Reading expert discusses dyslexia

“English is a great language, but it’s part of the problem.”

These words of wisdom from Margie Gillis, project director at the Haskins Literacy Initiative at Yale University, were delivered earlier this month to a room of parents and educators at Royle School in Darien. Gillis’s visit was sponsored by the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee, and she spoke for roughly two hours about dyslexia being both a blessing and a curse.

As with any learning disability, teachers make the biggest difference with students and their ability to learn, Gillis said.

“They are the most important variable,” she said.

Gillis’s husband, daughter and son all have dyslexia, which is a condition where a person has difficulty pulling apart the sounds of words. It is not an intellectual disability, and there is a growing amount of evidence showing the dyslexic mind has distinct advantages.

“This has nothing to do with intelligence,” Gillis said. “But when peers [learn to read] seemingly effortlessly, you start thinking, ‘There’s got to be something wrong with me and it must be that I’m dumb.’”

“Knowing and telling your children that your mind is different, it’s not bad or worse,” is crucial to maintaining their self-esteem and interest in learning, Gillis said.

Some of the difficulties that come with dyslexia remain with a person for life. Gillis’s husband, for example, is a terrible speller, especially with certain words, she said.

“You learn to read as a dyslexic,” she said. “It’s the spelling that’s a stickler.”

“Written language is largely a cultural invention,” Gillis said, quoting her Haskins colleague Ken Pugh. “Moreover, spoken language is mastered naturally in almost all people, without direct instruction, but reading is difficult and reading failure occurs in large numbers of children across all written languages.”

Symptoms of dyslexia vary, but consist mostly of an inability to decode printed words [see chart at end of story for list of symptoms by age group].

The earliest warning signs involve preschool children who have difficulty learning numbers or letters, are prone to reversing words or forgetting colors or days of the week, and are slow with developing oral language skills. Dyslexia can be inherited, according to the National Institute of Health, and many cases of dyslexia are genetically determined, Gillis said.

Dyslexic brains also show different activation patterns when examined under an MRI scan.

In normal readers, the brain’s frontal lobe and temporoparietal junction are excited while reading a passage, but dyslexic readers have little to no activation in the temporoparietal region, which is partially responsible for collecting and processing visual information.

Gillis is quick to warn, however, that there is no single part of the brain responsible for dyslexic thinking patterns. She also said that it’s rare to find a case of “classic dyslexia,” where the person’s only disability is dyslexia. Many children who have dyslexia also have attention deficit hyperactive disorder, memory problems and language processing disorders.

Teaching strategies

Roughly 15 to 20% of Americans — up to 60 million people — have some form of dyslexia, according to research at the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. Teaching dyslexic children can be difficult, but research from the National Reading Panel found that phonics instruction is more effective than other methods. Phonics is the use of the sounds of letters and combinations of letters to help with reading.

Gillis discussed a variety of teaching techniques to help children with dyslexia learn to read, such as picture sorts, “Blachman, Road to the Code,” Elkonin boxes, and the Lindamood phoneme sequencing program.

Parents and teachers should not encourage memorization of sight words, but should instead work on developing the student’s ability to read using “decodable text,” Gillis said. Accuracy should be a priority over speed, and educators should understand that oral reading is difficult for most students.

The reading expert, who also runs Literacy How and is a co-founder and current board president of Smart Kids with LD, noted that dyslexic people are often exceptional at spatial analysis, mechanical aptitude, creative problem-solving, visualization, artistic expression and athletics.

But she warned that sometimes schools misunderstand what dyslexia is. This is partially due to the inability of the state or federal governments to define dyslexia as an actual disorder. Federal and state legislation are pending to define dyslexia, spearheaded by the Bipartisan Congressional Dyslexia Caucus.

Because of this lack of a definition, there is also a lack of understanding, Gillis said. Sometimes a school will tell a parent to be patient and give the child time, which is often bad advice.

Gillis emphasized that working collaboratively as a team with parents and educators is crucial to ensuring all kids learn how to read.

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