During a recent conversation with a coworker, I was surprised to learn that she managed to graduate from high school and college without ever reading a book in its entirety. After sharing this information, I could tell that she was neither proud nor bragging but confessing a deep, dark secret of sorts. Additionally, she revealed that reading was about as painful to her as “taking a freezing, cold shower.” When Marge read, it felt as though her eyes were stuck in quicksand and often she found herself jumbling words on the page, losing her place, or even falling asleep. These events usually occurred within the first paragraph or page of the text so it’s no wonder that she has avoided reading for most of her life…
This intriguing exchange, along with a fascinating book I am currently reading, prompted me to blog about dyslexia and discuss some common misconceptions.
Dyslexia is a term used to describe a wide range of reading challenges. We often assume that the term “dyslexic” only refers to someone who writes letters or see words backwards. Current brain research has a lot to offer and inform us on the subject of dyslexia and how it affects reading and learning.
“I know they are smart, why can’t they read?”
Able readers “read” in an area in the back of the brain called the occipital lobe. In this region, with enough practice, reading becomes automatic, almost like breathing does, taking little effort. Readers without this disorder enjoy and remember concepts, information, or story lines easily. Dyslexics are born without the neural pathways needed to connect to that part of the brain that strong readers use. As a result, dyslexics use a different part of their brain, an alternative pathway, to read. This part of their brain is unable to automate reading. It will always require a lot of effort, and reading occurs manually, although improvement can happen. This dynamic makes reading time-consuming and even emotionally and physically taxing.
Someone with dyslexia needs more time to access information. It is crucial for someone who has dyslexia to understand the big picture before they can access details. Many of us find spoken language innate and effortless. To read, we need to convert letters to sounds. Dyslexics are weak in phonological decoding, hearing the individual “sounds” in words. They tend to hear fewer sounds. A word like “bat” sounds like one sound, not three. Sound and letter relationships (phonological processing or phonetics) are at the most fundamental level of the reading process.
If we look at the big picture of language there are many other skills needed to read. Dyslexics tend to be strong in higher-order thinking skills including: reasoning, concept formation, comprehension, general knowledge, problem solving, vocabulary and critical thinking. They are smart and have many strengths, they are just learning to read in an area of the brain that has difficulty processing sounds. For the first 3 years of school, children are learning to read. After that, they are reading to learn. Often this is when the difficulty begins to surface. We have two choices. One is to try and rewire the brain so it becomes more automatic or use the the manual system that has developed.
Dyslexics can develop more fluency (read more smoothly and quickly), by reading aloud, which improves comprehension. It’s important that they learn how to pronounce words. If a child can’t pronounce a word, they won’t have an accurate representation of it. They won’t build a model where meaning can become attached. Meaning is everything to a dyslexic”s ability to read and learn new information. They need meaning and the big picture to recall details.
How can you help?
To build fluency it is very important for dyslexics to get immediate feedback by reading aloud with someone. If you are their parent or teacher, have them start by reading lists of words or passages at an independent reading level. They need to be able to read 19 out of 20 words correctly on a page for the page to be at an independent reading level. A goal for fluency is to read 60 words a minute from a list or paragraph at their independent level.
A good process for building fluency is guided reading. Reading to them first so they can listen to sounds is important. You can repeat any step that seems beneficial. The goal is automation. By the 5th step they should be able to read at least 60 words per minute with few, if any errors.
1. Read a passage to the child.
2. Have the child read it aloud.
3. Have the child record themselves reading.
4. Have the child listen and follow along with the recording.
5. Have the child read to someone else once they have practiced.
Reading scripts, song lyrics or reading to someone younger are all great ways to practice reading for fluency. For younger students still learning to read, Dr. Seuss books are ideal practice. For older students, use books on tape whenever possible and tape record assignments or essays to make the time spent on an assigned task more reasonable.
Reference: Overcoming Dyslexia, Sally Shaywitz, MD.