Ask Susan: Is Dyslexia Incurable?

Dear Susan,

My son struggles tremendously in school, so much so that he failed last year. He is now repeating the year. We had him tested and he was diagnosed with dyslexia. The psychologist recommended amanuensis – a teacher now reads the questions in his exam papers aloud to him and also writes down his answers.

While his marks have improved somewhat, ever since the diagnosis my son has been depressed and has become withdrawn. He says he is “dumb and stupid”. I don’t know what to say to him. He really wants to overcome his problems but we don’t know if that is even possible. The opinion of most people is that dyslexia is incurable. Do you agree?

Debra


Dear Debra

It may be one of the most painful things to hear your child say, “I’m dumb” or “I’m stupid.” Your immediate natural reaction may be to say, “No, you’re not!” But that’s not particularly helpful. That reaction doesn’t encourage a discussion — it’s more likely to end it. Also, you’re not going to change your child’s feeling that he’s “dumb” by contradicting it.

It’s important to acknowledge your child’s feelings, and open a conversation by perhaps saying, “It makes me sad when you say that because I know it isn’t true. You’re great at swimming, art and math. So tell me why you feel this way.”

As for your question about dyslexia being incurable: it is a fact that the brain of a person who reads well is “wired” differently to the person who struggles with reading. This has been confirmed by research. However, the reason why a problem like dyslexia is considered to be beyond repair is simply due to an erroneously belief, which had been held for many decades, that the brain cannot change.

The advancement in technology, especially fMRI-scans, 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 95% 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.

Also, more and more research studies suggest that the cause-effect relationship should be reversed, i.e. that the brain differences might not be the cause, but the effect of the reading difficulty. In one study, for example, 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 these brain differences appear to be a consequence of reading experience as opposed to a cause of dyslexia.

One must also consider that brain differences do not equal brain disorders and disabilities. Brain scans have demonstrated 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!

Find the cause to find a ‘cure’

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Most problems can only be solved if one knows what causes the problem. If brain differences are a consequence of dyslexia, we need to ask the question, What is the cause of dyslexia?

While there are other causes, the most common cause of dyslexia is that the foundational skills of reading 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.

Foundational skills

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While language skills comprise the first rung of the reading ladder, cognitive skills – attention and concentration, visual and auditory processing, memory and logical thinking – comprise the second.

Research has also linked dyslexia to slow processing speed, which could be defined as how long it takes to get stuff done.

Researcher Hermundur Sigmundsson and colleagues 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% slower to react to traffic signs during the rural drive and 30% slower to react in the city than the nondyslexic controls.

Memory

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The important role that memory plays in learning to read has been overlooked for many years. More and more research studies are confirming its importance.

One camp of brain scientists 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 nondyslexic peers in auditory perception tests, they scored much lower on tests of auditory short-term memory.

Other research studies have linked dyslexia to poor visual and auditory sequential memory, i.e. our ability recalled items in a specific order, as well as impairment of working memory and long-term memory capacities.

The bottom line

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More and more research studies confirm that deficits in cognitive skills are the cause of dyslexia rather than deficits in the brain. The good news is that cognitive skills can be learned, with the result that the symptoms of dyslexia can be overcome.

Edublox’s Dyslexia Program consists of Reading Tutor plus a few additional hands-on exercises. Reading Tutor aims at addressing the underlying shortcomings that interfere with reading and spelling performance, such as deficient visual processing and poor auditory memory. The program also comprises a comprehensive exercise aimed at teaching reading and spelling, and at expanding vocabulary. The additional exercises, free of charge, aim at overcoming letters reversals, etc. To implement the program you need to subscribe to Reading Tutor, and then contact [email protected] to gain access to the additional exercises.

October is Dyslexia Awareness Month. Hopefully more and more people will realize that there is hope and help for kids who struggle with dyslexia.

Best wishes,

Susan 


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More about Susan

Susan is an educational specialist in the field of learning problems and dyslexia and has a B.A. Honors in Psychology and B.D. degree from the University of Pretoria. Early in her professional career Susan was instrumental in training over 3000 teachers and tutors, providing them with the foundational and practical understanding to facilitate cognitive development amongst children who struggle to read and write. With over 25 years of research to her name Susan conceptualized the Edublox teaching and learning methods that have helped thousands of children who were struggling academically to read, learn and achieve. In 2007, Susan opened the first Edublox reading and learning clinic and now there are 40 Edublox clinics internationally. Her proudest moments are when she sees a child who had severe learning difficulties come top of their class after one or two years at Edublox. Susan always takes time to collect the ‘hero’ stories of learners whose self-esteem is lifted as their marks improve.