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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Writing in the Margins

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Appropos of my post about the collaborative nature of writing in the not too distant future, here is something called

an open space within a digital book where readers share their thoughts.

  • Read.

    In our minimalistic eReader the focus is on the text, so you can listen to the author’s voice. Let his words inspire your own thinking.

  • Write.

    When a passage resonates with you, make sure you highlight it and add a note. It’s your contribution to the dialogue surrounding the book.

  • Share.

    The openmargin lies next to the text, it’s the place where the notes of all the readers are collected. Here you connect thoughtfully with readers you never met before.

I already use my Kindle when I’m reading something to which I’ll wish to refer at a later date. But that’s for my own personal use. This appears to be a more sophisticated version where others can engage in a dialogue about the content. They are claiming to ‘re-design the book’. They say,

We want to focus on the dialogue in the margin…By adding *openmargin to your software, you connect the books to an online dialogue. While you provide the reading experience in the center, we provide the reader with interactive possibilities on the side.

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.

Books in the house

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 An interesting post here discusses the somewhat obvious role of home experience in creating readers.

Research shows a correlation between having books in the house as a child and future education success.

A study recently published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility found that just having books around the house (the more, the better) is correlated with how many years of schooling a child will complete. The study looked at samples from 27 nations, and according to its abstract, found that growing up in a household with 500 or more books is “as great an advantage as having university-educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father [sic].” Children with as few as 25 books in the family household completed on average two more years of schooling than children raised in homes without any books.

It makes sense that having access to books and being keen to seek books out on one’s own would lead to a greater interest in reading and schooling. (But why focus on the father’s job? Surely the role of the principal carer – usually the mother – is far more significant.)

And now here’s the cartoon from last week’s Education Guardian:

Enough said?

Alternative World Book Night plan

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World Book Night

With the full support of the Publishers Association, the Booksellers Association, the Independent Publishers Guild, the Reading Agency with libraries, World Book Day and the BBC, one million books will be given away by an army of passionate readers to members of the public across the UK and Ireland

It’s an ambitious venture intended to spread a buzz about the joy of reading up and down the country.

But a report in The Guardian describes the doubts that some have about the mass giveaway.  They argue that it could impact negatively on independent booksellers struggling to survive in a particularly tough retail climate, while failing to reward authors properly for their work.

One day between now and next Saturday (5 March), let’s each of us buy a book, preferably from an actual bookshop, or direct from a publisher. Any book, Nicola Morgan suggests on her blog.

Write inside it: ‘Given in the spirit of World Book Night, March 5th 2011 and bought from [insert name of shop] – please enjoy and tell people about it.’ And give it to someone. Anyone. A friend or stranger, a library or school or doctor’s surgery or anything. Then go home, and enjoy whatever you’re reading yourself.

Stressing that she wanted her proposal to be seen as a positive intervention in the debate, Morgan explained:

It’s very simple and everyone wins: the bookshop, the recipient, the author, the publisher, the agent, even you, the giver, because you’ll enjoy the frisson of pleasure that comes from giving. There are no losers. That’s why I like it.

Susan Hill is among the novelists responding with enthusiasm to the idea. Hill said she was “totally against” the mass giveaway of pre-selected books in the World Book Night scheme.

One of my publishers has had to spend £40,000 on printing books to give away which is £40,000 he cannot now use to publish and promote new authors. This is a much better idea and I’m up for it.

This puts me in mind of Bookcrossing, a free online book club which began in order to encourage the practice, aiming to “make the whole world a library.”

The ‘crossing’ or exchanging of books may take any of a number of forms, including wild releasing books in public, direct swaps with other members of the websites, or “book rings” in which books travel in a set order to participants who want to read a certain book. The community aspect of BookCrossing.com has grown and expanded in ways that were not expected at the outset, in the form of blog or forum discussions, mailing lists and annual conventions throughout the world.

You can find your local Meet Up group here.


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Inanimate Alice and Me 2: What makes a good reader?

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A group of 11 year olds and I have started learning with Inanimate Alice. We are applying what we know about being a good reader to this multi-modal text in an attempt to extend our understanding of what we mean by literacy in the 21st century.

All the children struggle with the basics of decoding text, with equivalent reading ages at least 3 years below their chronological ages. On the whole their understanding and receptive vocabularies are on a par with others in their class when the barrier of print is removed. They are learners with dyslexia.

All believe that they ‘cannae read’ (and still less write and spell) although most valiantly make every effort to learn most of the time.

One of the characteristics of good readers is that they read for different purposes. Having a purpose is crucial for developing reading stamina, comprehension and for identifying key concepts.

We are finding IA so engrossing that there is no need to provide any other incentive. The children are actively engaged in investigating the text.

They are also learning that they can use tools to hold on to their thinking so they can return to it later. Memory overload is a major difficulty for learners with dyslexia and panic often sets in if they are expected to decode and recall content at the same time. IA allows them to revisit parts of the story – for clarification, for reinforcement – with ease.

This is especially important for these readers as, at times, the text hurtles across the screen and disappears before they have had time to process it. They are finding out that there is no shame in re-reading something – and that in fact good readers frequently examine the text closely and often before drawing conclusions. Because this is a multi-modal text they feel more liberated to move between pages and to express bewilderment than with a conventional book.

This group of learners is beginning to understand that, if they don’t make sense of the text at first, it’s okay to look again; it’s okay to change reading pace, to be puzzled. Deploying strategies to support comprehension is a novel notion. They are beginning to understand that this is something that everybody does – in particular those people who appear to be more able than them. They don’t yet really believe that ‘even’ experienced readers get stuck or that when they do, they use different techniques to unstick themselves.

So, they are making connections between the story and their own lives, games they’ve played and, less frequently, books they have read. (When reading ‘contamination’ J suddenly realised that he could decode this long word by segmenting it – putting all those years of phonological awareness training into practice.)

We are practising making predictions with a view to creating an episode of our own and this involves asking questions of ourselves and each other as well as of the text itself. Gradually we are noticing more and more about  the writer’s craft; how the text is structured; considering why, for example, music plays in some scenes and not others, what activates the electronic sound and what effect this has upon our understanding (and nerves!).

We have done little as yet to record our experience of reading Inanimate Alice apart from plenary video clips from the first session and my jotted notes. However, the children are keen to start producing their own story and will hopefully make and extend connections while undertaking this process.

There can be no doubt that this is real literacy with which we are engaged.

Play, Talk, Read

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Parents urged to play, talk, read

A new campaign to encourage parents and carers to play, talk and read to their young children to help give them the best start in life, has been launched by Scotland’s Children’s Minister, Adam Ingram.

The Play, Talk, Read campaign – part of the Scottish Government’s ongoing focus on the early years of children’s lives – aims to build on the success of a similar campaign last year and help parents lay the foundations for improved future life chances for their children.

The Play Talk Read website has been updated for this year’s campaign including tips and advice with digital books, an online community, interactive videos, games and promotions. Nine TV infomercials featuring parents telling their Play, Talk, Read stories are also being aired.

A Play, Talk, Read DVD containing infomercials, offering advice, interactive games and digital books is available to parents and carers free through the website and is being distributed through the infomercials and roadshows.

The interactive story books look good, as do a number of other activities. However, the clips in the ‘How-To Video’ section were inaccessible whne I tried to open it.

Even so, a site well worth checking out fro indeas to support very young children.

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