Q & A About Dyslexia


Christine van de Vijsel, M.Ed.
Certified Reading Clinician, C/AOGPE; C/CATT
Send your questions to Dyslexia Champions of Manitoba at: dyslexia.champions@gmail.com

A question and answer forum to address common inquiries that we receive.

Q:  In what ways do students with dyslexia read differently?

A:  The brain anatomy of a dyslexic child or adult is structurally different.  The area that understands language operates differently from a non-dyslexic brain and so children with dyslexia are forced to engage different parts of their brains to compensate.  Part of this compensation can be enhanced by specialized reading instruction that is evidence-based and multisensory.  For older students, audio books allow them to keep up with their classmates at school.  Many audio books are available at no charge from the public library.

Q.  Students with reading problems are often asked to ‘read more’.  Does reading more overcome dyslexia?

A.  Many teachers and parents believe that if children are forced to read more, dyslexia will somehow disappear.  Nothing could be further from the truth!   While reading to a dyslexic child certainly has benefits (exposure to vocabulary, stimulation of imagination, background information, etc.) it will NOT help the child become a better reader.  Forcing a child to read more in the traditional sense only leads to frustration, anger and resistance.

Q.  Many people consider the term ‘dyslexia’ as a label that has negative consequences.  Why is this so common among educators?

A. There is great controversy regarding the word ‘dyslexia’.  For some people, the term comes with the negative perceptions because they believe that the child will be negatively impacted by being labeled as ‘dyslexic’.  In my years of experience, I have found the opposite to be true.  Children are relieved to know WHY learning to read and spell is so hard for them, that they are as smart or smarter than their peers and that their brains are actually able to do things others cannot.

In reality, the labels that dyslexic children experience are words like ‘lazy’, ‘unmotivated’ or ‘disruptive’. Through careful testing and analysis of writing samples, dyslexia is a diagnosis that provides parents and teachers with answers to the puzzle of why a bright child cannot read.  This knowledge is a great relief to both the parents and the child, as now they have a reason for the struggle. But, the diagnosis alone will not result in change unless it is coupled with a different method teaching.

Q.  Why are so many children with reading problems labeled as lazy or unmotivated?

A.  Consider the fact that many of these children work hard at school every day only to struggle month after month, year after year.  Failure and frustration eventually result in many of them just giving up.  They have been told to ‘try harder’ for years.  Remember, these kids have trouble processing language.  When given instructions, their brains take longer to understand, and by the time the last instruction is given, the dyslexic child is often working on the processing the first sentence.  Similarly, when reading, the dyslexic child may be reading the first sentence when most of the class has finished the paragraph. Everything takes twice as long or longer:  worksheets, tests, assignments, homework, etc.  The continuous effort to catch up is exhausting.  Everything demands greater sustained effort.   To the outside world, there is no awareness of the expenditure of mental energy that has taken place except that the child is fatigued.  Despite great effort, work is often incomplete and the child is required to stay in at recess to complete it.  It is small wonder that by the time the student is in middle or high school they are no longer willing to make the effort, or are no longer able to sustain it because the gap has become insurmountable.

Q.  Is private tutoring effective?  Is it the only answer?

A.  This depends on the school, the teacher and the age of the child.  Some schools, often private schools do offer effective intervention under the guidance of a knowledgeable resource teacher or reading clinician.  But these are uncommon. However, if the child is identified early (Kindergarten- grade 1) then intervention can be very effective because the gap is still tiny.  However, the typical scenario is the school waits until the child fails (Grade 3, 4) to decide to investigate.  By the time the child is in junior high school, the gap is often several grade levels and it takes expert private tutoring effective IF the tutoring method is specifically designed for the dyslexic student.  It has been shown that systematic, explicit, cumulative multi-sensory instruction can actually rewire brain circuits to process language more effectively, thus resulting in increased reading skills.  Private tutoring MUST be conducted by trained knowledgeable tutors who understand the specific needs of the child and how to teach a complex language like Engish.  Parents must ask the right questions, obtain references from parents to ensure that their child is getting professional effective remediation.  With the right approach, dyslexic children can be as successful or even more successful than their peers.  It should be noted that two sessions per week is the bare minimum.  The more frequent the intervention, the faster the progress.  3-4 days per week is best.

Q.  Do dyslexic children/adults actually see things backwards?

A. No, the dyslexic sees the world just as everyone else does.  Reversals such as the b/d confusion are the result of directionality confusion.  Dyslexic brains see the world holistically, and have an amazing ability to see what is out of place in a larger than normal visual field.  This is thought to be the main reason that 40% of NASA scientists and other astrophysicists are dyslexic.  Carol Grieder, a molecular biologist who also happens to be dyslexic, won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2009.  As she looked at DNA in molecules through a powerful microscope she saw something that should not be there.  Thus she discovered a new enzyme that is now the subject of cancer and aging research.  Because dyslexics tend to be creative and visual thinkers, they are often able to ‘see’ solutions that others cannot.  Such examples demonstrate why many consider dyslexia a ‘gift’.

Q.  How do accommodations in the classroom aid learning?

A.  Specific accommodations are based on individual needs and should be recorded in an Individualized Learning Plan (IEP).  Each accommodation should be detailed, including the person responsible for implementing it.  However, general accommodations include:

  • More time to read, complete in-class tasks, homework (often double time)
  • Reduced demands (i.e. score based on number of questions completed)
  • No marks off for spelling
  • Teach and provide scaffolding for written expression requirements
  • Tests that include word boxes, and an opportunity to supplement written answers with oral additions.
  • Never ask student to read aloud in class.
  • Lots of ‘front loading’ before teaching commences.
  • Lots of discussion and sharing before assignments begin.

Q.  How can adults assist the student to learn organization skills?

A.  Frequently, the dyslexic student cannot attend to detail.  This is often apparent in their lack of organization – in the classroom, at home.  Bedrooms, lockers, desks, are in constant disarray. Parents can help by walking the child through each step needed to tidy their rooms and putting things in the right place.  Coloured drawers or hangers can help. In school teachers can help by teaching students how to use colour to organize subjects, create/use checklists, how to use frameworks and graphic organizers.  Teachers must teach, model and demonstrate many times.  Patience is key until the student begins to take ownership of these life skills.

Q.  The emotional impact of a learning difference is a key factor in behavior.  What are some of the outward signs of emotional distress?

A.  By the time a child is in Grade 2, they begin to realize that other kids are reading better, writing faster and do not take as long to learn things.  Over time this continuous situation impacts self-confidence and self-esteem.  Girls often withdraw and boys display avoidance behaviours.  An astute teacher recognizes the child’s response to stress and begins to focus on the child’s strengths in sports, art, music, science, etc.   Recognition of effort and successes is critical.  The teacher’s and parents’ response to the child’s efforts can go a long way to avoiding emotional trauma.  One recent study found that the emotional impact of having a learning disability like dyslexia is equal or greater than that inflicted by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Q.  How can social connections help lessen the impact of low self-esteem?

A.  When bad feelings cause the child to withdraw, it is important for parents and teachers to be proactive by encouraging involvement in non-academic group activities like sports, clubs, or dance.  For older students a part time job can be a huge ego boost.

Q.  Should information be shared with the child about dyslexia?

A.  The student should be informed in an age appropriate manner.  Young students take it in stride, especially when they understand that their brains are OK and that steps are in place to help.  The solution lies in how these kids are taught.  When reading and writing begin to make sense, and become less challenging, these children thrive! Older students are relieved to know that they are intelligent (often above average) and can be successful in whatever field they choose to enter. They are more likely to continue to work harder to achieve their goals.  Parents and teachers should reinforce the fact that many highly successful people have dyslexia.  The list is very long, but here are a few:  Agatha Christie, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, Jay Leno, Tom Cruise, Steve Jobs, Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry Winkler.

Q.  What role can technology play in assisting students in the classroom?

A.  There are numerous apps and programs designed specifically for the dyslexic student.  On the International Dyslexia Association webpage, Dr. Elaine Cheesman has listed the most helpful apps for students ranging in age from 3 to adult.  Go to:  http://eida.org/dr-cheesmans-app-chat-dont-miss-these-award-winning-apps-for-vocabulary-and-comprehension/

Apps exist that convert text to audio, voice-command word processing programs, phonetic skill building programs in game formats, graphic organizers (Inspiration.com) and more.  Schools must ensure that these tools are not only available, but that staff is able to instruct students about now to best utilize them.

Q.  How should teachers respond when a student explains they are dyslexic?

A.  Teachers treat students as individuals be they dyslexic or not.  Be empathetic and listen.  Try to put yourself in the place of this young person who has struggled each and every day.  The last thing that child needs is a denial that dyslexia exists or to minimize its impact.  The disability can come in all ranges so it behooves the teacher to investigate the specific nature and type of dyslexia.  Some students exhibit symptoms of ADD, while others do not.  Some have great difficulty putting their thoughts and knowledge into words, while others are very verbal.  Some have average IQ while others are truly gifted.  Some have avoidance behaviors or ‘act out’ while others are very quiet.  Teachers must learn about the individual, and not be tempted to judge according to stereotypes and misinformation.

Q.  Many dyslexics are ‘visual thinkers’.  What does this mean?

A.  Visual thinkers learn best with pictures, visual support for oral instruction and hands-on experiences.  This is one reason they do so well in lab sciences.  They also think in and remember in pictures.  If provided with a visual representation of a concept, they will cement that image in their memories.  Information that is read will not be cemented unless there are other senses involved in the reading process.  Visualization exercises are very helpful in that it teaches the student to use pictures they create naturally to enhance verbal descriptions.  Lindamood-Bell Visualizing and Verbalizing is one such program.

Q.  Can dyslexia be ‘cured’?

A.  A dyslexic will be dyslexic for his or her lifetime, but with strong interventions and flexibility on the part of teachers, they develop methods to compensate.  Many go on to complete post-secondary degrees or become brilliant insightful entrepreneurs, business men and women, artists, actors and insightful effective teachers!

Q.  Can headphones in the classroom be helpful?

A.  If the student is not self-conscious, yes, they can be extremely helpful.  Many dyslexics have exceptional hearing.  Often however, dyslexics have difficulty filtering out all of the sounds around them, greatly impacting their ability to focus.  They seem to attend to everything!  The use of headphones when they are engaged in audio learning can help greatly.