We often take it for granted that our children will learn to read and write like every other child and develop literacy skills as expected; so much so that when they do not quite toe the line, it irritates, vexes and troubles us? Sometimes we may think they are deliberately refusing to pay attention in class or feel that they are just not pulling their weight; other times we may suspect an underlying cause but not know what to do about it.
Although the reasons that contribute to a child’s struggle to read and write could be many and varied, there is one commonly encountered cause: Dyslexia
Dyslexia is an inherited reading impairment that –depending on its type and severity –can cause great learning difficulty for a child if not discovered and addressed early. Children with dyslexia can, however, progress well academically when parents, teachers and health professionals are actively involved to help them deal with this reading impairment. Additionally, many dyslexic individuals have gone on to achieve outstandingly in life.
What is dyslexia
“Dyslexia isn’t a disability but rather an inability related to the skills affecting reading and spelling,” says Susan du Plessis of Edublox. Dyslexia affects a child’s ability to concentrate on, process and interpret words, resulting in a child experiencing challenges with basic literacy skills such as reading, writing and spelling.
Causes of Dyslexia
According to WebMD, researchers have found that dyslexia is caused by a difference in the way the brain processes information which results in an impaired auditive and visual memory. In other words, says Du Plessis, the child sees and hears the words but struggles to remember them. Experts do not know precisely what causes dyslexia, but several recent studies now indicate that genetics plays a major role. DyslexiaSA state that children have a 50% chance of inheriting dyslexia if one parent has it and a 100% chance if both have it.
Types of dyslexia
Sandra Swart, a paediatric optometrist of Vereenging, South Africa says: There are three main types of dyslexia and four additional types, each of which is a combination of the three main types. The three main types are
- Motor dyslexia: When letters and numbers are reversed and the mirror image of a letter is written, such as the letters “b” and “d”.
- Phonetic (auditive) dyslexia: This is the inability to associate symbols and sounds with one another. In other words, you see a word but don’t hear the sound of it in your mind.
- Visual dyslexia: You see a word but can’t immediately process it
Christian Nordqvist, in an article published on medicalnewstoday.com shares a TED video which explains the difficulty in processing language that exists in people with dyslexia.
Signs of dyslexia
Possible signs of dyslexia in younger children according to WebMD are:
- A late talker
- Pronunciation problems
- Difficulty rhyming words
- Impaired ability to learn basics such as the alphabet, colors, and numbers
The most common signs in older children, according to Cape Town-based educational psychologist Anel Annandale, are:
- Children with dyslexia often swop letters such as “b” and “d” or write “rot” as “tor”.
- They read or write “bom” instead of “boom”, for example.
- A child who reads haltingly and often loses their place on the page
- They see the letters of a word in the wrong order, for example, “etib” instead of “bite”
- Dyslexic children often spell words phonetically.
- Poor or slow writing.
- Reads with little comprehension or doesn’t remember what they’ve read.
- Battles to follow instructions.
- Dyslexic kids often confuse left and right, and up and down.
Challenges faced by dyslexic children
Children with dyslexia are at a serious risk of developing emotional problems, not because of the condition itself, but because of the daily frustration and sense of failure they meet in the school environment.
“There’s a misconception that dyslexic people are stupid or lazy and this stigma must be addressed. The negative label often causes children to develop a victim mentality and feel completely helpless,” Du Plessis says.
One study of children with dyslexia, according to WebMD, found that most of the children observed were well adjusted in preschool. But they began to develop emotional problems during their early years in school, when their reading issues began to surface.
If children with dyslexia are not identified, they are likely to begin to fail in school, and may act out, or stop trying altogether. Teachers and parents may assume that these children are simply not trying and even punish them. Such a child may begin to internalize the message that he or she is stupid or bad and if not addressed, this child may be at a higher risk for behavioural problems and depression.
Diagnosis and treatment of dyslexia
There is no cure for dyslexia. But early intervention can give children with dyslexia the encouragement and tools they need to manage in school, compensate for their disability and overcome the limitations that come with this impairment. The first step would be to have your child evaluated so that you can take the appropriate steps at school and at home. After taking your child to the family paediatrician and ruling out any physical causes such as vision problems, you will be referred to a learning specialist, educational psychologist or speech therapist who will perform a diagnostic test to ascertain that your child has dyslexia.
The diagnosis of dyslexia in South Africa is now easier, thanks to a test Sandra Swart, paediatric optometrist of Vereeniging, has developed with John Griffin, a professor of ophthalmology at Marshall B Ketchum University in California.
“It’s the first and only standardised diagnostic test South Africans can use to determine the type and degree of dyslexia,” Swart says. Anyone registered with the Health Professions Council of SA can administer the test.
She stresses that it’s important to identify and diagnose the condition early so that a child can be taught therapeutic programmes to deal with the problem.
Parental support for dyslexic children
A parent can do a lot to support a child with dyslexia. Many parents have even gone further to homeschool their children where they found that mainstream schooling was not benefiting their dyslexic child. The following guidelines are helpful for parents with dyslexic children:
- Educate yourself. Learn all you can about dyslexia treatments, and keep up with the latest research. Seek out other parents of children with dyslexia. They may be an excellent source of information and support.
Susan Du Plessis adds:
- Give one instruction at a time. Don’t shout at the child if they don’t carry out the instruction. Rather repeat it.
- Tell the child’s teacher about their learning difficulties
- Use the child’s strengths when helping them with homework. If they struggle visually but are aurally strong, help by reading the work to them. Don’t do their schoolwork for them. The child must learn to be independent, no matter how much help they need.
- Exercise, exercise, exercise
- Teach children from an early age to name their body parts – for example, right hand, left hand, left foot, right foot.
- Practise left and right continually. This should be practised over and over again daily so the child can internalise the concept.
- Play memory games. A simple game is to place toys, for instance, on a table and give them 10 seconds to look at them. Then cover the toys and ask the child to name them.
- Say a word − for example, “tree”. The child says “tree”. Say another word − “chair”, for example. The child then says “tree, chair”. Add another word and have them repeat each of the words including the new one.
- Encourage your child to pursue activities he or she enjoys. Art, theater, sports, and other non-academic activities all provide positive outlets for children with dyslexia as well as the opportunity to excel.
- Get help if your child shows signs of emotional distress. Every child has occasional low points, but if your child seems particularly angry, troubled, or depressed, get professional help.
Strengths of Dyslexic children and Successful Dyslexics
Marianne Sunderland, a home-schooling mother of 8 with a passion for those who learn differently has had first-hand experience with and also researched widely on dyslexia in children. She has identified the following strengths as being characteristic of Dyslexic children:
- Often highly creative
- Can easily grasp new concepts
- See patterns, connections and similarities that others don’t see
- Excellent at solving puzzles
- Holistic: they see the big picture, don’t get lost in details, get to the important aspects
- Excellent comprehension of stories read or told to them
- Strong reasoning skills
- Understand abstract ideas
- Inclination to think outside the box
Many dyslexics have gone on to achieve outstandingly in life. According to Marianne, researchers have found that self-made millionaires are 4 times more likely to be dyslexic than the rest of the population. While the school years can be a difficult time for dyslexic learners, she says, their exceptional gifts and talents have made them some of the most successful people in the world. Three examples, provided by the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity demonstrate people who have done exceptionally well in spite of this reading impairment: Whoopi Goldberg, A Comedian and Award winning actress, Steve Mariotti, a teacher and entrepreneur and Maggie Aderin-Pocock, A Space Scientist (PhD) of Nigerian Descent
Although dyslexia can be a great challenge for a child during the schooling years, a dyslexic child is well able to and capable of leading a normal and rewarding life.