Special Learners: Learning Disabilities
Dyslexia: Brain Research Provides Hope
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
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
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
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