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Dyslexia’s Essential Features

Dyslexia is a diagnostic term that is widely misunderstood., even though it is one of the best researched areas of the learning disabilities. Many people mistakenly believe that it means that a student sees letters and words “backwards,” or that it is a “visual tracking” problem. Dyslexia is not a visual processing problem, it is essentially a central nervous system processing disorder that results in an inefficiency in the mechanics of the reading process. The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Associated (DSM-5) lists a Specific Learning Disability in Reading (F81.0) as the diagnostic term to describe children who are having marked difficulties in learning to read. However, to limit the impact of dyslexia to the area of reading alone is to not fully understand the essential nature of this disability. Dyslexia is best understood as an inefficiency in the automatic encoding and retrieval of sound-symbol associations. In younger children, this manifests as difficulties in learning and retaining the sound-letter associations taught during preschool and kindergarten. Once a child enters the first grade, the common sight words, or Dolch words, as they are called, are introduced and repeatedly practiced and reviewed. Phonological decoding skills are also taught and practiced, which includes learning to recognize the common letter blends and word parts so that new words can be decoded. Letter blends and words parts are also introduced and practiced through spelling and reading aloud. Reading thus emerges and develops throughout 1st and 2nd grades, between 6 through 8 years of age, with the expectation that by the time the child is ready to enter the 3rd grade, roughly by age 8, they have mastered basic word recognition and phonological decoding skills. In brief, we could say that 1st and 2nd grades are where children learn to read. In the 3rd grade, children are then able to apply those basic skills so as to read in order to learn. Children who are not progressing in the acquisition of these basic reading skills will begin to experience greater learning struggles as more demands are placed upon reading, as well as having to demonstrate what they have learned by producing written output as they progress into higher grades.

Dyslexia’s Impact on Learning

Dyslexia, which can be defined as an inefficiency in the ability to automatically encode and retrieve symbols, also affects the learning and automatization of other symbol systems. For many students with dyslexia, practicing recitation of the times tables does not result in the automatic encoding and retrieval of that information, which represents yet another symbol system to be mastered. Students with dyslexia thus frequently struggle with completing timed math fact tests. Similarly, learning how to read time on an analog clock, another symbol system that becomes automatic with practice, is often very difficult to retain. Learning and recalling coin values can be difficult. Another area of weakness frequently found includes spelling, which requires recalling the symbols that are associated with specific sounds. Similarly, recalling the sequence of months or the days of the week in order can be another area of difficulty for students with dyslexia. Thus, given the broader impact of this inefficiency in the automatization of recall for symbols and symbol systems, dyslexic students frequently experience learning struggles across every academic area, not just reading, including mathematics, spelling, and written expression. To better express the impact of this learning disability, Dr. Ralph Rabinovich, M.D., former director of the Hawthorn Center in Northville, MI, once suggested the term dys-symbolia as a more accurate term, which describes the broader impact of dyslexia, as this learning disability frequently affects the learning of any symbol system.

Approximately one out of five individuals, 20 percent of the population, experiences, to some degree, symptoms of dyslexia. Additionally, many students with dyslexia also experience a weakness in immediate auditory/working memory. This can have an impact upon listening comprehension, reading apprehension, the ability to follow multi-step directions, the ability to retain and carry out more complex directions, and to complete multi-step math procedures. In addition to the symptoms of dyslexia and an associated auditory processing weakness, there is also a subset of individuals who experience broader language processing difficulties, affecting receptive and expressive language skills. in fact, one of the early indicators of a risk for dyslexia is a delay in language development. Another misconception about dyslexia is that the child must be of a sufficient age in order for a proper diagnosis to be made (typically 8 years old and in the 3rd grade). However, research indicates that children displaying signs of a possible emerging dyslexia should be identified and provided with early intervention. Research indicates that early intervention results in better outcomes over the course of the child’s educational development. Children at risk for developing dyslexia can be identified as young as 3-5 years of age.

Impact on Self-Esteem

Another concerning and frequently found effect caused by the experience of the learning struggles associated with dyslexia during a child’s early elementary school years is reflected in their growing awareness that other children are not experiencing these learning struggles. This frequently results in the erroneous conclusion that other children must be smarter. Many children with dyslexia thus also begin to develop a poor self-image and reduced self-esteem, which can erode their confidence in themselves and also results in school being experienced as a place of ongoing daily failure. Thus, early detection and intervention is essential to lay the foundations for future growth and continued success in learning.

Dyslexia in Older Students

In milder cases, dyslexia may not be detected until the student is much older. These students are sometimes identified in high school and possibly even as late as college, when they encounter demands that tax the limits of their inefficiency in reading. This frequently manifests in underperformance on standardized achievement tests. Although many students may learn compensatory strategies for managing their learning disability in the classroom setting through increased effort and other, sometimes very creative methods, when faced with standardized tests, they often discover that they cannot complete them within the standard time limit. To some degree, students who are bright and have developed a strong work ethic can compensate for their learning disability in the general classroom setting, but when faced with the demands of timed tests the disability begins to become apparent.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Dyslexia is recognized as a developmental disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act of 2008, which assures that dyslexic students cannot be discriminated against and guarantees their right to appropriate accommodations and support. Obtaining a diagnosis can open the door to educational success and assures equal opportunity.

if you notice any signs of these learning difficulties in your child, obtaining a thorough evaluation with a qualified professional who has experience in identifying and treating dyslexia will open the door to the accommodations and assistance they will require to assure their continued educational success.

Copyright © 2017 Robin L. Billings, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved