Wednesday, 27 June 2012

What is Dyslexia?

The word Dyslexia means: Dys = difficulty Lexia = words.
Dyslexia is a neurologically-based disorder. Individuals with dyslexia have difficulty with the sounds (phonemes) and symbols (morphemes) that make up our language. It is a specific learning disability that affects 1 in 5 students world wide. It describes what appears to be an unexpected difficulty with language. This means people with dyslexia have difficulty reading, writing and remembering written language as well as making permanent connections between the symbols and sounds in words. The perplexing thing about dyslexia is that these individuals usually have average or above average intelligence and excel in other learning disciplines.

Therefore dyslexia is not the result of low intelligence. Additionally, research has shown that the ratio of boys to girls with dyslexia is the same – they just tend to hide it in different ways. If you are still searching for a reason for your child’s learning difficulty you will also realise that dyslexia is not the result of vision or hearing problems, behaviour or emotional problems, or any lack of opportunity or motivation to learn. Perhaps your child has undergone a multitude of tests and still no diagnosis has been reached or the strategies that have been suggested to you haven’t worked. Maybe your story sounds a little bit like this…

Mum and Dad are broke because of all the testing and therapy that didn’t do anything to help the problem, maybe your child is sporting a nice pair of glasses and if you’re like us, they’ve got magnificent coloured lenses that cost you a fortune, but your child won’t wear because they look different to everyone else. Quite possibly it’s been suggested to Mum and Dad that their child should repeat a grade or perhaps medicating their child could improve their concentration because the child has difficulty focussing at school. This is because the child has possibly developed some great avoidance strategies and are trying to do ANYTHING they can to get out of sitting in their desk and reading. Avoidance strategies can take the form of, asking to go to the toilet at inappropriate times, cracking jokes, sharpening pencils, wiping down the board, cleaning out their desk, tidying the bookshelves, asking to take notes to the office…etcetera.

In primary school, your child’s development has been pretty carefully monitored. Usually, they have one teacher for the majority of the time as well as support staff who have probably helped a lot. Chances are you’ve been made aware of a problem but nobody can give you a precise diagnosis or strategies that have made any significant difference. When your child reaches high school things can become very different. If you’ve made it as far as year 8 or 9 behaviour modification has probably been suggested because your child is working through some serious anger or withdrawal issues. This is because school is getting very difficult. The amount of reading increases. There are text books, deadlines and different teachers for every subject to cope with. If your child has coping mechanisms in place, chances are they are being stretched to breaking point. Without the right support and scaffolding the dyslexic teenager can become very overwhelmed.

That’s what dyslexia looks like when it’s not diagnosed and attended to properly. So our ratio of 1 dyslexic pupil to every 5 pupils in an average Australian classroom of 30 students gives us 6 students that have dyslexia per class. Remember, these are smart kids, who have worked out that something is not quite right. Unfortunately their assumption is that they are a failure, when in fact it’s the system that has failed them. Isn’t it incredible to believe that there is no funding available for these students in our Australian school system?

Fortunately, a number of talented American researchers have been looking for a scientific explanation for the cause of dyslexia. Thanks to the research of Drs Sally and Bennett Shaywitz who head The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, we now know that Dyslexia is a neurologically-based disorder. Their research, took the form of testing, monitoring and observing a large sample of students from their first year of school (approximately 5 years of age in Kindergarten) and continuing to study them closely over a twenty year period. They compared the reading ability and IQ of Dyslexic students and non-dyslexic students as well as recorded and compared their brain images using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) whilst reading. 

For many years researchers have know that language development occurs in the left hemisphere of the brain. We also know that for students to be literate they also need to have three parts of the left hemisphere operating efficiently. These are indicated on the diagrams below, “Broca’s Area” in the inferior frontal gyrus (Green), “Wernicke’s Area” located in the parieto-temporal area (Pink) and the Occipito-temporal area (yellow).
Copyright Sally Shaywitz, M.D., Overcoming Dyslexia
Broca’s area is where the phonemes (sounds) of language are processed into articulated speech. It is a very important area for learning sounds and experimenting with producing sounds. The Wernicke’s area is the place where words are analysed. Words are literally pulled apart and put back together in order to make meaning of them. It’s where the phonemes from the Broca’s area are put into place to form words and are assigned a meaning. The Occipito-temporal area is where whole words and chunks of words are recognized automatically. Richard Gentry states that this is the place where we store our images for perfectly spelt words. Without the Occipito-temporal area we would have no fluency and every time we encountered a word, we would need to sound it out again.

What Drs Sally and Bennett Shaywitz found through fMRI research is that students with Dyslexia are not using all three of these parts of their brains when reading. They are only using the Broca’s area where initial sounds are being processed. They proved without any doubt that students with dyslexia present with a large discrepancy between reading ability and IQ.
Copyright Sally Shaywitz, M.D., Overcoming Dyslexia
Now that Dyslexia has been identified as a neurologically-based disorder it is important to keep in mind that the brain is able to grow and develop new neural pathways. Banished is the thinking of years gone by that suggested if you have a problem with the brain it was irreversible. New studies looking at “Neuroplasticity” are providing new break throughs in science which are now being applied in the area of education. Barbara Arrowsmith-Young has been a pioneer in this area, and I urge you to take a look at her book, “The woman who changed her brain”. This book was actually recommended to me by a dyslexic student, so highly recommended!

One of the things I love about working with Dyslexic students is that generally they are animated, creative and likable individuals who are usually hard working, intelligent people. It is no surprise that some of the greatest creative minds in history have been right-brain dominated dyslexics. It is very clear to see why they have so much to offer our society. There are some wonderful people working on developing programs and strategies to help stimulate the left hemispheres of the brain to help students with dyslexia learn to read.

I’ll write more about these in an up coming blog to give you some strategies to use at home and in the classroom to help your dyslexic students with reading. Until then, take a look through the following websites, they are really worthwhile and very interesting reading. I’ve also added Dr Sally Shaywitz’s book, “Overcoming Dyslexia” to the suggested reading list as well as Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, “The woman who changed her brain”.

Take a look at this fantastic youtube video featuring Dr Sally Shaywitz and some very successful Dyslexics.

Jeanelle xxx

Please take a look at these websites:


Dr Sally Shaywitz’s website.

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young’s website.

Read an article about Dr Sally and Dr Bennett Shaywitz’s research. 

1 comment:

  1. This blog is great. A friend at my school gave me the link, I know her here in Sydney.
    This is very helpful.