The word dyslexia is rooted in the Greek language and means "difficulty with words." Although dyslexia is known as a problem related to reading, it can also interfere with a student's ability to write, spell and pronounce words correctly. It does not signal a lack of intelligence, talent or effort (famous dyslexics include Thomas Edison, Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Winkler). However, it is defined as a specific learning disability by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).
According to NICHD, dyslexia "is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/ or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. 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. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge."
The International Dyslexia Association estimates that 15 to 20 percent of the population displays some dyslexia symptoms. Although dyslexia cannot be "cured," academic outcomes for dyslexic students can be greatly improved through early diagnosis and appropriate instruction. The only way to confirm a suspected diagnosis of dyslexia is through formal testing of reading, language and writing skills.
It is important to note that characteristics associated with dyslexia may also be present in children with other reading difficulties. Such difficulties can diminish over time, so educators who suspect dyslexia sometimes adopt a "wait and see" attitude. Not all children with dyslexia manifest the same kind or degree of difficulties, and a child's symptoms can fluctuate daily. Sometimes the symptoms are not severe enough to qualify for special education services. However, delay or denial of intervention can have negative long-term consequences on reading ability and academic performance.
In recent years, brain scans have shown that dramatic differences can be found between the brain activity of dyslexic and nondyslexic children who are reading. In 2003, Elise Temple and colleagues used brain scans and standardized reading tests to demonstrate that intensive remediation can "rewire" the brains of dyslexic children. In the study, 20 dyslexic children and 12 nondyslexic children spent 100 minutes a day, five days a week, for eight weeks, using a computer program that led them through rhyming games. For example, the game showed two pictures (a hat and a bat) as a computer voice asked the child to point to the bat. Such exercises required the child to listen carefully for the slight difference in the beginning consonant sound. As the player improved, the voice sped up. Subsequent brain scans showed that activity in the dyslexic children's brains looked more like that found in good readers-and reading tests confirmed improvements in reading.
A 2006 study involving 18 dyslexic children and 21 nondyslexic children in grades 4-6 illustrates the importance of developmentally appropriate remediation in helping dyslexic children become better spellers. The children were randomly assigned to one of two groups, receiving instruction over three weeks. One group received instruction that emphasized letters in written words; the other group received developmentally advanced instruction that focused on meaning and grammar. Before-and-after brain scans and standardized test results showed superior results for instruction that matched developmental level-in this instance, an emphasis on letters in written word forms (Richards et al., 2006).
Researchers realize the results do not mean the dyslexia has been "fixed" or that other interventions are no longer needed. However, such studies underscore the potential effectiveness of appropriate interventions. The International Dyslexia Association recommends that children with dyslexia receive systematic, explicit instruction in reading, spelling and writing, combined with structured practice, immediate feedback and allowing extra time to complete tasks.
Carla Th omas McClure is a staff writer at Edvantia, a nonprofi t education research and development organization (www.edvantia. org). For references used in this article, go to www.districtadministration.com.