of cognitive skills.

That’s different from saying that a dyslexic child’s brain is blocked from ever developing functional cognitive skills.  The dyslexic brain is not immune to the biology of neuroplasticity.  Just like every other brain, the dyslexic brain is always changing and looking to self-improve.  Even if over a lifetime these improvements are not enough to make reading a joy, improvements are possible.

Using neuroscience to help your dyslexic childOne way to help your dyslexic child is to provide exercises that build language and language processing.   This compilation of neuroscience studies on the website of the National Institute of Health demonstrates that this approach can work.  All of these studies measured neuroscience-based programs with adaptive cognitive and language exercises.

All studies reported improvements in reading and language after dyslexia treatment — gains varied of course from one study to the next, and student outcomes within each study also varied.  But in all cases, added brain exercise was able to on average move the needle.

As more is learned about the brain, the exercise design will get more precise and more progress can be expected on reducing the symptoms of dyslexia in an ever higher percentage of cases.

It is a controversial claim or fact, that dyslexia can be significantly improved.  Many rely on a statement on the website of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) that  dyslexia can’t be cured:

“There is no cure for dyslexia and individuals with this condition must learn coping strategies”.  International Dyslexia Association

This might be technically true, i.e., that dyslexia can’t be cured, because as we discussed earlier “cure” refers to resolving a disease or condition — and dyslexia is neither.

To reconcile the belief that dyslexia can’t be cured and the reality that many children with dyslexia do go on to be good readers, researchers have come up with the term “stealth dyslexia.”  This describes people who have all of the makings of dyslexia or other reading problems, but end up overcoming them and becoming superior readers.

Actually, research on stealth dyslexics (Fumiko Hoeft) is opening up another treatment option — it seems that some children with phonological awareness and other dyslexia symptoms who go on to be good readers have activity in the prefrontal cortex that is associated with executive function.  Researchers are encouraged by these findings as executive function can be trained and improved, opening up yet another avenue for accessing and reducing dyslexia symptoms through rewiring learning.

#4.  Natural Smarts Can Mask Dyslexia Early On

Reading in the early years is a matching exercise, matching text to word memory.  While teachers and parents work hard on teaching children to sound words out, very bright children who are not able to hear the sounds inside words –the phonemes — are able to memorize and guess their way through reading until as late as 11 years of age.

At some point in 3rd, 4th or 5th grade the word list gets too long to memorize and the effort required to read the words distracts from comprehension.  The reading inefficiency is exposed and a reading delay or dyslexia is diagnosed.  While parents may turn on the school for not finding the dyslexia earlier, they should recognize children aim to please.  They can and will go to great lengths to hide their reading difficulties.   The brain is amazingly resourceful.

This ability of particularly smart children to keep pleasing their parents and teachers while secretly knowing they can’t hear the sounds people say are inside words means parents of those children need to be particularly vigilant.  Signs of a disguised reading issue include:

  • A growing reluctance to read independently, as the texts get more exhausting to decipher
  • When reading out loud, missing phonetically sound words as often as those with unusual spelling or so-called red words
  • Difficulty with long phonetically pure words, like “remembering” — these are harder to memorize, but should be easy to sound out

#5. Schools Have Reasons To Avoid Recognizing Dyslexia

The evidence here is anecdotal and the landscape is constantly changing, but there seems to be growing parent frustration that schools are reluctant to concede or label a child as dyslexic.

Schools are highly motivated to avoid a dyslexia diagnosis.  By doing so, they can avoid the expense of extra special education services at the time of diagnosis.  They can also avoid the ongoing commitment that may be required over ensuing years for a student with a dyslexia label — once attached, it is a hard one to remove even if symptoms reduce over time.

Some states like CT have a long history of avoiding recognition of dyslexia as a learning issue. They cherry pick research to maintain that dyslexia is not a treatable issue or quibble with the symptoms-based approach to arriving at a dyslexia diagnosis in the first place.

This matters, as it means for many parents when it comes to helping your dyslexic child, in large chunks of the US you are on your own.  If you want your dyslexic child to get extra help, you are going to have to do it after school on their own dime. This reality is leading to more parents taking on the daunting task of home schooling.

#6. Dyslexia Is Not Correlated to IQ

Dyslexia is not linked to overall intelligence. This has been established in numerous studies, including this dyslexia and IQ study from the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity.

In fact, recently, some studies have been trying to prove a negative correlation.  The argument goes that IQ improves over time with experience.  The creativity, quick thinking and resourcefulness required to deal with dyslexia actually lifts IQ.  This has been hard to prove in testing though, as the difficulties of dyslexia can impede test results.

Sometimes natural smarts are hard to see in a dyslexic child, as the learning disability interferes with performance on tests, interest in reading and other things typically associated with IQ.  The evidence of natural smarts is more likely to show up in non academic areas at first.  Having said that, a number of known or suspected dyslexics have gone on to have great success in academic or research fields.  For instance, Albert Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison and Winston Churchill were all thought to be dyslexic.

Final Thought

Dyslexia can have far-reaching impacts on all aspects of life for those who suffer from it, especially if it goes undiagnosed. But helping your dyslexic child is possible, with patience and with active intervention.

It is challenging as a parent to know what to do with so much dyslexia information and misinformation out there. Our recommendation would be to embrace the possibility that change is possible and not to just settle into a routine that relies on tutoring and other coping strategies only.

Treatments will not always be successful — different approaches work for different students.  But there is enough science out there and success stories to suggest it’s worth investing in the possibility that your child’s dyslexia symptoms can at least be reduced.