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Helping the child with dyslexia

Updated on August 17, 2015

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia or dys meaning difficulty or dysfunction and lexia meaning to read. Dyslexia basically describes difficulty with or an inability to read, despite adequate intelligence and opportunity. However, within this category there are a wide range of presentations, and likely differing physiological bases.

Probably the most common association people have when hearing the word dyslexia is with reversing letters and/or numbers. This is only one, and not even the most common symptom of dyslexia, but one which has captured public attention.

Generally speaking the left hemisphere in the majority of us is responsible for language based functions, what many people may not be aware of is that the right hemisphere is also involved in language because it's responsible for visio-spatial awareness or the ability to accurately perceive things in space - and that includes letters and numbers.

Many people with dyslexia do not understand the association between a letter and a sound and consequently they have to decode letters every time while most of us don't even think about this process anymore. These kids will often memorize, sometimes pages so that they appear as though they're reading, but it's from memory, they are not able to recognize the words in the way we think of it. For someone dyslexic words may seem like an assortment of shapes. I have a friend who is dyslexic and told me that when she was learning to read she memorized one up, one straight, one down for dog, unfortunately there are a lot of words that go up, across, down.

One of the current theories about dyslexia posits that we have parallel processing systems within our language skills and that these are interconnected and require each part to work efficiently for effective reading. For example - when we read we see the word, it gets taken in either visually or auditorily and compared with an internal database of word shapes, at the same time the word is being compared in the semantic database in order to find it's meaning. These processes then come together and the word is read (amazing, huh!). In dyslexia, partly because of the difficulty associating sounds, letters and meanings, this process becomes unhinged.

One of several interesting studies in this area showed differences between dyslexics and non dyslexics in ability to read non words - now why would that be useful? well, what this study showed is that in people who do not have problems processing language there is an independent association between letters and sounds, so when asked to read the word askinsy - the word is taken in, compared to a database of known words and sounds. One of the characteristics of dyslexia, however is overregularization - really a fancy word for not understanding that letters can have various sounds depending on their placement (gotta love English - nothing is regular, and anything that is, has an exception).So words may be mispronounced or misused.

It's hard for a dyslexic person to grasp that the a in c-a-t is the same the one in p-a-p-e-r - so you can imagine how maddening spelling with it's through and trough and thoughts, here and here, there and their must be. It seems that people without reading difficulties probably have no trouble unhooking the 'a' from the a sound in c-a-t and relinking it to the 'ay' sound in p-a-p-e-r. People with dyslexia, due to their trouble associating sounds and letters, frequently rely on memory of words, which is really taxing and also doesn't help in discriminating 'no' from 'know'. They are therefore prone to mispronounciations and sometimes idiosyncratic spellings which rely heavily on regularization.

A closer look

Surface dyslexia, phonological, developmental surface or simple dyslexia is when words are decoded and sometime written phonologically (such as pronouncing “stra-yigt” for “straight”). Most readers are able to simply identify words by looking at it, not by sounding aloud each letter. Sometimes reading a word aloud, or copying it down on paper can be helpful for people with these difficulties.

Some researchers propose three subtypes of developmental surface dyslexia, each caused by impairment at a different area and each showing a different pattern of performance in various tasks. All three subtypes show the classical pattern of phonological reading aloud, but these groups differ in reading performance, with regularizations and difficulty in reading words that have more than a single possible sound/meaning - their and there, apple and satiated.

The first subtype, input surface dyslexia, results from a deficit in matching and recognizing symbols and often leads to poor comprehension. In the second subtype, orthographic lexicon output surface dyslexia, (I know, who gets to make up these names), the ability to recognize a letter is accessible but its output to the part of the brain controlling sound association and meaning is impaired so that comprehension of homophones like hear and here is difficult. The third subtype, interlexical surface dyslexia, caused by a selective deficit in the connection between the ability to recognize symbols or letters and the associated speech sounds while the ability to link letters to meaning remains and comprehension is not impaired.

Deep dyslexia is a curious thing where the person will read a word similar to that which is on the page. So, instead of coat, they would read jacket.

So, back to the brain for a minute, I mentioned that in all likelihood both the left and right hemisphere's are affected in dyslexia and there is some interesting research suggesting that at least part of the difficulty lies in those hemisphere's passing information between them. As I mentioned writing in terms of creating the shapes of letters is a right brain function, but decoding them is a left brain function.There are also some researcher propose differences in working memory (the ability to hold and manipulate information inn one's head) in children with dyslexia, particularly in the areas of visual letter identification.

Children with dyslexia may also show impairments in Math, most likely because of the visio-spatial deficits we talked about. Numbers are similar to letters in that they are really just shapes and so more the purview of the right hemisphere, while calculation is more a left brain thing. Children with math difficulties often have difficulty associating amount with the number symbol, similar to the way dyslexic children have trouble associating associating sounds and symbols.

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What can parents do?

You may think that because dyslexia is a brain disorder that there is nothing you can do for your child or that only expert intervention will help. While it is essential to get a good diagnosis and evaluation from a professional and to ensure that your child receives any necessary accommodations at school, there are still many things you can do at home to reinforce learning and to help your child.

The really exciting news is that some of the latest research shows that intensive intervention leads to actual physical changes in the brain which make the brain more like those of typical learners. The areas in the brain which have been identified as showing deficits actually show growth - and most studies only used between 12 and 20 weeks of training! Isn't that cool!

One of the theories about dyslexia relates to inefficient transfer of information between hemispheres and therefore many interventions focus on multi-modal learning (using as many sense modalities as possible to help the child learn information). Given that these children struggle with letter sound association and recognition, visual and verbal learning styles (which most of us have) are not going to be effective alone.

Combining these modalities with tactile and/or kinesthetic activities significantly increases the likelihood that things will be retained. So, things like letter shapes where the child can see the letter, hear the sound and feel what the letter feels like may be helpful. Using aids such as books on tape will also increase vocabulary and potentially avoid reading power struggles (yes, we do want them to learn to read, but to start - any way of introducing words, letters, numbers and sounds will do).

Things like Dragon Naturally Speaking and other speech to text programs are available for about $100 and will translate your spoken words into written words on the screen so that the child begins to make the associations between the sounds of their speech and letters. Any games involving letters and numbers are good - eye spy, making words out of car number plates, naming all the animals you can starting a certain letter in 30 seconds. If your child is amenable to word searches, crosswords, suduko, dot to dot pictures, mazes, coloring in, drawing - all of these activities encourage hand eye co-ordination which is a base writing skill and help with visio-spatial perception, which appears to be a difficulty for these children.

Any type of word, letter or numbers game will help - and also helps break down the resistance many children have built up to these activities due to their poor performance (I mean who wants to keep doing something you're not good at?). One of the side effects of learning disorders is that they take away a child's natural desire to learn - and any way of getting that back will help tremendously. Don't get discouraged (I know, easy for me to say) - it will take time, but spaced, massed practice - or in English - a little everyday will pretty soon add up.

Computer games are also a great way to get kids to use their visio-spatial skills - and, if you choose the right things, spelling, math & other things. Most kids like to do things on the computer, so any school work that can be done on the computer may encounter less resistance. There are also many great educational website where kids can get great information & never even know they're learning.Sites such as neuropsychonline can help you build a program targeting your child's specific deficits.

Many sites also offer free or reasonably priced educational games and the old stand by's like chess, Monopoly, snakes & ladders and card games all have therapeutic potential. The key is to try to work things into the everyday environment - talking a walk around the neighborhood can be useful for geography, social studies, biology, history - and is more likely to be remembered because it's what's known as 'experience near'.

Any information that can be personalized, paralleled to or contrasted with things in the child's own life are more likely to be stored in long term memory - and that's the aim of the game. It doesn't always matter how it got there, just that it got there. Think of it this way - did any of you do Calculus or trigonometry? (I can hear the groans) - well I slogged through with very little understanding of the concept and rote memorized formula's thinking it was pretty much the dumbest thing I'd ever come across. Well, lo and behold I later find out that these crazy formula's are important for engineering and building - wow. If someone had told me that using these formula's could help you build a cool tree house - well, then I'd have been far more inclined to be interested and more likely to absorb and understand the conceptual basis, rather than just the numerical formula's.

The more you can relate a concept to the child's world the better. If you're learning about flowers - go an identify the flowers in your garden. If you're learning a section in history - incorporate a visit to a local museum or research your hometown. Put push pins into a map to show areas where you've lived, traveled, have friends, would like to go to - that way states and places become more than words on a page.

Encourage non academic strengths. Regular exercise has been shown to improve our ability to learn and retain information. Help your child find their learning style - it doesn't really matter if you do your spelling words while walking in the park - it matters that you do them. Some children really benefit from mnemonics and other memory techniques, while others find things like visual organization of information to be more useful. Encourage - as hard at it may be at times, these kids are really not lazy and unmotivated, they lack skills - and keeping that in mind can sometimes be helpful when you're trying to explain for the 15th time.

Get your own support. Dealing with dyslexia is tough and dealing with a child with dyslexia is tough too - you both need support. Check out some of the pages on famous people with disabilities - yes, it sucks, but there are people about there who make it. Get back up - from your school, from your doctor, from your friends, from your family. This is an issue which is not going away, but can be dealt with, but it's a lifestyle shift - not a single intervention. You need good people backing you up, supporting you and giving you the correct information about the latest research in this area.


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      7 years ago

      Very helpful article! I had didn't find out until I was at University which was a real wake up call. If you can get a proper assessment then your chances of getting the support you need especially in the UK is much higher especially with all of the red tape coming into force with boundaries for extra time in exams etc. I used and got a full report so I could work on my weaknesses. Its a gift once you know how your limits :-)!

    • Read-Phonics profile image


      8 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida

      Excellent information. I am a tutor, and found this article most helpful. Thank you.

    • profile image

      jessica foulston 

      8 years ago

      May name is jessica laura foulston am 20 years old. I was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 8 and have been aware of the changes i have had to make to the way that i learn in order to coplete the education i have wanted.

      I am currently at the end of my second year of a 4 year teacher traning degree at chester universtity. However at the end of the this academic year I was called into question by my univeristy for plagerism. I was asked to write a childrens story book as part of my assesment, which I did and handed in. Once my university had looked at my book they said it look to them as if I had plagerised from another childrens story. I am 100% sure that I did not intentionaly copy any story book, however I am aware that I am able to memoirse simple storys within just a couple of times of reading them, and have been able to do some from an early age inorder to feel less presurised when reading to others.

      I was woundring if this could possible be down to my dyslexia? and if it had even been heard of, or delt with befor. I am very concerend that my univeristy may feel that I am using this as an excuse, and find it hard to belive me. I was woundering if you had any information on this which I could take with me to any upcoming meetings on this subject.

      Thank you for your time.

      Jessica Laura Foulston

    • dr c profile imageAUTHOR

      dr c 

      9 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area


      Thank you for your comment, I'm glad that you found the hub helpful.

    • Creaminizer23 profile image


      9 years ago from New York, Usa

      I have learned a lot from your hub. Thanks for sharing your knowledge about dyslexia and how to help the family cope with it. I am glad to inform you that your hub is included in my list of the most child friendly hubs across the hubpages.

    • dr c profile imageAUTHOR

      dr c 

      9 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area

      Thank you for your comment. I'm glad you found the hub helpful. Dyslexia is a complex and often debilitating condition, the children you tutor are lucky to have someone so interested in helping them.

    • i scribble profile image

      i scribble 

      9 years ago

      Found your article interesting & informative. I tutor kids, and found myself working with a child I suspected was dyslexic recently. She made progress with the usual reading strategies, but still lagged a bit behind grade level. I started researching dyslexia on the internet. I've learned a lot more about it (including from your article). I shared my impression of dyslexia with the mom,and she had suspected the same. Hopefully, she will get the help she needs through the school system now. Pity that a quality, informative article like this doesn't get more traffic, isn't it? I'll check out some of your other posts.

    • dr c profile imageAUTHOR

      dr c 

      10 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area

      Thank you for your great comment, I really admire your courage and tenacity. You also give great descriptions of what it's like to be dyslexic. I agree, we still have a lot to learn in this area & spell check has to rate right there in the top 10 best inventions ever! Welcome to hub pages.

    • ladyannoftexas profile image


      10 years ago from Texas

      I did not read your whole article But did skim over it. I am 64 and I am dyslexic. One of the things that happens to me when I see a long word say up on a billboard. The end of the word gets moved to the front so it becomes a very strange word in deed. I know it is not the right word and have to look again to see what I saw and really think about it . I can read so much better now that I am older . As a child and all the way through high school I could not read very well at all. I failed many subjects over and over again and to this day my spelling is so bad. I give spell check a work out. But I have a lot to say and I do write many things on may subjects. When I was in school there was no help really for the dyslexic kids. I don't think there was even a word for what cause our problems back then , other than mirror brain. I had lots of help in special classes and I guess some of it helped me. But for the most part school was a big struggle. I do not type well either but I do my best to commuincate with my writing. I also write songs, poems and short stories for children. Reading is very time consuming for me I to do it in short spurts becaue I get so lost and I guess I get board or just tired of all the thinking I have to do to read. When I write or type like I am doing here I make many mistakes in spelling but many of them are just typeos and then I do not see them. I have made some real funny, laugh out loud mistakes in my spelling. It is strange that see other peoples mistakes in spelling but I don't see my own. I miss type so many letters . I must have spastic fingers and speedy thinking brain when it comes to typing. I never took typing in school. I enjoyed all that I did read of you post . I am new to the Hub pages. I am just getting started .

      Have a good day! Ann


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