A NEW YEAR! (Part 2)

My mom was a career kindergarten teacher, so I knew something about how young children were taught to read, but I also knew that the way reading was taught changed in the curriculum every few years, although at that time, I was not aware of the specifics. But I was pretty sure that simply knowing the alphabet and practicing sight words on flashcards was not going to help in this situation. Would any traditional teaching and learning methods work? It seemed like the answer to that question was probably “no.” I mean, he had been attending school for years and could barely read or write.

I had off-handedly heard the term “dyslexia” a few times growing up. One of my friends in elementary school had two younger siblings who went to a summer camp for kids with dyslexia, and the younger sister eventually left our elementary school for a private one that specialized in teaching kids with dyslexia. The brother of a kid on my brother’s baseball team had dyslexia– I remembered his mom mentioning it once during a game, but I couldn’t remember the context. All I really knew was that people with dyslexia had a hard time in school, needed extra help. And sometimes they needed a different learning environment.

I started doing research and making calls. What exactly was dyslexia and did this kid have it? If so, what were the next steps for getting help?

This is the official definition of dyslexia from the United States National Institute of Health:

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.

The definition is lengthy, so let’s break it down and unpack it. First, dyslexia is a specific learning disability. A specific learning disability occurs when a person has a natural variation in brain function that causes difficulty in learning a skill that is culturally expected for that person to learn. In our culture, reading isn’t just expected, it’s required to fully function in society.

Second, it is neurobiological in origin. That simply means that it is a difference that originates in the brain. The deficit is occurring at the neuronal activity level in the person’s brain, and is intrinsic to that individual. In other words, not everyone’s brain processes information exactly the same way. I think we all have first-hand experience with that!

The next part of the definition states that dyslexia is characterized by difficulty with accurate word recognition and/or fluent word recognition. That part is pretty self-explanatory. It means that it is difficult for the individual to read words correctly, that their reading might be choppy, and that they might not accurately read what was written. Small words might be omitted, a word may be substituted for a word that is close to it, like “from” for “form.” A person with dyslexia might read a word correctly on one page and then incorrectly on the next. They might have to stop in the middle of a sentence to try to figure out a word. This definitely sounded like the boy I was helping.

And so did the next part of the definition: poor spelling and decoding abilities. Everyone knows what poor spelling is, but what is poor decoding ability? Decoding is the process of figuring out a word using letter-sound relationships. Decoding is sounding out a word. But decoding correctly can be tricky, and for some people, the code itself is downright confusing. That seemed to be the case with this student: by seventh grade, he still hadn’t cracked the code for reading.