Dyslexia: What Does it Look Like?

by Karen Cogan
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In college, I had a particular interest in brain function and how it impacts behavior and the ability to learn.  I had volunteered in a behavior modification classroom that attempted to help children with schizophrenia and autism. The program was based on earning rewards for improved behavior.  From my experience in this classroom the technique worked well.

When I began teaching kindergarten in a regular classroom, my challenges were academic as well as behavioral.  Some of the children grasped lesson content right away while others took weeks longer to learn the same material. Some of them consistently confused letters in words, substituting “red” for “read” and “take” for “talk”.  I assumed that the difference in learning was based solely on maturity and IQ. It wasn’t until I had children that I learned I was mistaken.

Of my two oldest daughters, the first had no problems learning to read. She breezed through kindergarten and into first grade easily reading whatever was put in front of her. My second daughter had no such luck. She struggled through a set of beginning phonics readers while trying to avoid reading in any way she could.  I thought she needed more time. After all, not every child catches on right away. First grade was a repeat of the struggle and by second grade her teacher was worried about sending her on to third grade.

Drawing on my teaching background, I tried every way I knew to help her. We spent hours practicing her spelling and reading and yet she still struggled. Her brain simply wasn’t able to make sense of words that looked different to her than they did to me.

Not only was reading hard, but learning the rules for spelling eluded her. No matter how many times we practiced, she spelled words the way they sounded,  uv for “of” and “wut” for “what”. Though she’d had a slight delay in expressing oral language as a toddler, as a second-grader she displayed high level oral language skills and struggled only with the written language skills of reading and spelling.

I wasn’t sure where to turn when a friend with a specialty in learning disorders offered to test my daughter. She discovered the problem that was holding her back. The discrepancy between her oral language and reading and spelling skills along with her inability to remember the quantity of items or colors of objects in a naming test suggested the possibility of dyslexia. With a name for her problem, I was determined to find an effective way to help her since her difficulty was affecting her self-esteem. She compared herself with her friends that excelled academically. Their success made her feel as though she wasn’t intelligent.

I could sympathize with parents who blame themselves for failing to help their child after hours of effort. I began to research and discovered this interesting information.

  • The brain regions that work together to process sounds and images used in reading are called the neural network. This involves the left hemisphere of the brain. Individuals with dyslexia appear to have less activity and gray matter in the left hemisphere.

  • With correct intervention, the brain can change. According to the International Dyslexia Association, brain imaging studies performed on individuals with dyslexia showed changes after they received reading instruction. Effective interventions may even lead to lasting positive changes in the brain.

  • Dyslexics may use brain regions that process written language differently than those without the disorder.

  • Many researchers suspect that the brain areas that control language play a critical role. One of these areas that come up in studies is the angular gyrus which is located toward the back of the brain. The angular gyrus translates the multitude of words and letters we encounter in day-to-day life into language.

  • Some scientists speculate that dyslexics use the area inadequately and may compensate by using other brain areas, such as the inferior frontal gyrus, which is located in the front of the brain, and is associated with spoken language. For example, dyslexics who say the words they are reading under their breath may rely heavily on this area to get through a passage of text, according to one theory.


Angular Gyrus
“Several imaging studies of reading and language skills show that the angular gyrus (AG) is involved in dyslexia. One group of researchers currently is studying how dyslexics perform pig latin tasks compared to normal readers. Pig latin requires dissecting and reordering the sounds within a word. For example, if a word begins with a consonant, the first letter is moved to the end of the word and “ay” is added. “Pig” becomes “igpay.” It is a difficult test for dyslexics because it challenges their ability to sound out written words as well as their memory skills. The image above shows that activity in the AG is increased in a normal reader who performs the pig latin task. The researchers suspect that the activity will be lower in dyslexic readers.” Brain Briefings April 1999 http://www.neuroanatomy.wisc.edu/selflearn/Dyslexia.htm
Image by Guinevere Eden, D.Phil, Georgetown University. For more information please contact Leah Ariniello, Science Writer, Society for Neuroscience, 11 Dupont Circle, NW, Suite 500, Washington DC 20036.


Useful Tips for Intervention


Dyslexia is neural biological and cannot be cured. Since there is no medicine for it, early detection is most useful since remedial interventions are needed. Some helpful ideas for intervention are the use of audio books. They appear effective in improving comprehension and may reduce the stress of keeping up with classroom subject matter. Also, memory aids can be beneficial Students can use mnemonics such as a rhyme that includes the word. If they have trouble spelling the word“, a mnemonic using the first letter of the word, such as, “Tie red umbrellas everywhere may help. Word walls are also used for help with correct spelling when completing writing tasks. Another tactic is to use a multisensory approach. Children can trace sandpaper letters or words or write them with shaving cream. An additional tactic for learning new words is to adorn the words with pictures. Children can draw two eyes in the O’s of the word “book” and two books in the ‘O’s of the word “book”. Colored overlays on top of black and white text also appear to reduce visual fatigue for some children and aid their perception of words. Any of these strategies or all of them can be employed for children who struggle to read.  For more memory techniques, see the tips in this article, https://www.beatingdyslexia.com/memory-improvement-techniques.html

A diagnosis of dyslexia does not mean that a child is not smart. Dyslectic children are often above average in intelligence. However, tailored intervention is needed to help them gain success with reading and spelling. With the proper tactics, those with dyslexia can look forward to a successful educational experience.

Karen Cogan
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