It’s the first week of school and the teacher is asking kids to read out loud. Eight-year-old Lizzie can hear the blood pounding in her head, and her mouth feels like someone just cleaned the board eraser in it. You’d think the teacher would gauge the kids’ abilities in a more sensitive way, but maybe she’s inexperienced, or in a hurry. One thing’s certain: Lizzie, who misreads short words (saying “saw” instead of “was”), and who makes wild guesses at long ones, will be humiliated.
Bright, receptive and articulate kids can have dyslexia. Gifted kids can have dyslexia. Kids who successfully make it through early grades can seem all of a sudden to have dyslexia. What are the warning signs and how can you help your child win this word battle?
Getting the feel of dyslexia
Derived from the Greek, the literal meaning of dyslexia is trouble with words. A child with dyslexia has trouble with any combination of reading, writing and spelling. But unlike a reading delay, dyslexia is unexpected and enduring. Your dyslexic child is bright and capable, then, seemingly out of nowhere, she struggles with reading. And even when you give her plenty of extra help, she still doesn’t get it.
Spotting the signs of dyslexia
Can your preschooler thread, color and cut, speak clearly, and consistently name colors and shapes? Does your 7-year-old mix up the order of letters when she writes? When a psychologist tests your child for dyslexia, he starts by looking for these behaviors:
- Started to speak late (no actual speech until after age 2).
- Says muddled-up or immature words (aminal for animal; and gween for green).
- Doesn’t understand what you say until you repeat it a few times.
- Can’t consistently name the letters of the alphabet.
- Has weak fine-motor skills (in activities such as drawing, tying laces, cutting and threading).
- Can’t tell you rhyming words (cat/hat).
- Talks with an advanced vocabulary when she can’t recall simpler words, (saying things like, “We’re going to the food distributor.”).
- Frequently uses words like “umm” and “thingy”
- Writes words with letters in the wrong places, like saw instead of was and, vawe instead of wave (called “transposing” letters).
- Reverses letters and numbers.
- Confuses directional words, such as left/right, up/down and front/back.
- Adds or leaves out small words when reading (which can totally change the meaning of the text).
- Has trouble retelling a story.
- Complains of words moving or running off the paper.
Can’t remember facts like multiplication tables, days of the week, dates and names.
Letter and number reversals are common in all children, including those who don’t have dyslexia, up to about age 7. But a dyslexic child makes these mistakes just as often as she gets it right, and continues making them in second grade and beyond.
Relying on solid research
The good news about this multifaceted condition is that researchers have recently uncovered likely causes, and effective treatment:
- Dyslexia tends to run in families.
- Dyslexia is the result of your child’s brain having trouble processing written and spoken sounds.
- A child with dyslexia can vastly improve her skills, but can’t get rid of dyslexia altogether.
- The most effective instruction for taking control of dyslexia is multi-sensory, systematic instruction with an explicit emphasis on phonics.
Turning research into practice
“Multisensory, systematic instruction with an explicit emphasis on phonics” sounds like something best left to the experts. In fact, it’s simply about teaching your child phonics (matching letters to speech sounds) in a hands-on way. Your dyslexic child needs to learn basic language sounds and the letters that represent them, starting from the very beginning and moving forward in a gradual, step-by-step progression. And to pull all of that together, she needs to learn in a multi-sensory way by using (pretty much simultaneously) her eyes, ears, voice and hands. So when your dyslexic child gets stuck reading a new word, like shout, demystify it for her by having her:
- Highlight sound/spelling chunks while saying them out loud (sh-ou-t).
- Trace the word while saying it out loud.
- Say and write words from the same word family (out, about, spout, pout).
- Jot the word onto a small card to pull out of an envelope and read to you every night for a week.
Forging onwards and upwards
Lizzie, our original example, had a tough break with the new teacher. But in the long run, her prospects are great. Her parents can help her understand why she struggles, and make sure she gets plenty of phonics-based, multi-sensory instruction. And, if she at times feels disheartened, she can find consolation in the knowledge that some folks regard dyslexia as unrecognized genius or at the very least, character building. And maybe, along with the likes of famous dyslexics like Keira Knightley, Tommy Hilfiger and Steven Spielberg, Lizzie has tons of creativity, untapped but nevertheless there, just waiting for the right moment.
Dyslexia Parents Resource: www.dyslexia-parent.com
Information for parents, sections for students, and everything you need, in simple terms.
Hello Friend: www.hellofriend.org
Created by actor Bill Cosby, this feel-good site is dedicated to his late son, Ennis, who was dyslexic.
LD Online: www.ldonline.com
Check out “First person essays” to see what it’s like to be dyslexic. (Especially “Upside down in a right sided world”, by W. Sumner Davis).
Schwab Learning (part of the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation): www.schwablearning.org
Charles Schwab, business mogul and dyslexic, is the force behind this site. It has plain-talking articles and message boards and covers summer camps and workshops.
Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities: www.smartkidswithld.org
This easy-to-read site features Ask the Experts, Teacher’s Corner, and a Winner’s Circle of accounts from successful adults with dyslexia.
“Overcoming Dyslexia for Dummies”: A practical, down-to-earth new book, written by Tracey Wood, in the popular “for Dummies” series.
TRACEY WOOD is a literary specialist. She is the author of the abovementioned ‘Overcoming Dyslexia for Dummies’ and also ‘Teaching Kids to Read for Dummies’. She can be reached at www.readingpains.com.