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by Pramod Narula, M.D.


    My 9-year-old daughter has been having trouble in school. Her math and science skills are terrific, but she can't seem to grasp the basics of reading and writing. Her teachers suspect that she might have dyslexia. What is dyslexia?

    Learning disabilities, of which dyslexia is one type, can be very frustrating. A diagnosis of a learning disability is not the same as being diagnosed with the flu or measles; rather, there is a wide range of symptoms and possible causes. Dyslexia refers specifically to a developmental reading disorder. It's quite widespread, and is estimated to affect between two to eight percent of the elementary school-age population.

    Dyslexia is characterized by an inability to distinguish or separate the sounds in spoken words. Some people cannot identify certain words based on sounding out the individual letters, while others are unable to form images or ideas related to new words. When the brain is unable to store an image related to a new word, then the word won't be recognized when it appears repeatedly. Dyslexia most often manifests itself in an inability to read, to write or to retain information after reading.

    In order to diagnose dyslexia, clinicians use a group of tools that combine observation testing to eliminate other potential causes of reading problems, such as visual or hearing problems.

    Parents are usually the first to notice obvious delays in children's development. But lagging academic skills such as reading and writing are often noticed early on in the classroom -- not at home. 

    Treating dyslexia and other academic developmental disorders can involve in-school special education classes or extra-curricular sessions with learning specialists. Children in special ed classes may need help with only one or two subjects, but can otherwise participate in school activities with the rest of their classmates.

    Planning a remedial program begins with identifying what the child is capable of doing. Special education teachers or learning specialists should have professional certification and should be able to explain their goals for a teaching program in terms parents can understand. Parents should also be involved in their child's program as much as possible. They need to learn how to approach homework assignments and what methods of learning will be most helpful for their children.

    Frequently, special ed teachers use an individualized, skill-based approach with dyslexic children. This builds on the child's strengths and allows for several different methods of teaching children how to read and write. Instead of merely using phonetics to sound out a word, children may be asked to say, write and spell each new word. Also, children may need to use other senses, such as sight and touch, to enhance the learning process. If you are teaching a child the word "red", for instance, you might reinforce that by using red objects.

    It is unclear what causes learning disabilities like dyslexia, but there is a great deal of research surrounding the causes. For some years, learning problems were thought to result from a single neurological defect, but new evidence seems to show that learning disabilities have more to do with how the brain brings information together.

    Regardless of cause, the most important thing is for children to get the help they need, to feel supported, and to use well the skills they have while building on skills that are problematic.

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