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Dyslexia Defined


Q. More and more students in our district are being labeled as "special ed" and put into learning disability "resource" programs because they have dyslexia. If kids with dyslexia read letters backwards, why can't we just teach them to "flip" the way they see them so that they can read like normal kids?


Let's get one thing straight: kids with dyslexia ARE normal kids. They just have brains that aren't necessarily wired to be really good at reading - just as others of us have brains that make us not so hot at singing, sewing, football, or whatever.


Here's another: there's a lot more to dyslexia than just reading words backwards. There are all kinds of ways that kids scramble up words and can't grasp their meaning quickly and accurately. There are all kinds of learning problems besides reading that are being lumped under the catch-all label, including difficulty with spelling and difficulty with handwriting. We've known about reading dysfunction since the late 1800s, when British and Scottish physicians called it "congenital word blindness." Other doctors, including Americans E. Bosworth McCready and Samuel Orton, pioneered in our knowledge about reading disabilities early in the 20th Century.


Here's another point to ponder: dyslexia is a "continuum" disorder. It's a syndrome, rather than a distinct condition with medically-defined symptoms and causes. When you hear a statistic such as "15% of the students in our district have learning disabilities," recognize that the vast majority of those have mild to moderate cases that are very treatable. In fact, the vast majority don't even need to be in special ed in the first place.


Very, very few children have a physical, hard-wired "learning disability" due to something in their brains that blocks their ability to learn. Almost without exception, even these few can be brought up to high functionality with teaching and common-sense helps.


Our ability to learn is on a continuum the same way our ability to move is. A very, very few children will grow up to be professional athletes, most of us fall somewhere in the middle, and a very, very few children have serious, permanent, physical handicaps. But with teaching and common-sense helps, even seriously handicapped children can acquire a high degree of functionality in this world. It's the same thing with the learning ability curve.


One more fact: up to 40% of fourth graders read at a measured level termed "below proficient," but only a fraction of them might have dyslexia. Some people say it's fewer than 1% of the population; others say it's as much as 20%. But whatever it is, it exists in far fewer cases than the cases of reading disability, so reading disability can't just be chalked up to inborn difficulties or problems at home.


Here's the most shocking of all: in many school districts, there are many, many children diagnosed with learning disabilities who are said to have dyslexia. But increasingly, the experts are saying that's false.


Based on recent brain research using MRI scans and other technology, the experts are concluding that the symptoms that we term "dyslexia" can be prevented if the child is taught to read with a specific phonics-only approach, rather than the Whole Language philosophy that pervades the vast majority of schools today,


The evidence is showing that fewer than 1% of the children with some sort of reading dysfunction are actually, physically dyslexic, and need special education outside the mainstream. All the rest of the children with reading difficulties would have perfectly adequate literacy skills if they had adequate reading instruction in the early grades of school. So all the low self-esteem and huge expenditures that the recent wave of "learning disabilities" has spawned could have been prevented. And should be, in the future.


It looks as though faulty methods of teaching reading in our schools are creating this epidemic of learning disabilities.


So what's a parent to do? Teach your child to read yourself, at home, with curriculum from or

Homework: An excellent article on dyslexia and what's being done to help children with it ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:


By Susan Darst Williams Special Leaners 05 2008


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