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Understanding dyxlexia: Language-based learning disability doesn't stop students

January 15, 2018
By Kristy MacKaben - For Mirror Moms , Mirror Moms

Cay Tressler recently earned a doctorate degree in biochemistry. Her fellow graduates were shocked to discover that Tressler has dyslexia - a language-based learning disability.

As a young girl, Tressler struggled with reading and writing. Luckily, her mother, Sue Karp, was a reading specialist and a teacher at the time, and knew how to help her daughter. Tressler had trouble with phonics, but had a great memory, and worked hard to fill the gap in reading and catch up to her peers.

She is now 30 and working on her post-doctorate degree at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

"I thought she'd be OK. I knew she was very bright," said Karp, who is now a school psychologist with the Altoona Area School District. "I knew what she needed in terms of teaching her. From an early age she wanted to go into science and she was very good at math. It was just a matter of getting her there."

Tressler is not alone.

One in five people have dyslexia - the most common language-based learning disability, according to the International Dyslexia Association. Despite these staggering numbers, children often do not receive the services and extra help they need -- especially in the Blair County area, where resources specific to helping people with dyslexia are scarce.

Fact Box

Dyslexia Facts

One in five people have dyslexia.

Dyslexia does not mean writing letters backward or reading from right to left.

People with dyslexia are usually of average or above average intelligence.

Dyslexia is a hereditary, language-based learning disability that is neurological in origin.

People with dyslexia have trouble reading, writing and spelling.

First signs of dyslexia include trouble rhyming, recognizing letters of the alphabet, remembering letter sounds and decoding words.

About 20 percent of the population has a language-based learning disability.

Of those people, 70 percent have dyslexia.

Dyslexia does not discriminate. Males and females are equally likely to be affected, as well as people from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.

Seventy-four percent of children who are poor readers in third grade remain poor readers in ninth grade and into adulthood.

If taught in a specific manner, people with dyslexia learn to read on or above grade level, and perform well in school.

Source: International Dyslexia Association

It wasn't until 2015 that area schools began using the term "dyslexia." Up until that point, schools considered dyslexia a medical term, and instead, used the term "specific learning disability in reading." The Pennsylvania chapter of the International Dyslexia Association could not find record of any support groups or tutors or instructors specializing in teaching children with dyslexia in the Blair County area.

Contrary to common misconceptions, dyslexia does not mean writing letters backward, or reading from right to left. It's not something that can be cured. Dyslexia is a hereditary learning challenge that is neurological in origin.

People with dyslexia, (who are often of above average intelligence) usually have poor spelling, trouble decoding words, and understanding the phonological component of language. In turn, they have difficulty with word recognition and comprehending what they read. Despite these challenges, when people with dyslexia are taught to read using certain methods, they can eventually fill the gap, and read on or above grade level, said Kathy Hartos, a Pittsburgh-based reading instructor who uses the Orton-Gillingham method to teach children with dyslexia.

To the detriment of children and their parents, dyslexia is a learning difficulty that is oftentimes overlooked, and appropriate services are sometimes not readily available.

"Unfortunately your area, that part of the state, does not have resources that we have in other areas," Hartos said. "Some people just don't understand it and we need to spread awareness. Some people don't understand it and they're embarrassed and they think they can't get help."

What is dyslexia?

Most children with dyslexia are of average or above average intelligence; many are considered gifted. So, dyslexia is often hard to spot in young children who often don't struggle or stick out at all in preschool, kindergarten or early elementary school. Sometimes children with dyslexia find ways to get by in reading, whether it's guessing at text, memorizing words or using their own unique methods. Though it's difficult to diagnose before elementary school, some signs can appear in children as young as 4 or 5.

Some children with dyslexia may learn to talk later, or might not speak as clearly as their peers, said Anne Mong Cramer, professor of special education at Penn State Altoona. While natural readers intuitively learn the rules of the English language, children with dyslexia do not intuitively learn this because their brains are wired differently to process language.

"The issue is the way that the child sees, hears and processes information is different than their peers without a specific learning disability," said Cramer. "Think of it this way: Because my brain sends the signals through a different route does not mean that the signal doesn't get there at all. We can all follow a different route to school, but the directions that work for me may not work for you. You may get there faster by a more direct route, while I may take longer because my route is not as direct. We can still arrive at the same destination."

Teaching children with dyslexia to read

Dyslexia is the most common cause of reading difficulties, said Hartos. The approach used to teach children with dyslexia is called structured literacy, which is a systematic form of instruction that utilizes different components of reading-phonics, sound/symbol association, syntax and semantics.

Reading involves five areas: phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.

Children also need a lot of time to practice the reading skills, and a multi-sensory approach is best for children with dyslexia, Hartos said. Teachers should incorporate visual, motor, auditory, tactile and kinesthetic learning opportunities when teaching children with dyslexia.

The most common, and many say the most successful method of teaching children with dyslexia is the Orton-Gillingham approach, which was developed in the 1930s to teach children with language based learning difficulties. It is a phonics-based system that teaches word formation before whole language, Hartos said. Orton-Gillingham uses a structured, sequential and multi-sensory approach. All children can benefit from this type of approach to reading, Hartos said.

Though schools in the Altoona Area School District do not use teaching methods geared specifically to students with Dyslexia, all programs are research-based and evidence-based, Karp said.

"If a teacher is well trained in explicit, direct instruction, a child will make progress," said Cramer.

And reading specialists, special education teachers and classroom teachers try to provide the best instruction for all children.

"We're all about what are the needs of the child and how can we meet those needs," Karp said. "We will do what we need to do to meet those needs."

Seeking help

Most public schools do not actively screen children for dyslexia, though they do regularly assess reading level, and determine whether additional services are needed. If parents suspect a reading delay or difficulty, they can ask the school psychologist to evaluate their child. Before a diagnosis, a specialist must first rule out any other causes of the reading delay, such as vision, hearing, home environment, or innate intelligence, Cramer said.

If parents do not agree with the results of an evaluation, they can have their child evaluated by an outside source, Hartos said. Once the child is determined to have a learning difficulty, the school will create an Individualized Education Plan, and determine what services are needed and can be provided. Along with intensive reading instruction, schools might provide accommodations for students, including allowing more time on assignments and assessments, or the use of technology.

Technology helped Tressler with writing and spelling immensely in middle school and high school, Karp said. "Assistive technology was a godsend," Karp said.

It's important that parents ask for help and do not give up hope. National organizations, such as the International Dyslexia Association and Decoding Dyslexia can help, and parents need to remember that teachers and administrators are there to help their children, said Karp.

With the proper instruction and determination, children with dyslexia will succeed at school and in life, Cramer said.

"With appropriate evidence-based instruction and supports, most children with learning disabilities are able to learn strategies for coping with tasks they find challenging," Cramer said. "When this instruction occurs, most children with learning disabilities can pursue any future they like -- college, trade school, skilled labor, homemaker - nothing is out of reach. Families, teachers, and the students should talk early about the plans for the future. When everyone is on the same page, planning and instruction can be designed to meet those goals."



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