Beating Dyslexia and Poor Working Memory: A Live Case Study

Sophia is an 8-year-old girl who attends Year 4 in a British school. At the age of 6 years and 5 months Sophia was identified as being dyslexic, having maths learning difficulties and very poor working memory.

Despite doing book-based and online programs at home, and the school being very supportive, the gap between Sophia and her classmates has continued to increase. At this stage she is most likely at least 2.5 years behind in her reading and writing, Sophia’s mum Lindsay told Edublox. “There is a bright little girl with ever decreasing self-esteem who views herself as ‘stupid’ and ‘useless’ because she cannot do what others find so easy despite the intensive support she receives in school and at home.” 

“She is embarrassed having to pick ‘baby’ books when others can read chapter books but the reality is she can only read simple words and cannot blend sounds to decode more complicated ones. She uses pictures to guess at words rather than attempting to read. She is ashamed of her writing and terrified to try to work by herself because of her inability to spell. No matter how many times I, or her teacher, tell her to spell it as she thinks it sounds and that mistakes don’t matter, she will not do it. She is becoming crippled by fear of failure.”

We have been touched by Sophia’s story and have chosen her to be a live case study. Sophia will be following a customised program, doing five one-hour lessons per week. Starting in November 2018, we will be posting triweekly to monthly updates of her progress, as told by her mum Lindsay.


Sophia’s journey…


Sophia’s story, as told by her mum Lindsay

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Sophia is in Year 4 and is aged 8. She will be 9 in January. It was clear to me before Sophia finished Nursery that she was not able to learn as easily as other children. She did not learn her colours, or learn to count past 2. (She still confuses colours such as red and green despite testing negative for colour blindness 3 times.) At age 2 she was diagnosed with epilepsy and put on medication to control her seziures. I hoped the learning problems she had were a side effect of medication and they would lessen in time, but they did not. She also has a speech disorder which affects her pronunciation, and speech aphasia, so she often forgets words: for example she can look at a picture of a boat, but only tell you ‘it’s for going on water’ – she cannot remember what it is.

As a little girl, Sophia was unable to remember nursery rhymes no matter how many hundreds of times she heard them. She still struggles to remember the names of class mates, teachers, the name of her grandmother’s dog and even, at times, her cousins’ names. In Reception she made very slow progress and could not remember her alphabet or identify her letters going into Year 1. By the end of the first term of Year 1 her teacher and I were both considering dyslexia as a probable diagnosis. She had intensive support in class over the year and continued making painfully slow progress. Words were read by sounding out individual letters – blending was impossible – but at least by the end of the year she seemed to know about 2/3 of the alphabet even if she still seemed unable to read at all.

At the end of Year 1 Sophia was assessed privately by an educational psychologist. She was just 6 years and 5 month old which is young for a formal assessment and I worried her problems would be simply put down to her age and within normal limits. I was certain it was more and was so relieved when the diagnosis came back and Sophia was identified as being dyslexic, having maths learning difficulties, and a very poor working memory. I thought a diagnosis and personalized strategies would mean she’d soon begin to make progress. I did not yet realise how severe her dyslexia was.

Since then Sophia has continued to have great 1:1 support from her school, being withdrawn for individual work on literacy and in a small group for maths. I know we are very fortunate in having such a good level of support. Sophia’s lack of progress is certainly not due to lack of effort by her teachers who have all worked incredibly hard to help her. Sophia enjoys school a great deal but is very aware of the very significant gap between herself and other children her age. This makes her hugely upset at times. Independence in the classroom is a massive challenge as she cannot read worksheets or books or spell anything more than a simple CVC word. Due to speech difficulties read-write technology is not much use. She wants – and needs – to be independent and to be able to produce work that can reflect her ideas and knowledge but this is impossible: the most she can write by herself are simple sentences like “the fox get a box”. Her self-esteem due to this is very low. She is also desperate to read at home and pick books from the book shop to read to herself like her big sister does. So much is closed off to her due to her almost non-existent literacy. In my worst moments I fear that she is never, ever going to be functionally literate.

We’ve tried book-based and online programs at home, including ones recommended by the educational psychologist, but progress seems hard to achieve and sustain. She continues to make frequent confusion between /b/ and /d/, /m/ and /n/ etc, cannot blend words with any great level of success and is very stressed out by reading and writing – we have many tears at home or angry, frustrated outbursts where she says she will never read and she is ‘just too stupid’. Hearing these things breaks my heart. When I try to reassure her she tells me that I have to say nice things as I am her mummy, but she knows she is stupid. I hate to think how much worse her self-confidence will be if she cannot start learning to read.

She is most likely at least 2.5 years behind in her reading and writing. The gap continues to get bigger. I have many despairing moments wondering whether she will gain literacy skills and what her future will be like if she doesn’t. Every year the gap between where she is and where she should be just increases. There is a bright little girl with ever decreasing self-esteem who views herself as ‘stupid’ and ‘useless’ because she cannot do what others find so easy despite the intensive support she receives in school and at home. She is embarrassed having to pick ‘baby’ books when others can read chapter books, but the reality is she can only read simple words and cannot blend sounds to decode more complicated ones. She uses pictures to guess at words rather than attempting to read. She is ashamed of her writing and terrified to try to work by herself because of her inability to spell. No matter how many times I, or her teacher, tell her to spell it as she thinks it sounds and that mistakes don’t matter, she will not do it. She is becoming crippled by fear of failure.

Sophia finds sequencing hard and struggles to remember days of the week or months of the year. She doesn’t seem to fully understand time and needs the number of ‘sleeps’ to an event rather than being told ‘in 3 days’ or ‘after the weekend’. She finds identifying rhymes very hard. Games like ‘I spy’ are very challenging when she may say ‘something beginning with T’ and then tell you the answer is Road. Luckily she also has a strong sense of humour when these errors happen within the security of the family.

She is an amazingly creative dancer despite difficulties due to problems with her muscle tone. She is determined, funny, sassy and the most hard working child you can meet. She needs so much to learn to read. Having seen the success Edublox has had with children with similar profiles to Sophia, I am feeling hopeful that we can finally unlock her mind an open up the world of books to her.

Writing and reading:

It has been hugely difficult to get Sophia to do the requested writing task as she is so lacking in confidence to show anyone what she can do. Below are three lines about ‘my mummy’ that Sophia wrote almost independently — she only asked for help to spell ‘always’.

And below is a video of Sophia reading unprepared from a book: 

 


Sophia’s assessment results

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The testing was done in July 2016, when Sophia was 6 years and 5 months old.

To evaluate Sophia’s intellectual capacity, she was administered the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC 4).

The Verbal Comprehension Index (VCI) measures verbal concept formation. It assesses children’s ability to listen to a question, draw upon learned information from both formal and informal education, reason through an answer, and express their thoughts aloud. It can tap preferences for verbal information, a difficulty with novel and unexpected situations, or a desire for more time to process information rather than decide “on the spot.” Sophia scored 99, which falls in the average range.

The Perceptual Reasoning Index (PRI) measures non-verbal and fluid reasoning. It assesses children’s ability to examine a problem, draw upon visual-motor and visual-spatial skills, organise their thoughts, create solutions, and then test them. It can also tap preferences for visual information, comfort with novel and unexpected situations, or a preference to learn by doing. Sophia scored 79, which is considered to be low.

The Working Memory Index (WMI) measures working memory. It assesses children’s ability to memorise new information, hold it in short-term memory, concentrate, and manipulate that information to produce some result or reasoning processes. It is important in higher-order thinking, learning, and achievement. It can tap concentration, planning ability, cognitive flexibility, and sequencing skill, but is sensitive to anxiety too. It is an important component of learning and achievement, and ability to work effectively with ideas as they are presented in classroom situations. Sophia scored 68, which is considered to be very low.

The Processing Speed Index (PSI) measures speed of information processing. It assesses children’s abilities to focus attention and quickly scan, discriminate between, and sequentially order visual information. It requires persistence and planning ability, but is sensitive to motivation, difficulty working under a time pressure, and motor co-ordination too. Sophia scored 99, which falls in the average range. Sophia scored 91, which falls in the average range.

The Wechsler Individual Achievement Test Second Edition (WIAT 2) assesses the academic achievement of children, adolescents, college students and adults, aged 4 through 85. The test enables the assessment of a broad range of academics skills: Reading, Maths, Writing, and Oral Language.

Phonological awareness involves being able to tell the difference between sounds, and being able to identify and remember the sounds that make up words. It is an important component in literacy development, especially in spelling and reading. The Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing Second Edition (CTOPP-2) includes the following sub-tests that measure aspects of phonological awareness:

  • ‘Elision’ measures the candidate’s ability to say a word, then say what is left of that word when a designated sound is taken out.
  • ‘Blending Words’ measures the candidate’s ability to combine audiorecorded sounds to make a whole word.
  • ‘Sound Matching’ measures the candidate’s ability to identify to match words with beginning and ending sounds.
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Sophia’s dyslexia can be seen clearly in her phonological processing, spelling, reading and written expression. She also shows maths learning difficulties:\\She also showed maths learning difficulties

The Beery-Buktenica Tests of Visual Motor Integration (VMI) were used to assess Sophia’s hand-eye co-ordination. She scored comfortably in the average range here. The two Beery-Buktenica sub-tests were then administered in order to assess the separate impact of visual perception and motor co-ordination in Sophia’s visual motor integration. In the visual perception sub-test, Sophia scored at the higher end of the average range; her motor co-ordination score was at the bottom of the average range. 



Sophia’s Diary

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8 November 2018:

Sophia covering her eyes to listen to the audio task.

Two weeks into Edublox and I feel I am learning as much as Sophia. She loves doing the b/d/p/q and up/down/left/right activities. She also enjoys both the online and flash-word activities. She is learning how to learn, and learning the importance of keeping a positive mindset. I am learning more about her strengths and weaknesses, and a lack of organization and planning in her problem solving abilities that I previously did not know existed. This is hugely helpful as it is showing us things we can now work to improve which will help her enormously at school too.

I’ve always known Sophia is very determined and resilient. We have lots of tears over her inability to read and write, but she always picks herself up and keeps going. Over the last 2 weeks I’ve seen that incredible resilience and determination many times. But I’ve also seen how much her learning disabilities have impacted her self-esteem. She becomes so easily frustrated and turned off when about to do something she feels she may fail at. Reading a word wrongly that she had read ok before immediately puts a sad look on her face and demotivates her. The appearance of the automatic timer on some of the online activities increases her stress as she assumes she will fail. Because she is a loud, talkative and quite extrovert personality she can seem very confident – but it is a mask and underneath she has little confidence and a big fear of being shown to be a ‘failure’. Making a mistake leads to her saying how much she hates the activity or how stupid she is. It is a constant battle to remotivate her and bring her back to a positive mindset. Our new catch phrase has become ‘Working hard with a positive attitude’ – a reminder to her that we are learning and making mistakes is part of that, and we must be positive if we are going to move forward. Of course I would love for her not to get stressed or anxious but we cannot run away from these activities because they are going to help her in the long term. So in the short term we deal with the stress and anxiety, remember our new catch phrase and move on. With each task success I hope we embed more positive self-esteem and confidence. She loves the positive messages the activities speak to her (‘You make learning look easy’ and – her absolute favourite – ‘That deserves an ice cream!’) and these successes will ‘vaccinate’ her for the times when it is harder and motivate her to keep going.

I’ve learned from watching Sophia that her problem solving ability is inconsistent. Faced with logical thinking tasks (to complete a pattern) it was quickly apparent to me that if the pattern went beyond a simple repetition, she had no idea how to apply logical reasoning to solve it. Likewise, with grid patterns it became clear that she has a very disorganized methodology. Interestingly, when it comes to the activities which build more and more blocks in a line she noticed long before I did that the beginning stayed the same and it was just adding new colours onto the established sequence. I only realized this when I questioned why she was working backwards – from right to left – and she informed me that it was so she could work quickly and didn’t forget the most recently added colours. Because Edublox always allows her to ‘correct her mistake’ and see where she erred I’ve been able to teach her ways of identifying what the logic games are asking her and, slowly, her logical thinking skills are becoming better: she is at least now looking for a reason behind a pattern rather than randomly selecting colours or just giving up when the answer wasn’t immediately obvious to her. In other activities she has struggled with naming the colours to herself to help remember what is appearing/disappearing before the timer begins. She is not colour blind but easily misnames and confuses green and blue/red and green, and her speech aphasia makes this ever worse. A week ago, if she stumbled with remembering the names of the colours she would become frustrated and say she wanted to stop. However, she is becoming more positive and beginning to plan and strategise ways to build success. For example, she has now started telling herself stories (yellow and black side by side are a bumble bee, blue is the sky, red a flower and so on) to remember sequences of blocks. By progressing the story each time a new colour appears she helps herself remember. She did this yesterday and today, after getting something wrong, and instead of her normal frustration she immediately began the story telling strategy and correctly solved the next few rounds of the game. This was a big moment for us, as not only did she not get frustrated and angry and start being horribly critical of herself, but she took a strategy from the day before and used it without being told to. She is learning to learn.

It’s early days but the signs are so positive. Her mindset is becoming less negative and she is beginning to understand that she can learn to do more and do better than she previously thought. It’s onwards and upwards – learning with a positive attitude!


30 November 2018:

Sophia doing the Sequence exercise

Despite winter’s normal illnesses hitting us over the last 2 weeks as a family, causing some stumbling blocks to practice, Sophia continues to both enjoy and make progress with her Edublox program. One of the things that works really well for us with Edublox is that it is very highly structured and the program we are following is very clear. It’s a very frustrating feeling as a parent knowing you need to give your child a lot of extra support but not having the knowledge or tools to know what to do. You try this scheme or that online reading program but they just don’t seem to quite fit the bill, so you drift away from them because your child is getting stressed because they are not progressing, or not able to do something; and, in turn, you are getting frustrated because you don’t see progress and you know your child is getting stressed. You feel hopeless.

Edublox makes me feel like I can help my child. The reading word lists are provided – I don’t need to stress about what we are doing. Someone else has put the thought, research and planning into it and given me the training, tools and advice to deliver it. The online activities engage her. The multi-sensory approach to helping with /b/, /d/, /p/, /q/ reversals makes sense to me and clearly is delivering results very rapidly. Because everything is broken down into manageable sections and tasks we both see the progress – for example Sophia knows she has aced her first 30 reading words and this success is constantly reinforced to her when we revisit them because she can fly through all 30 words in under 2 minutes now. So knowing she is being successful motivates and gives her confidence. Seeing her achieve and make measurable progress does the same for me.

She has a number of exercises she practises at home to help her with b/d and p/q reversals and she’s constantly improving in these, getting faster and correctly identifying letters and making few errors. Another task is counting forwards and backwards. It took a long time for her to get from 1-30 and back without error and at a good, fluid speed but she has done it, and has definitely stored that knowledge in her long-term memory now. Counting has always been hard – she started Reception quite literally not able to count past 2 and even in Year 2 could still make errors counting to 20. Counting backwards was a big challenge and she is super proud of herself for what she can do now and is working on numbers back from 40.

Her confidence with her online Edublox activities is also growing. There’s still frustration at errors but not as much as before. She definitely has her favourite activities – like Sequence, where she’s ups to 9 blocks – and gets excited when they come on. It’s great to see how much more confident she is with the different exercises, even the ones she finds more challenging. It’s interesting watching her talk to herself, usual finger movements etc. to recall where colours or shapes go on Grid Patterns – she is learning to adopt strategies to help her memory.

She has asked Santa for a book for Christmas and has already planned that we are going on a book shop shopping trip for ‘many books’ when she has learned to read. She is so confident that she is going to be able to become a reader. For the first time in months she took a book up to bed last week and when I went up to her she was in bed, sounding out letters and words to herself and asking for the light to be left on so she could keep trying to read the page.

Writing has been a big problem in school for her and something for the last 18 months her teachers have tried to encourage her to be more independent in. Her fear of mistakes because of her inability to spell was massive and she would write very little, unless someone would write down everything she wanted to say for her to copy. I couldn’t get her to write at home to give a ‘beginning’ sample for Edublox because she kept breaking down in tears due to anxiety, which was heartbreaking. If she did write anything at home she always built on the same few words that she knew: “the fox went to the chops (shops)….” Now, for the last week or two I find constant notes left for me saying things like, “I love you to the moon and dac (back).” Last week I really felt she’d buried her fear of trying to write new things for good because she wrote me an apology after being naughty – it said “I’m sorry for din rood”. What was so amazing about this piece of writing was that she had used her letter sound knowledge to try to spell two words without asking for help, something she would never have done before. ‘Rood’ is quite easy to work out but ‘din’ held a special kind of beauty to read. Sophia reverses /b/ and /d/ a lot when writing, and the sentence made it obvious the word meant was ‘being’. So why is it so beautiful to me? Because she spelled the word ‘b-in’ – perfectly, wonderfully logical but something she would never have done before due to her fear of mistakes. Yesterday she pulled me up to her classroom to see her story. It’s taken her 2 sessions to write her 5 sentences and she is justifiably proud of her story. It’s so brilliant to see her have the confidence to move away from ‘babyish’ sentences like ‘the fox went to the shops’ and start to explore more age appropriate story telling. The photo is of her story which reads:

1 Sally was in the kitchen feeling petrified and nervous to go up to her bedroom and she kept on begging her mum and dad.

2 She tiptoed upstairs and got more anxious. She starts to sweat. 

3 So she gets out of her bed and looks at the window. Two red eyes were looking at her shocked.

4 Sally saw it was just a tower. So she felt relaxed.

5 She was happy and felt secure.


21 January 2019:

Sophia has been making such awesome progress with her reading. Her confidence has never been higher! Despite having no internet for 2 weeks in the holidays whilst we were with family (which stopped her going on with the online exercises) she kept up her motivation to work, and practised her reading words every day. Even difficult words like ‘valid’, which were really new words in terms of comprehension, were mastered. She’s trying to read in the shops now, something that has never really happened before. Christmas jumpers with words like ‘elf’ and ‘love’ were accessible to her reading level and motivated her to work on decoding more complicated shop signs and clothing slogans. It’s become part of the routine now to look for words in the shops and try to read them.

Sophia’s dyslexia and speech aphasia often seem to cause blocks with words that she can read. For whatever reason, the word ‘slug’ caused no end of problems for her and was repeatedly seen and read by her as ‘snail’. Luckily she gets a good laugh at my mock frustration, and giggles at her own mistakes and my exaggerated groaning. When I think how long it took her to get through 10-15 words in the beginning and contrast that with how quickly she can now go through 60 words with perhaps only 1-2 mistakes or hesitations, it seems incredible. I wish we had discovered Edublox years ago!

Sophia reading her first chapter book.

Christmas, and the prospect of Santa coming, of course caused lots of excitement. For the first time in her life Sophia asked for books to read. One of her biggest sources of sadness is that she can only read ‘baby books’ compared to class mates. I found some chapter books specially written for dyslexic children and ordered two of these. She was beyond excited to get them and has read a little with me every evening. She plans on also taking them to school to show her teacher! This desire to read for pleasure is such a new thing for us and, when you have truly questioned if your child will ever be able to read, it is not a pleasure you take for granted! What is very, very noticeable is that, whilst there are words she can decode or only read slowly in these books, there are numerous words she can read quickly and with ease. These are frequently the words that have been part of her reading program from Susan at Edublox: the system of having her learn to read the words with increasing speed is definitely cementing them in her brain and she is able to access them far more quickly than many other words with a similar level of difficulty. I’ve been stunned recently with her reading fluency and speed with books she has brought back from school to read at home in the evening. She is reading better than ever before.

It’s two weeks since the start of the new school term and her confidence continues to be high. In Maths recently she completed all of her work independently without needing any help at all. She has spoken of wanting the class assistant to stop automatically coming to sit with her as she wants to work more by herself. This is testament to the massive increase in her confidence as in the past she never tried to do anything without 1:1 help from an adult. Her teacher last week commented that she is “blossoming” and, after years of watching her struggle, just knowing that she is happy as well as making progress is amazing. Of course she is not at grade level: that’s not currently a realistic target. But she is making progress and, I am sure, making it more quickly than in the past. She and I both now believe that one day she will be caught up with her peers. In the past I had resigned myself to her always being about 2 years behind. She still gets upset about being dyslexic – yesterday after doing some amazing reading – she asked me if her brain would ever be ‘normal’. However, these moments are fewer than in the past and she hasn’t been in tears over her reading for well over a month. Reading might still frustrate her but it also brings her happiness now and the idea of reading excites her for the first time.

Last week Sophia was confident enough to ask her teacher if she could be put up a level in her reading. She brought home a Level 6 Oxford Reading Tree book and was able to read very well. There are still many words she needs to sound out or have help with but that is normal with any child going up to a new level in reading. Her frustration when this happens is much less than before. Her reading speed is definitely also better. She’s transferring her knowledge about ‘Magic E’ much more successfully now it is something she is working on with Edublox. She is no longer ashamed of the books she brings home from school to read with me.

Today, Sophia celebrates her 9th birthday. She did so reading (with a small amount of help) the birthday card we made for her. That was another first. We are confident that by the time she turns 10 she’ll be doing it all by herself!


Book Week

14 March 2019:

Sophia has very much hit a plateau recently with learning the ‘Magic E’ words. She absolutely understands what Magic E does to letter sounds but converting that into the fluent reading of words has been a struggle for her. Her brain seems to get stuck on the word either with our without Magic E and so she will for example keep reading ‘rod’ as ‘rode’ over and over again. Fortunately, Susan was also able to see exactly this happening during our online tutoring sessions and suggest a new strategy to help overcome this roadblock. Having the weekly online support is absolutely vital in keeping Sophia willing to engage with Edublox and determined not to give up. I am certain that without that support I would not be successful in keeping her working. She gains confidence from her sessions with Susan because Susan herself is so confident that Sophia is learning to read (not ‘will learn’ at some time in the future) and so encouraging of her progress no matter how small. Of course when I work with Sophia I praise her and try to encourage her, but she will tell me still ‘of course you say that, you’re my mummy’. Having someone independent tell her she is progressing and encouraging her seems to provide far more motivation and confidence. She’s always really fired up and enthusiastic after a good tutoring session.

Of course getting the suggestion of a new technique doesn’t provide an instant fix – those of us working with our severely dyslexic children know nothing does that (!) but it has led to an immediate improvement in confidence, and diminishing of anxiety and therefore a willingness from Sophia to continuing trying. When you have a child half way through Year 4, who has failed in her entire time at school to develop functional literacy, you know that finding ways to keep the hope inside them that they ARE making progress and WILL be successful is so important. It’s also something that is of huge value to me. I don’t know how to help her overcome her ‘road blocks’; I don’t understand why something is not working and sometimes you are just too close to the emotion of your child to work it out. Having Susan calmly suggesting a new strategy, giving me the confidence too that Sophia is still progressing is just fantastic.

Sophia is still enjoying and making progress in the online activities and I see a benefit creeping into her reading skills. Just today she asked me to spell Mickey Mouse to her and I realized I am able to spell words to her now 2-3 letters at a time instead of one at a time. So her memory is improving with the audio exercises like Auditory Grid and Auditory Arrows.  She also – for the first time in her life – is sitting in the car on the way to school trying to read. This week she has been trying to read the script for her Year’s play. She asks for help a lot – but decoded ‘enough’ all by herself and read simple sentences like ‘oh no we won’t’ with no hesitation at all. Both of these are huge improvements for her. Last week we had Book Week at school. Our school does a ‘drop everything and read’ event for 10 minutes every day (announced on the tannoy) and this year – again a first – she proudly took the Spelling Pen in (a book written to be decodable and accessible for dyslexics), and her first chapter book. We’ve been reading it at home on and off since Santa brought it for her at Christmas and she is beginning to pick it up and try to read it herself!

I’m absolutely confident that within the next 2 weeks she’ll have the Magic E conquered and really excited to see what challenge she’ll overcome after that!