By Dr. Elaine Ducharme

Most people assume that being smart means one is able to read well. About 100 years ago, however, doctors figured out that some very smart people had trouble learning to read. They could do many other things well, but reading was a very difficult if not impossible task. Unlike the ability to talk which most of us are born with, reading requires the brain to do many things at once and must be learned. The brain has to connect letters with distinct sounds (phonemes), put those sounds together in the right order and then make the connections about the meaning of those sounds.

One in five children in America alone have a reading disability. This disability is called dyslexia. We now understand that it occurs on a continuum, which means that not everyone who has dyslexia is exactly alike. It is a persistent condition that is not outgrown. It does not represent a temporary lag in reading development. However, once identified there are amazing treatments available to help most people with dyslexia become skilled readers. Because dyslexia involves brain function, the earlier it is identified the easier it is to remediate, as the brain is more plastic in younger children. Dyslexia does run in families and can be carried as a genetic trait.

When kids don’t learn to become proficient readers, they are prone to developing other social issues such as anxiety and depression. They often feel embarrassed and are teased by their peers. Up until fourth grade, children are learning to read. By fourth grade, however, they need to be able to read in order to learn. For kids with dyslexia, they start to have increasing amounts of difficulty in school because they can’t learn material that they are assigned to read. Thus, they fall further and further behind.

As noted above, early diagnosis is really important. Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a professor at Yale and director of the Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention and author of Overcoming Dyslexia identifies several things for parents of young children to watch for that may indicate their child is dyslexic. A more detailed view of normal developmental reading skills and be found at
• Trouble learning common nursery rhymes such as Jack and Jill
• Difficulty learning(and remembering) the names of letters in the alphabet
• Seems unable to recognize letters in his or her own name
• Mispronounces familiar words; persistent “baby talk”
• Doesn’t recognize rhyming patterns like cat, bat, rat.

As a child gets older he or she may have difficulty putting correct phonemes together and coming up with the correct vocabulary word. Speech that is not fluent, mispronunciation of long and complicated words difficulty remembering isolated pieces of verbal information and lack of strategy in reading new words are signs that maybe your child is dyslexic.He or she may avoid reading and homework can become a nightmare for parents trying to help their child.

The really good news is that there is excellent treatment for individuals with dyslexia. Reading specialists have identified proven programs to help people with dyslexia at all ages. Some public schools can provide excellent comprehensive services to help children become proficient readers. In order for this to happen, however, children must be assessed and diagnosed early. It is really important for parents to be strong advocates for their children’s needs. School psychologists often have very heavy caseloads. So, getting everything in place and completing the assessment can take a long time. In addition, most public schools provide accommodations for kids with dyslexia. This may mean that while some requirements may be changed, the overall classroom programs may still be very much reading based. Parents often will have to provide for regular outside tutoring and be actively involved in their child’s learning, both in and out of school.

Although private schools are expensive and may not be an option for some families, for children with severe reading disabilities, there are excellent schools that specialize in teaching children with language based learning differences. These schools are set up so that all learning occurs based on a proven model for teaching kids with dyslexia. This allows kids to just be part of the group and not singled out as “special needs”.

If you believe your child is having reading difficulties or displays any of the signs identified above for preschoolers, talk with your pediatrician, school teacher or psychologist. Early intervention is really important in helping all kids become proficient readers.

A final comment…even if your child has dyslexia it is important to identify and focus on his many strengths. Individuals with dyslexia often are extremely smart and have other amazing talents. Emphasizing your child’s strengths is critical in maintaining his self-esteem.

And as a reinforcement, remember how many people with dyslexia have made it really big…such as Steven Spielberg, Jennifer Anniston, Henry Winkler and even Richard Branson, a billionaire many times over, who has launched over 400 companies including an airline!


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