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How to Define and Deal with Dyslexia

Find Ways to Better Understand Dyslexia and how to help your child

Mary Weidler's son, Steven, has always been intelligent. Before entering school, he learned at a fast rate and had mastered an extensive vocabulary for a child his age. But his first year of school was not what his mother expected. He struggled, and his problems were dismissed as "behavior issues." During the second grade, he fell further behind despite efforts to tutor him using phonics curriculum. After several other methods failed to help Steven achieve his academic potential, his mother took action.

Armed with his latest set of achievement test results, Weidler approached the school. "I insisted there was obviously something wrong with how this child processes words," she says. He had no problems in math, scoring near genius level. But reading was on the opposite end of the spectrum. Upon her insistence, the school system tested and diagnosed Steven with dyslexia.

Defining Dyslexia

To better understand the struggle that Steven and the 15 to 20 percent of children have, it is essential to comprehend what they must deal with on a day-to-day basis. Sally Jess, learning differences consultant for Schwab Learning, says, "Dyslexia is a lifelong, neurologically-based condition in which a person is unable to acquire the basic language skills of reading. A child is considered to have dyslexia if he or she has difficulty learning to read despite having adequate intelligence, attention, motivation and exposure to education." It is virtually the opposite of reading.

While a child without dyslexia can recognize and remember sound/symbol correspondence, one with dyslexia cannot. Steven Weidler's own account of his trouble details how some dyslexic children view trying to read. "I could see the letters move or fly off the page, and no one else could see that," he says. "I thought maybe the problem was my eyes, but the eye doctor said they were fine."

Deciphering Dyslexia

As for what causes dyslexia, Jess explains. "We don't really know," she says. "Research has shown that some dyslexics may have slight differences in brain structure and function in the areas connected with language and learning. Dyslexia is often inherited and other family members may have similar learning patterns." A good example of inherited dyslexia can be found behind the reason Schwab Learning and the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation was started. Charles Schwab, a professed dyslexic, was reminded of his own struggles in school upon the discovery that his son had inherited the reading difficulty.

The foundation makes a distinction between a "learning disability" and "dyslexia" by labeling it not as a disability but a "difference." "Many children struggle to learn – one in five, according to the National Institutes of Health," Jess says. "Not every child struggling to learn, however, receives a 'learning disability' diagnosis. A 'learning disability' is a term referring to a set of specific, definable and diagnosed problems. By using the term 'learning differences' we are broadly including the many children who struggle in school."

Diagnosing Dyslexia

It can be difficult to diagnose dyslexia at a young age. In the early childhood phases of learning to recognize words and letters, all experience a trial-and-error period. James P. Carter, speech and language pathologist at Texas Children's Hospital, says, "The diagnosis of dyslexia may be delayed for several reasons. First there is normal variation in young children's readiness for reading. Therefore, early warning signs of possible difficulty may simply be attributed to a slower rate of development. For example, confusion between letters that look similar by a 5-year-old does not necessarily indicate that reading will be difficult at age 7."

It is even harder to discover in children, such as Steven, who are bright in other subjects. They develop coping and masking skills that can leave their differences hidden until as late as the fourth grade. The most common signs include being slow to learn the connection between letters and sounds, confusing basic sight-reading words such as "run," "eat" and "want," and making consistent reading and spelling errors including letter reversals (between "b" and "d"), inversions (between "m" and "w"), transpositions (between "left" and "felt") and substitutions (between "house" and "home").

Dealing with Dyslexia

The first step in helping your child deal with dyslexia is a thorough diagnostic evaluation. "This will profile strengths and weaknesses as well as help determine an appropriate plan for intervention," Carter says.

Equally important is constant communication with your child's teacher. Find out the kind of reading instruction being used. Inquire about what changes can be made that will help your child. "If your child needs more help than the general education classroom can provide, you can request an assessment to better understand the nature of your child's reading problems and to determine his/her eligibility for special education and related services," Jess says. She points out that parents can support a child's learning at home by having reading materials easily available in the house, by reading to their children and asking questions about content.

Encourage your child to participate in activities such as art, music, athletics and mechanics. This will provide an opportunity for recognition and praise, but most of all, it will enhance the child's self-esteem.

Maintaining a sense of self-worth is critical for a child who is struggling in school. Dyslexia may be a lifelong problem but it does not have to be a lifelong struggle. After all, a child with dyslexia is in good company: Albert Einstein, Walt Disney, John F. Kennedy and Charles Schwab all succeeded despite dyslexia.

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