Reading is such an important part of our lives that once you hear the words dyslexia or reading disability, you might start to worry. Will your child be okay? Will he or she still be able to learn how to read? Graduate? Go to college? The answer to all of these is a resounding yes. In fact, Albert Einstein, Walt Disney, and Leonardo da Vinci all had dyslexia, and I’d say that they were pretty successful!
It’s important to understand what dyslexia is (and what it isn’t) and how you can be an advocate for your child to help them succeed.
What Is Dyslexia?
To understand what dyslexia is, let’s first start by talking about what reading is. Although reading is probably automatic for all of us as adults, if you’ve ever spent time with someone who is learning how to read, you quickly realize that it can be a challenging endeavor. We are basically asking students to understand that words are made of sounds, that those sounds have letters, and that they need to be able to learn all of these sounds and letters and put them together (reading) and take them apart (spelling). Add to that the fact that English has 44 unique sounds but only 26 letters, and you can see how this can get confusing!
We rely on our brain to make sense of (i.e., process) all these symbols and sounds. Someone with dyslexia has difficulty with this processing, so it is hard for them to put the different sounds and letters together to form words. They can have difficulty learning the sounds that letters make, sounding out words, reading words quickly, and/or spelling words.
Dyslexia is neurobiological in origin, meaning that the brain images of children with dyslexia and those without look different. This also means that there is no “cure” for dyslexia — even though a good reading intervention can somewhat change the anatomy and function of parts of your brain, dyslexia is a lifelong disability and the sooner it is diagnosed, the sooner intervention begin so that children can learn how to succeed academically.
The Evaluation Process
Unfortunately, there is no one magic test that can tell you if a child has dyslexia. Rather, children are usually given a series of tests that an evaluator (such as an educational psychologist) then analyzes. These tests usually assess a child’s phonological awareness (the ability to isolate and manipulate sounds), reading, reading fluency, reading comprehension, and the ability to rapidly name letters and sounds. Sometimes you will also be asked to complete a family history questionnaire and share your child’s non-academic strengths and weaknesses. Usually, the evaluation process will be initiated by the school, but in Texas, parents/guardians have the right to request a referral for a dyslexia evaluation at any time.
My Child Has Dyslexia — Now What?
Research shows that children with dyslexia benefit from structured multisensory instruction (called MSLE or an Orton-Gillingham approach). This type of instruction uses sight, sound, and touch (multiple senses — i.e., multisensory) to teach the connections between letters and sounds. For example, a student might look in a mirror and touch his throat while saying a sound in order to see what shape his mouth is making and to feel the vibrations of their vocal cords. Or, she might say a sound and write the corresponding letter in a tray filled with sand or shaving cream. Students learn about the structure of words and how to break words into smaller segments to make it easier to read and spell. Some common MSLE programs that are used in school settings include Wilson Reading System, Barton, and Take Flight. In Texas, school personnel who provide dyslexia intervention are not required to hold a special license or certification, but they must have received additional dyslexia training and deliver the intervention with fidelity.
Where Can I Learn More?
The International Dyslexia Association has an entire section dedicated to information for families. TEA has a Dyslexia Handbook for school districts that can be useful if you are curious about the state laws around dyslexia accommodations and interventions. Your local ISD’s dyslexia department can answer specific questions about your child’s school and the programs available to him or her. Finally, Richardson ISD and some other local organizations offer a parent workshop called “Experience Dyslexia” several times a year.