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Dealing with Dyslexia

Understanding Dyslexia To Help Your Child Succeed in school

"As a child, I was called dumb. I was called lazy. And that was just by some of my teachers. You can imagine the names that the kids in the school yard added to that list ... No, I'm not dumb or lazy. I'm dyslexic," Robert Frank writes in his book The Secret Life of the Dyslexic Child (Rodale, 2004).

Frank realized something wasn't quite right when he was in second or third grade. He was lucky enough to have a teacher who recognized that he needed some extra help, though he spent most of his education "just faking it" – a mechanism used by many dyslexic children.

Over the years, he learned how to compensate for his difficulties with reading and writing. Fighting his way through college and graduate school, he was finally diagnosed as dyslexic. Today, he is an assistant professor of psychology at Oakton Community College and a family therapist.

His story is also extraordinary because he made it so far academically. Approximately 50 percent of children with dyslexia end up dropping out of school.

Reading and Math

Dyslexia is a neurological disorder that affects the way the brain processes information. There are three types of dyslexia: visual, auditory and a combination of the two. Visual dyslexia is the way people see words, numbers and figures. Auditory dyslexia is the way words are processed after they are heard.

"Dyslexia is a global term that simply cannot describe every child with the disorder," says Michele Mazzocco, a research scientist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. For example, while dyslexia is most commonly associated with reading, Mazzocco's research indicates that dyslexia might have a math correlation as well.

"We've been researching reading disabilities for 40 years, and we don't have the background yet on math," Mazzocco says. Based on her research so far, she estimates that nearly half of all reading dyslexics have problems with math. She is quick to point out that while the two may occur together, having one type of dyslexia doesn't automatically lead to the other.

Warning Signs

According to Laurie LeComer, author of A Parent's Guide to Developmental Delays: Recognizing and Coping With Missed Milestones in Speech, Movement, Learning, and Other Areas (Berkley Pub Group, 2006), early signs of dyslexia include the following:

  • Difficulty remembering letter or number symbols.
  • Guessing at words by looking at the pictures on the page.
  • Trouble remembering the visual pattern of common site words, like "the."
  • After sounding out a word, being unable to remember the sounds and saying a different word.
  • Speech and language difficulties.

Parents should also be aware of their child's learning style, according to Mariaemma Pelullo-Willis, a co-author of Discover Your Child's Learning Style (Prima Publishing, 1999). "We learn things in different ways," she says. People can be picture learners, hands-on learners or print learners. Non-print learners don't always get the "code" of the letters, such as associating a certain letter to a certain sound, she adds.

Take Action

If a parent or teacher suspects there are reading problems, they should request the child be tested. These tests can be administered through the school. Universities and learning institutes can provide more in-depth testing for a fee.

According to Frank, the testing will begin with an IQ test, which helps to determine the child's academic potential. Other tests look at more specific skills, such as reading, handwriting, story telling, spelling and numbers. There may also be tests that investigate visual perception, memory and the length of time it takes for the child to process information.

Should the child be found to have dyslexia, the next step is for the parent and school to develop an individualized education program (IEP). The IEP should set up goals and plans of action for the child to reach those goals. The operative word is "should" – just because an IEP is developed doesn't mean that it is the right one for the child or that the school will follow it. Parents must remain proactive, which Gail Cioffi of Kendall Park, N.J., discovered.

Cioffi's younger son is profoundly dyslexic. His original IEP was four pages long – a generic IEP as she described it – and completely ineffective for her son. She had him retested, and the subsequent IEP was over 20 pages. She continues to fight to make sure her son gets the help he needs, but she is determined that he'll graduate from high school and hopefully go on to college.

Keeping the child interested in learning and in school requires a lot of hands-on work by the parent. Philip Levin, program director of The Help Group/UCLA Neuropsychology Program, suggests reading out loud with the child for 20 minutes a night, even into the child's teenage years.

"Silent reading doesn't help kids with reading comprehension," he says. "Kids need to learn how to self-correct themselves." By reading together, parents can help the child learn these skills.

As Frank's experience shows, a college education – even one in a reading intensive program like psychology – is possible for the dyslexic young adult. However, colleges do not automatically recognize the student's high school IEP.

To get the most out of a college education, Levin gives these suggestions:

  • Students should be aware of the services that are available at their college (a good place to start is the school's psychology department or disabilities office).
  • Develop good time management skills.
  • Take advantage of the technology that is out there, such as voice recognition software.

"The student should be tested around sophomore year of high school to make sure they have something current in their files," Levin says. This can be especially useful when the student is looking for assistance in college classes.

Dyslexia doesn't go away and can't be cured, but it is possible to learn coping skills. Throughout the school years, parents can remind their children that life won't always require them to read and write with a time limit.

Frank also says that it doesn't pay to be embarrassed or shy about admitting you are dyslexic. "Don't pretend you are just like everybody else," he says. "Speak up for what you need.

Frank concludes in his book, "Dyslexia is not easy to live with, but neither is it an insurmountable disability."

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