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Language Arts
Reading Comprehension

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Dyslexiaby Brian Thompson

IDEA DefinitionAccording to the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (2012), The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) categorizes dyslexia as a specific learning disability, which “means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities; of intellectual disability; of emotional disturbance; or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage” (Specific Learning Disability section).

Formal Definition of DyslexiaThe International Dyslexia Association and National Institute of Child Health and Human Development have approved a specific definition of dyslexia. According to these organizations and the experts who wrote the definition, “Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that 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 experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge” (Lyon, Shaywitz, & Shaywitz, 2003, p. 2).

PrevalenceAccording to Moats and Dakin (2008), there are no clear figures on the prevalence of dyslexia, since “reading ability is distributed according to the normal curve, like height and weight” (p. 6). However, Moats (1999) earlier wrote that approximately 15 to 20% of people are moderately dyslexic. She added that another 2 to 5% of people are severely impacted by their reading problems (p. 8). Therefore, Moats argues that “any teacher can expect that in a class of 25 students, one or two will have significant problems and several more will have milder problems with reading, writing, and related language skills” (p. 9). The International Dyslexia Association (2007) supports these figures, writing that 15 to 20% of children have learning disabilities that are language-based (“How Common,” n.p.).

CausesResearchers have been unable to determine the exact cause of dyslexia. However, they agree that the causes are neurobiological (International Dyslexia Association, 2007, “Frequently Asked Questions,” What causes dyslexia section). Experts also agree that dyslexia tends to run in families, with phonological processing deficits and poor spelling skills being the “most hereditable traits” (Moats, p. 10). Brain scans and anatomical studies have shown that there are neurological differences between people with and without dyslexia. These differences are both developmental and functional. For example, the brains of people with dyslexia tend to be more asymmetrical. In addition, functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI) has shown that people with dyslexia activate different areas of the brain while reading compared to people without dyslexia (Moats & Dakin, p. 46). These scans have not been able to locate one specific area of the brain associated with the learning disability. Genetic studies have been inconclusive as well, but there are indications that dyslexia may stem from chromosome 6 (Moats, pp. 10-11).

Louisa Moats

Common CharacteristicsThere are many characteristics associated with dyslexia. They can be physical or medical in nature, social or emotional, cognitive or academic. Medical and Physical Characteristics1. Students with dyslexia may be physically immature compared to their peers (Ryan, 1994, How Does Dyslexia Impact Social Relationships? section).2. There are neurological differences between people with dyslexia and those who do not have dyslexia (Moats & Dakin, p. 46).Social and Emotional Characteristics1. Students with dyslexia struggle in school. Their academic failures and shortcomings may turn into stress, anxiety, frustration, and/or anger (Ryan, How Does the Child with Dyslexia Feel? section).2. Students with dyslexia may be socially immature compared to their peers (Ryan, How Does Dyslexia Impact Social Relationships? section).3. In order to mask his or her disability, a student with dyslexia may become a class clown or problem child.4. People with dyslexia often have a negative self-image because of their lack of academic success. This may involve feelings of inferiority (Wilkins & Garside, 2002, p. 7).5. A child with dyslexia may develop a sibling rivalry, especially if their sibling does not have dyslexia (Ryan, How Does Dyslexia Affect the Family? section).Cognitive and Academic Characteristics1. Children with dyslexia often learn to speak later than other children.2. Young children may have difficulty learning words and differentiating between small words like “of” and “for.” 3. Children may reverse letters (b and d) or the order of letters in words (pot and top).4. Preschoolers may have difficulty with rhyming (Shaywitz, 2003, p. 122).5. Students with dyslexia lack phonological awareness, or the ability to discriminate between sounds. One aspect of phonological awareness is phonemic awareness, or the ability to manipulate sounds (Moats & Dakin, pp. 32-35).6. Children may not be able to break up compound words or break words into sounds.7. Children may struggle to remember the names of letters and their sounds.8. Students with dyslexia may have trouble pronouncing words or turning their thoughts into words.9. Students with dyslexia may struggle to spell and write.10. Oral reading will be slow and labored for people with dyslexia.11. People with dyslexia may have trouble decoding, or sounding out unfamiliar words. They may be unable to read nonsense words (Shaywitz, p. 122).12. They may be unorganized, have poor time management, and struggle to remember information (Wilkins & Garside, p. 11).

Educational ImplicationsSince reading is such a critical academic skill, dyslexia has many negative effects on learning. Its effects are especially noticeable in the later grades, when the focus of school shifts from learning to read to reading to learn (Moats & Dakin, p. 17). A student with dyslexia may struggle to read at grade level, and therefore he or she may not be able to read textbooks and other written materials. A student’s comprehension may also be impacted, and grades may consequently suffer. In addition, students with dyslexia may have poor penmanship (dysgraphia) or trouble with numbers and math (dyscalculia). Several approaches and accommodations have been designed to support students with dyslexia (Moats & Dakin, p. 28).

Executive Function CoachingExecutive Function Coaching is another strategy that helps students with dyslexia. Executive functioning refers to higher order skills like time management, organization, and self-discipline, which many students with dyslexia lack. Executive Function Coaches work with students to help them develop the organizational and executive skills they need to succeed academically.

Reconstructive Language at The Gow SchoolAround the time Orton was conducting his research, a teacher from Buffalo named Peter Gow founded a school for seemingly bright students who struggled in the classroom. For over 85 years, the foundation of The Gow School has been Reconstructive Language (RL), a language remediation program that Gow developed with the help of Samuel Orton. The program focuses on the multisensory teaching of phonics, spelling rules, vocabulary, and oral reading skills. Reconstructive Language is similar to Orton-Gillingham in that it follows Orton’s teaching principles, but it is unique in that it can only be found at The Gow School.

Other AccommodationsFinally, many students with dyslexia can be supported through accommodations like extended time, note-takers, and readers. These are often included on students’ IEPs. There are also assistive technologies that can help.

LETRSAnother program designed to help students with dyslexia is Louisa Moats’ Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS). It is a professional development program designed to provide teachers with the knowledge, skills, and understandings they need to effectively support all readers. The program is divided into a series of modules, each of which focuses on a different aspect of language education. Many schools around the country are using LETRS to train their teachers.

Orton-GillinghamIn 1937, Samuel Orton, a Columbia University neurologist, published Reading, Writing, and Speech Problems in Children. For years, Orton had studied patients who had suffered traumatic brain injuries and had recognized that these injuries could result in the loss of language abilities. However, Orton began to wonder about the many children who simply never gained these reading, writing, and speaking skills. He also wondered about the children who struggled to learn these skills. Orton’s work led him to establish basic principles to guide language education. His principles call for language education that is alphabetic and phonetic; language-based and cognitive; simultaneous and multisensory; structured and systematic; direct and explicit; sequential, cumulative, and recursive; diagnostic and prescriptive; and flexible and emotionally sound. Orton’s colleague Anna Gillingham translated these principles into the Orton-Gillingham philosophy of language education. Orton and Gillingham agreed that not only was this kind of teaching excellent for all students, but that it was essential for children with learning differences. Orton-Gillingham has become one of the most well-known and effective interventions for students with dyslexia (Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators, “The Orton-Gillingham Approach,” n.d.).

Accommodations and Interventions for Students with Dyslexia

The Gow School's Page on RL

Executive Function Coaching at Gow

Assistive Technology

KurzweilOne of the most well-known assistive technologies for students with dyslexia is Kurzweil, a text to speech program which allows students to listen to any text. Students can follow along as the software reads the text. In addition, they can pause the reading, highlight text, and change the size of the font, among other features. Kurzweil is an expensive program, so it may not be accessible to some schools and families.

Speech-to-TextAnother assistive technology is Speech-to-Text, a feature found in many software programs, including Microsoft Word. If a student’s written language skills are poor, but their verbal skills are strong, the student can dictate into a microphone. The Speech-to-Text program recognizes and interprets the student’s speech and translates spoken words into text. Although this program can be useful and beneficial for many students, it is an imprecise technology and can make errors. It is more accessible than Kurzweil, since many schools and families have Microsoft Word.

Related ServicesStudents with dyslexia benefit from many related services, including special education, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, and counseling. Special educators and reading specialists may deliver a research-based reading remediation program. Speech and language therapists may work on strengthening a student’s receptive and expressive language skills. An occupational therapist may work on developing a student’s fine motor skills to improve his or her handwriting. Finally, a counselor or psychologist may help the student cope with the social and emotional effects of dyslexia (Salend, 2011, pp. 140-142).It should also be noted that students with dyslexia often compensate for their academic struggles by playing sports, acting in plays, painting or sculpting, singing or playing an instrument, or taking on a leadership role. Therefore, athletic and drama coaches, art and music teachers, and club advisors should play important roles in the education of students with dyslexia (Moats, p. 15).

Additional Resources•The International Dyslexia Association (http://www.interdys.org)•The Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators (http://www.ortonacademy.org)•The National Center for Learning Disabilities (http://www.ncld.org/)•Knight, J.R. (1997). Adults with Dyslexia: Aspiring and Achieving. Baltimore: International Dyslexia Association.•Orton, S.T. (1937). Reading, Writing, and Speech Problems in Children. New York: Pro-Ed.•Torgesen, J.K. (1995). Phonological Awareness: A Critical Factor in Dyslexia. Baltimore: Orton Dyslexia Society.

ReferencesAcademy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators. (n.d.). The Orton-Gillingham Approach. Retrieved from http://www.ortonacademy.org/approach.phpInternational Dyslexia Association. (2007). Frequently Asked Questions About Dyslexia. Retrieved from http://www.interdys.org/FAQ.htmInternational Dyslexia Association. (2007). How Common Are Language-Based Learning Disabilities? Retrieved from http://www.interdys.org/FAQHowCommon.htmLyon, G.R., Shaywitz, S.E., & Shaywitz, B.A. (2003). A Definition of Dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 53, 1-14.Moats, L.C. (1999). Basic Facts About Dyslexia Part II: What Every Professional Ought to Know. Baltimore: The International Dyslexia Association.Moats, L.C., & Dakin, K.E. (2008). Basic Facts About Dyslexia & Other Reading Problems. Baltimore: The International Dyslexia Association.National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities. (March 2012). Categories of Disability Under IDEA. Retrieved from http://nichcy.org/disability/categories#ldRyan, M. (1994). The Other Sixteen Hours: The Social and Emotional Problems of Dyslexia. Baltimore: The Orton Dyslexia Society.Salend, S.J. (2011). Creating Inclusive Classrooms: Effective and Reflective Practices (7th ed.). New York: Pearson.Shaywitz, S. (2005). Overcoming Dyslexia. New York: Vintage.


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