National Edition

When Johnny can't read Modern technology and new approaches help kids with dyslexia

Published: Sunday, Oct. 13 2013 11:55 a.m. MDT

Kristin Eberting helps her son Nathan with his homework at their home in Alpine on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013. Nathan has dyslexia.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

When Nathan Eberting finished fourth grade last spring, he received thrilling news. He was reading at grade level, something that seemed impossible a couple of years earlier. At the beginning of second grade, Nathan's reading skills were stuck at kindergarten level. His halting efforts to read were especially painful because his twin brother, Matthew, was racing through book after book.

“My boys had the same home environment, the same exposure to books, the same teachers,” said Kristin Eberting, Nathan’s mother. “One son could read, and the other was stumbling over ‘a’ and ‘the.’ ”

Diagnostic tests at school showed that Nathan had difficulties processing written language. But, he wasn’t far enough behind to meet Utah’s learning disability criteria for receiving specialized help through the school.

Millions of children who don’t qualify for special education have symptoms severe enough to make learning to read a struggle — Nathan is one. Some will eventually qualify for help, but perhaps not until they are three or more years behind in school. It’s a phenomenon known in the special education world as “waiting to fail.”

A common plague

Dyslexia, a disorder that occurs when the brain doesn’t recognize and process visual symbols of language, is the most common reading disorder. It is diagnosed as a learning disability in about 5 percent of the U.S. school population, qualifying those students for special education. But dyslexia occurs across a spectrum that ranges from mild to severe, and it affects learners of all IQ levels.

About one in five students show dyslexia symptoms such as slow or inaccurate reading, poor spelling, poor writing or mixing up similar words, according to the International Dyslexia Association, which celebrates National Dyslexia Awareness Month in October. But now, the way Americans respond to dyslexia is changing, as is our understanding of the disorder. Recent studies bolster awareness of dyslexia as a brain-based disorder and new technologies offer promising ways of mitigating dyslexia's consequences.

A 2013 study from MIT offers hope that dyslexia can be diagnosed and treated even before students enter school. The study found a correlation between poor pre-reading skills and the size of a brain structure that connects two language-processing areas. By using brain scans, researchers learned that children with a larger arcuate fasciculus have stronger ability to connect their understanding of spoken language to written language.

And a new study published by PLOS/ONE shows that reading from the screen of a smartphone provides better reading speed and comprehension for people with dyslexia than reading traditional blocks of text on paper. Other recent technological innovations — such as voice-recognition software and software that allows computers to read printed text aloud — are helping, too. But the mainstay of dyslexia treatment continues to be specialized tutoring to build awareness of how written language works.

People with dyslexia don’t see things backward, and some don’t reverse letters like “b” and “d.” But their ability to grasp the mechanics of written language is impaired. Dyslexia’s causes are not completely clear, but brain imagery studies reveal differences in brain development and function in people who have dyslexia, and dyslexia often runs in families.

Most dyslexia researchers agree that early intervention is critical, and that postponing it to see if a child is merely a late bloomer is futile. Ninety percent of children who are struggling with reading, writing and spelling by mid-year of first grade will still be struggling with those skills in eighth grade and on into adulthood unless they receive specialized help, according to the International Dyslexia Association.

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