The A2Z of Dyslexia

letters-4The term dyslexia was coined from the Greek words dys, meaning ill or difficult, and lexis, meaning word. It is used to refer to persons for whom reading is simply beyond their reach. Spelling and writing, due to their close relationship with reading, are usually included.

According to popular belief dyslexia is a neurological disorder in the brain that causes information to be processed and interpreted differently, resulting in reading difficulties. Historically, the dyslexia label has been assigned to learners who are bright, even verbally articulate, but who struggle with reading; in short, learners whose high IQs mismatch their low reading scores. When children are not as bright, their reading troubles have been chalked up to their general intellectual limitations.

What does it look and sound like?

• One of the most obvious tell-tale signs is reversals. People with this kind of problem often confuse letters like b and d, either when reading or when writing, or they sometimes read (or write) words like “rat” for “tar,” or “won” for “now.”
• Another sure sign is elisions — that is when a person sometimes reads or writes “cat” when the word is actually “cart.”
• The person may read very slowly and hesitantly, read without fluency, word by word, or may constantly lose his place, thereby leaving out whole chunks or reading the same passage twice.
• The person may try to sound out the letters of the word, but then be unable to say the correct word. For example, he may sound the letters “c-a-t” but then say “cold.”
• He may read or write the letters of a word in the wrong order, like “left” for “felt,” or the syllables in the wrong order, like “emeny” for “enemy,” or words in the wrong order, like “are there” for “there are.”
• He may spell words as they sound, for example “rite” for “right.”
• He may read with poor comprehension, or it may be that he remembers little of what he reads.
• The person may have a poor and/or slow handwriting.

Some misconceptions

Because of the erroneous belief that the brain cannot change, it was historically believed that dyslexia is “incurable”: “Dyslexia is like alcoholism … it can never be cured” (Clark, M., & Gosnell, M., “Dealing with dyslexia,” Newsweek, 22 March 1982, 55-56).

Advocacy groups, in the rush to generate public awareness for the condition of dyslexia, with the cooperation of a compliant media, have perpetuated the belief that a host of famous individuals such as Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, Winston Churchill and Hans Christian Andersen were dyslexic. The folk myth — the “affliction of the geniuses” — continues to be spread despite the fact that knowledge of the definition of dyslexia and the reading of any standard biographies would immediately reveal the inaccuracy of many such claims. For example, as educational psychologist Dr. Gerald Coles points out, Einstein’s reading of Kant and Darwin at age 13 is hardly representative of individuals who are currently labeled dyslexic.

New technology sheds new light

By the turn of this century, the advancement in technology has made it possible for scientists to see inside the brain, resulting in the knowledge that the brain is plastic. New connections can form and the internal structure of the existing synapses can change. New neurons, also called nerve cells, are constantly being born, particularly in the learning and memory centers. A person who becomes an expert in a specific domain, will have growth in the areas of the brain that are involved with their particular skill. Even if the left hemisphere of a person’s brain is severely injured (in 90% of people the left hemisphere controls the capacity to understand and generate language), the right side of the brain can take over some language functions.

With fMRI-scans et cetera it has now been confirmed that — as was always suspected — there are indeed differences between the brains of dyslexic persons and good readers. More and more research studies, however, suggest that the cause-effect relationship should be reversed, i.e. that these differences might not be the cause, but the effect of the reading difficulty.

Using brain imaging scans, neuroscientist John D. E. Gabrieli at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found that there was no difference between the way poor readers with or without dyslexia think while reading.

The study conducted by Dr. Gabrieli involved 131 children, aged 7 to 16. Following a simple reading test and an IQ measure, each child was assigned to one of three groups: typical readers with typical IQs, poor readers with typical IQs, and poor readers with low IQs. During the test, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe the activity in six brain regions identified as being important in connecting print and sound.

The results indicated that poor readers of all IQ levels showed significantly less brain activity in the six observed areas than typical readers. But there was no difference in the brains of the poor readers, regardless of their IQs.

In another study, published online in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers analyzed the brains of children with dyslexia and compared them with two other groups of children: an age-matched group without dyslexia and a group of younger children who had the same reading level as the children with dyslexia. Although the children with dyslexia had less gray matter than age-matched children without dyslexia, they had the same amount of gray matter as the younger children at the same reading level.

Lead author Anthony Krafnick said this suggests that the anatomical differences reported in left-hemisphere language-processing regions of the brain appear to be a consequence of reading experience as opposed to a cause of dyslexia.

One must also consider that neurological differences do not equal neurological disorders and disabilities. We now also know that there are differences between the brains of people who can juggle and people who cannot juggle, between the brains of people who can play a musical instrument and people who cannot play a musical instrument. Then logically there will be differences between the brains of people who read well and people who struggle with reading!

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Dyslexia Help: Case Study Presented at Kennesaw State University

The Edublox Program has given hope to a child who knew he was different, tried to fit in with his peers, and experienced failures in any aspects of school. His newly found confidence has allowed him to raise his hand in a classroom, dared him to try written material presented to him, and opened a world of “I can” instead of “I can’t” on new material.
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Carole Derrick, Primary Grades Teacher


New light brings new hope

The Edublox point of view, based on the latest research, is that dyslexia is not a DISability but simply an INability. While there are other causes, the most common cause of dyslexia is that the foundational skills of reading and spelling have not been mastered properly.

Learning is a stratified process. One step needs to be mastered well enough before subsequent steps can be learned. This means that there is a sequence involved in learning. It is like climbing a ladder; if you miss one of the rungs of the ladder, you will fall. If you miss out on one of the important steps in the learning process, you will not be able to master subsequent steps.

A simple and practical example of this is the fact that one has to learn to count before it becomes possible to learn to add and subtract. If one tries to teach a child to add and subtract before he has been taught to count, one will quickly discover that no amount of effort will ever succeed in teaching the child these skills.

This principle is also of great importance on the sports field. If we go to a soccer field to watch the coach at work, we shall soon find that he spends a lot of time drilling his players in basic skills, like heading, passing, dribbling, kicking, etc. The players who are most proficient at these basic skills usually turn out to be the best players in the actual game situation.

In the same way, there are also certain skills and knowledge that a child must acquire first, before it becomes possible for him to become a good reader.

The first rung of the reading ladder

Di dunia kini kita, tiap orang harus dapat membaca….

Unless one has FIRST learned to speak Bahasa Indonesia, there is no way that one would be able to read the above Indonesian sentence.

This shows that language is at the very bottom of the reading ladder. Its role in reading can be compared to the role of running in the game of soccer, or ice-skating in the game of ice hockey. One cannot play soccer if one cannot run, and one cannot play ice hockey if one cannot skate. One cannot read a book in a language — and least of all write — unless one knows the particular language.

If a child’s knowledge of English is poor, then his reading will also be poor. Evidence that links reading problems and language problems has been extensively presented in the literature. Research has, for example, shown that about 60 percent of dyslexics were late talkers. In order to prevent later reading problems, parents must therefore ensure that a child is exposed to sufficient opportunities to learn language.

The second rung consists of cognitive skills

While language skills comprise the first rung of the reading ladder, cognitive skills comprise the second. There is a whole conglomeration of cognitive skills that are foundational to reading and spelling.

Attention

“Everyone knows what attention is,” wrote William James in his Principles of Psychology (1890). “It is the taking of possession by the mind in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought… It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state.”

Needless to say, attention or concentration (the words attention and concentration are used synonymously) plays a critical role in learning. Focused attention is the behavioral and cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things, while sustained attention refers to the state in which attention must be maintained over time. Both are important foundational skills of reading.

Because attention is so important for reading, ADHD and dyslexia commonly co-occur. Approximately 25 percent of children who are diagnosed with ADHD, a learning difficulty known to affect concentration, are also dyslexic.

Visual processing

Visual processing refers the ability to make sense of information taken in through the eyes. This is different from problems involving sight or sharpness of vision. Difficulties with visual processing affect how visual information is interpreted or processed. A child with visual processing problems may have 20/20 vision but may have difficulties discriminating foreground from background, forms, size, and position in space. He may also be unable to synthesize and analyze.

• Foreground-background differentiation involves the ability to focus on selected objects and screen out or ignore the irrelevant ones. The child experiencing a difficulty in this area is unable to recognize an object which is surrounded by others. For example, the child cannot locate a ball in a picture of several toys, or a word in a word-find puzzle.

• Form discrimination: Whether it is to differentiate a circle from a square, or the letter B from P, the ability to perceive the shapes of objects and pictures is an important skill for the developing child to acquire. There is hardly an academic activity that does not require the child to engage in form discrimination.

The most obvious classroom activity requiring the child to discriminate forms is that of reading. The learning of the letters of the alphabet, syllables, and words will undoubtedly be impeded if there is difficulty in perceiving the form of the letters, syllables, and words. That the discrimination of letters is a crucial skill in the early stages of reading is evidenced by an extensive literature review conducted by Chall. She concluded that the letter knowledge of young children is a better predictor of early reading ability than the various tests of intelligence and language ability.

• Size discrimination: Capital letters, being used at the start of a sentence, sometimes look exactly the same as their lowercase counterparts, and must therefore be discriminated mainly with regard to size. A person who is unable to interpret size may, for example, find it difficult to distinguish between a capital letter C and a lowercase c.

• Spatial relations refer to the position of objects in space. It also refers to the ability to accurately perceive objects in space with reference to other objects. A person with a spatial problem may find it difficult to distinguish letters like b, d, p, and q.

• Synthesis and analysis: Synthesis refers to the ability to perceive individual parts as a whole, while analysis refers to perceiving the whole in its individual parts. Synthesis plays an important role in reading, whereas analysis is of special importance in spelling.

The term visual dyslexia or dyseidetic dyslexia is often the used to describe a dyslexic with difficulties in visual processing.

Auditory processing

Auditory dyslexia or dysphonetic dyslexia, on the other hand, is the term used to describe a dyslexic with difficulties in auditory processing. Auditory processing refers the ability to make sense of information taken in through the ears. It is not the ability to hear, but the ability to interpret, organize, or analyze what’s heard. All the parts of the hearing pathway are working well, but parts of the brain are not.

Problems with auditory perception generally correspond to those in the visual area and are presented under the following components:

• Auditory foreground-background differentiation refers to the ability to select and attend to relevant auditory stimuli and ignore the irrelevant. The child who has a difficulty in this area is unable to make such differentiation. As a consequence, everything heard is attended to equally. Thus, the teacher’s voice is lost in the background noises of other children’s whispers, or the voices in the corridor, or the traffic sounds coming from the street.

• Auditory discrimination refers to the ability to hear similarities and differences between sounds. The child who has a problem in this area is unable to identify gross differences, for example between a siren and a school bell, or phonemic difference as between the words /pen/ and /pin/ or /big/ and /pig/.

• Auditory blending: Also referred to as auditory analysis and synthesis, this is the ability to synthesize individual sounds which form a word. The child who manifests a difficulty in this area is unable to blend the individual sounds in a word, such as /c-a-t/. The child may know the individual phonemes but simply cannot put them together. Similarly, the child may have problems breaking apart an unknown word by syllables and blending it, such as /te-le-phone/.

Processing speed

Processing speed involves one or more of the following functions: the amount of time it takes to perceive information (this can be through any of the senses, but usually through the visual and auditory channels), process information and/or formulate or enact a response. Another way to define processing speed is to say that it’s the time required to perform an intellectual task or the amount of work that can be completed within a certain period of time. Even more simply, processing speed could be defined as how long it takes to get stuff done.

Dyslexia is linked to slow processing speed. Researcher Hermundur Sigmundsson and his colleagues at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim gave two simulated driving tests to six dyslexic volunteers and 11 other people. They were shown road signs as they drove on simulated country and city roads at different speeds.

The researchers found that dyslexics were 20 percent slower to react to traffic signs during the rural drive and 30 percent slower to react in the city than the non-dyslexic controls.

Memory

Memory is the retention of information over time. Although the word memory may conjure up an image of a singular, “all-or-none” process, it is clear that there are actually many kinds of memory, each of which may, to some extent, be independent of the other.

• Visual memory involves the ability to store and retrieve previously experienced visual sensations and perceptions when the stimuli that originally evoked them are no longer present.

One camp of neuroscientists believes that we access both the phonology and the visual perception of a word as we read them and that the area or areas of the brain that do one, also do the other, but a study led by Laurie Glezer, PhD, has shown that this is not the case. The team found that once we’ve learned a word, it is placed in a purely visual dictionary in the brain. Having a purely visual representation allows for the fast and efficient word recognition we see in skilled readers. Needless to say, a good visual memory is essential to build this visual dictionary in the brain.

• Auditory memory involves being able to take in information that is presented orally, to process that information, store it in one’s mind and then recall what one has heard.

Researchers studied 52 musicians, including 24 who are dyslexic and 28 who are not dyslexic, and compared the performance of the two groups in a variety of auditory tests. While the dyslexic musicians performed just as well as their non-dyslexic peers in auditory perception tests, they scored much lower on tests of auditory short-term memory.

• Sequential memory requires items to be recalled in a specific order. In saying the days of the week, months of the year, a telephone number, the alphabet, and in counting, the order of the elements is of paramount importance.

Many learners with reading difficulties have poor sequential memory. A study, published in the Journal of General Psychology, compared 33 dyslexic and 33 control 8-12 year-old children on tasks involving visual matching with spatial transformation (VMST), tactual serial matching (TSM), visual sequential memory (VSM), and auditory sequential memory (ASM). Contrary to expectation, the dyslexics performed at the same level as controls on VMST. This result is not explicable as a floor or ceiling effect and is considered evidence that dyslexics do not suffer impairment in visual spatial transformation ability per se. Dyslexics were not significantly different on TSM, but were inferior to controls on VSM and ASM.

Another study, published in the Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology, compared 24 readers with auditory dyslexia and 21 with visual dyslexia to 90 control group participants and revealed auditory sequential memory impairments for both types of readers with dyslexia, and multiple strengths for good readers.

• Iconic memory: If a line of print were flashed at you very rapidly, say, for one-tenth of a second, all the letters you can visualise for a brief moment after that presentation constitute your iconic memory. Your iconic memory, together with your ability to discriminate between foreground and background, determines your eye-span. Eye span is the number of letters of words you take in at a glance.

When a person reads his eyes do not move continuously along a line of text, but engage in a series of rapid movements (saccades) with intermittent short stops (fixations). The more often the eyes have to pause for fixations, the slower the reading speed will be.

The normal beginner reader makes an average of two fixations per word or, in other words, sees or recognizes less than one whole word at each fixation. This statistic was determined by photographing the reading of over a thousand first graders with “The Reading Eye”, a camera made especially for this purpose. Each child read a selection of approximately 100 words. During the reading the average child made 224 fixations, about two fixations per word or an eye span of .45 of a word. This average span of recognition increases very slowly to 1.11, or slightly more than one word per fixation, for normal college students at an average speed of 280 words per minute. The average number of words seen at each fixation does not reach one whole word until the eleventh grade.

Regressions occur when the eyes move toward the left to look again at words which have already been covered.

A dyslexic person will be inclined to pause more often for fixations, and the duration of each fixation will also be longer than that of the typical reader. The dyslexic person is also inclined to more regressions that the normal reader.

Improving a person’s iconic memory will widen his eye span, thereby reducing fixations.

While most studies in the dyslexia field focus on short-term memory, i.e. the capacity for holding a small amount of information in mind in an active, readily available state for a short period of time, research has shown that dyslexics also suffer from poor long-term memory. From long-term memory you can recall general information about the world that you learned on previous occasions, memory for specific past experiences, specific rules previously learned, and the like. Students who have deficits in the storage and retrieval of information from long-term memory may study for tests, but not be able to recall the information they studied when taking the tests. They frequently have difficulty recalling specific factual information such as dates or rules of grammar.

A study, published in Dyslexia, compared performances of 60 dyslexic children to that of 65 age-matched normal readers on verbal, visual-spatial and visual-object tasks. Results documented a generalized impairment of long-term memory capacities in dyslexic children and the results did not vary as a function of children’s age.

The term working memory was coined in the 1970s by two researchers named Baddeley and Hitch, referring to the ability to temporarily hold several facts or thoughts in memory while solving a problem or performing a task.

An important and consistent finding is that working memory problems interfere with reading comprehension. Reading is a complex skill that requires the simultaneous activation of many different brain processes. When reading a word, the reader must recognize the visual configuration of letters as well as the letter order, and he must engage in segmentation (breaking the word into individual sounds). Then, while being held in working memory, the phonemes (letter sounds) must be synthesized and blended to form recognizable words.

To comprehend sentences, several more skills are necessary. The reader must not only decode the words, but also comprehend the syntax, retain the sequence of words, use contextual cues, and integrate this with existing knowledge. This must be done simultaneously in order for sentences to be understood.

At the same time, sentences must be held in working memory and integrated with one another. Each sentence is read, understood, associated and integrated with the previous one and so forth. Eventually the entire paragraph is read and the reader continues to the next one.

By the end of the chapter both the details and main idea need to be retained in working memory, otherwise the reader may have retained isolated facts but may not know the sequence of events nor understand the main idea.

Logical thinking

Logical thinking is the process in which one uses reasoning consistently to come to a conclusion. Problems or situations that involve logical thinking call for structure, for relationships between facts, and for chains of reasoning that “make sense”.

The skill of logical thinking gives readers the ability to make inferences, which involves using what you know to make a guess about what you don’t know, or reading between the lines. Readers who make inferences use the clues in the text along with their own experiences to help them figure out what is not directly said.


More About Edublox Online Tutor

Edublox Online Tutor offers multisensory cognitive training that enables learners to overcome reading problems and learning challenges, and reach their full potential. Over the last 30+ years, the company behind the Online Tutor e-learning platform, Edublox, has helped thousands of children to read, learn and achieve through home kits and learning clinics internationally. Our programs are founded on pedagogical research and more than three decades of experience demonstrating that weak underlying cognitive skills account for the majority of learning difficulties. Specific brain-training exercises can strengthen these weaknesses leading to increased performance in reading, spelling, writing, math and learning.