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Dr. Tricia Lee is director of special education for the Grand Forks School District. JOHN STENNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD

Dyslexia: With positive attitude, early intervention, children can overcome learning disabilities

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Dyslexia, a language-based learning disability, can hinder reading, writing, spelling and sometimes even speaking, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD).

Parents may become alarmed or fearful if their child is diagnosed with dyslexia, but educators say the disability is not a sign of poor intelligence or laziness or the result of impaired hearing or vision.

Often genetic, dyslexia is a neurological disorder that causes the brain to process and interpret information differently. With proper support, almost all people with dyslexia can become good readers and writers, the NCLD states.

“Children with dyslexia exhibit slow or inaccurate word identification and/or spelling,” said Dr. Tricia Lee, director of special education for the Grand Forks School District.

Symptoms occur in boys more often than girls. One in 10 people have symptoms of dyslexia, according to the International Dyslexia Association (IDA).

“Dyslexia can be resistant to typical teaching methods,” Lee said. “It can also be persistent.”

Not all children who have difficulty with these skills are dyslexic, the IDA states. Formal testing of reading, language and writing skills is the only way to confirm a diagnosis of suspected dyslexia.

Related learning disabilities affect oral expression, calculations and mathematics, listening, comprehension and written expression, Lee said.

‘Will not hold you back’

Teachers take steps to encourage students who struggle with dyslexia and other learning disabilities “to not feel inferior,” she said.

Lee and her colleagues hold up familiar role models — dyslexics such as Albert Einstein and Walt Disney — to inspire and motivate them.

“We’ll say, ‘Look at the things they’ve accomplished. This (dyslexia) will not hold you back in any way.’

“A lot of times (these students) have gifts. We make accommodations, and we definitely work with those areas where they have strengths.”

People who are very bright can be dyslexic, the IDA states. They are often capable or even gifted in areas that do not require strong language skills, such as art, computer science, design, drama, electronics, math, mechanics, music, physics, sales and sports.

Early intervention

Parents who may be concerned that their child exhibits symptoms of dyslexia should contact the child’s teacher and schedule a meeting as soon as they have concerns, Lee said.

“They should ask what kind of interventions the child is receiving,” she said. “Parents can request an assessment if they have a concern.”

Early identification is important, “so we can get that team process working sooner rather than later.”

In the classroom, teachers are trained to identify and address learning disabilities.

“We do a lot of assessments of students,” said Lee. Several times a year, in the lowest elementary grades, teachers use a process called “benchmarking,” especially with reading.

With these tools, teachers can spot children “who are having difficulties with reading compared to same-age peers,” she said. “We’re catching a lot of students earlier when they’re having difficulty.”

Children with dyslexia may need to develop compensation or coping skills.

“We look at what strategies can help the child to be successful. For example, for written language skills, we can teach them (a strategy called) COPS — Capitalization, Overall appearance and Punctuation — so they’ll remember what to do.

“Or, for math, they may need to use a calculator.”

What can parents do?

If reading is the problem, Lee recommends that parents read as much as possible to their child, she said.

“A parent modeling reading to a child is really huge. It helps with fluency.”

While they’re reading, parents should prompt kids and sound out words with them, she said.

“Correct errors and revisit those words that were difficult. Practice those words. Repeated reading of the same passage is so, so valuable.”

Parents should provide less help as the child gains more ability.

When a child is diagnosed with a learning disability, the school creates an “individualized education program,” or IEP, that addresses that child’s needs in the “least restrictive environment,” she said.

The child’s “learning setting must be as much like that of the majority of the class as possible,” she said. It may mean he or she leaves the classroom, for special tutoring, for a portion of the day.

Or, students who process information auditorily may leave the room to have the test read to them, she said.

“We don’t want to take them out of the classroom if we don’t have to.”

Lee disagrees that actions to accommodate special needs give a student an unfair advantage.

“Everyone doesn’t need the same things. We’re giving all kids what they need,” Lee said. “Our goal is to help the student feel more prepared, less afraid.”

Vision-related?

Some parents assume their child has a learning disability when, in fact, problems with vision may be to blame.

“Dyslexia can be exacerbated if you have vision problems,” said Dr. Bruce Storhaug, optometrist with Opticare in East Grand Forks.

Children who have difficulty with reading should have their eyes checked to rule out improper vision as a cause.

An eye care professional will check for acuity, or clarity of vision; eye-teaming, to assess how well the eyes work together; focusing, and eye movements, how the eyes scan across the page, Storhaug said.

“Any of these (functions) can cause learning problems related to reading comprehension and speed of reading,” he said. “The earlier that’s recognized, the better — for sure by age 9.”

In children who have a condition in which one eye is very near- or far-sighted, the brain learns to ignore information from that eye because the quality of that information is poor, he said.

The brain “turns off” visual processing of that eye to prevent double vision.

“If we haven’t caught that and corrected it with a prescription by (age 9), we’ll have a hard time teaching the brain to recognize information from that eye.”

If necessary, Storhaug and his colleagues give children exercises to do at home which will strengthen muscles near the eye to correct vision problems.

Dyslexia is a “multidisciplinary issue,” Storhaug said. Eye professionals are “an integral part of it; we make sure those (vision) skills are working well.”

Dyslexia: Warning signs and next steps

Some of the warning signs associated with dyslexia include:

  • Difficulty learning to speak.
  • Trouble learning letters and their sounds.
  • Difficulty organizing written and spoken language.
  • Trouble memorizing number facts.
  • Difficulty reading quickly enough to comprehend.
  • Trouble persisting with and comprehending longer reading assignments.
  • Difficulty spelling.
  • Difficulty performing math operations correctly.

What to do

If your child is exhibiting signs of dyslexia, here are steps you can take:

  • Contact your child’s teacher, head of school, guidance counselor or pediatrician and express your concerns.
  • Request a formal evaluation by a professional or request a referral for testing to confirm a diagnosis of dyslexia or another language-based learning disability.
  • Be an advocate for your child. If he or she is diagnosed as being dyslexic, find proper accommodations in his or her school or look into specialized schools or tutors. Information and resources can be found at www.interdys.org.
  • Keep a positive attitude. A diagnosis of dyslexia or another learning disability is not the end of the world. Children with dyslexia are bright, capable and able to go on to college and successful careers. If your child has dyslexia it simply means that he or she learns differently. Many top CEOs, scientists, artists and entrepreneurs are dyslexic.
  • Visit the International Dyslexia Association website (www.interdys.org) for fact sheets and helpful resources for parents.

Source: International Dyslexia Association

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