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The Importance of Detecting Dyslexia Early

by Dr. Rose Halper
Dyslexia affects a growing number of children, and it's important for parents to recognize the early signs so they can better assist their children in getting the appropriate services. One of the main problems is in identifying children with dyslexia. This disability can often go undiagnosed for years, and causes children unusual frustration and disappointment that can lead to greater academic struggles in the future. Although dyslexia is a general term describing a variety of learning problem including: math computation, handwriting, and written and spoken language, the focus of this article is about reading disabilities.

Children with dyslexia have average to above average intelligence, but they do not read naturally and easily. Rather they struggle with each reading step, such as learning individual sounds, matching these sounds to letters, and blending a combination of sounds into words. They commonly read slowly and inaccurately and have difficulty pronouncing and spelling many words. If a child cannot "crack the code" of the symbolic language of letters, he may be labeled lazy, unmotivated, or emotionally troubled. For all too many of these children this is simply not true.

Ben, a nine year old fourth grader, is an example of one such mis-diagnosed case. A complete battery of educational and psychological testing showed that Ben is extremely smart, scoring in the gifted range in oral comprehension, vocabulary, and logical reasoning ability. Yet, he cannot read. He struggled to learn his letters in kindergarten, and in the summer before fourth grade, he still confused the letters b and d, g and j, and p and q. He has trouble spelling easy sight words, and reading aloud is labored and painful for him. He mispronounces, substitutes, and sometimes entirely overlooks words. Despite his reading performance, he loves to listen to stories, and has no difficulty understanding them. He often speaks in great detail about animals, machines, and the places he traveled with his family.

His parents are perplexed and very anxious. Although Ben received additional support from his teacher, he made little progress over the years. His specific reading disability was overlooked, and his teachers devoted a great deal of time to an inappropriate teaching technique referred to as repetition and drill. He continues to have serious problems, and his inability to orally and visually match letters with symbols, and remember how to say and write words leaves him feeling stupid and afraid to learn new skills. He stopped reading at home and began to hate school. Regrettably, his story is, all too common among children who get lost in the maze of classroom learning.

Surprisingly large numbers of dyslexic children throughout the country face struggles similar to Ben. These children are either identified too late, or not at all. According to one in-depth survey, a reading disability affects approximately one in five children, many of whom do not receive adequate help. Is this seemingly poor record related to our lack of knowledge of the disorder? No, in fact, dyslexia was first recognized centuries ago by the German physician Johann Schmit and has been well researched since.

In the 1990's and in the beginning of this century, the U.S. Congress grew increasingly interested in this reading disability, and special task forces were formed to study the basic characteristics of dyslexia. Through the years we have learned about the neurological causes, symptoms and reading programs that are best for these children.

Dyslexia is usually first noticed in the classroom, where its identification and diagnosis depend on school procedures and policies that are often unclear, and puzzling to parents. However, since parents will most likely manage how their child is treated by the school, once a child is suspected of having a reading disability, they will have to follow several important steps to assure its identification and diagnosis.

One of the most important components of this process is evaluating the success of your child's reading program. A classroom teacher instructs, and assesses his progress during the school year. If a child does not make sufficient gains, he should receive more help.

This means that the teacher or aide will use the same reading approach, but devote increasingly more time to instruction. Since dyslexic children do not benefit from more of the "same thing," they will most likely continue to struggle. It is important for parents to learn about reading strategies so they recognize when an approach is not helpful for their child.

If the classroom teacher refuses and/or cannot implement a new approach to reading, it is time for a thorough evaluation. A psychologist and special educator administer tests to determine the child's cognitive abilities or IQ (what he is capable of) and his achievement level (a "real world" determination of what he actually knows). Typically, a child waits at least six months before seeing these professionals. Since it is very difficult to expedite this testing, many parents seek evaluations by professional outside of school. However, this is expensive, and sometimes, the child can wait using outside professionals as well.

Children also benefit from an up-to-date and detailed evaluation from the teacher. Parents should ask for a list of their child's reading skills, and teacher observations to demonstrate how their child's strengths and weaknesses compare with what the school is expecting of them (usually to meet that grade's curriculum).

An in-depth assessment is difficult to obtain so it is helpful for a parent to also document evidence of their child's reading difficulties themselves. Examples of these difficulties are often obvious when reading with your child at home, or when he is asked to either read the labels or remember his favorite foods, such as sweet jam, Kit Kat (candy bar), and cake.

School policies often dictate that a diagnosis of dyslexia is only made for two reasons. If a child cannot read at grade-level (meet the curriculum goals) after additional help and extra time from their teacher and possibly from a special education professional have been provided, he is then identified with a reading disability. The amount of help and extra time a child receives varies from school to school. Also, many schools note if there is a wide discrepancy between what the school expects of the child (grade-level goals) and the child's actual performance (the "real world analysis") as well as his cognitive abilities (IQ). If a wide discrepancy exists they use this additional information to confirm the diagnosis of dyslexia.

These criteria exclude the identification and diagnosis of many elementary school children. Expectations of pre-k to 3rd grade readers are often set so low a child can be considered "OK" if he just reads on grade level. This masks readers who struggle with "cracking the code" of the symbolic aspect of letters. Without the help of a concerned teacher and/or vocal parent, these children go unnoticed.

Many teachers lack the appropriate training and experience to identify a young child who is at risk. Although they should assess a child's problems every two to three months, they often delay frequent evaluation of a young child with reading difficulties until third or fourth grade because they think that the problems are just temporary, and that they will be outgrown. However, this rarely happens. Reading problems are persistent, and studies show that three out of four children who read poorly in third grade continue to have reading problems in high school and beyond.

It is unfortunate that parents cannot rely on school personnel to recognize their child's difficulties. Rather, they need to play an active role in the early identification of a problem. Parents should observe their child and carefully listen to him speak and read. Although one of the best predictors of dyslexia is the inability to recognize, divide and blend sounds, the specific signs of this disorder will vary from child to child. Parents need to research applicable laws and regulations, understand the characteristics of the disability, and learn how to hold the school accountable for prompt diagnosis. Parents will most likely commit a great deal of time to understand the reading process, accumulate evidence of reading difficulties, and advocate for their child. Early intervention is not a panacea, but it can result in more effective educational planning. Parents can not afford to wait until their child suffers tragic losses in educational opportunity, self-respect, and eventual academic and intellectual achievement.

Dr. Rose Ellen Halper is a learning specialist who works with a variety of children with special needs in her Takoma Park office. Dr. Rose welcomes questions and comments. She can be reached at: 301-578-8690 or send her email

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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