We have seen that decoding is about sound and processing sound.
Dyslexia is a particular difficulty with decoding, a specific issue with some aspects of processing sound.
It is not about confusing ‘b’, and ‘d’ or was and saw, although this is often a consequence.
It is independent of other aspects of intelligence, so that some dyslexics are highly intelligent, others are average and some are below average. It may or may not be accompanied by other processing difficulties, such as a working-memory impairment or language-processing problems.
It may be a mild level of dyslexia, or it may be severe, but it can be conquered. It requires appropriate intervention, persistence and ample practice.
There is no short cut. If the child is to learn to read and write properly, they must learn to use the phonological code that the written word is based on, and to do that they must develop the skills necessary to use it.
Overcoming their difficulty with processing sound and developing that agility with sound that confident readers possess is a matter of practice, practice, and more practice.
The fluency challenges, games and puzzles all require the child to think in sound, to manipulate sound, and the stories are written specifically to strengthen these skills as well as build comprehension. The trick is to practice the underlying skills daily, little and often, each time going to the very edge of the child’s ability.
There will be no sudden eureka moment, but rather a gradual progression.
The reading may be slow, some tricky words may remain tricky, but even severe dyslexia need not mean the child is destined to be illiterate. I have yet to meet the child within the normal band of intelligence who cannot be taught to read.
A few encounters like this, and that sound is firmly lodged in memory. When the child comes across sound or encountered, figuring the word out is straight forward, because all the parts are known. The child may not know that their brain is figuring it out. They just “know” the word, even if they have never seen it before. These kids learn to read by reading.
The child is employing two fundamental skills in this process. Firstly, they are recognising the sounds of speech in the word, they know that shouted is made up of ‘sh’ and ‘ou’ and ‘t’ and ‘ed’. They are also able to extract the ‘ou from shouted and insert it somewhere else, and put that word together quickly and easily. These are the phonological skills that are fundamental to the reading process.
Many children who struggle with reading quickly become competent once they have been taught to isolate the sounds, are given some practice with mixing and matching, blending and substituting sounds, and become aware of the common patterns: ‘out’, ‘ust’, ‘spr’, ‘ation’ and the like. These children are then on the route to normal reading development. Most struggling readers fit this profile.
But the dyslexic child has difficulty, perhaps an extreme level of difficulty, with one or more of these processes even when they know what should be happening. My own observations suggest that dyslexia, that difficulty with processing the sounds and patterns of sounds within words, the phonological code, can express itself in different ways.
Some of these children have a great deal of difficulty isolating the sounds within words. When I say the word sound, there is a continuous stream of sound, my mouth moves smoothly to make those sounds, and the ‘n’ is barely audible. The divisions are not natural, but more like the arbitrary divisions in the colours of the rainbow. Grasping the sequence of discrete sounds within a word is very challenging for some children.
Other dyslexics can do this, or can quickly learn to do it, but then cannot hold all those sounds in memory. The child may start to write a word like soccer, get part way and the rest of the word evaporates for them.
This child may then write something familiar like ing, or default to a ‘p’, they may go back to the beginning and add another ‘s’, they may write some other sound or letter that has popped into their head, or nothing at all. I have observed children doing all of these things as they try to “sound out” a word. It makes for unlikely and chaotic spelling.
Many dyslexic children can hold onto the sounds, but blending them together to make a word is slow and takes considerable concentration. The child may look at the ‘bl’ of black, know what it is, but it just takes time and effort to bring it up from memory. Then identify ‘ack’, put it together… the whole process that normally developing readers do unconsciously and almost instantaneously can take several seconds of focussed effort for the dyslexic child, even though they know these sounds and chunks of sound.
There is another pattern of difficulty I have often observed. The child learns to pick out the sounds, to think of sat as s-a-t and lot as l-o-t. For some children this will take time and targeted teaching, but eventually the child will get it. Putting these sounds together may be slow, may take effort and concentration, but is achievable.
Ask that child to read a string of rhyming words like cat, sat, mat, fat and it may be a little slow but not too difficult. But ask that child to read cat, sip and top at speed and the essence of their struggle becomes apparent.
The child reads cat, then coming to sip says “sat… I mean sit…no… sap…. I mean….” The child knows what is supposed to happen, knows that what is coming out is wrong, but their brain will not do what the child is asking it to do.
Finding sounds, changing sounds, juggling sound, blending sounds, manipulating sounds, thinking in sound, at a speed required for reading, is an excruciating process. A severely dyslexic child may soon become overcome by a feeling of dizziness, the same dizziness you or I feel when we spin around once too often. In the same way that dizziness makes the world spin for us, the words on the page can begin to spin for this child, lines become distorted, letters dance. The child may complain of sore eyes or a headache.
Of course we cannot rule out the possibility that this child also has vision problems, as any child may. But I have often observed this phenomenon as severely dyslexic children attempt to process sound at speed.
Writing letters backwards, confusing ‘b’ and ‘d’, or confusing visually similar words like was and saw are often cited as symptoms of dyslexia. The international research does not support the widely-held view that this is a visual discrimination issue. The confusion for young children disappears once the symbol is firmly linked to a sound, once they can think of words as a sequence of sounds rather than a shape.
Dyslexic children may only be able to think of ‘b’ as the letter name (bee) rather than the sound it makes. Severely dyslexic children will also confuse capital B and D, and I have observed older dyslexic children still confusing them when typing, even though they are in quite different positions on the keyboard.
These same children will automatically turn the letter tile ‘s’ the right way up, still the same orientation: the visual difference is barely perceptible.
The research clearly tells us that these difficulties and confusions occur because reading is overwhelmingly an auditory process. Competent readers hear the letters and words on the page: their brains receive a sound, a voice, the child is thinking in sound.
There is no standard definition of dyslexia, no universally accepted measure that we can apply to definitively say this child is dyslexic and this one is not. We do know that it is a deficit in one or more of the skills that underpin reading, and that these skills can be addressed and strengthened. Agility With Sound addresses weaknesses in each of these underpinning skills.
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