Identifying Dyslexia

How to Recognize Early Signs and Help Your Child

By Georgia Orcutt

Does your child struggle with reading? If she does, she’s not alone.

According to the National Institutes of Health, about 10 to 15 percent of people are believed to have specific learning disabilities and around 60 to 80 percent of those have problems with reading and language skills.

To help parents understand this learning disorder and watch for early signs, we talked with Pamela Hook, Ph.D, president of the Massachusetts branch of the International Dyslexia Association (MABIDA) and associate professor in the graduate level Speech/Language Pathology Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions.

A self-described slow reader who had trouble learning how to spell in school, Hook now dedicates her work to researching and understanding reading difficulties. She has worked as a consultant to schools for children with language/learning disabilities – designing the language arts curriculum for the middle and upper schools, training teachers and working with parents. She’s also been involved in designing computer software to teach reading skills to children and adults.

1 What exactly is dyslexia?

Dyslexia involves difficulties in the area of reading, particularly with accurate and rapid word identification, and is usually accompanied by poor spelling.

These reading problems are often unexpected in relation to other abilities and occur even in the presence of effective classroom instruction. Dyslexia typically results from difficulties in phonemic awareness, or the ability to hear individual sounds in words. In addition, difficulties with automatically recalling words significantly affects the rate of reading and reading comprehension.

2 What are the biggest misconceptions about dyslexia?

Probably the most common misconception is that children with dyslexia “read backwards.” Although many will reverse and confuse letters, particularly ‘b’, ‘d’, and ‘p’ because of their visual and sound similarities, typically the main problem relates to being able to hear sounds in words and connect those sounds with the appropriate letters.

3 What causes this learning disability?

The cause of dyslexia is neurobiological, meaning that it involves a difference in brain structure or functioning that interferes with the ability to process, store or produce information. Research indicates that dyslexia often occurs in families. If a child has a parent who had trouble reading, there is a good chance that the child will struggle too. Some children decode words well, but later struggle to understand what they read. These children do not have dyslexia, but likely have difficulties with aspects of language, memory and/or attention.

4 What’s new in the treatment of dyslexia?

Our understanding of dyslexia has increased substantially over the last few years because of more research on techniques for teaching children with dyslexia. We also have a better understanding of what Kinds of processing skills (such as the ability to hear sounds in words and to quickly name letters) are important for reading.

In addition, brainimaging techniques let us see how the brain processes information when children and adults read. We’ve learned that different areas of the brain are working when children with dyslexia are reading as compared to typical readers. We’ve also learned that intensive remediation can change that pattern so that the brain of an individual with dyslexia appears more similar to the typical reader.

5 How do kids suffer from dyslexia without their parents or teachers detecting it?

Children with mild symptoms may escape notice, particularly if they are very good at other academic skills, such as math. Children with dyslexia sometimes have very strong underlying spoken language skills and, in the beginning, may be able to memorize stories so that they appear to be reading. It’s only when text becomes longer and more complex that they can no longer compensate for their difficulties.

Also, information about the characteristics of dyslexia is not widely understood. It can be confused with general lack of motivation, attentional issues and immaturity.

This leads to difficulties in diagnosis and does not enhance early identification.

There are several early warning signs. In the preschool years, these include:

• Delay in talking,

• Difficulty recognizing and producing rhymes,

• Difficulty remembering rote information, such as letter names, phone numbers and addresses, and