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September 5, 2011 / the speech monster

Reading difficulties

I was asked this question by a teacher today, “Does dyslexia exist?” At first, I was flabbergasted that that was even a question, as if someone made up the figures of the number of children who fail reading and spelling in school. I’ve worked with children with significant difficulties in reading and writing and know just how effortful it is for some of them to read and spell. My initial answer to this teacher was “absolutely, I believe it exists.” All the reading models I’ve learned from Adam and Frith, McGuiness, etc., about how we read and how some students encounter a breakdown in their brains in visual processing, phonological processing, etc., that consequently affect reading. I know that a lot of educators – teachers, psychologists, and speech-language pathologists alike, have a hard time understanding this concept of dyslexia and how to help a student with these difficulties. But most don’t question its existence; they just don’t understand enough of it to question, maybe?

Curious, I came home and googled “Does dyslexia exist?” and found a whole bunch of articles, mostly out of the UK, about this. One of them presented an interesting argument against its existence, which essentially is taking the stance of renegotiating the teachers’ instructions rather than blaming or making excuses for the child’s difficulties in learning spelling rules. You can read the article here. That part of it, I agree. There has been a huge debate that still exists today, about the whole language approach to teaching spelling vs the phonetic approach…and as a speech-language pathologist, I’m definitely biased against whole language and learn more towards the latter approach (tho to strike a balance, I’m more advocating a “balanced literacy approach” to learning). You can also see how so many kids fail to learn spelling and reading through whole language, by osmosis and intuitively understanding the convoluted spelling rules in English that come with so many exceptions.

However, I’m still very sure there is such a disorder – at least in the English speaking world – as dyslexia. I’ve seen and read about kids who have gone through whole language or even phonetic approach to learning spelling still struggle with reading and writing. Some of them still reverse letters, some still need constant reminders to sound out words, check their spelling, etc.

Then, it also made me think again about whether dyslexia also exists in China or Japan, or in speakers and readers of languages that rely on pictographs rather than sound letter orthographies like English. I did a bit of research into this way back when I was a grad student, and found insufficient evidence to support this either way. However, I did discover that there are huge differences in the way readers process the Chinese script versus the English one. An interesting article about this can be read here. I do believe dyslexia also exists in these countries but they may take on a different form since it’s so tied with memory and not sound.

I wonder what other people – speechies, parents, educators, etc. – think about this. The article by Hitchens reminded me that a lot of people think this is a “middle class problem” – only richer kids struggle with dyslexia. Kids from low SES often don’t even get to that point – they’re simply illiterate. Does dyslexia exist? Is it just an excuse for the kids? When does a reading difficulty because of a weak foundation cross over to become “dyslexia”?

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One Comment

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  1. Julia Lee / Aug 28 2013 2:23 pm

    Hey Angela and friend! It’s Julia. I came across your blog on your gchat status just now – what a cool blog! What’s funny is that our team here at KIPP just opened up a blog yesterday… kippsalt.wordpress.com
    It’s not quite ready yet though!

    I wanted to comment on this topic because it’s something that I’ve been reading and researching on the past year or so. I also taught a class at the Schools Course at TC on Literacy Intervention this summer… so I had to do a lot of gathering information as well for it recently.
    Since dyslexia is a deficit in the PHONOLOGY part of language, I do think that dyslexia would be prevalent in other countries as well. For example, people with dyslexia have a hard time repeating nonwords (i.e. “vytology) or may mix up sounds in words (i.e. saying “humidity” for “humanity”) because these cover the phonological component of language. I do think that some languages are phonetically easier (i.e. Korean) so I wonder how it would manifest in those languages.. maybe the errors wouldn’t be as prominent?

    I don’t think it’s an SES thing either. I work in Harlem and there are definitely students with dyslexia – the rest of the class catches up with reading up to grade-level typically (with lots of reading intervention and amazing research-based reading instruction here) while the 10-20% continue to struggle with decoding/encoding WITH the same amount of reading instruction, if not more.

    Fascinating topic!

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