Trouble with Words: Reading and the Dyslexic Student
By Bob Georgeff, M.A.
I once watched a well-known speaker give a talk about how he had achieved success in the business world. He used a whiteboard as he spoke and was making spelling errors. He turned to the audience, grinning and said, "I know I'm making spelling mistakes up here, but remember: it's the C and D students who grow up and hire the A and B students later in life." As the audience laughed, I was reminded of my cousin, who once confided that he had dyslexia, yet this didn't stop him from building a very successful business that grew to more than 50 employees. He hired a mutual friend of ours, an A student, to be his accountant.
In 2011, the National Institutes of Health funded a study that found that dyslexia is not tied to IQ*. So why do some children struggle to learn to read despite average or higher intelligence and excellent instruction by a diligent parent, tutor or teacher? Why, when they're trying their best, do these children become frustrated, making what appear to be careless errors? Sometimes they are even called "lazy" by teachers or others. Frequently, the reason behind their struggle is a weakness in their processing of speech sounds. The name used to describe this auditory processing weakness is dyslexia. The word dyslexia comes from the prefix, "dys," or “trouble with” and the root, "lex," which means “words.”
The International Dyslexia Association's adopted a definition of Dyslexia in 2002 as follows:
"Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurological 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 National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke provides this definition of Dyslexia:
"Dyslexia is a brain-based type of learning disability that specifically impairs a person's ability to read. These individuals typically read at levels significantly lower than expected despite having normal intelligence. Although the disorder varies from person to person, common characteristics among people with dyslexia are difficulty with phonological processing (the manipulation of sounds), spelling, and/or rapid visual-verbal responding... Dyslexia can be inherited in some families, and recent studies have identified a number of genes that may predispose an individual to developing dyslexia."
For a dyslexic, a foundation must be laid before he or she can benefit from reading instruction. That foundation is the training of the brain to process phonemes, i.e., speech sounds, efficiently. This training is often called phonemic awareness or phonemic sequencing training. Later, the student will be able to put his or her knowledge of phonics to work in decoding. Some reading programs now have phonemic sequencing drills built in as part of the instruction.
In days past, a few veteran advocates of home education declared that the wide-spread use of phonics would cause reading problems to disappear. Some even believed that remedial reading classes would be empty if phonics instruction prevailed. Taking this to heart, many parents tried two or three phonics programs only to experience limited success. I've spoken with many of these parents who've told me that they felt guilty that their instruction must have been inferior since phonics was presented as the cure for reading difficulties.
A possible explanation for a lack of progress is that their child did not apply his or her knowledge of phonics to the task of reading because of an inability to do so. He or she does not have an intellectual disability; instead the capacity to mentally process and accurately discern the sequence of phonemes within words is weak.
Because a child with dyslexia is able to speak words correctly in everyday conversation, it is often believed that he or she is just plain lazy when it comes to decoding printed words. After all, the very words he or she uses in everyday speech go unrecognized when reading, and sometimes a word is read correctly, yet when it occurs again on the same page it's read incorrectly! Parents who naturally have strong auditory processing abilities themselves cannot explain such behavior. If a child can say a word correctly, it stands to reason that he should be able to read that same word accurately. Phonics appears to be the only solution. The thinking is that if a student is taught the "parts" (letters and their sounds), he or she should be able to decode the "whole" (a word).
Let's say that Tim is drilled in phonics by his mom and memorizes all of the common spellings of English speech sounds. Then one day he reads the word "tack" as "track," putting an "r" into the word. His mom tries to solve the problem by working from the "parts" to the "whole."
Tim: (reads "tack" as "track")
Mom: "Tim, give me the sounds for all of the letters in that word."
Tim: "/t/ /a/ /c/"
Mom: "Right, now try reading that word again."
Now why did he still say track? "Why is he putting an "r" in there?! Mom is frustrated. It must be that Tim isn't being careful, or he's rushing, or he's just guessing. He has the letters and sounds down, why doesn't he use them?!
The Real Problem:
He is not able to tell that he made an error.
Tim does not know if what he says with his mouth matches what he sees with his eyes. He cannot accurately tell which speech sounds are contained in a word, how many sounds that word has, the order of those sounds, and which sounds are alike and different. To him a word is a sound "blurb" - a unit by itself. Now place a page of blurbs in front of him. He knows all of the parts that make up the blurbs and can read those parts in isolation. For instance, show him "ch" on a flash card, and he'll give you the correct sound, /ch/ as in "chicken." But put that same "ch" together with some other consonants and vowels, and it looks like he's guessing. He can use phonics for clues, but he'll still make errors that look careless without realizing it.
It is regularly made clear to me that an understanding of phonics does not automatically unlock reading for the dyslexic. As a special-needs consultant, I speak with parents who ask why, after three phonics programs, tutoring, vision therapy, special glasses, colored overlay sheets, etc., their child is not an independent reader. The cause is often an inheritable, physiological brain dysfunction which makes it very difficult for their child to become a self-correcting reader.
Imagine a colorblind electrician who must go to work each day and match wires of different colors. He is intelligent, but he can't discern clear differences in color. He sees various shades of gray, but it's difficult to tell which two are an exact match. He is forced to guess while splicing wires. Let's say he doesn't know he is color blind. He tries hard every day. He concentrates. He's diligent. He hopes to improve. Then he turns on the juice and shorts out another project. Why doesn't this happen to the other crew members? What's wrong with me? The boss told me I was being careless, but if I slow down I still make mistakes!
The dyslexic child is intelligent, but he can't discern clear differences in speech sounds within words. He recognizes various sounds in isolation, but it's difficult to tell them apart inside of a word. He is forced to guess while reading. Let's say he doesn't know he is dyslexic. He tries hard every day. He concentrates. He's diligent. He hopes to improve. Then it's his turn to read out loud, and he trips over the words. Why doesn't this happen to the other kids? What is wrong with me? My teacher told me I was being careless, but if I slow down I still make mistakes!
For some students the weakness is severe, and they struggle with two, three, four and five-letter words, making the following kinds of errors:
"cut" instead of "cute"
"back" instead of "black"
"stream" instead of "steam"
"scared" instead of "scarred"
"slit" instead of "silt"
For others this weakness does not create difficulty until they read two, three or four-syllable words. Examples of multi-syllable word errors are:
"faucet" vs. "facet"
"sufficient" vs. "significant"
"interpreted" vs. "interrupted"
"meditation" vs. "mediation"
"conversation" vs. "conversion"
Is there an amazing, easy-to-apply solution for the dyslexic reader? Is there an amazing, easy-to-apply solution for the person who has lost the use of one side of his body after a stroke? Because mental processing is the issue in both instances, the answer to both questions is that gains only come in small steps with intensive, systematic, repetitive stimulation - but they do come. The brain begins to compensate for the deficiency by rerouting electrical signals and forging new pathways within its structure.
Weakness in auditory processing cannot be remedied solely by parts-to-whole phonics instruction. Poor phonological processing is the inability to process information about the quality of phonemes within the context of printed words. Researchers have also termed the problem “weak phonemic segmentation." It is remedied by drill in the very types of reading and spelling errors made by dyslexics. The use of nonsense words is an important component of instruction for these students because they are unable to guess by the overall shape of the word, its context in a sentence, or the picture on the page. They must discern each phoneme one by one in order to decode a nonsense word.
In any discussion about dyslexia, it is important to remember that the dyslexic child does have abilities that an excellent reader may not possess. Dyslexic children often have marked strengths in one or more of the following: mechanics, visual arts, entrepreneurship, public speaking, music, social skills, athletics, inventiveness, creativity, intuitiveness, big-picture thinking, visual-spatial skills, etc.
The brains of these individuals can be viewed as being wired for different purposes than working with letter and number symbols all day long. They tend to prefer the "real" over the "symbolic." However, this doesn't mean we do not work to remediate their weaknesses. It does mean that we need to recognize their strengths and let them shine in these areas! If we continually compare them to those who are successful in academics with normal effort or to a standard that declares where they are "supposed to be," they will likely become discouraged or distressed.
If schools required courses for graduation like small engine repair, gymnastics, product design, entrepreneurship, public speaking, dance, art, computer programming, some traditional A and B students would be in special-education classes and require extra help and tutoring to make passing grades. Guess who'd be making As and Bs?
We need those with dyslexia to become our future inventors, mechanics, programmers, artists, managers, architects, builders, and business leaders. Let's pause and emphasize the strengths they have now, while teaching them to read in the way they need to be taught - systematically, with sufficient structure, repetition, encouragement and recognition of their efforts and progress.