Dyslexia is a word that is often used for poor reading ability. The word has its origins in Latin and Greek: “dys”, as in dysfunction, meaning “difficult”, and “lexis” meaning “speech” or “word”. Thus, it is a useful word for describing a very specific reading difficulty. Poor reading is too broad and too vague a term and could be reflective of a number of factors including those associated with poor environmental conditions such as malnutrition, disease, widespread illiteracy, or poor schooling and instruction.
Learning to read is the most important task that children face during the first year of school. Whereas speaking is natural and develops naturally for most children, reading has to be taught. In spite of good instruction, however, many children fail to learn to read by the end of their first year in school. Many reasons are given to explain why they fail.
The answer to this question varies widely, depending on how we define dyslexia and how we identify it in a child. Estimates of the occurrence of general reading disabilities in elementary school range from 10 percent to 20 percent, but dyslexia as a true defect in the intellectual makeup of the child may be as low as 2 percent. Far more boys are dyslexic, as compared to girls. There are several possible reasons for this:
Good Readers Read by Sight and Sound
Who are the good readers then? Most children, about 85 percent, learn to read with relative ease through proper instruction. The stages of reading begin with children reading short words as though they were pictures, that is, they are not aware of the relationship between the letters or syllables and their sound. A word such as bath may be visually similar to the word bat. A child who reads the whole word as though it is a picture may not be able to distinguish between them.
It is recognized that there are two types of poor readers—Garden Variety and Dyslexic. ‘Garden-variety’ poor readers show intellectual or cognitive processing problems in many areas, and not only in putting things in sequence as already discussed. They may also experience problems in seeing relationships among words, objects or pictures, in sustaining attention, and/or in the ability to organize and plan ahead.
Children first learn words by listening to them and only later by reading them. Listening discrimination, that is, accurate discrimination between two similar sounding words is learnt through day-to-day experience. We have observed, for example, that children as young as three who grow up in an English-speaking environment, but in a household where the parents’ mother tongue is not English, soon begin to correct their parents’ English diction. While children acquire a foreign language very easily, it is not the same with parents, who may be unable to reproduce words exactly as they are spoken by the native speakers of that language.
Many years ago educators and medical practitioners believed that dyslexia was a case of “word blindness”. This was especially evident when such children were asked to track a sequence of written words with their eyes and were often found going back and forth over the same sequence. This was in contrast to children who read normally and who tracked the string of words smoothly.
Is the ability to recognize the letters of the alphabet the essence of the alphabetic stage? Letters, sometimes called graphemes, are made-up of different parts or have features that are combined to form individual letters which are then translated into sounds or phonemes. This is the same as learning grapheme-phoneme correspondence. It is a must, and is a natural beginning for the alphabetic stage, but there are several layers of development within this stage.
There is no doubt that reading is a very complex process. Although it is generally not recognized as a complex system of tasks, it is so for a child learning to read. Anyone with a child who appears to be intelligent, but fails to learn to read, will immediately understand just how complex reading skills are. While speaking is natural and spontaneous, reading has to be taught.
What are the different skills that we require for reading? Clearly, the major one is to translate spelling to sound, the phonological coding skill. Given a meaningless word, why does it take longer to read than a real word? Is it because searching for and not finding the word’s meaning takes more time? This is certainly a veiy likely explanation and we can argue that the ultimate purpose of reading is not simply pronouncing what is written, but to understand its meaning.