The first year of school is a big milestone in a child’s life, and so it was for me too.  But, it was not a milestone that I ‘met’. It was more like it hit me smack in the head- when I wasn’t even looking! 

Back then, kindergarten was at home, and it suited me just fine- until I faced the first-grade school in a completely new city. My mother tongue was a different one than the State’s language. Owing to India’s language diversity, everything everyone spoke outside of the home was gibberish to me. I wasn’t familiar with instructions in English, nor was I making it easy for the teachers to communicate with me in vernacular.  I didn’t comprehend lunch bells and school rules. I was the weird kid in class and the difficult kid for my teachers, but I was blissfully ignorant!

It wasn’t until I encountered my first test that the extent of my cluelessness was clear to everyone. The teacher had announced the first science test, and my mom enthusiastically prepared me for it. I remember her showing me the air bubble experiment with a bowl of water and a drinking glass. She took me through the lesson picture by picture. She made me practice my answers several times. By the date of the test, I knew the answers so well that I could roll the answers off my tongue. 

She just forgot to tell me one simple thing – that on the day of the exam, I was expected to write in my notebook, something other than what’s written on the blackboard. When the teacher wrote the questions on the board, I promptly copied them down, like I did every day, and handed it over.  When my mother was called in to take note of my abysmal performance in the test, I remember watching with amusement, the sudden pinkness of her cheeks, and the shining red tip of her nose. 

And I remained the clueless 5-year-old.  

My cluelessness multiplied several times is probably the experience of every differently-abled child in a society that expects them to pick up reading and writing naturally. Parents are stressing out and still perplexed. Teachers are left wondering why their eons-old methods are not working here. Meanwhile, the child is still doing her best. 

What she might, in fact, need is just the missing piece.

Understanding Learning Disabilities And Dyslexia:

“Becoming an effective reader is a complex task that requires the integration of many oral language skills at both the foundational level of word recognition and the higher-order oral language processing skills that lead to reading comprehension.”  – Dr. Michael Hart, Ph.D, Dyslexia & Difference Learning Expert, founder- TrueLiteracy. 

According to experts, learning disabilities can be bucketed into several categories, among which two are specifically related to reading disabilities.

Dyslexia: Also known as Language-Based Learning Disability, Dyslexia is a neurological condition that affects reading and related language-based processing skills.

Oral / Written Language Disorder: A learning disability that further affects an individual’s understanding of what they read or of spoken language, also sometimes impacting the ability to verbally express through language. 

Dyslexia and IQ: What’s the link?

According to a report by the Dyslexia Association of India, there has been an exponential upward trend in the number of children labeled as dyslexic in India, with about 10% or 30 million children currently estimated to have reading disabilities. A large part of this spike is due to increased awareness about the condition, particularly after the 2007 iconic movie “Taare Zameen Par.’

Does dyslexia mean a lower IQ? 

The simple answer is no.

Brain-imaging studies carried out by neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology show that the brains of children with poor reading abilities fail to light up the brain areas meant for reading and language processing, regardless of high or low IQ, establishing that it is independent of other cognitive abilities. 

Dr. Michael Hart, a Difference Learning expert and Dyslexia Specialist shares how, on the other hand, dyslexics are highly valued for their special cognitive abilities and hold jobs in important positions.

Dyslexia Assessment and Evaluation For The Struggling Reader: The First Step To Overcoming Reading Disabilities

A worried parent is a vulnerable parent, and the only rational way to beat the anxiety is to determine what we are up against. A professional assessment for dyslexia will help the child( and parent) in three crucial areas:

Pinpoint the problem

Screening and evaluation are necessary to understand the source of the problem, while also eliminating other likely causes of reading difficulties.

Intervention planning

Intervention planning helps in developing a customized reading program to help the child make progress, beginning with the student’s current reading skill level. 

Documentation

A formal evaluation helps with documenting the family history, determining the current reading skill level, and progress through the intervention, even helping with planning for accommodations, etc.

A word about Dyslexia screening in India: 

India presents a unique situation in the evaluation process due to the existence of multiple languages. Most children are exposed to one native language and another- the language of instruction, which in most cases is English. 

To accommodate multiple language exposure, India has a unique Dyslexia screening tool – DALI, developed by Dr. Nandini Chatterjee, a neuroscientist at the National Brain Research Center in New Delhi. DALI stands for  DALI (Dyslexia Assessment for Languages of India) and is the first assessment that contains standardized tools to screen and assess dyslexia in multiple Indian languages including Hindi, Marathi, Kannada, and English and is further being developed for languages like Tamil, Telugu, and Bengali. 

Effective Interventions To Help Learners Overcome Reading Disabilities: 

The dyslexic Brain

The image originally appeared in the following publication: Scarborough, H. S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook for research in early literacy (pp. 97–110). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

The recent years have seen a lot of research in understanding reading disabilities and breaking them down for educators and parents. Research indicates that children with reading disabilities require reading intervention strategies in 2 main areas:

  • Word recognition
  • Reading comprehension skills

Here’s Dr. Michael Hart, Ph.D., a dyslexia expert and founder of www.trueliteracy.in on helping learners overcome reading disabilities:

“Becoming an effective reader is a complex task that requires the integration of many oral language skills at both the foundational level of word recognition and the higher-order oral language processing skills that lead to reading comprehension.”  

The following section provides a few strategies to help the child progress from identifying letters and sounds to become a self-directed reader.

Strategies To Build Word Recognition Skills in Dyslexic Readers

Training for word recognition skill-development involves 3 components: 

Sequencing: Helps students familiarize themselves with the written word

      • Break down the unfamiliar word into separate sounds or parts to help them associate the sound with the written part of the word. Repetition is key. 
      • Use prompts and cues to guide the child through the word. 
      • Use short activities involving songs, chants, and poems to help them say and sing words. 
      • Use creative games to develop the skill of following directions and matching the difficulty level to the task. 
      • Use physical games like hopscotch to practice spelling and reading them out loud. 

Dr. Hart provides clarification on a common misconception:  “Phonics is not a reading skill related to oral language.   It’s actually a method for teaching that reflects sound/symbol relationships in letters. Lots and lots of people conflate phonological awareness (cognitive skill) with phonics instruction.”  

Segmentation:  Helps students familiarize themselves with the correlation between the oral and the printed word

      • Practice breaking down the letter sounds into smaller parts. 
      • Demonstrate the blending of the sounds in a word. 
      • Introduce them to word families and rhyming patterns. 
      • Introduce wordplay games that allow them to experiment with changing parts of the word. 
      • Scavenger Hunts with words are great to help them discover new word patterns. 
      • Gradually introduce irregular words through short activities and stories.

Organizers: Helps students comprehend instructions and make sense of information about forthcoming tasks. 

      • Directs children to look over material prior to instruction.
      • Provide them with advanced information about tasks.
      • Repeat why they are being given instructions. 

Strategies To Build Reading comprehension skills in Dyslexic Readers

Reading comprehension involves a spectrum of skills, that needs a step-by-step approach. Here a few strategies recommended by experts. 

1.  Story narration:  Introduces children to new words, contexts, and ideas. 

    • Talk about books on a regular basis. 
    • Expose them to the vocabulary and phrases that they are likely to regularly encounter and understand.
    • Read-aloud from books and tell stories to encourage language development. 

2.  Mapping print to meaning:  Helps the child map the relationship between print and spoken languages. 

    • Introduce activities to incorporate highlighting of words and their uses in items of everyday  use- like signposts, labels, etc 
    • Use tactile materials to practice words and sentences. 
    • Incorporate activities to practice finding the top, bottom, front and back covers of books.  
    • Familiarize children with the appearance of specific words through repetitions
    • Activities in which children practice with predictable and patterned language stories.

3. Encourage context-building through reading activities:  Helps with new vocabulary comprehension through wide reading  

    • Design discussion time around new words that occur during the course of the day-   during storytime, or textbook reading or even during conversations.  
    • Build children to keep a record of words they use in their own writing, especially new words, and interesting contexts they have been used in. 

4.  Encourage self-directed reading: Helps comprehend a wide variety of books

    • Allot a daily time for self-selected reading
    • Access to books children want to read in their classrooms and school libraries
    • Access to books that can be taken home to be read independently or to family members

5. Use Structured Word Inquiry

“Structured Word Inquiry answered all of my questions so I could lead my students to the answers for theirs.” – Shawna Pope-Jefferson, CCC/SLP

Structured word inquiry is an emerging methodology that uses scientific inquiry to analyze words, their meanings, their structure, and their phonology. Linguistic tools like word sums and lexical word matrices are used to help students analyze the components of words( also called orthographic analysis). Here’s more information on this: 

https://trueliteracy.in/structured-word-inquiry-webinar/

Shawna Pope-Jefferson, a speech-language pathologist, specializing in the assessment and treatment of language and literacy disorders, describes Structured Word Inquiry (SWI) as a method that stems from orthographic linguistics, the science of written words. It includes all three parts of orthography:

    1. Morphology – Structure
    2. Etymology – Origin and history
    3. Phonology – The meaningful sounds, or phonemes. 

Many speech-language pathologists, teachers, tutors, and parents use Structured Word Inquiry successfully with all types of students. Many have had success with students who can’t begin with speech sounds or phonemes. These students are sometimes referred to as having, “double-deficit or triple-deficit dyslexia.” 

Students with “stealth,” dyslexia, who excel academically but do not learn to read and spell have also found success with SWI. For the gifted LD students, SWI explains polysyllabic words so they can master reading and writing more formal text. Any challenges with homophones or words that are sometimes to referred to as “sight words,” become clear to them as well. 

Beginning with meaning and structure before diving into the phonology has proven to work for them. It doesn’t matter what age, stage, or reading level of the student, the logic of the English writing system appeals to them. They respond well to having an answer to every question that arises. 

We well know that our dyslexic students often grasp concepts but have difficulty with rote memorization or memorizing information without context. Structured Word Inquiry works for them because all learning takes place within a context.

What Struggling Readers Need Beyond Techniques & Strategies To Overcome Their Reading Disabilities

It’s important to remember that children who struggle to read have often experienced being ‘the misfit’ and the ‘outsider.’ The fastest way to see results is to pay attention to their efforts, not the results- though feelings of frustration are natural during intense training phases.

Here are a few things to keep in mind while working with struggling readers:

  1. Incorporate a lot of oral instruction and assessment. Even though the goal is to get them to read, it is crucial that they see their own progress. 
  2. It’s important to pick stories that fit the child’s reading level well. A success rate of 80-90% will nudge them forward more easily. 
  3. Provide extra time as basic accommodation for finishing an activity. 
  4. Provide immediate feedback. They learn faster when they can map their learning with the feedback. 
  5. Keep activities short, brief, and interesting. 
  6. Provide tangible ways for them to absorb abstract objects. Always have something that appeals to their other senses- touch, feel, smell while working on new words and repetitions. 
  7. Give them positive feedback. Tons of it. 
  8. Be specific about your feedback: Samee reason as No. 5. Giving them  feedback like “ I like the colors you used for pastel” is much more effective than saying, “Good job.”
  9. Create an atmosphere of collaboration to encourage articulation of their thoughts and ideas.

Assistive Reading Technologies for students with reading disabilities: 

Pocket spell checkers

The Pocket Spell Checker intuitively returns the correct spelling match of a word based on the input of a dyslexic learner based on how they think a word might be spelled phonetically. Immensely helpful as a reliable confidence booster. 

Line Readers

A line reader is a tool that magnifies and highlights the portion of the text over which the cursor hovers. It helps dyslexics move at their own pace, and helps keep focus because the highlights keep them on track. Available as iOS and Andriod apps. 

Here’s an example

Text-to-Speech Apps

Text-to-Speech apps read text aloud, by highlighting words as they go along, helping dyslexic students read easily. 

Dyslexia Resources for Parents/teachers

https://dyslexiaindia.org.in/

Trueliteracy.in offers a Dyslexia Training Program, an affordable online program developed and led by Dr. Hart, now available along with the resources on TrueLiteracy.in. The first month is entirely free. 

https://learningally.org/Solutions-for-Home/Dyslexia-Resources/Articles/cid/9

Maharashtra Dyslexia Association offers a free K-12 online course for struggling readers around the world.  

International Dyslexia Association 

Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity,

Wrightslaw.com

Reading Eggs offers free online reading programs for struggling readers.  

The Special Kids International Summit for Parents & Educators. 

A closing word

As with everything worth achieving, helping struggling readers overcome their reading disabilities takes time, patience, and perseverance. Every time motivation runs dry, all it would take is to remind ourselves that some of the world’s greatest contributors in many fields have been some brilliant dyslexics.

Success is imperative- and imminent with consistent efforts.

References: 

https://www.readingrockets.org/article/effective-reading-interventions-kids-learning-disabilities

https://www.readingrockets.org/article/effective-reading-interventions-kids-learning-disabilities

Saskatchewan Learning- Reading-Difficulties-Disabilities.pdf

Trueliteracy.in

https://research.avondale.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1321&context=teach

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/5576584_Diagnosis_and_Treatment_of_Reading_Disabilities_Based_on_the_Component_Model_of_Reading_An_Alternative_to_the_Discrepancy_Model_of_LD

http://education.ohio.gov/getattachment/Topics/Learning-in-Ohio/Literacy/Striving-Readers-Comprehensive-Literacy-Grant1/2020-Literacy-Academy/3-12-4-12-Leading-Literacy-ACCESSIBLE-PDF.pdf.aspx?lang=en-US

 

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Devishobha Chandramouli

Devishobha is the founder of Kidskintha- a global parenting and education collective, and the host of the global virtual conferences hosted on the platform. You can also find her voice on the Huffington Post, Mother.ly, Entrepreneur, Lifehack, TinyBuddha, Thought Catalog and many other publications.

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