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

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

Trouble with reading places children on a devastating downward spiral. Slow development of reading skills limits vocabulary growth and warps children’s attitudes about school, and themselves, according to a 2008 report from the Florida Center for Reading Research. Problems at school are compounded because the ability to learn about science, social studies and other subjects through reading is compromised. Difficulties interpreting written symbols can affect mathematics understanding, too. School becomes a place of failure.

For Nathan, who is sociable and extroverted by nature, poor performance at school caused him to lose heart, and he became reluctant to go. During second grade, Nathan was absent 19 times, his mother said. Soon after Nathan started second grade, Kristin Eberting sought help outside the school system, arranging for intensive tutoring by specialists at Dyslexia Center of Utah.

Brain wiring

Dyslexia expert Ben Shifrin knows what Nathan was feeling. Shifrin directs Maryland’s Jemicy School for dyslexic students, and serves on the National Advisory Committee on Exceptional Children. Shifrin didn’t let his own dyslexia stop him from graduating summa cum laude from Temple University with a master’s degree in special education.

But dyslexia made his school years miserable, and he doesn’t want other children to go through what he did. When Shifrin was in second grade, his mother was told that he was mentally retarded and would never learn to read.

“Kids with dyslexia are made to feel like they are not smart, and they develop low self-esteem,” Shifrin said. “We see a high dropout rate and high incidence of these kids using drugs, all because they are not diagnosed and taught correctly.”

Shifrin explains dyslexia as a difference in brain wiring. Human beings are genetically wired to pick up spoken language, and do it automatically, he said. “But we’re not all wired to read. It wasn’t a natural thing that all of our brains developed.”

Some people pick up on the relationships between letters and sounds naturally, and some can be taught those relationships without difficulty in a typical school setting. But many students have a hard time making those connections, Shifrin said, even if they have high IQs and are gifted in other academic areas.

“The child looks totally normal, and the teacher thinks they’re not trying,” he said.

Re-wiring

Dyslexia isn’t caused by lack of intelligence, gumption or desire to learn, Shifrin said. With appropriate teaching methods, people who have it can learn successfully. It’s not an easy process, though.

Most tutoring programs are based on ideas first advanced by researchers Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham in the 1930s. To build the brain wiring needed for reading, the approach calls for carefully sequenced experiences with letters and sounds that incorporate sight, touch, hearing and movement. And a lot of repetition — much more than typical students need.

For Nathan, who had tried to memorize his alphabet sounds over and over without retaining what he learned, this worked. At the Dyslexia Center, he learned to draw a giant imaginary letter “A” in the sky with his extended arm while naming the letter and making its (short vowel) sound: “Aaaa.” Over and over.

Gradually all consonants and short vowel sounds were learned by similar methods and then long vowel sounds. Exercises in combining sounds followed. In time, what Nathan learned became part of his reading toolkit. The progression continued, including understanding of prefixes and suffixes and other clues to word decoding.

“People who have dyslexia need tools in order to decode words,” said Barbara Dianis, author of the book “Don’t Count Me Out.” Dianis, who has dyslexia, said that until phonetic skills are built up, reading, writing and spelling would be problematic for children with dyslexia. That requires intensive focus on relating basic speech sounds to written symbols — “phonemic awareness,” in professional terminology.

Getting help

The International Dyslexia Association’s website offers tips for parents to help them recognize signs of dyslexia in young children. These can include late talking, difficulties with rhyming, and trouble learning alphabet letters and their sounds.

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