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By Phil builder



First I need to acknowledge that many adults who have had trouble learning to read, write and spell are justifiably labelled as Dyslexic.  Typically these are very intelligent people, and they tell of school experiences that were very frustrating and unhappy.  Some have been able to overcome their literacy difficulties as teenagers or adults as they have come to understand their condition better.  I believe that the causes of dyslexia can be found in the early developmental lives of individuals, through the social, cultural, and educational practices of families and schools, and through misinterpretation of the early symptoms by parents, teachers and medicos.  More on this later.

Children who are diagnosed Dyslexics are experiencing a range of problems with reading, writing, and spelling which could stem from a variety of causes.  Dyslexia is a description of their condition, not the cause of their problem.  It is a bit like saying that a child is 'sick'.  If a doctor told you that your child was sick you would say, "Yes doctor, I know that, but what's causing his sickness?"  Dyslexia is similar in that the diagnosis is far too broad. If they have normal language skills, most dyslexics can learn to read normally when an appropriate learning program is followed.  

Listed symptoms of Dyslexia commonly include one or more of the following:

  • general confusion about directionality

  • reversal of letters, numbers and words when reading and writing

  • reading and writing from right to left

  • reading words backwards (eg. was for saw)

  • inability to learn to spell correctly

  • unable to read proficiently

  • 'word blindness' and inability to focus on the print

  • low reading comprehension

  • some speech irregularities

These symptoms are also common characteristics of young, immature or developing readers and writers, as well as those who have been taught or trained into using poor strategies.

Every time a parent tells me that her child (usually its a son) is dyslexic I find that the diagnosis has been made by a Psychologist or medical person such as an GP, Pediatrician, or sometimes an Optician. These people are well qualified in their field and probably have a definition of Dyslexia that they understand, but it doesn't help me as a teacher because they can never offer a plausible teaching strategy to help the child.  One exception to this are the Educational Psychologists who usually set out the child's problems in great detail, and recommend skills to be taught and how to do this.  However, to teach a child to read and write I need much more information.  I need to spend time finding out what they know; what strategies they use; what is their Learning Style; who they read to and how they respond; what their reading and learning environments at home and in the classroom are like; and which teaching and learning methods will work with this person and which ones won't. 

The complicating factor in diagnosed cases of 'Dyslexia' are in the person's age.  Children who have been in school for some years come with a host of negative learning and social difficulties because of their learning experiences.  To help these kids you need to be able to control their learning environments at home and in the classroom.  This means controlling the people who give feedback to the learner, the adults and the children, and helping them adopt new behaviours which redirect, refocus and reinforce the reader's best strategies. 

This is not the impossible task that it might at first seem because it is relatively simple to change the expectations of the learner, and the strategies he/she uses, to create successful learning experiences for them.   The teachers and students, the parents and siblings, and the grandparents all need to know what the new rules are when they are working with the child.  If the child succeeds and the people around him/her accept this and give quality feedback the cycle of success thrives and grows.  In this climate the learner's motivation to work, practice, rehearse and utilise the new strategies grows and becomes very healthy.   Confidence increases and risk taking ability which had been lacking now allows the learner to attempt new things and to grow their learning to a new level.  This is especially true for spelling, writing and reading.

The other advantage educators and parents of 'dyslexic' children have today is the technology available.  Computers allow these children to work with relative safety to produce a product which is as acceptable as the best student's.  Word processors, graphics programs, digital imagery, desk top publishing, spell checkers, grammar checkers, colour printers, and Internet access, all contribute to a child's ability to produce a quality product without the precarious hazards of handwriting.   Children who reverse b/d's don't have the problem when using a keyboard.  

Does it run in families?
There is a belief that was popular many years ago that the learning difficulties that run in families are partly caused by the tendency of males (in particular) to have a predisposition towards delayed handedness or mixed dominance.  Children have usually decided that they are left or right handed by the time they go to school, but those who still swap hands for  writing, catching or picking up objects, eating and throwing, are also often delayed in their learning.  The exceptions are those rare people who are ambidextrous. Mixed dominance is where the child is for example, left handed, right eyed, and left footed.  In these cases it is thought that the brain has some difficulty in coordinating the hand and eye messages as they are each sent to different sides of the brain.  These children may have difficulty with hand control, especially the fine motor tasks of writing and drawing, and they often appear to have poor memories when in fact their brain keeps switching sides and information which has just been learned becomes inaccessible to them.  Typically, they may recall that information a short time later.  I have seen many instances of this.

I was fortunate to know Adelaide pediatrician, the late Dr Henry Rischbeith, who studied these children for many years and offered a 'cure' which seemed to work.  He explained that the 'language' centre is located in the dominant hemisphere.  The brain has two sides or hemispheres in which are located various areas, many of which have specialised functions. When children use their brain for an activity such as reading it is thought that an area on one side is used at first.  However, that side of the brain becomes fatigued after a short period of exercise and swaps to the opposing side.  Because the brain is not able to easily communicate between the hemispheres the information just learned is temporarily lost.  However, it may be recalled soon after when the original hemisphere is used again.  You can see that learning under these circumstances would be quite inefficient.  You can see this in children who begin reading quite well but soon become fatigued and cannot remember words that they recognised a few moments before.  However, after a period of rest they recall those words easily.

He recommended exercising the naturally dominant side to make it even stronger, while avoiding exercising the less dominant side.  This is done by forcing the child to use their dominant hemisphere (the language centre) for a language related task such as reading aloud for up to 10 minutes (less if they show signs of fatigue).  This is done at intervals three times a day.  Keep up this regime for two years or until the problem rectifies itself.   He recommended that this happen every day, including weekends, birthdays, Christmas, holidays, etc.   I know that it works because I've used it successfully in a few extreme cases.  What we don't know is whether the person improves because the dominant hemisphere is exercised, or because of the extra reading.

Dr Rischbeith said that it is like carrying a bucket of water up a hill.  You normally use one arm for a while and when that side becomes tired you change arms.  After a period of doing this you end up with two strong arms.   This is not what we want to do with the brain.  We want to make only one side dominant.  His analogy states that as soon as the bucket becomes too heavy for the (right) arm, stop and rest it.   After some time begin again with the right arm.  Don't try to lift the bucket with the left arm at all.  Soon the right arm will be strong enough to carry the bucket all the way up to the top of the hill without fatigue.  For right handed children the left side of the brain needs to be dominant.  This is where the language function is located.  Hence reading for lots of short periods may be successful in exercising the left side of the brain.  It is also true that this amount of reading is good practice for teaching them to read anyway.


The other part of the 'dyslexia family' mystery that I often hear is, "He's like his father!  He had trouble reading and spelling too!"  I'm sure that there are some physiological features which are inherited, but I believe that it is far more likely and common to find that the literacy practices within the family are continued on for several generations.  It is the lack of an early and consistent literacy focus within the home that seems to have a detrimental effect upon the early learner.  These practices tend to be handed down from one generation to the next, and the pressures of modern living make it even more difficult to establish routines and make time for literacy.  Many parents are not aware of the importance of creating a literate environment at home because their own home environment was not overly literate.  When their children go to school they appear to be quite normal but can be up to two years delayed in their literacy development!   That's a huge handicap to give a child on their first day of school.  To see this in practice, visit any Reception class in Australia and you will find children who can already read, and probably some who are not familiar with books, and can't do the regular things such as sing the alphabet or retell a folk story or fairytale. .

Over-zealous parents and poor teaching
There is one more serious issue that must be addressed here as a cause of Dyslexia-type symptoms, and this is misguided teaching and parenting. 

Most parents know that it is impossible to be a perfect parent.  However, some do try to be, and in their eagerness, and out of love for their children, they inadvertently do too much, too often, too soon.  Grandparents are sometimes the main motivators for this type of approach.  'Pushing' children to achieve the impossible before they are ready is disastrous for their development.  I know that this is a generalisation, but I will try to describe these children for you and possibly you will recognise the problem. These children try to please, to do as they are taught, but because they can't see the relevance of how it is used they tire of the tasks, they lose confidence, they adopt avoidance behaviours, and they focus on the detail at the expense of the big picture.  In other words the 'teaching' they receive prevents they from learning in a natural way.  You can identify these children by their Learning Style.  Teachers can identify them in their first year at school.  They are usually very dependent on others and lacking in initiative, anxious about their performance, and cautious in their approach to a learning task.  Although they may be quite attentive at times, they will often attend to the wrong things.  In other words their approach to learning is not natural.  (See Natural Learning)

Parents aren't always to blame.  Misguided teaching in the first years of school can also produce similar results.  There are always those teachers who believe in 'old fashioned' methods, and present reading and writing as a series of minute skills to be mastered in order, rather than a whole language process.  In other words they teach the right bits but in the wrong order.   Many children can survive and even prosper with this approach, but many others cannot.

The compounding factor in all of this is that the child's personality determines their approach to learning.  The Learning Style discussed above could be inherited or learned through experience, but it is going to play a large role in how the child interacts with and responds to the opportunities to learn both at home and at school.

Over the years I have worked with hundreds of such children.  By the time they have been referred to me they usually have a few years of failure and frustration behind them.  Typically they display many of the following characteristics:

  • their reading is focused on the detail of letters, words and sounds rather than the more natural message that the text might contain

  • their goal is to get all the words right rather than understand the meaning

  • they are afraid of making mistakes

  • they wait for others to find their mistakes

  • they don't correct mistakes even when the text doesn't make sense, or

  • they correct themselves continually even when words are correct and also when they digress from the exact text, even when their 'mistake' is minute and sounds quite natural and acceptable

  • their main energies go into decoding words

  • they are not aware that they should practice before reading to someone

  • their span of vision is focused on the letters of the word they are reading rather than on the approaching line of text

  • they don't like reading

  • they avoid reading for leisure

  • they don't practice to build up their skills

  • their writing and spelling development mirrors their reading achievements.

Without exception these children are otherwise normal, healthy, intelligent human beings who want desperately to be successful learners.

Rose coloured glasses
There are other 'cures' for Dyslexia such as the coloured lenses fad which periodically re-emerges.   I remain sceptical of such things because children who are having difficulty reading usually don't know how to use efficient reading strategies.  Where their problem has been ongoing for a time they will usually have a host of entrenched habits which have to be changed.  Looking through variously coloured tinted lenses can help people to see more clearly and is obviously helpful to some. I hear of children who can miraculously read when they put on the tinted glasses or look at print through a coloured pane of cellophane, but of the many that I have seen not one has changed from being a poor reader to a better one!

My recommendations for you, if you have a 'Dyslexic' child is to not get too comfortable with that diagnosis because the child won't get better without a clear understanding of what is needed, and a supportive family to help them.  'Dyslexics' can learn as well as anyone.   Either find a modern teacher who specialises in teaching Reading and Writing to children with learning difficulties or use Raising Readers to learn how to help your child.