Dyslexia: Understanding the Struggling Reader

Posted by | October 28, 2018 | Blog | No Comments

By Heather Jenkins, CALT – KPA mom and Dyslexia Therapist

The other day one of my daughters sent me this picture from campus with this text: “I’ve become a meme.”

Poor thing, she was trying to make light of the situation, but she was really feeling the pressure of looming deadlines and an upcoming Social Work exam. If only we could learn the material in textbooks (or instruction manuals!) through osmosis. I know I’m stating the obvious, but learning how to read is essential to our children’s education. 

Falling Behind

The initial years of school focus on that very thing — learning to read — but by 4th grade children begin the important transition into reading to learn. If a child hasn’t learned to read well enough to comprehend what’s been read, the road to learning will become significantly more difficult. Suddenly, poor readers will notice their peers, who were already a few paces ahead, are now leaving them in the dust. And the truth is, at this point, it will be almost impossible to “catch up” to their peers.

Why? Because as strong readers increase their vocabulary by hundreds of new words each year, weak readers are just struggling to keep up  — and they are missing out on all that new learning.

These struggles cause children to lose confidence in themselves. They become frustrated. They have no desire to read because it is laborious work, with little reward for their effort. They may be called “lazy.” Some, trying to divert attention away from their weaknesses, will become trouble makers. Some, like my own child, will ask you out of the blue one day, “Am I stupid?”

Am I stupid?

Those three words can break a mother’s heart.

Maybe you are wondering if your child has dyslexia. As I watched my bright child struggle with reading, I wondered the same thing. To be honest though, my husband and I dismissed it, because back then we had several misconceptions about dyslexia.

But here’s what I wish I had known: Though it’s not uncommon for small children to invert letters, or find the task of reading a challenge from time to time, persistent reading problems that cause a child to fall further and further behind his peers, is concerning — especially if he is doing well in other subjects. When there is an unexpected difficulty learning to read despite intelligence, motivation, and education, parents should consider the possibility of dyslexia.

What is dyslexia?

Many people assume that dyslexia causes a person to see letters and words backwards, like seeing “dab” instead of “bad.” But people with dyslexia see letters just like everyone else. Dyslexia is not a vision problem. Let me say that again.

Dyslexia is not a vision problem.

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability (some would say “difference”) that is neurological in origin and impairs phonological processing.

In other words, it affects how language is processed in the brain.

Dyslexia does not affect a person’s intelligence, nor is it caused by a lower-than-average IQ. People with dyslexia can be great inventors, renowned lawyers, or surgeons, or Pulitzer Prize winners. Gifted people can be dyslexic. Walt Disney, Steven Spielberg, Agatha Christie, Lewis Carroll, Charles Schwab, Erin Brockovich, Tim Tebow, and Jay Leno (to name just a few) are proof that dyslexics can be massively creative and successful.

People affected by dyslexia don’t have a problem seeing words, they have trouble processing language — especially isolating and manipulating sounds within words.

Here’s an example:


Seems simple enough. Right? 

For a child affected by dyslexia, these tasks are difficult. In fact, so much effort is spent on the mechanics of manipulating sounds, and decoding words (reading) that the meaning of words is lost. This leads to the poor comprehension common in struggling readers. Encoding words (spelling) is an even more difficult task!

What We Know About Dyslexia

  • Dyslexia affects 10 – 20% of the population, in varying degrees. 
  • Dyslexia affects girls just as often as boys.
  • Dyslexia is not “outgrown” because it is a life-long condition.
  • Dyslexia runs in families.

Though dyslexia is inherited, its severity may differ. One family member, with mild dyslexia, may only have trouble spelling, while another, with severe dyslexia, may have persistent trouble reading simple, one-syllable words.

The Science of Dyslexia and Why Early Intervention is Critical

So, remember when I said that dyslexia impairs how language is processed in the brain? The left hemisphere of the brain is largely tasked with processing language, and is ultimately responsible for reading. 

Functional MRI studies, conducted at the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, have revealed how the brains of those with dyslexia work. (An fMRI is conducted while the subject is doing a task, such as reading.) These studies have shown that the brains of those with dyslexia rely more on the right hemisphere than the brains of those without dyslexia.

This means that when those with dyslexia read a word, the signals take a longer path through the brain as they make their way back to their final destination in the left hemisphere. Slow reading is the result.

When those affected by dyslexia read, their brains actually work harder to achieve the same outcome. It can be exhausting.

Here’s the Good News….

The human brain is resilient and is able to “rewire” the pathways to reading.

Through intensive, multi-sensory therapy, which systematically breaks the language down into meaningful parts and teaches the reader how to decode words, the brains of dyslexics begin to use the left hemisphere more efficiently while reading!

 Why is early identification crucial?

While nothing can “cure” dyslexia, early intervention (beginning before the age of 9) has the potential to retrain the brain, making the process of reading more efficient, increasing overall fluency, and improving reading comprehension.

The earlier therapy begins, the faster the brain can adapt.

But, it is never too late to benefit from this type of intervention.

Common characteristics of someone with dyslexia are:

  • has a family member with dyslexia (or one who is a slow reader)
  • dislikes reading (but enjoys being read to)
  • slow, difficult reading (made dramatically worse by time pressure, stress, tiredness, or poor health)
  • easily frustrated and emotional about reading
  • poor spelling
  • difficulty rhyming words (By 4 years of age, most children should be able to easily rhyme words.)
  • directionality problems (confuses left and right; gets lost or disoriented when traveling or giving directions)
  • mispronounces words (saying “estaurant” for restaurant, or “maga” for grandma)
  • difficulty putting thoughts into words; speaks in halting phrases; leaves sentences incomplete; stutters under stress
  • difficulty learning sequenced information (like learning the months of the year)
  • difficulty managing time; losing track of time (for adults this might mean difficulty being on time)

Next Steps

If you suspect that your child may have dyslexia, the best thing you can do for her is to seek formal testing.*  You are not putting a label on your child by doing so. You are trying to identify the problem. You do not need to wait until a certain age or grade to seek testing. Children as young as 5 and 6 can be accurately identified.

Children identified as dyslexic benefit best from an Orton-Gillingham based program (like the Take Flight curriculum developed by the Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas) where they can receive therapy that has the potential to be life-changing.

* If you are a Texas resident, your local school district is required by law (see Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act) to assess your child if you request it. This service is provided free of charge, even if your child attends private or home school. The best policy is to ask your school district — in writing — for “an assessment to determine the possibility of the disability of dyslexia.”

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