By Dr. Sheila Clonan
We’ve worked with many families lately whose schools “don’t recognize” dyslexia. They are told either that it is a “medical diagnosis” (what?!?) or that it “isn’t in the law.” We’ve had parents tell us that their school told them that their child was too young to test, or that dyslexia is just a catch-all term and there’s no test for it. None of these statements are true. Unfortunately, if your school won’t recognize dyslexia, they are unlikely to treat it effectively.
Some parents have even been told that dyslexia “doesn’t exist.” However, over 30 years of scientific evidence and research supports the existence of dyslexia, as well as effective interventions for students diagnosed with dyslexia. Dyslexia is a specific neurobiological learning disability that is characterized by difficulty with accurate and/or fluent word recognition, poor decoding skills and weak spelling. Secondary problems in vocabulary, reading comprehension and writing may also develop. These are fundamental skills that must be mastered as early as possible for student success. However, contrary to what parents are often told, dyslexia is one of the most common causes of reading difficulties in elementary school children, affecting at least 5-10% of the population, with some estimates as high as 17%. Dyslexia ranges from relatively mild to more severe symptoms, so some dyslexic students may qualify for special education as a student with a learning disability, but some may not. Regardless, all students with dyslexia (indeed, all struggling readers) require intensive and explicit systematic reading intervention to progress appropriately. Unfortunately, rare is the teacher- special education, literacy, or classroom teacher—who has been adequately trained in effective, scientifically-based reading instruction.
Early Warning Signs and Prevention
Learning to read is the most important accomplishment for elementary students, because reading proficiency underpins all later learning. Unfortunately, researchers estimate that approximately 30 percent of all children do not become capable readers. However, using knowledge gained from decades of research, effective reading instruction could cut this unacceptable rate of failure by two-thirds or even more. The key is identification and intervention—the earlier the better.
Signs of dyslexia are usually apparent before a child even starts school, so if we are aware and provide timely research-based intervention, many students at-risk for dyslexia can gain the prerequisite skills they need to avoid reading failure. Early warning signs might include that your child has difficulty learning and remembering the letters of the alphabet, may have trouble learning common nursery rhymes, or may not recognize rhyming patterns like cat, hat and bat. A family history of reading and/or spelling difficulties is another red flag.
Your school-age child may not understand that words come apart, struggle to associate letters with sounds, or show difficulty sounding out even simple words like cat or man. His reading errors may show little connection to the sounds of the letters on the page—reading “puppy” instead of “dog,” for example, indicating that he relied on the picture without understanding the sounds of the written words.
Further, you may notice that your child may be very slow in acquiring new reading skills; she may read slowly and inaccurately. He may make wild guesses at unfamiliar words and not seem to have a strategy for sounding them out. She may avoid reading aloud, but when she does, she may skip “little” words (like a, the), leave off word endings, or substitute similar words. When speaking, he may mispronounce or mix up the order of sounds in words or confuse words that sound alike (such as “tornado” for “volcano”); he may also pause, hesitate, or say, “umm” frequently, or use vague words like “stuff” or “thing.” She may also have difficulty finishing work—especially tests—on time, or trouble remembering dates, names, or facts.
At the same time, your child may have excellent comprehension for stories read to him, strong ability to figure things out or to grasp new concepts, or a wonderful imagination. She may also demonstrate excellent thinking and reasoning skills, along with a strong ability to grasp the “big picture” or strong skills in areas not dependent on reading, like math, computers, or art.
Finally it is important to also note that dyslexia is not a visual problem. Though readers with dyslexia may be more likely to say “b” for “d” or to read “was” for “saw” than a typical reader, this does not mean that he is seeing the word or letter backwards. A number of factors contribute to this phenomenon, not the least of which is that, for most/all other objects we encounter, orientation does not matter (a dog is a dog whether it is lying on it’s back, standing up, facing you, or facing away!). Any intervention that targets the visual system- such as vision therapy, colored overlays or colored lenses, is misguided and not supported by research.
If you suspect that your child has some of these symptoms or if you are trying to work with your school to get services for your child, the next step is to get a diagnosis. Stay tuned for our next blog post, where diagnosis and intervention for dyslexia is discussed.
Dr. Sheila Clonan is a NYS licensed school psychologist practicing in Central New York.
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