Thought to be present at birth, dyslexia has become an internationally recognized learning disability affecting millions of children and adults. Although attention has shifted to focus on coping with dyslexia, many parents, educators and even health experts remain baffled by this enigmatic disorder.
Once perceived as an indicator of intelligence, dyslexia has been falsely associated with a child’s inability to succeed. And despite increased awareness of dyslexia, stereotyped beliefs that people with dyslexia are “slow” or unable to cope in mainstream class environments continue to linger. Yet, “the truth is that many who are dyslexic are of average to above average intelligence,” says elementary school reading specialist Beth Schwebber.
“Before it is possible to understand how to cope with dyslexia, one must understand what it is,” says professor Robert Frank, Ph.D. This educator, author and psychologist has a firsthand understanding of dyslexia— he is dyslexic.
What is Dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a learning disorder defined as causing reading achievement that falls substantially below expected levels, given an individual’s age and education. The deficit interferes with daily practices involving reading, including schoolwork. Also, dyslexia is not due to a sensory impairment, such as vision problems that prohibit people from clearly seeing words on a page.
Much like a lisp or acne, dyslexia is something that appears during childhood. However, unlike many childhood situations, dyslexia endures throughout a lifetime, continually forcing a person to utilize various tools and skills to counter the learning difference. An estimated five to 15 percent of the population is thought to have some varying degree of dyslexia, and current research indicates that dyslexia occurs equally in boys and girls.
McKinney Independent School District dyslexia teacher Marjorie Wilkov says, “Parents might suspect dyslexic tendencies by observing one or more of the characteristics of dyslexia.” These characteristics include receptive language difficulties, difficulty expressing ideas in written language, reluctance or difficulty in reading, and difficulty with rate, accuracy and fluency in spelling and handwriting.
“Children may reverse letters and/or have issues with directionality of letters and symbols and have difficulty with spatial relationships, particularly in handwriting or with learning the names of letters and sounds associated with letters,” says Wilkov.
While dyslexia may be diagnosed at any age, it is often discovered in kindergarten or 1st grade when the child is exposed to the alphabet and corresponding sounds. “Before a student is referred for dyslexia testing, the student should have received formal instruction in reading, handwriting and spelling that has been proven to be effective in developing these skills,” Wilkov adds.
There are also instances when dyslexic tendencies are not evident in the primary grades but are exhibited in the intermediate grades. “Keeping in mind that dyslexia is congenital,” says Wilkov, “it may manifest itself at any age as the child develops reading, writing and/or spelling skills.”
Life with Dyslexia
Two families— each with dyslexic children— have had two distinct experiences with diagnosing and addressing the learning difference.
When Linda Dupie first suspected her daughter had dyslexia, she turned to her daughter’s school for information and support. “She tested below average in reading and had poor comprehension when she read books herself,” remembers Dupie. “She would pass those same tests she failed if the stories were read aloud. What stood out the most to me was the way she reminded me of myself at that age— only back then they didn’t have a name for it.”
Once Dupie’s daughter was diagnosed and a proper IEP was set up, the school experience became positive. It changed from one that was a constant struggle to one that encouraged her daughter to use her unique way of thinking and processing to her advantage. “It also helped that the school we transferred into was upbeat and never stopped challenging her,” says Dupie.
Unlike the support Dupie had in tending to her dyslexic child, Rebecca Freshour faced hardship in getting her then 8-year-old son diagnosed as dyslexic. Misdiagnosed as having ADD and told his school didn’t have the staff to test for learning differences, Freshour’s son Caleb spent his first years in school feeling inadequate and unimportant. “We were told that dyslexia can’t be accurately diagnosed before 5th grade,” says Freshour. “And even then, he’d need to be placed on a waiting list to be tested.”
As the Freshours can affirm, struggling with undiagnosed dyslexia can impact a student’s self-esteem and present many learning obstacles. For students diagnosed with dyslexic tendencies, however, feelings of low self-esteem and frustration can be overcome with structured multi-sensory teaching techniques involving visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning strategies.
Denise Delgado, a board member of the Dallas International Dyslexia Association and an educational diagnostician who conducts evaluations for learning disabilities, agrees that proper intervention and treatment are crucial to a dyslexic student’s learning and self-esteem. “If a child doesn’t receive the proper intervention, his self-esteem will be negatively impacted and he will feel unsuccessful and defeated in the school environment,” says Delgado. But, “when [dyslexic students] receive accommodations and a good dyslexia program, they can be very successful, productive students.
It’s very important that teachers be trained to deal with this disability and to provide accommodations.”
As children’s greatest advocates, parents suspecting an issue with their child’s progress must be highly involved and work closely with the school. “It’s extremely important to maintain their child’s self-esteem and find a hobby or passion that a child enjoys and is good at to foster his self-esteem,” says Delgado. “I have witnessed how parents can turn things around at school to work so positively for their children.”
Certified clinical hypnotherapist Susan Fox works with children with dyslexia to help them discover alternative learning methods. “Two boys I worked with could read very easily while in a hypnotic state,” says Fox. “It was amazing to see.” In coaching the boys through a technique that promotes their concentration during school, Fox incorporated a variety of techniques to help the children adapt to their learning difference. “The technique used included tapping one thumb as [one boy] lay his hand on his desk to increase his concentration ability,” says Fox. “The child said that technique really helped him.” Like many emerging health experts, Fox is offering new hope for children with dyslexia.
- 15-20 percent of the population has a language-based learning disability.
- 70-80 percent of students with specific learning disabilities receiving special education services also have deficits in reading.
- Dyslexia is the most common cause of reading, writing and spelling difficulties.
- Dyslexia affects males and females nearly equally, as well as individuals from varied ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.