November 28, 2007 Edition

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What is dyslexia?

Allyson Maxwell
K-12 Literacy Specialist

What is dyslexia?

A research-based definition for dyslexia includes that it is a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. Some characteristics include difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition, spelling and decoding abilities.

There is a phonological component in language that is not fully developed thus affecting cognitive abilities; which may affect reading, writing, spelling, handwriting and sometimes, arithmetic. A difficulty in reading comprehension and reading experience impedes the growth of vocabulary and background knowledge necessary to succeed in school.

The British Dyslexia Association's definition for dyslexia includes deficits in short-term memory, concentration, personal organization and sequencing. Processing language-based information is the major factor in this disability. Identifying a person with dyslexia can occur at any level of intellectual ability.

Oftentimes parents of dyslexics make the comment that their child is so smart or talented in other areas. This implies that the disability is associated with a lack of intelligence, which it is not. It is also not the result of poor motivation, emotional disturbance, sensory impairments or lack of opportunities, which have all been the widely misused contributing factor of dyslexia.

Brain research has been conducted at Harvard and indicates that people with dyslexia have a larger right hemisphere and ectopias on the left hemisphere along the Sylvan's fissure. Nerve pathways in brains of dyslexics are disorganized; therefore dyslexics use a different part of the brain to process phonological components in language. There is also a genetic link with deficits in chromosome 6, controlling phonemic awareness, chromosome 15, controlling rapid naming, and chromosome 1, controlling visual memory for words.

Dr. Jeffrey Gruen, an associate professor of pediatrics at Yale University's Child Health Research Center says, "The research sends a very important message to educators, parents and children, which is that people with dyslexia are not dumb. This disability is not their fault, and the parents are not bad parents." He also said, "Dyslexia is a transmitted difference in the gene that makes one person learn differently than another. That's all it is."

According to researchers, a gene has been recently discovered that accounts for about 17 percent of the disability cases involving dyslexia. Jeffrey W. Gilger, the associate dean for discovery and faculty development at Purdue University, found that this discovery is a milestone in understanding this disorder.

The study combines molecular genetics with brain imaging research, as well as actually testing whether these genes they found are really active in the brain. This discovery connects dyslexia with brain development in which the gene causes an altered migration of neurons and alters the structure of the brain.

"In the future, gene therapy or pills or vitamins may compensate for this deficiency," explains Gilger.

According to Susan Barton, CEO of Bright Solutions for Dyslexia, parents and educators should learn more about dyslexia if encountering students who have three or more warning signs.

Bright Solutions' intent is not to begin diagnosing students who exhibit a few of these warning signs as dyslexics, but to understand that there are interventions that can be made in a classroom setting that can help students succeed in school with this disability. This new knowledge may explain some questions parents and educators have about children and allow for more research and studying about this disability to take place on behalf of the child.

The following can be warning signs of dyslexia.

In Preschool ~ delayed speech, mixing up the sounds and syllables in long words, severe reactions to childhood illnesses, can't create words that rhyme, chronic ear infections, constant confusion of left versus right, late establishing a dominant hand, difficulty learning to tie shoes, an immediate family member with dyslexia

In Elementary School ~ slow, non-automatic handwriting that is difficult to read (referred to as dysgraphia), letter or number reversals continuing into second grade, difficulty telling time on a clock with hands, when speaking, difficulty finding the correct word to use, extremely messy bedroom, backpack and desk, slow, choppy, inaccurate reading, extreme difficulty learning cursive, dreads going to school (complains of a stomach ache or headache), terrible spelling.

In High School ~ all of the above symptoms plus: limited vocabulary, extremely poor written expression, unable to master a foreign language, difficulty reading printed music, poor grades in many classes, may drop out of high school.

In Adults ~ education history similar to above, plus: slow reader, may have to read a page two or three times to understand it, terrible speller, difficulty putting thoughts onto paper (dreads writing memos or letters), still has difficulty with right versus left, often gets lost, even in a familiar city, sometimes confuses b and d, especially when tired or sick.

People living with dyslexia have strengths controlled by the right hemisphere in the brain including: art, athletics, music, people skills, very sensitive, highly intuitive, mechanical skill, good logic, 3-D visualization, creative and global thinkers.

Some good careers for people living with dyslexia may include: architecture, interior design, psychology, teaching, politics, performing arts, music, mechanics, computers, marketing, sales, culinary arts and carpentry.

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