Is My Child Dyslexic?

If you have been teaching for a while you have probably come in contact with a parent of a child who is struggling learning to read who asks, “Is my child dyslexic?”  Here is what Frank Smith has to say about the term.

“This term is a label, not an explanation.  Dyslexia means, quite literally, being unable to read. Children are dyslexic because they can’t read.  To say that dyslexia is a cause of being unable to read is like saying that lameness is a cause of inability to walk.”

Is the brain of a struggling reader wired differently or is it permanently fixed as some parents and teachers might believe? With these questions in mind, let me digress a bit and share a story.

This past summer, my niece’s son, Josh (age 12) had brain surgery.  He had been experiencing seizures for the past year and a half.  Through all that time the doctors tried countless medicines to control the epilepsy but to no avail.  Surgery, to stop as many as 15 seizures a day, seemed the only option.  After months of tests to pinpoint the exact source of the seizures, a piece of his brain was cut out.  His parents were told that other parts of the brain would eventually take over the functions that were removed.

The good news is that Josh has been seizure free for several months now! Without going into too much detail, I will share that Josh lost considerable language skills and vocabulary immediately following the operation.   When questioned just days after the operation he could not come up with any answers to: “name some farm animals” or “name some video games” or “name some movies.” You can imagine the panic his parents experienced.  And yet after only 4 or 5 weeks, I saw Josh and his word retrieval issues had improved tremendously.  He recommended that I read Among the Hidden, a book he was reading for his English class. He then proceeded to tell me all about the book, including very specific details.  He is successfully functioning once again as a studious 7th grader!

This experience makes me realize all the more how malleable the brain is.  Carol Lyons talks about the plasticity of the brain. “Recent research in neuroscience shows that the brain can change its physical structure and its wiring long into adulthood through teaching and experience.”  She defines neuroplasticity, a power we have until old age, as “the ability of the brain to change in response to teaching.”

It is absolutely amazing what the brain is capable of! And yet, how many of us think that dyslexia is a permanent condition? How many teachers think that a child diagnosed with a learning disability implies that his brain is fixed forever?   How many doctors used to think that trying to rehabilitate a person with brain damage after a stroke was time wasted? I once heard the parent of an LD child say, “But he can’t do that because his brain works differently” as if there is a permanent situation that can’t be fixed. Now neuroscientists have proven all of those beliefs to be false.  This is great news!  Spread the word.

As teachers of reading we all have had those children who read ‘was’ for ‘saw’ or continually mix up b and d.  The longer the problem goes on, the harder it is to fix.  But there are ways to retrain the brain to work with these issues. And the earlier, the better. First and foremost, we need to teach reading as a meaning-making activity. A child who learns to read for meaning, will not mistake was/saw in. sentences such as, “Jesse saw the snake hidden under the rock” or  “I was having a hard time making up my mind between butter pecan and chocolate ripple.”  And if he does mistake it at first, he will quickly self-correct if he is reading for meaning.  You can also train the child to put a finger quickly under the first letter and make that sound.  It’s difficult to say the word ‘was’ if your lips are shaped and ready for an /s/ sound in ‘saw.” And vice versa.  Yes, these kids may have trouble with reversals, but we need to give them ways to solve those problems independently.

Ultimately the parent question I began with should really be, “Will you be able to teach my child to read?”  And hopefully we will answer, “Yes, I will keep working until I find the way to support your child in learning to read.”

What are your thoughts on this topic?  Do you believe that all children can learn to read?

To read more about how brain research relates to learning to read:

Lyons, Carol “Changing Lives Forever:  Looking Backward and Forward” Journal of Reading Recovery, Spring, 2010

Lyons, Carol.  Teaching Struggling Readers:  How to Use Brain-based Research to Maximize Learning, Heinemann, 2003.