Is dyslexia a disability or a disorder? A passing, early-learning problem or an enduring affliction through adulthood? Can it be cured?
The more answers you have to questions like these, the more you’ll be able to help your dyslexic child
By Irma Joubert
This is the SMS my sister sent me the other day: “i was macin mekerohny sow i thawt off yow.”
It’s not SMS-speak. My sister is dyslexic. What she was trying to SMS was “I was making macaroni so I thought of you.”
My clever dad was dyslexic too. He was an entomologist with a Master’s degree but could never really advance in his field because he couldn’t read reports or publish articles.
My brothers are also dyslexic and they’re clever too. The eldest has a Bachelor’s degree in physics and the youngest a Master’s in labour relations. It took years of hard work to get where they are today – and it’s still a daily slog for both of them.
“Load a spellchecker onto your computer,” I suggest.
“I’ve got one!” comes the retort. “The stupid thing doesn’t recognise what I type. And when it does, it gives me four other options. How do I know which one is right?”
When I was young I experienced dyslexia through my sister. Every week we’d learn our 10 vocabulary words together and by Thursday afternoons she’d be able to write all 10 correctly. But on Friday mornings, when we’d write them in the dust with a stick while waiting for the bus on our farm road, I knew she’d be getting another rap over the knuckles later that day.
I became a language teacher. I’d watch a student spell the same word in four different ways or another walk away with an E for prepared reading and a strong B for a prepared oral, and I’d wish for a miracle cure.
My sister is now a successful businesswoman in a small town and recently completed an international course in the rehabilitation of wild animals.
On the face of it, she seems to have overcome her dyslexia but she still finds it humiliating to ask examiners from America or Canada if she can do her exams orally. She can’t watch a movie such as Life is Beautiful because she can’t read the subtitles.
She struggles to use an unfamiliar ATM because by the time she’s decoded the unfamiliar instructions, the machine is flashing a red warning asking whether or not she wishes to continue with her transaction.
Reading big blue direction boards while driving is impossible. Even at 80 km/h, my sister can’t make sense of the signs – they simply flash by too fast.
John is a lively teenager, a bit of a rogue, a talented rugby player who is popular with the girls – and a dyslexia sufferer. I was his Afrikaans teacher and used to mark his work with a pencil rather than a red pen so it didn’t end up looking like a bloodbath.
His mother would read him his prescribed books but he continued to fail one language test after another. His marks for maths were over 80 per cent. He’d get 95 per cent for accountancy. And 45 per cent for English.
In the staff room his overworked history teacher said: “I wish John would concentrate. He copies things incorrectly from the blackboard”.
Writing correctly is an age-old basic skill, isn’t it? But the dyslexic child sees every word as if for the first time; it simply isn’t in his memory bank. And correcting a dyslexic is like telling a child with a stammer to talk properly or a deaf child to open his ears.
As a language teacher you feel just as helpless as the dyslexic child’s desperate mother. You know at the next parent-teacher evening a mom will be asking “What can I do?” Despite all your training, you have not been taught how to help dyslexic learners. The Higher Education Department syllabus simply does not address dyslexia.
What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a disability that doesn’t qualify for special parking or count as part of a company’s employment equity quota.
According to the International Dyslexia Association it’s a languagebased learning problem that makes writing, reading, spelling and even the pronunciation of words difficult. People with dyslexia struggle to link letters to the sounds the letters represent. The exact cause is still a mystery.
Research done by Dr Bennett A Shaywitz of Yale University in the States has found a difference between the brains of “normal” readers and dyslexic children. The disorder is not a question of injury but rather of a disturbance in the neurological wiring that makes reading extremely difficult.
Researchers at Helsinki University have isolated a single gene (with the unpronounceable name DYXCI) that might be the cause of the disability. Scientists are working on methods to “rewire” the dyslexic brain.
Many people are benefiting from various types of treatment, with the levels of success depending on their personalities and the nature of their disability. The golden rule remains: the earlier the problem is identified, the easier it is to help the sufferer. Tests are now available that can identify dyslexic children at preschool age.
Treatments on trial
There are so many treatments on the market you can’t blame desperate parents for wondering which ones work and which are just moneymaking gimmicks. On the internet there are so many treatments, so many promises of brilliant results. Is there really a quick fix or does it take a lifetime of effort?
Almeri Scott, a Johannesburg speech therapist, explains: “A child must be able to perceive the subtle differences between words and sounds, remember sounds within words in order, separate words into syllables and sounds, and put syllables and sounds together to make words.
“For example, to a child who can’t hear the difference between “m” and “n” sounds – despite having normal hearing – the words “met” and “net” will sound the same, which could cause spelling problems.
Scott advises mothers to talk to newborns. “Talk to your baby from the very first day; it’s the only way they’ll learn language,” she says. “Use correct, adult language from the start. Read stories, sing songs and recite rhymes to your baby.”
The sooner parents spot warning signs and act on them the better. A therapist will help parents stimulate the child’s language and listening skills. Speech and language therapy is by far the most successful approach, says Dr Shelley O’Carroll, a Muizenberg psychologist specialising in dyslexia and learning difficulties.
Therapists at Audiblox don’t regard dyslexia as a disability but rather as an inability that can be corrected. Dr Alida Kotze, a Durbanville psychiatrist, points out that reading difficulties can be improved but dyslexia can’t be cured.
“Audiblox is based on the principle that you’ve been taught every skill you have,” Marj Arslanian of Kloof in Durban says. Arslanian uses fun and clever wall charts to demonstrate how play can be used to overcome “b/d” and “p/q” confusion.
“Repetition fixes the recognition of the different shapes and sounds in the memory banks so application eventually becomes automatic,” she says. “I’ve never had a child whom I haven’t been able to help.”
Both Susan du Plessis of the Dyslexia Centre in Pretoria and Arslanian emphasise that the person who applies the Audiblox programme must be an accredited Audiblox therapist.
The Dore programme focuses on the cerebellum, the centre of the brain that learns skills in such a way that they become easy and automatic.
Dore is an individual-based programme of physical and conceptual exercises used at home to stimulate and develop this lagging part of the brain. Some experts have their doubts about the programme’s effectiveness.
“The so-called brain exercises aren’t going to help a child read or write,” psychologist O’Carroll says. “At most, they can make children more receptive to tuition. The only way they can read or write better is by learning to do it.”
Reading poorly results in acute learning problems. In South Africa today, poor reading skills and therefore poor learning abilities are prevalent in a worrying number of children.
Reading clinics don’t just focus on dyslexics. They can help anyone who has difficulty reading. Experts believe reading therapy must include meaningful reading and writing exercises – not just worksheets and long lists of words.
“There is often too much emphasis on correct spelling,” O’Carroll says. “Children with dyslexia must also learn to read smoothly and how to write down their own ideas.” A reading programme should be enjoyable and instill a love of reading and writing in the child.
Wise E ye
The group has more than 50 clinics countrywide. Their reading technique is unique in that it ensures the quality of information received through reading is sent to the short-term memory in a much purer form. This means a much more accurate message is sent to the long-term memory.
The programme comprises mostly eye and memory exercises and, according to Lana van Niekerk, a training therapist in Bloemfontein, Wise Eye has an excellent success rate.
Tina Cowley developed the Cowley Technologies reading methods while trying to find a solution to her own son’s reading problems. Her programme uses a unique, patented keyboard to address reading difficulties.
After a child’s reading ability has been scientifically tested, a programme is compiled to focus on his basic reading skills.
Perseverance is key
We all have one body. I might never look like Charlize Theron but with daily gym sessions I’ll look better than I do at the moment.
The same goes for dyslexia. With the right treatment and consistent exercises dyslexics can improve their abilities. But is total recovery possible? I, for one, have my doubts. I’ll believe it only when my sister is able to pick up a book and read as fluently as she speaks.
So what do we tell a teenager with this disability? Or the mother of a Grade 3 learner who still can’t read? Dyslexia remains a problem the sufferer will have forever. It’s a challenge to be faced for life.
We know it doesn’t really help you to know that between four and five per cent of Britons have dyslexia, or that brilliant entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson are among its sufferers. It’s you, the dyslexic, who must pass matric, wants further education and dreams of a successful career.
In the end it’s the sufferers themselves who must find a way around their condition and become great achievers like Henry Ford, Richard Branson – or my sister – in spite of or maybe because of their dyslexia.
Compiled with the help of Dr Shelley O’Carrol, educational psychologist, and Dr Alida Kotze, psychiatrist.
Symptoms and warning signs
Does your child
Struggle to associate a letter with its sound?
Read slowly and lose his place?
Fail to remember what he’s read?
Sound the letters of a word but can’t put the sounds together to form a word?
Confuse letters, such as “b” and “d”?
Leave letters out, such as writing “vat” instead of “vast”?
Struggle with sentence structure, punctuation, syllables and capital letters?
Struggle with language? Warning signs include an inability to pronounce words correctly, being behind in vocabulary, persisting with baby language, swapping syllables in words and adding or removing bits of words.
Struggle with perceiving things? Good hearing and eyesight are essential. The inability to see similarities and differences in jigsaw puzzles, pictures and symbols could point to a problem.
Durbanville psychiatrist Dr Alida Kotze advises taking your child to a multidisciplinary team for a comprehensive evaluation and intensive treatment. “There’s no quick fix,” she says. “Your child will need remedial reading therapy and possibly therapy for emotional and behavioural problems.”
Psychologists’ advice to parents
Acquire as much information as possible. Read literature on the subject and become as much of an expert in this area as you can.
Locate the nearest dyslexia information centre (your child’s school should be able to help).
Establish how your child learns and help him to approach his learning work effectively, using, for example, spider diagrams instead of summaries.
Ask teachers to give your child extra time during exams or permission to do them orally. Ask for concessions for incorrect spelling.
Don’t expect too much from your child – adapt to what he can and wants to do.
If you want him to practise his reading skills choose a book or magazine on a topic that interests him, for example a hobby, favourite music icon or sport.
Be positive and encouraging at all times. Provide support and assistance – without taking over.
Teach your child self-discipline and keep boosting his self-esteem.
Dyslexic brains try harder