Parents and teachers alike want to help students who struggle as they learn to read. We are hearing a lot of talk about dyslexia. A parent recently asked me, “Exactly what is dyslexic?” According to G. Reid Lyon, Ph. D., a leading expert on reading failure, dyslexia is a learning disability that involves not being able to read fluently and accurately. Poor spelling and handwriting problems often affect dyslexic children. Many dyslexic children have decoding problems, which means that they often have trouble making sense out of the words they read. Speaking in Washington, D. C. to the International Dyslexia Association, Dr. Lyon said that dyslexia’s most common cause is that children cannot translate letters and words into sounds, and then figure out what meanings the words have (Lyon, Shaywitz, and Shaywitz, 2003).
Dr. Sally Shaywitz, M. D., a specialist in identifying and treating dyslexia, explains that “the wiring was not laid down correctly.” As she explains in her important book, Overcoming Dyslexia, “the brain structure is there; it’s the wiring that is disrupted.” Dyslexic students, children and adults alike, are often very intelligent. So, what can be done? Some researchers refer to the process as “rewiring” or “retraining” the brain. This does not mean that medical treatment is necessary. Instead, dyslexic students need to learn the different letter sounds. As they learn to make sense of letters and written words, the student’s brain grows new connections and the brain’s learning centers become more active. The brain develops from getting the right kind of practice, just as our muscles grow if we get the right exercise.
Dr. Shaywitz explains that there are actually two types of dyslexic students: (1) genetic, those born with a “glitch” in the reading portion of the brain and (2) disadvantaged experience, where the necessary brain pathways exist but simply have not been activated appropriately. Both Dr. Lyon and Dr. Shaywitz believe that struggling readers, even those with genetic dyslexia, can learn to read as well as their peers. How? Both experts say that the key is to teach phonemic awareness, so students see that letters represent sounds, while also teaching students to understand how to turn letters into sounds that mean something. This kind of training helps the brain to develop new pathways.