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Special Learners        < Previous        Next >


Special Learners: Learning Disabilities

Dyslexia: Brain Research Provides Hope


Q. What are we finding out from science about dyslexia and other reading disorders?


A diagnosis of dyslexia or other reading disability is not the kiss of academic death. It's basically caused by brain differences which can be adapted to, and should be, especially in those crucial early years.


But parents shouldn't despair. There's plenty of hope coming out of neurological research which should strongly influence schools to change the way they are teaching reading. Why? Because, ironically, schools are contributing to the problem in the way they teach reading.


Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, Georgetown University, Yale University and other centers have proven that seeing letters in reverse or out of order is not the cause of dyslexia. It isn't how the kids SEE the letters; it's how their brains DECODE them. Or, in the case of kids with reading problems, how they do NOT decode them.

Researchers use magnetic resonance imaging, which measures blood flow to different parts of the brain, to show that reading disability involves a weakness in the part of the brain that decodes the sounds of written language. It's above the left ear, where the brain's temporal and parietal lobes meet. The area lights up brightly on brain scans as normal readers sound out words. In poor readers, it is much less active.


There's a second component to this: the MRI scans that follow a child through reading remediation show that, as the child's reading becomes more skilled, an area further back in the brain, next to the visual processing area, starts to show greater activity. That's great news!


It is thought that, as words become instantly familiar to a child, with no need to figure them out or sound them out, the word is store in that area. It's called the "word form" area. If a word is implanted there, then instant and automatic retrieval can happen when the child re-encounters the word.


But for poor readers, that area of the brain isn't growing. Every word remains a puzzle. Their brains can't unscramble the alphabetic letter patterns. Soon, they self-identify as poor readers. With repeated reading failures, they quit even trying to read for fun. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy and a downward spiral that is very difficult to stop after about Grade 3.

It is thought that people with reading problems have a combination of natural brain wiring - that can't be helped - and poor reading instruction - that can.


The right kind of reading remediation - systematic, intensive, explicit phonics instruction in the early grades, and lots of reading aloud at home by parents - can help the children both with their decoding skills and with their "word form" vocabulary.


Chances are, they'll never catch up to those whose brain wiring is better for reading. They'll never be as fast or have as much reading comprehension. But they certainly can do a lot better with reading, writing and speaking. And they can achieve a ton in life.

Unfortunately for children with dyslexia, the vast majority of schools today use the "Whole Language" approach to reading instead of phonics-only techniques. Whole Language stresses seeing whole words and saying them aloud. It leaves kids clueless who are naturally deficient in decoding and "word form" storage. The methods simply do not help a dyslexic child's brain adapt to its differences.


With intensive teaching in phonics and how letters convert to sounds, though, children with all kinds of decoding "brain wiring" can make exciting progress.


The bad news is, schools in low-income areas either do not recognize this, or their parental involvement in education is so poor, the necessary school-home cooperation isn't happening. So the kids never get the help they need.


In light of what science is telling us about coping with dyslexia, that's a crying shame . . . and lots of people are determined to turn that situation around for disadvantaged kids, and all kids.


Homework: A complete report on dyslexia is at:


Also check the conclusions of Yale researcher Dr. Sally Shaywitz. Her 2003 book, Overcoming Dyslexia, has many examples of high-achieving people who have overcome reading disabilities.


By Susan Darst Williams Special Learners 2012


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