I'm a great teacher, so why can't this smart kid read?

I'm a great teacher, so why can't this smart kid read?
Peggy Webb Hendrix, Director of Admissions

This post was first published April 27, 2016.

You’ve tried everything in the book.  You’ve spent countless additional hours working one-on-one with a child before/after school.  You’ve drilled sight words until you’re blue in the face.  You’ve read passages and then had the child read them back to you, but they read it differently every time.  The child skips over words that you know they know.  They even substitute words that have the same meaning, yet they can’t read the word as it is written in the text.  What can you do to get through to this clearly bright child?

Your student is most likely dyslexic.  So what is dyslexia, really?  Reading from right to left, reversing numbers and letters, writing in mirror image?  Could be.  But it could mean lots of other things as well.  There are many resources out there to help you understand dyslexia, as well as to help those dyslexic children in your classroom.  A good place to start is Dyslexia Help at The University of Michigan.  There you will find information aimed at professionals such as yourself.  Another good place to look is The International Dyslexia Association.  The IDA has excellent resources for teachers wanting to address dyslexia in their classrooms.

As an educator, you probably want to do reading and research on your own as well.  Great books on the subject include:  Dyslexia, A Teacher’s Journey, by Ruth Fuller Lature,  Beginning to Read, by Marilyn Jager Adams;  A Mind at a Time, by Mel Levine; Overcoming Dyslexia, by Dr. Sally Shaywitz;  Words Fail Me:  How Language Develops and What Happens When It Doesn’t, by Priscilla Vail; Speech to Print, by Louisa Moats; and About Dyslexia:  Unlocking the Myth, by Priscilla Vail.  Through these books, you will develop an understanding of dyslexia as well as methods to help dyslexic children in your classroom.

It is also helpful to familiarize yourself with “red flags” that might indicate a potential reading disorder.  There are different indicators at every age.  If you are wondering whether your student is dyslexic, consider this list of “red flags for an emerging reading disorder.”

Preschoolers should be able to:

  • Produce rhyming words
  • Divide words into syllables
  • Divide sentences into words
  • Discriminate rhyming words
  • Delete roots, syllables, and phonemes
  • Substitute phonemes to form new words
  • Identify phonemes by their positions in words (beginning, middle and end)

Six-year-olds should be able to:

  • Write words
  • Write sentences
  • Blend sounds together
  • Decode nonsense words
  • Segment words into syllables
  • Identify sounds and letters

Children in second – fifth grades should be able to:

  • Spell well
  • Have appropriate handwriting
  • Enjoy reading and writing
  • Have appropriate or strong written expression
  • Have appropriate or strong reading strategies
  • Recall sight words quickly without much repetition
  • Comprehend reading material on or above grade level

If your student struggles with these skills, there is a good chance that he or she is struggling with dyslexia.  About 20 percent of children are dyslexic, one in 5 children in any given class.  You want so much to be able to reach every child in your care and tutelage.  You are a dedicated professional, deeply concerned about and committed to helping your students achieve success.  By learning about dyslexia and developing strategies to address this particular kind of learning difference, you will hone a skill set that will enable you to reach your struggling readers. If you would like to learn more about training in the Orton-Gillingham method, contact the Orton Gillingham Academy.

Orton-Gillingham is a scientific, research-based multi-sensory method designed for the remediation of dyslexia.  According to the Academy, “Orton-Gillingham is an instructional approach intended primarily for use with persons who have difficulty with reading, spelling, and writing of the sort associated with dyslexia.”  Dyslexics cannot learn to read through the whole-language method. They must be directly taught decoding skills that will allow them to sound out, blend, and break down words.

Without this direct instruction, letters and words make no sense to dyslexics because they lack an understanding of sound-symbol relationships. Their brains process letters differently.  They must learn to read letter by letter, sound by sound.  Most people seem to read whole words at a time, but they are actually looking at each letter and automatically blending those letters to create words.  Dyslexics lack this automaticity.  Reading is a slow, laborious process.  It is so difficult that often by the time a student has finished reading a passage, he or she has no concept of what they have just read because the act of reading itself has been so arduous.

In an article published by Carnegie Mellon, researchers found that specific reading remediation programs, such as the Orton-Gillingham approach, the Wilson Reading Program or the Lindamood-Bell program , actually permanently rewire dyslexic brains.  Prior to remediation, the brains of dyslexics are weaker in the parietotemporal lobe, the part of the brain that processes language.  The Carnegie Mellon study found that after a year of specific, targeted remediation, “the activation differences between good readers and dyslexics had nearly vanished, suggesting that the neural gains were strengthened over time . . . due just to the engagement in reading activities.”  During the study, dyslexic children worked in small groups and were trained in decoding and comprehension skills.  Following remediation, their brains showed no difference from their non-dyslexic counterparts.

Dyslexic children can learn to read.  They may never read as quickly as traditional learners and they will probably never spell well, but they can be very successful students given the time and tools they need to learn.  They just need to be taught differently.