Dyslexia: A Foundation For Understanding

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is characterized by difficulty with underlying processes of reading and writing. At its root are weaknesses in phonological awareness, rapid automatic naming and short term working memory. It is characterized by poor spelling and decoding. 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. Other weaknesses may be seen in calculation, fluency, following directions and written expression. Strengths are usually noted in listening comprehension. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.

Many historical misunderstandings of dyslexia persist. It is important to have an awareness of these typical misunderstandings in our work with dyslexic students, their families, and related professionals. First of all, dyslexia is not purely sensory (visual) in nature. While reading involves the processing of information through visual input, it also involves a complicated set of cognitive functions. As stated in the International Dyslexia Association definition (and virtually all other definitions supported by the large body of research available), dyslexia is “neurological in origin.” In response to the persisting belief that dyslexia is a visual problem and the existence of vision therapists who purport to be able to solve reading problems through such therapy, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Ophthalmology, American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus, and American Association of Certified Orthoptists have combined their efforts to publish the following assertions:

In the 2003 seminal work Overcoming Dyslexia, Sally Shaywitz, MD reminds us that “The harsh realities of the day in day out experience with dyslexia can often clash dramatically with the perceptions of those teachers, administrators, acquaintances, and self-appointed opinion makers who question the very existence of the disorder that holds so many captive.” Therefore, what should go without saying should not go unsaid. Dyslexia exists. It is not caused by vision problems, lack of motivation, or lack of intelligence. It is not credibly or effectively addressed by changes in diet, colored lenses, or vision therapy. It is linked to basic brain functions, its origins are better understood than they ever have been, and it can and therefore should be re mediated at whatever point in the lifespan is it identified and understood in an individual or group of individuals. As Shaywitz writes: “All children can learn to read” and “Given the effective programs to teach reading at all levels of reading ability and at all ages, it is truly never too late to learn to read.”

What then are the most effective programs, approaches, and school models to help dyslexic individuals learn to read and how do we individually deliver these programs at the Winston Preparatory School?

To begin, we would like to set forth a set of principles for the education of dyslexic students at WPS.

  1. Instruction of students with poor phonological decoding, encoding, working memory, orthography, and rapid naming will focus on direct remediation of the skills in an attempt to improve these skills in measurable ways that also impact overall reading and writing performance in demonstrable ways.
  2. Such direct remediation will utilize and draw upon credible, proven methods such as have been and will continue to be taught in our faculty development program.
  3. All faculty, in all subject areas, should be well versed in the nature and needs of dyslexic students and the methods utilized to remediate their reading and writing problems.
  4. We expect all faculty to be experts in these areas; we deliver this instruction in Focus and Language Skills classes, but we also reinforce these skills and strategies throughout the curriculum in order to maximize our effectiveness and for our students to experience the direct, full-time value of the skills. In order to do so each content teacher should have an awareness of the nature  of the decoding program that Focus and Language teachers are using with each student in a class of dyslexic students.
  5. Focus instruction for these students should include a systematic, direct address of each individual’s specific weaknesses within the symptom cluster.
  6. We seek to maximize reading ability in each of our students.
  7. Assistive technology should be introduced selectively and truly as assistive when appropriate; not as a substitute to independent acquisition of skills.

It is important for an expert teacher of dyslexic students to fully understand each of the core characteristics of the disorder. Phonological skill deficits are a central feature of dyslexia. This term refers to the general phonological awareness and the more specific phonemic awareness. Phonological awareness includes all levels of awareness of the sound structure of words. Phonemic awareness refers to the specific and advanced ability to observe, identify and manipulate the smallest units that make up the phonological structure of words: phonemes. Many dyslexic students will have difficulty discriminating between phonemes. Phonemes matter in ways that are not easily and obviously understood by the “normal” adult reader who is often in the role of teaching, reinforcing and/or expecting language skills in any classroom setting. Therefore, it is important to study and understand these concepts so that all teachers can possess the knowledge of language required to understand and help students with language-based difficulties.

Within the broad area of phonological awareness the sub-skills of segmentation, blending and manipulation are equally important in understanding dyslexia and phonology. Segmentation refers to the ability to “pull” apart a syllable into its component phonemes. The reverse process of segmenting is called blending, and is the skill that allows us to take component sounds in isolation and put them together to form syllables. Tests of blending typically give a student sounds in isolation and ask them to form a word, for example: “What word do the sounds /b/, /a/, and /t/ make?” A related skill is manipulation, or the ability to add, subtract or move sounds. A test of manipulation might ask a student to “What word remains when you take the /l/ sound from the word clomp (comp)?”

Of note, J.K Torgesen’s research clearly demonstrated the link between these phonological awareness skills and later reading (Torgesen 1999; Shaywitz 2003 p.144). Students with poor phonological skills in first grade, such as those discussed above, were two years behind grade level in fifth grade. Conversely, students with high phonological skills were reading above grade level in fifth grade. Activities in discrimination, segmenting, blending and manipulation can be helpful in developing these skills and are necessary for reading to fully develop.

Short-term working memory and, more specifically, phonological memory are also important features of dyslexia. This type of memory allows us to temporarily store bits of information, such as those we encounter as we read. Each sentence challenges us to hold words, punctuation, and meanings together in an ordered, organized, and exact manner so we can emerge with understanding. In order to read we must decode words into syllables, the syllables into letters, and the letters into sounds, all the while holding these units or syllables in memory while the rest of the sounds in the word are recognized and retrieved. We then blend these sounds into syllables and words, hold them in memory while we read the next word, and then link them into a sentence that we can understand. This is all to say that working memory is essential in order to utilize phonological awareness efficiently, and that weak phonological awareness increases the burden on working memory.

For many dyslexic students working memory is compromised. Therefore, it becomes even more important for phonological skills to be developed in students who have working memory difficulties, so that the stress on this system is diminished. The more clearly phonemes are recognized, known, segmented, and blended, the more this structure can aid short-term working memory. In addition, syllable division skills and syllable type recognition are valuable tools in reducing the burden on working memory. It logically follows that the more lengthy and/or unfamiliar the words the more that the burden on working memory and phonology increases. Therefore, a strong understanding of phonological structure is required to aid in reading these words. It is these more unfamiliar words that often carry the most meaning in text as compared to the predictable and highly frequent words that are sometimes referred to as “sight words.” Sight words may be easily held in and retrieved from our lexicon due to their familiarity. Sight word reading is not enough to comprehend text for they are unlikely to be the keys to meaning in complex text. In order to read and understand more complex text, we need the ability to decode words that are less familiar, and thus utilize our short-term working memory and phonological skills.

Another aspect of dyslexia involving the memory/retrieval process is the retrieval feature called rapid automatic naming (RAN). Many students have generalized difficulty rapidly retrieving name or label information from long-term memory. One test of rapid automatic naming can even reveal difficulty with rapidly retrieving the names of very well known objects such as colors. This difficulty, like working memory, can compound and expose phonological weakness. Improving working memory and rapid automatic naming are not easy and the solutions to date are no more well developed than simple practice at speed and automaticity of reading with known phonological material. In lieu of other methods, specific instruction and practice to strengthen the sub-skills that are deficient are necessary. In other words, direct instruction and practice are most effective.

If our ability to hold bits of linguistic information together in a structured manner is compromised we might drop, reverse, substitute, or otherwise manipulate sounds and entire words. This has implications for how we think about inferencing, context clues, pattern recognition and the other “meaning processors” that work together with systems such as phonology and working memory. For many dyslexic students the meaning processor is much stronger than the others. This often results in dyslexic students relying too much on the meaning system and making errors based on that over-reliance. For example, students with high comprehension and very low phonology and/or working memory may create very different but understandable sentences from what they are attempting to read. Students may think they ‘see’ the words on the page that their brains have calculated are there based on the misinformation provided by the phonological processing and working memory.

A relative new area of understanding within dyslexia is the role of orthography. Orthography is the set of symbols or letters that make up a language. In English, this set is the 26 letters of the alphabet, whilst in Japanese it covers thousands of different symbols. Orthographic Dyslexia therefore relates to problems identifying and manipulating letters in reading, writing and spelling. This subtype of dyslexia has not been researched much and, while most people in the field recognize that dyslexics have an orthographic problem, there is too little evidence to say whether it constitutes a sub-type of dyslexia. The usefulness of splitting dyslexia into different types is debatable. First, there is no strict definition of what each type is. Different researchers and educators use the same phrases to describe subtly different sets of symptoms. However, it is safe to say that familiarity with typical symbolic structures of words is diminished in dyslexics due to their lack of precise practice with efficient reading in which they experience the meaningful links between phonology and orthography. Just as the sound-symbol relationships are not well established, the precise awareness of each sound (and the ability to discriminate it from others) is not developed. It is easy to theorize that there may be, at least, a similarly compounded problem regarding a lack of familiarity with the precise symbols and how these symbols go together to create words.

In addition to an understanding of all the foundational features of dyslexia in general, it is important that all teachers who work with dyslexic students gain the ability to understand diagnostic information about each student in a manner that allows a baseline picture of individual student needs and the ability to revise this picture of each student's learning profile as they learn, struggle, and change. As always at WPS, we recognize that no two learners are exactly alike and therefore we need both a solid general understanding of learning, a more specific understanding of each learning disorder including variation, and ultimately a personalized understanding of each unique learner.

Works Cited

American Academy of Pediatrics, Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia, and Vision (Section on Ophthalmology by the Council on Children with Disabilities, American Academy of Ophthalmology, American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus, American Association of Certified Orthoptists). http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/124/2/837.full.

Grigorenko, Elena L. 2001. Developmental Dyslexia: An Update on Genes, Brains, and Environments. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 42: 1: 91-125(35).

Shaywitz, S.E. 2003. Overcoming Dyslexia. New York: Knopf.

Torgesen, J.K. 1999. Assessment and Instruction for Phonemic Awareness and Word Recognition Skills. In Language and Reading Disabilities, eds. H.W. Catts and A.G. Kamhi. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.