Dyslexia: Who are Dyslexics?

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.

Dyslexia, on the other hand, is more limited and specific, and can be used to specify a reading disability associated with an inability to translate written language to speech. The dyslexic child may not learn to read easily and may not be able to write the words that he/she hears. These difficulties in converting written material to speech and spoken words to writing are the essential characteristics of dyslexia.

As we shall see, reading ability develops early, normally during the first or second year of schooling, and it goes through certain well-defined stages. Therefore, dyslexia can be hard to detect before reading instruction begins formally either at school or at home. By the end of the second year in school, it becomes clear if a child is experiencing difficulty in reading and spelling.

This may occur even when the child is receiving adequate instruction. Speaking develops naturally for most children, but reading has to be taught. Learning to read, therefore, is the most important task that children face during their first two years of school. With proper instruction most children learn to read easily.

Dyslexics are a Class of Special Children

Special children are those who need special attention in education and healthcare. The special children we find in schools nowadays include all children with special needs, whatever their handicap may be. They may be intellectually impaired or slow in learning. They may have one or another kind of language difficulty, or simply be slow in development Other children may have sensory impairments, for example, hearing difficulties or visual limitation, or other medical conditions such as epilepsy and brain damage.

Very often, teachers are called upon to pay special attention to these children in the classroom. The teachers want to know the medical, physiological or psychological causes that produce sensory and motor defects, language impairment, immaturity, clumsiness, and different levels of intellectual impairment. For many years the so-called medical model was used to treat special children, that is, the child’s condition was thought to be similar to a disease which could be cured, preferably by medication.

That idea was discarded 30 or so years ago when it was realised that all children need to be educated according to their ability. Some educators still believe, however, that a teacher does not need to know the cause of a child’s handicap, that the teacher is there to teach, and his or her best course of action is to determine the entry-level skills of the child and then begin to improve upon those skills. Other teachers maintain that a thorough knowledge of the various barriers to learning that they might encounter in the classroom will expand their expertise and direct them in designing the most appropriate special instruction tor these children.

For example, the teacher will want to know if the learning-disabled child lives in a community and family that does not benefit from books, educational media and interactions with literate adults. Other children with a learning disability may have difficulty in intellectual processing or may suffer from a neurological impairment. Thus, it is best to consider all the conditions, medical, physical, psychological, and cultural, in understanding those children in the classroom who need special assistance

A mother called me about her 4-year-old son. She was worried that he might be dyslexic. He seemed to be very clever, spoke and understood as well as other children of his age, but both his father and uncle were diagnosed as dyslexic in primary school. Would he take after them? Were there any early signs that she should be watching for, and how soon could remediation for dyslexia begin?

She was right to be a little concerned. Approximately two-thirds of dyslexic children are boys. Dyslexia does sometimes run in families, potentially increasing the risk of a child developing the condition. What should she look for that might reassure her that her son is not likely to be a poor reader in school? First, she should ask herself the following questions:

• Does he speak in sentences?

• Can he follow a sequence? (She can test this by asking him, for example, to open the cupboard and take out all the old bottles, then to remove all his crayons and papers from the table and put them away, and, finally, to repeat her instructions.)

• Does he find it easy to say words that rhyme? (She can make it a game: “Tell me a word that rhymes with cat”, or “Which word does not belong to the group: boy, toy, bun, coyV)

She can play other word games with him as well. For example, she can ask him to repeat unfamiliar words, such as Pretoria, Veracruz, Wabamun. She might also ask the child to keep saying the words tiger, bus, egg, in that order and as fast as he can, over and over until she tells him to stop.

She can also help her son to recognize the letters of the alphabet by using plastic magnetic letters on the fridge door. If she still has any worries at the end of the first grade, she should take her son for assessment.

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