Dear parent: why your dyslexic child struggles with reading

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In a letter to parents of children with reading problems, Maryanne Wolf explains how dyslexic children’s brains are organised differently. Although it’s long I’m reproducing it in full as it is so powerful.

 No one can ever prepare a parent for two things: the immeasurable love that comes with having a child; and the sorrow and confusion that comes when your child appears to learn in a different way from other children.

I am an educator and neuroscientist, who studies how the brain learns to read and what happens when a young brain can’t learn to read easily, as in the childhood learning challenge, developmental dyslexia. Yet, despite this knowledge, I was unprepared to realise that my first son, Ben, was dyslexic.

He was five years old when I put all the pieces together, and I wept as soundlessly and deeply as every other parent. I wept not because of his dyslexia, which I understood very well, but because I knew the long, difficult road Ben faced in an educational system ill-prepared then to meet his needs. That was the first thing I did 16 years and eight schools ago.

The second thing was to concentrate my work on ways to help our society understand two huge things: first, the complex, unnatural miracle that takes place every time a brain learns to read; and second, the fact that many children with dyslexia have a different brain organisation – one that poises them for greatness in many areas; but makes them inefficient at learning written language.

Helping every child meet his or her potential, not only children with challenges, is the underlying goal of this letter, my new book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, and the work of my entire field.

It all begins with understanding that reading does not come naturally to human beings. We humans invented literacy, which means it doesn’t come for free with our genes like speech and vision. Every brain has to learn it afresh.

Learning to read for the brain is a lot like an amateur ringmaster first learning how to organise a three-ring circus. He wants to begin individually and then synchronise all the performances. It only happens after all the separate acts are learned and practised long and well. In childhood, there are three, critical “ring acts” that go into the development of reading: learning about the world of letters; learning about the individual sounds inside of words (which linguists call phonemes); and learning a very great deal about words.

Many things help each of these three areas develop, and parents and loved ones can foster them all. The most important contribution appears deceptively simple: speaking and reading to your child from infancy onwards. Children who spend the first five years of their lives exposed to a great deal of oral language with others (and not from a television or other media) and listening to a great many books being read to them enter kindergarten with advantages that prepare them to read.

In one well-known study, children in more privileged language- and book-rich environments heard 32m more spoken words than children raised in disadvantaged environments. It was not economic poverty, but “linguistic poverty” that put these children at profound risk for failure before they entered the kindergarten door.

In dyslexia, the reasons for reading difficulties aren’t that simple, or as easy to prevent. Somewhere between five and seven years of age, most young brains are readied to become their own ringmasters and bring all their knowledge about letters, sounds and words together to read. For children learning the alphabet, they must learn that a particular sound corresponds to a particular letter, which in English isn’t always as straightforward as in other languages. Thus, programmes that emphasise the principles of phoneme awareness and decoding (that is, systematic phonics programmes) represent an important foundation for all children first learning to read. There are, of course, other linguistic areas that must also be emphasised, including vocabulary knowledge, familiarity with how words work grammatically, and also knowledge about the smallest units of meaning in English, called morphemes.

Ideally, our children need all of these emphases when learning to read. In dyslexia, many children have particular difficulties distinguishing the phonemes or sounds within words. That makes it very difficult for them to learn the rules for which particular letters go with which sounds. Other children with dyslexia aren’t able to acquire the speed necessary to get the different parts in the reading system together; they never learn to read fast or fluently enough to comprehend what they read.

Brain imaging studies are beginning to suggest that these difficulties may emerge in part because many children with dyslexia are endowed with a very strong right hemisphere that they use to read. In most people the left hemisphere is largely used in reading. The right hemisphere, which is involved in many spatial, artistic, and creative functions, is, however, very inefficient for reading, which would explain why it takes so long to learn to read. If this research proves correct, it also helps explain why so many great, creative figures have a history of dyslexia: artists like Picasso, Gaudi, and Rodin; writers like Yeats and Agatha Christie; and entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, Charles Schwab, and Michael Heseltine.

The problem is that no one tells children or their parents, teachers, and classmates that some of the world’s most creative and brilliant minds had similar difficulties learning to read. Most children with dyslexia do not easily learn to read, spell, or write, and they believe this means they must be “dumb” (their classmates’ description), or “lazy” (what many parents think) or “not working up to their potential” (many teachers’ description).

Not all children with dyslexia have extraordinary talents, but everyone has a unique potential that is being daily whittled away by this lack of understanding.

Maryanne Wolf is the director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University.

‘Proust and the Squid’ is a great read. I commend it to you.

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CPD about Additional Support for Learning

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From the National CPD Team

Join the many educators who are taking part in an online CPD event week beginning 13 June.

Each evening at 7 pm, the CPDStepin Summer Summit will feature at least one CPDMeet on the theme of Additional Support for Learning:

* Monday 13 – Suzanne Morris, Understanding and supporting children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

* Tuesday 14 – Margaret Orr, The relationship between CfE and ASL legislation and David Watt, HMIE, Inclusion Journey to Excellence resources

*Wednesday 15 – Hilery Williams, Understanding and supporting children with dyslexia

* Thursday 16 – Kate Coutts, Child at the centre or centre of the child?

For more details and sign-up, please see the CPDStepin Summer Summit on Glow

Terrific resource on ICT and Dyslexia

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Alan Stewart has prepared a brilliant resource on Livebinder (new to me) on technological supports for learners with dyslexia.

I have nothing to add – just check it out.

The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being (Jung)

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  Aimee Daniells‘  interesting post, Fight dyslexia with the Kindle! has ignited this summary of the benefits of Kindles for learners with dyslexia. All that she says relates to all digitalised methods of accessing text of course, but the case for the Kindle is that it is so transportable.

Many people with dyslexia can become relatively competent at reading given motivation, good teaching and an awful lot of hard work. It is often the slow speed of reading and the poor organisation of thoughts which inhibits them from becoming fluent. However, for many there will be an instinctive negative reaction to large swathes of text and to overcome this, they must have a real desire to break the barrier. The small progress bar on the bottom of the Kindle shows the percentage of the book that has been read: a great motivator.

The facility to change text size, font style and line spacing when using a Kindle enables less confident readers to take control of their fear. The text on the plastic sheet looks as sharp and readable as traditional ink on paper. It’s this above all that has made the Kindle a runaway bestseller.

And although the text-to-speech specification features a less than pleasant robotic voice it does at least offer the opportunity to access the words in an alternative format. Uploading audiobooks is also an option of course.

The Kindle’s built-in dictionary is also a boon for learners with dyslexia. Using a conventional dictionary is tough for those with sequencing difficulties, especially if they experience visual stress when looking at densely packed pages of information.

I have taken to using my Kindle for reading books to which I wish to refer at a later date; whether for a book group discussion or professional reflection. For this I use the highlighting tool. This facility is particularly useful for people who find it hard to organise themselves. Dyslexics’ desks are often strewn with bits of paper which inevitably get lost. If there is a need to refer back at any point, having the text with notes in the same place helps immeasurably. These highlights can be extracted and re-read with ease.

Another great feature of the Kindle is its search provision. This allows you easily to locate specific names, places or events to refresh the memory. Hunting for relevant information can take up huge amounts of time which slower readers can ill afford. The bookmark is also very helpful for finding your place when you return to the book. Fluent readers – ones who love books and/or who are studying from them – ‘annotate, mark up, underline’; their books are likely to be ‘dog-eared, summarised, cross-referenced, hyperlinked, shared, and talked about. Being digital allows them to do all that and more’.

Thetechnium,  when speculating about the future of the book, discusses the prospect of a screen that we not only watch but that watches us, the readers. For people with slow processing speed, there is the potential for interactivity with the text:

to map whether you are confused by a passage, or delighted, or bored. Prototype face tracking software can already recognize your mood, and whether you are paying attention, and more importantly where on the screen you are paying attention. That means that the text could adapt to how it is perceived. Perhaps it expands into more detail, or shrinks during speed reading, or changes vocabulary when you struggle, or reacts in a hundred possible ways. There are numerous experiments playing with adaptive text. One will give you different summaries of characters and plot depending on how far you’ve read.

This flexibility might challenge the very nature of books, of reading – something for another post perhaps – but for learners with dyslexia it opens up a whole world from which hitherto they been largely excluded.

Mind Mapping with P3

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Every Tuesday morning this term I’ve had a lovely time working with all 12 Primary 3s in a small school.

One child has significant dyslexic difficulties and we felt he would benefit from Mind Mapping as a tool to express his ideas, circumventing the barrier of print. It seemed daft to teach him alone so the whole class experienced the programme.

The Curriculum for Excellence outcomes around the class theme of Rivers were:

Organising and using information

  • I can select ideas and relevant information + organise these in a logical sequence LIT 1-26a

Creating Texts

  • I can convey information and share my opinions in different ways. LIT 1-28a/ LIT 1-29a

I had shown them the various components of the Mind Mapping software, Kidspiration: Open, Main Idea and sub-topics, Library (of pictures), Link Symbols, SuperGrouper – setting a background picture, Symbol Maker, changing font style and colour and changing the background colour. They spent several sessions playing, inventing fantastic fish, grouping various creatures that live on or by rivers in order to get to know what the software could do, etc. Some taught others how to import pictures from the internet.

They also explored WordTalk: installing, adding Heather’s Scottish voice, again altering the font and colours, listening to separate words, sentences and paragraphs, using the speaking spell check and synonym finder. I also showed them several MS Word shortcuts using the ‘Ctrl’ key.

They spent the final session mapping information from an article (The River’s Story ) on to Kidspiration. Identifying key concepts is a most difficult task but all these children managed it superbly well.

They then copied and pasted those key words and phrases into a mind map.

It was thrilling to see how successfully they manoeuvred between the 2 documents; how well they co-operated with each other in deciding which words and phrases were most important and how easily they manipulated the software to which they had only recently been introduced.

 But the greatest pleasure for me was this:

Makes it all worthwhile! (and they loved my shoes!!)

Do as many girls have dyslexia as boys?

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It’s Me adds to the debate about the prevalence of dyslexia in boys and girls; a subject I touched on here.

Children’s author Lari Don [based in Leith] has been commissioned by Barrington Stoke, who specialise in publishing books for dyslexic readers, to write a story specifically for girls. At present, most literature designed to help young people with dyslexia is aimed at boys as it was previously thought that they were three times more likely to be dyslexic than girls.

However, new evidence shows girls are just more likely to cope better with dyslexia, meaning their symptoms can go unnoticed for years before they receive specialist tuition. Ms Don was tasked with writing a book to capture the imaginations of girls who struggle with reading, and she decided to tell the tale of an adventurous mythical heroine, the Sumerian goddess Inanna..

Currently literature for children with dyslexia is aimed at boys.  This is because previous it was thought that boys are three times more likely to be dyslexic than girls.

Yet new evidence shows that girls just have better strategies to cope with dyslexia, meaning their symptoms can go unnoticed.

It is unfortunate that the evidence referred to isn’t cited but it makes absolute sense to me.

Inanimate Alice and Me 5: Creating Episode 5

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My first post about my project using Inanimate Alice with a group of P7 learners with dyslexia quoted the author:

Kate (Pullinger) described how her attention had been drawn to alerts to the publication online of episode 5, and not just one but several versions. ‘to have students taking a piece of writing by someone else and engaging with it in an entirely new way is a very exciting form of interactivity’.

And I went on to say:

The notion of text is evolving. We need to think again about what we understand by ‘literacy’ and the way that we read and interact with text and stories. ‘The children are redefining ideas of what authorship means, who owns the text, who is allowed to tell stories’. There are real opportunities for learning in delving into the digital realm to motivate and inspire youngsters, particularly perhaps those who have traditionally considered that storytelling is not for them.

Well, at last we have begun our own storytelling venture. The children were keen to get started weeks ago but I held them back. I don’t often discourage children from writing but I felt we needed to have studied the components of the original episodes before embarking on creating our own. This is not least because these inexperienced writers require strong models and significant support. 

We have spent a good deal of time examining the first 4 episodes of Inanimate Alice and exploring the common elements in the story line and in the presentation.

I used a terrific article, ‘What do Good Writers Do?’ to help me focus on the work to be done. Good writers can

identify and articulate what makes a narrative. They also understand the structures and features of the narrative before using what they know about narratives to transfer to their own writing.

I had prepared cards illustrating the storyline and presentational aspects about Alice for reference to help them develop these crucial skills. The cards – laid out on the floor throughout the session – helped them to ‘consider all factors before and during the writing process: characters, setting, plot, main idea, length, audience’. Thus they were able to ‘use their prior knowledge of the text type and the topic to help them develop a text’.

We debated whether this would be a joint or individual venture but the decision was made for us when only one computer was available. Welcome to the real world. As it happened I felt this was a positive thing: the collaboration between the children ensured that the soppiness of the girls was countered by the violence of the boys. Apologies for being gender specific but you’ll get the point when you see the final version!

We resisted the temptation to find pictures and structure our tale around them as I had done when using Storybird. Rather than having a specific plan for our storyline to develop in a logical sequence we went with the flow. I guess if Philip Pullman can do it, so can we:

I don’t exactly choose [themes and storylines] so much as surrender to them. I couldn’t write at all if I had to choose, in a sort of cold-blooded way, between this idea and that one. If they both excite me, I’ll write about them both.

When I wrote Northern Lights I had a rough idea of where it was all going, and I knew a few things about some places I wanted to stop at on the way. I knew it had to end in a garden; I wanted to bring in the hornbeam trees in Oxford; I thought I might have to go to the world of the dead. That’s all. I discovered most of it as I went along.

However, as we’re not (yet) as experienced as Pullman, some scaffolding is important. This is why basing our story on Alice’s adventures is so useful for these children who have found writing so very challenging.

The children were bursting with ideas which, to my pleasure, centred firmly upon the story rather than the telling of it. I suggested they use Audacity to record their story as an alternative to written text but this suggestion was summarily dismissed.

In the end I haven’t given them the option of using Storybird or Glogster. (I had also considered trying  Scratch  but couldn’t get access at school.) I felt learning these tools would distract from the composition. So PowerPoint it is.

While the children had refused any offers from me to read the text of the earlier episodes, they were content for me to scribe.

We ended yesterday’s session with a story that contained many of the elements embedded in Inanimate Alice but which was unique.

Next week, all being well, they will fill out the bare bones of the story with images, sounds and (possibly) music.  They will also put their own individual stamp on that skeleton.

Many young writers find being aware of an audience hard, especially those who do not read a great amount. I will encourage them to ‘use descriptions, details and language to help the reader visualize and make connections to the setting of the narrative’. I hope to ensure they ‘plant seeds throughout a story for characters and the plot to develop for the reader to keep interested and want to read on’.

The aim is to present their story to the whole class in a fortnight.

The motivation’s there; let’s hope there is enough time.

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