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Teaching Reading to Dyslexics: Itís Time to Exit the World of Alice in Wonderland
by Dr. Marion Blank
Dyslexia is a topic that arouses enormous passion and anxiety. It's not surprising. With reading playing such a central role in our lives, we know the severe consequences that can follow from the failure to master this critical skill. So, not unexpectedly, lots of effort goes into trying to overcome the problem. But the efforts fall painfully short of the mark. Indeed, many of the efforts to help actually work to aggravate the difficulties.
It's easiest to see this if we step outside the area of reading. To do this,imagine your goal is helping color-blind children. In order to determine what they're missing, you decide to study talented artists since they clearly have the right skills for perceiving colors. After discovering that they possess a wide array of color perception skills, you return to the color-blind children to start teaching them those skills. You are convinced this will overcome their problems. After all, once they have the color perception skills of the talented artists, all will be well.
This Alice in Wonderland scenario seems absurd. You know that despite your very good intentions and commitment, you could "teach" color blind children color all day, and they will not learn to perceive color. But wait--letís revisit it with some word changes.
Now a fantasy no one would have taken seriously becomes the reality of reading instruction for dyslexic children. While parents are assured that this is the right course, experience tells them otherwise. They see the frustration and anger that come from having children do what they are least able to do.
Are there better alternatives? Happily, there are--so long as we are willing to consider ideas often that have been spurned and overlooked. The visual realm offers some of these neglected opportunities. Ironically, that realm played a critical role in first identifying dyslexia when in the early 1900ís, Dr. Samuel Orton, a pioneering figure, maintained that visual problems (including such behaviors as reversals) were central to reading problems. But subsequently, it was shown that many children, not simply dyslexics, showed these difficulties. The idea took hold that visual immaturities were normal and, with time, would resolve on their own.
It was an inaccurate, and unfortunate conclusion. For example, well-developed visual memory skills are essential for accurate spelling. The spelling problems that haunt the lives of dyslexics reflect their failure to develop the requisite visual skills. Once they are helped to develop those skills, both their writing, and reading, are significantly enhanced.
If you are interested in getting a glimpse of the process at work, you might try the following. Select a type of word that a child finds problematic. For example, if words of more than one syllable are the issue, you might select a two-syllable word such as "rocket." After writing a model of the word on a card, you show it to the child and then cover it up. Following that, you show sets of incomplete words --one or more of which could become rocket if particular letters were added. One such set might be:
r _ b _ t _ ; ..... r _ _ c _ e _; ..... _ r o _ s _ ; ..... _ _ c k _ t; ..... r _ _ l e r
The child has to identify the words that CAN BECOME rocket and then fill in the words to make them complete. The sequence is repeated with several additional rows of incomplete words.
This single activity offers several advantages. First, it requires detailed analysis of all the constituent letters in a word. Once this type of analysis takes hold, it generalizes and becomes a basic process of writing and reading. Second, by placing the model next to any word the child has selected, he or she can literally "see" why a response is correct or not. Words that are simply spoken do not permit anything close to this since two pieces of auditory information can never be simultaneous. Third, the activity is designed to overcome the "first letter" strategy that plagues the children's performance. That is the strategy where the children look at the first letter and then randomly guess as to what the complete word might be.
It's not hard to envision the extensive changes that result when a host of activities is offered which share these features. The reading experience of dyslexic children is transformed. In place of endless failure, there is steady success. It's not the fantasy world of Alice in Wonderland, but it is a dream come true.
Dr. Marion Blank is a world-renowned authority on how children learn to read with over 40 years experience in the field. She is the creator of the Phonics Plus Five reading & wrting program available for sale on her site. To read more articles by Dr. Blank, please visit her blog and join her newsletter.
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