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Dyslexia: Not Just “Backward Letters”

January 16, 2013 by  
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by Mommy MD Guide Stacey Ann Weiland, MD

One of the most exciting and scary times in a parent’s life is their child’s first day of school. We worry how our child will react and wonder, Will she be happy? Will she make friends? Will she enjoy learning?

It’s a transition time for parents as well. For the first time, we relinquish to another adult the responsibility of teaching our child. We think to ourselves, Will the teacher be kind? Will she model our family values? And most important, Will she bring out my child’s academic potential?

We inspect our child’s papers and homework and compare them with their peers when we volunteer in the classroom. We analyze every scrap of paper we’re presented at teacher conferences, and we listen anxiously to the teacher’s interpretation of our child’s progress.

We want to make sure that things are progressing normally. We don’t want to be overbearing, but deep down, we’ll do anything we can to keep our child from falling behind.

I will never forget, for example, a piece of paper that my daughter Abby brought home several months after starting kindergarten. It was a note she’d written herself with her new friend Tiffany’s phone number. She wanted me to arrange a play date. I remember how proud Abby was at taking the initiative, and how she was literally bouncing up and down begging me to immediately put a call in to Tiffany’s mother.

I remember looking down at the crumpled lined paper, and the blood suddenly draining from my face. All of the numbers were backward! Oh my God! I thought immediately, my child has dyslexia!

Equating backward letters and numbers with a diagnosis of dyslexia is a common misconception. In point of fact, graphic reversals are actually a normal stage in the learning process.

Think about it, what are letters and numbers anyway, but little combinations of lines, curves, and circles? Up until this point in a young child’s life, children have learned that there are many ways to draw things. A triangle has three points, no matter how long each side is. A stick figure is still a person, whether the arms go up or down.

What is a “d” anyway, but a line and a circle stuck together. Why should it matter what side the circle is on? Of course it does matter, and most children do eventually learn to make the important b/d distinction.

Now, this is not to say that dyslexia doesn’t exist. In fact, a true diagnosis of dyslexia is estimated to be present in up to 20 percent of children, or one in five! Signs of dyslexia can be identified at a very early age, even in the preschool years.

Okay, so what is dyslexia anyway? Well, technically speaking, dyslexia is a problem that both children and adults can have with a process called phonemic awareness. So what the heck does that mean?

Phonemic awareness is the process by which a person’s brain converts the squiggles and lines of writing into sounds. This ability is a very complex process, but because it occurs so seamlessly and effortlessly in most of us (at least 80 percent), it’s difficult to believe that anyone could have a problem with it at all.

A dyslexic child’s difficulty with phonemic awareness may manifest with other language problems as well.

For example, some dyslexic children may have experienced a delay in speaking. Children normally say their first words at about one year, followed by phrases by 18 months to two years. In contrast, children with dyslexia may not begin saying their first words until 15 months and may not speak in phrases until after their second birthday.

They may have persistent pronunciation problems, with baby talk continuing past the usual time. They may leave off the beginning sounds of words—“lephant” for “elephant,” or they may invert sounds within a word—“aminal” for “animal.”

Another interesting feature is that dyslexic children can be insensitive to rhymes and rhythms and have difficulty recognizing or reciting rhyming words. They may have difficulty using complex words to describe objects and instead use generic terms such as “stuff” or “things” to compensate for an inability to retrieve the proper words.

When dyslexic children reach school age, they may demonstrate difficulty reading common, one-syllable words, such as “bat,” “top,” or “dog.” They rely heavily on non-word clues in picture books. For example, in a book about driving to school, a dyslexic child may read the word “automobile” as simply “car.”

Dyslexic children can have difficulty with sounding out unknown words and have poor spelling and handwriting. Their reading is choppy and labored, and they demonstrate poor reading comprehension. This isn’t due to a lack of intelligence (in fact, many dyslexics have above average to even gifted IQ’s). Rather, the dyslexic child just gets so muddled in his attempts to interpret the sounds of words that their meaning just becomes lost in the shuffle.

Most elementary schools have now instituted tests screening for a child’s phonemic awareness abilities. These include the DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) and the DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment). These tests measure particular reading skills, including reading speed, the ability to read nonsense words, and comprehension.

While the DIBELS and the DRA cannot diagnose dyslexia in and of themselves, abnormal findings may offer an indication to more comprehensive testing.

In summary, number and letter reversals by themselves don’t represent a diagnosis of dyslexia and are actually a normal part of the learning process. True dyslexia, on the other hand, is a complex problem where children have difficulties with language in general, which can lead to progressive reading and writing difficulties.

Effective approaches to teaching dyslexic children are available. It’s essential for both parents and educators to recognize the features of dyslexia early on, in order to initiate specific phonemic-based therapies.

Dyslexic children have major potential for success, and we owe it to them to put them on the right path!

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