Ask Susan: Help for Severe Dyslexia

Hello Susan

I have two sons, one which is 11 years old and has been diagnosed with severe dyslexia. We have used many different reading programs, most with very little progress. We are currently using an Orton-Gillingham program; he has been using this system for 1 and 3/4 years. He is now able to sound out two to five letter words, but he does it laboriously. He has no fluency.

However, this is not his only problem. He appears to have problems associated with both types of dyslexia: dysphonetic and dyseidetic dyslexia. Pretty much every symptom mentioned can be seen in my son. He definitely has issues with directionality. He still doesn’t know left from right or behind from in front, so b, d, p, and q are all still issues. He also has extreme difficulty with word recall, word finding and naming, so he is constantly calling things the wrong thing or mispronouncing words. In reading, he has very few words that he knows by sight, which is why his fluency is so low. He continues to guess at words, even when reading words that he knows phonetically how to sound out.  

Anyway, I am curious if Edublox would even be able to help. If you think it would be beneficial, can you specifically tell me why you think this program may help when others have failed? Have you seen success with children as severe as I have described? I have tried so many different programs that is hard to believe that anything will work. 


Dear Ruth

Thank you for your questions, and also for not giving up on your son. I will answer your questions in detail.

Why will this program help when others have failed?

The answer is twofold:

Edublox addresses the causes of dyslexia
Edublox is based on universal learning principles


Let’s start by looking at what causes dyslexia.

Although some causes of dyslexia have a genetic origin (Kere, 2014), and environmental factors play an important role (Stein, 2018), cognition mediates brain-behavior relationships and therefore offers a sufficient level of explanation for the development of principled interventions. We thus need to understand the cognitive difficulties that underpin reading failure, regardless whether their origin is constitutional or environmental (Elliott & Grigorenko, 2014).

Research into dyslexia has been dominated by the quest for a single cognitive deficit that is necessary and sufficient to cause all behavioral characteristics of the disorder. Until the 1950s, the belief was that dyslexia is attributable to visual processing problems, perhaps also including motor skill problems. Visual processing refers to the brain’s ability to make sense of what the eyes see; visual memory is often considered to be a subset of visual processing rather than a separate skill.

But in 1957 Noam Chomsky published his seminal book, Syntactic Structures, which transformed the study of language and with it, reading. Any role for visual processing was abandoned, and dyslexia became a linguistic, phonological problem, not a visual one. In an influential book, Dyslexia: Theory and Research, Vellutino (1979) argued that many of the apparent visual problems could actually be attributed to language difficulties — especially to deficient phonological awareness.

Phonological awareness (PA) refers to an individual’s awareness of the phonological structure, or sound structure, of language. It is a listening skill that includes the ability to distinguish units of speech, such as rhymes, syllables in words, and individual phonemes in syllables. PA is often confused with phonics, but it is different. Phonics requires students to know and match letters or letter patterns with sounds, learn the rules of spelling, and use this information to decode (read) and encode (write) words. PA relates only to speech sounds, not to alphabet letters or sound-spellings, so it is not necessary for students to have alphabet knowledge in order to develop a basic phonological awareness of language. Phonemic awareness is a subset of PA that focuses on recognizing and manipulating phonemes, the smallest units of sound. The two most important phonemic awareness skills are segmenting and blending.

The phonological deficit theory became the most well-developed and supported of the theories of dyslexia, which led to many dyslexia intervention programs aimed at remediating the underlying phonological deficit. Unfortunately, interventions based on the phonological deficit theory have “proved to be very much less effective than hoped . . . and the scientific research aimed at establishing the causes of the fundamental problems in the ‘phonological module’ proved to be frustratingly inconclusive” (Nicolson & Fawcett, 2018, p. 231). These “less effective” and “frustratingly inconclusive” results led to a single cognitive deficit model being replaced by models demonstrating multiple deficits including multiple cognitive deficits (Pennington, 2006; Peterson & Pennington, 2012; Van Bergen, van der Leij & de Jong, 2014).

In addition to a phonological deficit, cognitive psychology has now linked many brain-based skills to dyslexia: verbal fluency; attention and executive functions; visual attention, i.e. our ability to rapidly select the most relevant visual information ranges when we are engaged in various reading tasks; visuo-spatial abilities; processing speed; short-term memory; auditory working memory; visual and visual sequential memory; visual long-term memory, especially for details; verbal long-term memory; and rapid naming.

If dyslexia is thus caused by multiple cognitive deficits, the only effective solution to dyslexia would be to address and develop multiple cognitive skills, like Edublox does.

Based on universal learning principles

Despite now knowing which multiple cognitive skills are involved when children learn to read, dyslexia is still considered to be a persistent and life-long condition (Novembli & Azizah, 2019; Knowles, 2017). This should perhaps come as no surprise.

Teaching reading is ultimately an educational matter. In teaching, whether on the sports field or in the classroom, we need to adhere to certain learning principles to produce successful outcomes. Yet, when it comes to dyslexia, there seems to be a complete lack of knowledge and application of educational learning principles to guide and govern dyslexia interventions. The application of certain educational learning principles is a core aspect that has so far been overlooked in dyslexia interventions. By applying these fundamental principles, we could enable children with dyslexia to learn to read. I will discuss three principles below:

The first universal learning principle is that human learning does not take place on a single level, but is a stratified process.

A simple and practical example is the fact that one has to learn to count before it becomes possible to learn to add and subtract. Suppose one tried to teach a child, who had not yet learned to count, to add and subtract. This would be quite impossible, and no amount of effort would ever succeed in teaching the child to add and subtract. This shows that counting is a skill that must be mastered before it becomes possible to learn to do calculations.

This means that there is a sequence that is to be observed in learning. Certain things have to be mastered first, before it becomes possible to learn other things.

The first objective of Edublox programs is to practice, develop and automatize the foundational skills that underpin reading, such as visual and auditory processing, visuo-spatial abilities, processing speed, short-term memory, auditory working memory, visual and visual sequential memory.

A second learning principle of great importance is that automaticity is the result of repetition and practice.

Acquisition of a new skill is generally associated with a decrease in the need for effortful control over performance, leading to the development of automaticity. Automaticity by definition has been achieved when performance of a primary task is minimally affected by other ongoing tasks. People often refer to automaticity by saying they can do the task “on auto-pilot” or “in my sleep.”

Examples of automaticity are common activities such as walking, riding a bicycle, driving a car and speaking. Any person, who speaks a language that he knows well, does not concentrate on vocabulary or sentence construction or grammar. His mind is focused on what he wants to say. As explained in the Journal of Learning Disabilities, “if the skill on the primary task is automatized, it will not be disrupted by concurrent processing of the secondary task because automatic processing does not take up attentional resources” (Yap & van der Leij, 1994).

If, on the contrary, the skill is not automatized, it will be disrupted by concurrent processing of a second skill because two skills are then competing for limited attentional resources. Therefore, when a person attempts to speak a language in which he has not yet become fluent or ‘automatic,’ he will necessarily have to divide his attention between the content of his message and the language itself. He will therefore speak haltingly and with great difficulty.

This also applies to the act of reading. The person, in whom the foundational skills of reading have not yet become automatic, will read haltingly and with great difficulty.

Automaticity is usually the result of learning, repetition, and practice. The main process by which we develop automaticity is called overlearning (also called overtraining). Overlearning is a pedagogical concept according to which newly acquired skills should be practised well beyond the point of initial mastery, leading to automaticity.

Overlearning is a tool frequently used by people who address audiences or perform in public. A violinist, for example, doesn’t stop learning a piece once he has initially mastered it. Instead, he continues to practice that piece so that it becomes automatic and there is little possibility of forgetting it when performing in front of a large crowd. Similarly, actors, dancers, and other musicians may calm the jitters by overlearning their parts, and may actually improve their performance by continuing to practice beyond initial memorization of lines, steps, or musical notes.

A third important learning principle is that there must be opportunities for application. Even while learning to master the skills that form the basis of reading, a child can and should already be given opportunities to apply these skills in the act of reading. Edublox’s live tutoring curriculum is based on the proven Orton-Gillingham approach.

An important point is that these fundamental learning principles should be viewed as a whole, and not in isolation. Any botanist will tell you the same thing: it is the interaction of the amount of water, sunlight and fertilizer that will cause a tree to bear large, juicy fruit. If you only water the tree six weeks after you have hoed the fertilizer into the ground, you are bound to return to a withered tree.

Have you seen success with children as severe as I have described?

I have been working with dyslexic children for close to 30 years. Unless a child is unwilling to learn to read (and I haven’t see many of them), I refuse to accept that there is a child who cannot learn to read — even a child with severe dyslexia.

Below is the summary of a child’s progress who was diagnosed with severe dyslexia. You will find the complete story here, and more case studies here and here.

If you wish to discuss your son’s reading disabilities in more detail, feel welcome to book a free consultation.



Key takeaways



Elliott, J. G., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2014). The dyslexia debate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kere, J. (2014). The molecular genetics and neurobiology of developmental dyslexia as model of a complex phenotype. Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, 452(2), 236-243. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbrc.2014.07.102

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.

Nicolson, R. I., & Fawcett, A. J. (2018). Procedural learning, dyslexia and delayed neural commitment. In T. Lachmann, & T. Weis (Eds.). Reading and dyslexia (pp. 229-257). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

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.

Pennington, B. F. (2006). From single to multiple deficit models of developmental disorders. Cognition, 101(2), 385-413.

Peterson, R. L., & Pennington, B. F. (2012). Developmental dyslexia. The Lancet, 379, 1997–2007.

Stein, J. (2018). The magnocellular theory of developmental dyslexia. In T. Lachmann, & T. Weis (Eds.). Reading and dyslexia (pp. 97-128). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Van Bergen, E., van der Leij, A., & de Jong, P. F. (2014). The intergenerational multiple deficit model and the case of dyslexia. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8(346), 1-13. https://https;//doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00346

Vellutino, F. R. (1979). Dyslexia: Theory and research. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Yap, R. L., & van der Leij, A. (1994). Testing the automatization deficit hypothesis of dyslexia via a dual-task paradigm. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 27.

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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 3,000 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.