Dyslexia - A New World
author Carolyn Forte
Although the term was coined early in the 20th century, dyslexia as a diagnosis was seldom used until the 1970’s. Even then, it was used sparingly. Then during the 1980’s as the reading method variously known as “Look-Say,” “Sight Reading,” or “Whole Language” increased its stranglehold on public education, the trickle of dyslexia diagnoses turned into a flood. Parents whose children did not to learn to read on schedule, were told that the fault did not lie with the school, but with the child and thus, a whole new world of “Learning Disabilities” was born. LD actually had its gestation in the 60’s and 70’s with the introduction of “Hyperactivity” and “Minimal Brain Dysfunction.” Next came “Attention Deficit Disorder” and finally ADHD, which added to Dyslexia formed a neat package capable of explaining how so many children did poorly in school. As a public school teacher in the 1970’s, I had these children in my classrooms. Most were perfectly normal, some were emotionally disturbed and at least one was mentally ill. None was truly “Learning Disabled.” They were square pegs being forced into the school’s round holes. All would have benefited from a relaxed, homeschool environment, but alas, in the 1970’s, I had never heard of such a thing.
A neighbor who was considering homeschooling her 7 year-old son introduced me to the concept of homeschooling in 1981. At the time, my daughter, Tenaya, was 4 and so Susan and I embarked on the great adventure together. Susan had done what research was possible and introduced me to the writings of John Holt and Raymond and Dorothy Moore. Susan was convinced that it was proper to delay reading and formal academics at least until age 8. I was skeptical to say the least. Tenaya wanted to read; I would teach her, or so I thought. Having been trained to teach reading by the State of California (Cal State LA), I began the lessons – to no avail. I always say, “God has a sense of humor.” He sent me, a first grade teacher, two girls who learned to read late. God is also merciful; He gave me this problem in the early 80’s before the homeschool movement had developed and before LD labels had infected homeschoolers too.
At our park day group, late bloomers were common. Many of us read Better Late Than Early by Raymond and Dorothy Moore with its solid base in research and were aware that it is entirely normal for a child to learn to read late – as late as 10 or 12! At our weekly gatherings, we compared ideas, methods and materials. Thankfully, we never thought of our “late-bloomers” as “disabled” because the homeschoolers who had gone before us, chronicled by Holt and Moore had allowed their children to grow, mature and learn naturally. They were our role models. It wasn’t easy, however. Outside the homeschool world, reading late was a sign of failure. We had relatives and Sunday School teachers to contend with. I prayed fervently for direction, even questioning homeschooling itself. Each time I reached a crisis, God gave me a sign in the form of a person or book with an unmistakable message: keep on homeschooling and be patient.
The year that Tenaya turned eight, I visited the Reading Reform Foundation where I purchased three items: The Writing Road to Reading by Romalda Spaulding, a set of Primary Phonics phonetic readers and Samuel Blumenfeld’s NEA: The Trojan Horse in American Education. When my husband, Martin, came to pick me up at the bookstore, Tenaya asked what I had bought. I handed her the first phonetic reader as she sat in the back seat. She opened it and began to read. She was ecstatic! Finally, something she could manage; there was only one vowel sound in the whole book. Within the next few days, she read the next 3 readers entirely on her own. She was on her way and soon was able to read anything she wanted. You see, she knew the sounds that letters make, but she had been confused by the multiple sounds of the vowels presented all at once in the primers we had tried before. Once she had a book with consistent short vowel sounds to get her started, she saw the sense of the phonetic code and was able to crack it little by little.
Tylene, age six, also wanted to read, but letters were a mystery to her. She could only recognize a few, no matter how hard she tried. She was easily frustrated and was unable to remember the shapes of letters, let alone connect them to sounds. We didn’t worry about it; after all, Tenaya read at 8, maybe Tylene would too. However, at eight Tylene, who could play any instrument she touched by ear with perfect pitch, could not connect more than a few letters with sounds. She could not even copy from one paper to another. We had her eyes checked; no problem was detected. Her hearing was exceptional and her balance, coordination and physical agility were off the scale.
Had she been in a public school, she would have been given every label known to the education establishment at that time. She bounced off the walls, had a very short attention span for “schoolish” tasks and in fact, performed two to four years below her grade level in academic areas. Yet, this child could gather craft materials on her own and create award winning art projects whenever the spirit moved her. She could do gymnastics on the back of a trotting horse and sing complex songs flawlessly and fearlessly in front of hundreds of people. She could bake a cake, cookies or brownies from scratch having memorized the recipes (we never used boxed mixes) while helping me do it. Attention Deficit!?! I don’t think so. Auditory processing problems? Get real!
The problem with these labels is that they tend to be task specific. Children like Tylene, who could focus like a laser on some things (mainly things that interested her) would be labeled Attention Deficit because she could not concentrate on or learn certain academic tasks. Dr. and Mrs. Moore found that most children simply grew out of these “problems” when they reached their Integrated Maturity Level.
With Tylene, however, there was something more in play. She had a vision disorder, which is fairly common, yet seldom diagnosed because most vision professionals mainly test for visual acuity. Only developmental optometrists test for eye teeming, tracking and focusing disorders. Now that I know the symptoms, I can look back on my former students in school who had difficulty and realize that many of them had a visual disorder. They may test 20/20 on each eye on the chart, yet have terrible vision with both eyes trying to work together.
Children like Tylene are labeled Dyslexic and seldom given the therapy or visual accommodations they need to compete successfully in school. They are simply dismissed with “she’s dyslexic – oh well – there’s nothing we can do.” Many parents simply accept the label; what else can they do? The experts have pronounced it! Having witnessed the bogus labeling of Hyperactive and Minimal Brain Dysfunction in my classroom, I knew that we must always be skeptical of the experts. They usually mean well, but partly because of over specialization, their knowledge is limited. Parents always need to do their own research before accepting a life-long label for their children. We were very fortunate to discover Developmental Optometry when Tylene was 18. We finally understood why she struggled so with academics and her vision problems were treated at last.
There are many types of vision problems that are labeled as dyslexia. One that is very prevalent today was almost nonexistent one hundred years ago. This problem involves the way the brain processes the information sent to it by the eyes. The brain will flip words around so that they appear backwards or upside down making reading very difficult. This type of dyslexia began to appear in the 1920’s after a reading method known as “sight reading” was widely introduced in American schools.
Sight Reading is anti-phonetic. The child is taught to recognize words as if they were pictures – sort of like a Chinese character. They may be taught initial or ending consonants, but they are not taught to “sound out” the words phonetically from left to right. This method has been used widely in America for almost 90 years and it is responsible for an epidemic of reading failure. Educators who favor the sight reading method know that when a method produces widespread failure, sooner or later parents will catch on, so they change the labels fairly often. Sight Reading has been variously called Look-Say and Whole Language over the last 70 years. Today, children in kindergarten are sent home with “sight words” to memorize with the excuse that these words are not “phonetic.” That is, of course, absurd. English is a phonetic language, albeit a fairly complex one. Teachers are not trained in the phonetics of English and so they easily fall into the trap of believing the “sight word” hoax.
Tragically, the Sight Reading Method causes one form of Dyslexia. Dr. Samuel Orton figured this out 80 years ago and developed a phonics program (the Orton-Gillingham Approach) to remediate the problem. He did not have the kind of brain imaging technology we have today and so he could only guess what was happening in the brain of the “dyslexics” he treated. Today, we know what happens when a child is taught to see a word as a picture. The message goes to the right side of the brain- the side that recognizes pictures best. However, the left side of the brain is where language resides so the brain must send the message over to the left side to attach language to the picture. Brain studies have shown that the brains of children and adults who try to read this way are working four times as hard as those who read phonetically. Students who sight-read tend to have comprehension difficulties because their brains are working so hard to read the words that they have little energy left to contemplate the meaning.
So, why do some children learn to read well, even with the crazy reading methods used in schools. Why aren’t all children dyslexic if the method creates dyslexics? I have my theory and there is some research to back it up. I believe that when the reading method is mixed -some sight reading and some phonics- as it is today, children who naturally are more artistic and right brained are more susceptible to developing what is called a “sight reading reflex” and thus sending the image of the word to the right side of the brain. Children who are more left brain oriented will send the image to the left side of the brain and more easily learn to sound words out. As Dr. Samuel Orton found, there is only one way to remediate those who are consistently sending the message to the right brain and that is intensive, systematic phonics.
Interestingly, a developmental optometrist can diagnose this type of dyslexia with one or more tests for tracking and eye movement. The eyes of a student who reads phonetically will generally track consistently left to right. A student who uses the Sight Reading Method will run his eyes back and forth and up and down as one would view a picture. This is what sometimes causes the brain to flip the image backwards or upside down. As you can imagine, this makes reading quite a chore and for some, almost impossible.
Systematic, intensive phonics instruction will almost always cure this type of dyslexia although vision therapy may be needed also. There are many good phonics programs but the least complicated ones are the most usable. The ones with lots of bells and whistles look attractive, but some are so complex that few parents are willing to put in the time and study to implement them. No matter how wonderful it looks, if it is too hard to use, it is useless.
For young children, Explode the Code and Primary Phonics are excellent and very easy to use. For older children and adults, Blumenfeld’s Alpha Phonics is by far the easiest and cheapest phonics program I have seen. Its use of giant print also makes it great for young children and dyslexic adults with vision problems. Alpha Phonics will take a student to fourth grade reading level in one volume for under $30 and that includes the teacher’s directions! Once a student has mastered it, he can read on his own, gradually increasing his ability and reading level.
If your child has been labeled Dyslexic, do a little research on your own. Understanding Your Child’s Mind by Norman W. Jackson is a very thorough guide and handbook for parents written by an optometrist. It not only helps you recognize visual problems but it also gives exercises you can do at home to help train and strengthen your child’s eyes. It is available at www.excellenceineducation.com. Also, there is excellent information on learning related vision problems at: http://pavevision.org/category/do-i-have-a-vision-problem/.
Optometrists estimate that 70-80% of children labeled with learning disabilities have a learning related vision problem. Eyesight is only one part of vision. Vision includes how the two eyes work together, how they focus and how the brain interprets the messages received. Look at the chart of symptoms on the P.A.V.E. (Parents Active for Vision Education) website above to see how many of the so called symptoms of ADHD are also symptoms of a vision problem.
Finally, remember that our current list of academic (National & State) standards is a full two years advanced from the normal grade level expectations of sixty years ago. Our current schools are so out of sync with what scientists know about child development that they do, in some cases if not many, constitute child abuse. If you are homeschooling, keep this in mind when choosing learning materials. Your children are too precious to blindly follow a script just because some bureaucrat thinks your child should be on a certain page at a certain age.