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Dyslexia: New Treatment, New Hope

Dyslexia treatment 4 pillars
Why many intelligent children should suffer seeming “word blindness” has baffled and frustrated parents and professionals in many fields for more than a century. “Word blindness” was the first term used to describe dyslexia. 
Dyslexia, which is the term we use today, is a difficulty with words. Like all words that start with dys it refers to a problem, deficiency, or lack. Lexia has to do with words and language. Dyslexia thus refers to a difficulty with reading and writing words. Children with dyslexia are unable to read without stumbling, their spelling may be atrocious, and they are often innumerate too — sometimes after years of tutoring and treatment.
Edublox’s treatment for dyslexia differs from other dyslexia interventions as it is based on four pillars. Is there, at last, some light at the end of the tunnel?

Table of contents:

Dyslexia treatment based on four pillars

One nigth ther saw a firer in a builing one man saw very injure he was rushed to hositipal and theree day he diad for interle njres.

(One night there was a fire in a building. One man was very (badly) injured. He was rushed to hospital and (after) three days, he died from internal injuries.

The above transcript is not a misprint. You are reading a sentence written by a person with dyslexia — complete with the more common characteristics like lack of punctuation, misspelling, reversal of words and letters, mixed-up sentence structure, and poor grammatical construction. The sentence is practically unintelligible to the average reader, and the partially corrected and punctuated translation below is necessary for interpretation.

In our age of verbal and written communication, linguistic and reading difficulties are not easy to cope with. It’s a problem, predominantly among children, that can leave one in a terribly lonely world, feeling unconfident and insecure. When mocked by their peers, and dubbed lazy, stupid, or careless by exasperated teachers or parents, their self-esteem is often bludgeoned out of existence.

When, in the 1960s, the term ‘dyslexia’ came to be widely used to describe typical children who had learning difficulties akin to those who had suffered brain damage, it was seized on with relief by parents and teachers alike. The idea that there was a physical syndrome called dyslexia, and that it was only a matter of time before its cause could be isolated and a solution developed, seemed soothingly feasible.

Multitudes of specialists have produced a sea of research trying to find the cause and a solution. There is a labyrinth of differing, opposing, and often contradictory theories about dyslexia — what it is, its causes, and its possible correction. Despite now knowing what cognitive skills are involved when children learn to read and write, and a better understanding of the “reading” brain, dyslexia is still considered an incurable, persistent and life-long condition (Novembli & Azizah, 2019; Knowles, 2017).

Perhaps the solution to this learning disorder does not lie in one aspect alone, but in combining several different approaches, methods and principles. Edublox’s treatment for dyslexia is based on four pillars: (1.) the Orton-Gillingham approach, (2.) cognitive training, (3.) the development of two crucial brain areas for reading and writing, and (4.) solid learning principles.

Orton-Gillingham as treatment for dyslexia

Edublox’s online one-to-one dyslexia program is aligned with the well-respected Orton-Gillingham approach, developed by Anna Gillingham and founded on the theoretical work of the American neurologist Samuel Orton.

Photos of the Orton-Gillingham creators: Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham
Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham

Orton cultivated a special interest in children with dyslexia. He studied over 1,000 children, and his observations persuaded him that children with dyslexia were especially prone to left-right confusions and reversals, such as mistaking b for d or was for saw. Orton thus concluded that dyslexia was due to a failure to establish a left-right sense, which was in turn caused by incomplete cerebral dominance. Gillingham translated these theories into a highly structured reading method.

The Orton-Gillingham (OG) method is a direct, explicit, multisensory, structured, sequential, diagnostic, and prescriptive way to teach reading, spelling, and writing. Actually, it’s most properly understood and practiced as an approach, not a method, program, or system. In the hands of a well-trained and experienced instructor, it is a powerful tool of exceptional breadth, depth, and flexibility.

The OG approach is one of several reading methods that emphasize the phonetic regularities of English in its instructional sequence. Initially, individual letters are taught using drill cards, whereafter students are taught to blend them into simple consonant-vowel-consonant words (e.g., map, hit, Tim). The similarly structured introduction of subsequent single letters, blends (e.g., st, cl, tr), and other letter combinations (e.g., sh, ea, tion) are meticulously sequenced. Later stages in the sequence include sentence and story writing, syllabication, dictionary skills, and advanced spelling rules.

The outcomes not statistically significant

Ritchey and Goeke (2006) reviewed 12 studies that included elementary students, adolescents, and college students. Of the 12 studies, five reported that the OG instruction was more effective than were comparison or control interventions for all measured outcomes, four that the OG instruction was more effective for at least one (but not all) outcomes in comparison to other interventions, two that the alternate instruction was more effective than the OG instruction, and one reported no significant differences once variables were included. The largest effects were reported for word attack or nonword reading outcomes, with a mean effect size of .82, and comprehension outcomes, with a mean effect size of .76. Other mean effect sizes were in the small to medium range.

Stevens et al. (2021) conducted a meta-analysis to examine the effects of OG reading interventions on the reading outcomes of students with or at risk for word-level reading disabilities (WLRD). The purpose of a meta-analysis is to systematically combine and analyze data from published research studies to understand what that body of research says about a particular question.

The findings of Stevens and his colleagues’ meta-analysis suggest that OG reading interventions do not statistically significantly improve foundational skill outcomes (i.e., phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, spelling), although the mean effect size was in favor of OG-based approaches. Similarly, there were no significant differences for vocabulary and comprehension outcomes with or at risk for WLRD.

Solari et al. (2021) summarize the results of the studies mentioned above:

The evidence in favor of OG programs is limited, either due to a mix of positive and negative effects or, more frequently, because available studies of such programs do not meet … quality standards.

So why does research not back it up completely? Is some piece — or pieces — perhaps missing from the OG approach?

Dyslexia treatment and cognitive training

A core part of Edublox’s program targets cognitive skills.

The word “cognition” is defined as “the act or process of knowing.” Cognitive skills, therefore, refer to those skills that make it possible for us to know. They have more to do with the mechanisms of how we learn, rather than with any actual knowledge.

Cognitive skills training demonstrated with a brain lifting weights.

A body of evidence has shown that children with dyslexia struggle not only in reading, spelling, writing, and reading comprehension but have multiple cognitive deficits. Cognitive psychology has now linked many brain-based skills to dyslexia: phonological awareness; verbal fluency; attention and executive functions; visual attention; visuospatial abilities; processing speed; short-term memory; auditory working memory; visual memory and visual sequential memory; visual long-term memory, especially for details; verbal long-term memory; and rapid naming.

Weak cognitive skills prevent a process called orthographic mapping. Every word has three forms: its sounds, spelling, and meaning. Orthographic mapping involves the brain linking the three forms of the word and storing them together in long-term memory. Orthographic mapping allows for instant word recognition, fluent reading, and accurate spelling.

Unfortunately, cognitive training, popularly known as brain training, has fallen into disfavor among learning disability practitioners. In one study, that without a doubt contributed to the distrust of brain training, viewers of the BBC science program Bang Goes the Theory were recruited to practice a series of online tasks for a minimum of ten minutes a day, three times a week, for six weeks.

A total of 11,430 volunteers aged from 18 to 60 completed the study, and although they improved on the tasks, “no evidence was found for transfer effects to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related” (Owen et al., 2010).

One reason why the experiment yielded no transfer effects is simply that the training time was too short. Subjects completed an average of 24 sessions — at ten minutes a session, that’s only four hours of training. According to fitness authority Bobby Maximus (2018), getting physically fit requires at least 130 hours. The brain is no different; even ten hours would have yielded little to no results.

Dyslexia treatment targeting two brain regions

Research shows that a network of brain regions is involved in learning to read, one specifically in sounding out words and another in seeing words as pictures. The left inferior parietal lobule is said to be involved in word analysis, grapheme-to-phoneme conversion, and general phonological and semantic processing. The picture area is located in the left occipitotemporal region and is known as the visual word form area (VWFA) or visual dictionary.

In the largest study of its kind up to date, Brem et al. (2020) confirmed that the VWFA is key to fluent reading. Research by Pedago et al. (2010) supports that the VWFA plays a crucial role in the discrimination of letter orientation, which links to the well-known fact that a deficit in discriminating between a and a d is one of the common symptoms of dyslexia. Given that the most robust underactivation in children with dyslexia occurs in the occipitotemporal cortex, this brain region should be a prime target for treating dyslexia. Yet, so far, the VWFA has been neglected in dyslexia treatment.

Edublox is aligned with the Orton-Gillingham approach, which is excellent at developing the sounding out area, but our program simultaneously targets the brain’s VWFA, crucial for fluent reading.

Dyslexia treatment and learning principles

A dictionary page that explains the meaning of learning principles.

The application of certain educational learning principles is a core aspect that has so far been overlooked in dyslexia interventions. Thorndike (1874–1949) called learning principles the “laws of learning” and provided a conceptual foundation for how people learn. Examples of Edublox’s “laws of learning” in dyslexia treatment are listed below. Applying these fundamental learning principles contributes to helping children with dyslexia learn to read and write.

1.) Learning is a stratified process

This age-old — but ageless — principle was already pointed out by Herbart (1776–1841). “One never, he insisted, apprehends anything in isolation, but always in terms of one’s background of previous experience and learning. So the first consideration in properly organized learning would be to make sure that the learner had the right background” (Mursell 1954, pp. 210-211). Putting it differently, students’ prior skills and knowledge can help or hinder learning. Certain preliminary skills need to be mastered first, before any person can learn the skills of adding and subtracting, or the game of baseball. The same applies to reading.

2.) Cognitive skills training should be multi-cognitive

In physical training, a balanced workout is important as overtraining one part of the body can cause deformity, for example, the Popeye syndrome when overtraining the biceps. The brain is no different. In Maguire et al.’s experiment with London taxi drivers, growth in the posterior hippocampi seems to have come at a cost, as they had reduced anterior hippocampal gray matter volume compared with bus drivers, with anterior volume decreasing with more navigation experience (Maguire et al., 2006).

One should also consider the role of mutualism. A mutualistic view suggests that cognitive abilities mutually facilitate growth. For example, better reasoning skills allow individuals to improve their vocabulary more quickly, and better vocabularies are associated with faster improvement in reasoning ability (Kievit et al., 2017).

3.) Cognitive skills can only be improved by task loading

In the classic experiment of Ericsson and Chase, transfer did not occur following 250 hours of short-term memory training. The student, known as S.F., was required to repeat sequences of random digits. Every time he got a sequence right, a digit was added. When the experiment was concluded, S.F. could repeat sequences of a staggering eighty-plus random digits. However, when tested on random alphabet letters, his short-term memory performance immediately reverted to normal.

Through interview, the researchers discovered that S.F., who happened to be a competitive runner, pictured an unconnected string of three or four digits as one single race time. In this way be relieved the burden on short-term memory and, like any mnemonist, took advantage of an already existing code in long-term memory (Shenk, 2010). One way to prevent students from using techniques or strategies is to offer a series of cognitive exercises.

4.) New knowledge and skills cannot be learned without repetition

As far as one can go back in history, repetition (also known as drill-and-practice) has been considered the backbone of successful teaching and schooling. But in the 1920s and 1930s, repetition and rote learning became to define bad teaching. Good teachers don’t fire off quiz questions and catechize kids about facts. They don’t drill students on spelling or arithmetic.

When properly conducted, however, drill-and-practice is a consistently effective teaching method and should not be slighted as “low level,” and appears to be just as essential to complex and creative intellectual performance as they are to the performance of a virtuoso violinist (Brophy, 1986). 

Whatever the case may be for the average student, repetition certainly benefits the child riddled with learning challenges. A meta-analysis of 85 academic intervention studies with students with learning disabilities, carried out by Swanson and Sachse-Lee (2000), found that regardless of the practical or theoretical orientation of the study, the largest effect sizes were obtained by interventions that included systematic drill, repetition, practice, and review.

From a neuroscientific perspective, repetition is important in the “wiring” of a person’s brain, i.e. the forming of connections or synapses between the brain cells. Without repetition, key synapses don’t form. And if such connections, once formed, are used too seldom to be strengthened and reinforced, the brain, figuring they’re dead weight, eventually “prunes” them away (Hammond, 2015; Bernard, 2010).

5.) A “pyramid of repetition” needs to be constructed for the beginner learner

This principle, derived from the works of Suzuki, means that the beginner learner must start by repeating a limited amount of material many times over and over. Gradually, less and less repetition will be necessary to master new skills and knowledge.

In his book Nurtured by Love, Suzuki (1993) shares the story of a little parakeet that was taught to say in Japanese: “I am Peeko Miyazawa, I am Peeko Miyazawa.” According to Mr. Miyazawa, Peeko’s trainer, it took three thousand repetitions of the word Peeko over a period of two months before the bird began to say “Peeko.” Thereafter, “Miyazawa” was added, and after having heard “Peeko Miyazawa” only two hundred times, the little bird could say its full name. When Mr. Miyazawa coughed for some days due to a cold, Peeko would say his usual “I am Peeko Miyazawa” and then cough. With less and less repetition, Peeko learned more and more words, and also learned to sing. “Once a shoot comes out into the open, it grows faster and faster… talent develops talent and… the planted seed of ability grows with ever increasing speed” (Suzuki, 1993, p. 6).

No doubt it is the same with a human being, as the following story, also taken from Suzuki (1993, pp. 92-93), illustrates:

Since 1949, our Mrs. Yano has been working with new educational methods for developing ability, and every day she trains the infants of the school to memorize and recite Issa’s well-known haiku. [A haiku is a short Japanese poem, consisting only of three lines.]… Children who at first could not memorize one haiku after hearing it ten times were able to do so in the second term after three to four hearings, and in the third term only one hearing.

The bottom line

By combining cognitive training with the systematic teaching of reading that targets both the brain’s sounding out area and the VWFA, while applying fundamental learning principles, the way is paved to improve the reading and writing abilities of children with dyslexia — and help them overcome their challenges.

Watch our playlist of customer reviews and experience how Edublox training and tutoring help overcome dyslexia signs and symptoms, and book a free consultation to discuss your child’s learning needs. We cater for a variety of dyslexia types.


Dyslexia treatment – key takeaways

Dyslexia treatment infographic

Authored by Susan du Plessis (B.A. Hons Psychology; B.D.), a reading specialist with 30+ years’ experience in the learning disabilities field.
Medically reviewed by Dr. Zelda Strydom (MBChB).


References and sources:

Bernard, S. (2010). Neuroplasticity: Learning physically changes the brain. Edutopia. Retrieved February 12, 2020 from https://www.edutopia.org/neuroscience-brain-based-learning-neuroplasticity

Brem, S., Maurer, U., Kronbichler, M. et al. (2020). Visual word form processing deficits driven by severity of reading impairments in children with developmental dyslexia. Scientific Reports, 10.

Brophy, J. (1986). Teacher influences on student achievement. American Psychologist, 41, 1069-1077.

Gillingham, A., & Stillman, B. (1968). Remedial teaching for children with disability in reading, spelling, and penmanship. Cambridge, MA: Educator’s Publishing Service.

Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Kievit, R. A., Lindenberger, U., Goodyer, I. M., Jones, P. B, Fonagy, P., Bullmore, E. T., & Dolan, R. J. (2017). Mutualistic coupling between vocabulary and reasoning supports cognitive development during late adolescence and early adulthood. Psychological Science, 28(10), 1419-1431.

Knowles, J. (2017). Diversity, inclusion and equality in practice placements: Experiences of pre-registration student nurses with dyslexia (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). London Southbank University, London.

Maguire, E. A., Woollett, K., & Spiers, H. J. (2006). London taxi drivers and bus drivers: A structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis London taxi drivers and bus drivers. Hippocampus, 16(12), 1091-1101.

Maximus, B. (2018, October 2). The 130 hour rule. Retrieved from https://www.bobbymaximus.com/the-130-hour-rule/

Mursell, J. L. (1954). Successful teaching (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.

Novembli, M. S., & Azizah, N. (2019). Mobile learning in improving reading ability dyslexia: A systematic literature review. Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, 296, 220-226.

Owen, A. M., Hampshire, A., Grahn, J. A., Stenton, R., Dajani, S., Burns, A. S., Howard, R. J., & Ballard, C. G. (2010). Putting brain training to the test. Nature, Retrieved from www.nature.com/doifinder/10.1038/nature09042.

Pedago, F., Nakamura, K., Cohen, L., & Dehaene, S. (2011). Breaking the symmetry: Mirror discrimination for single letters but not for pictures in the Visual Word Form Area. Neuroimage, 55, 742-749.

Ritchey, K. D., & Goeke, J. L. (2006). Orton-Gillingham and Orton-Gillingham-based reading instruction. The Journal of Special Education, 40(3), 171–183.

Shenk, D. (2010). The genius in all of us. New York: Doubleday.

Solari, E., Petscher, Y., & Hall, C. (2021, March 29). What does science say about Orton-Gillingham interventions? An explanation and commentary on the Stevens et al. (2021) meta-analysis. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/mcw82

Stevens, E. A., Austin, C., Moore, C., Scammacca, N., Boucher, A. N., & Vaughn, S. (2021). Current state of the evidence: Examining the effects of Orton-Gillingham reading interventions for students with or at risk for word-level reading disabilities. Exceptional Children

Suzuki, S. (1993). Nurtured by love (2nd ed.).USA: Summy-Birchard, Inc.

Swanson, H. L., & Sachse-Lee, C. (2000). A meta-analysis of single-subject design intervention research for students with LD. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 38(2), 114-136.

What is the Orton-Gillingham Approach? OrtonAcademy.org.