You’ve likely heard of dyslexia before. Most people have. Most people associate dyslexia with reading and writing challenges, specifically letter reversals. While those can be associated with dyslexia, it is much more complex than simple letter reversals!
Defined by the International Dyslexia Association, dyslexia is a "specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”
What exactly is a learning disability? What does “neurobiological in origin” mean? What does “decoding abilities” really mean? What is the “phonological component of language”?
Let’s break it down a little bit.
What is a learning disability?
According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, learning disabilities are “a number of disorders which may affect the acquisition, organization, retention, understanding or use of verbal or nonverbal information. These disorders affect learning in individuals who otherwise demonstrate at least average abilities essential for thinking and/or reasoning.”
A learning disability is not something that can be “cured.” Instead, individuals with learning disabilities learn strategies to get through their day successfully. They are typically genetic or neurobiological - meaning they originate in the brain. Anyone can have a learning disability - including individuals with average or above-average intelligence. Therefore, an individual with a learning disability can achieve great achievements in life!
Dyslexia is a learning disability due to the neurobiological origin - meaning that it originates in the brain and is not due to trauma, illness, or any other diagnosis. Specifically, dyslexia is a learning disability related to written material.
According to Reading Rockets, decoding is “the ability to apply your knowledge of letter-sound relationships, including knowledge of letter patterns, to correctly pronounce written words.”
As you’re reading this, you are automatically decoding each word in order to process and understand what it means. As an adult, you likely do this quickly and efficiently. In fact, most of the words are so familiar from years and years of decoding, that you are able to decode these words automatically. You don’t even have to think about the letters or their sounds - your brain knows what the word is from memory!
For an individual, specifically a child who has dyslexia, they struggle to decode words - even familiar words! As they learn to read in preschool, kindergarten, and elementary school (or earlier in some cases), the letters do not blend together to create words. The child may know each letter and the letter’s sound, but when put together to form words, it doesn’t make sense to their brain.
Phonology is the relationship between speech sounds that make up our language and what those sounds mean. Think about learning to read - you likely needed to sound out the letters separately before you could blend them together. Now, you are able to do this easily and fluidly from years and years of practice.
For a child (again, we’re going to talk specifically about children here) with dyslexia, they may struggle with the phonological component of language as it relates to specific letter sounds, parts of words, or even entire words. This goes right along with their decoding abilities.
As mentioned above, dyslexia is often associated with challenges with reading and writing, specifically letter reversals. But there are several other signs of dyslexia that can be seen in children of reading and writing age.
Additionally, a child with dyslexia may show signs of poor self-confidence or depression, due to the challenges they face. They often compare their skills to their peers - many children with dyslexia understand that they are “different” and may feel like they are not “as good” as their peers.
Because dyslexia is a neurological learning disability, blood tests or scans cannot diagnose it. Instead, an evaluation (or test) can identify the signs and symptoms for a diagnosis. Information is typically gathered from the caregivers and teachers, if the child is in school. Then, specific tests are given to the child to identify the challenges.
There are several screening tests that can be utilized for children who are in kindergarten in order to identify “at risk” children. These screening test names can be found here. By first or second grade, an evaluation can be performed to identify the signs of dyslexia. Often a school psychologist or a speech-language pathologist is responsible for this evaluation.
Chat with your pediatrician if you suspect that your child is showing signs of dyslexia.
If you suspect that your child may be showing signs of dyslexia, or if your child has a diagnosis of dyslexia, there are some activities that you can complete with them to help. If your child does have a diagnosis of dyslexia, they will likely have a specific program and interventions.
The activities provided here are not meant to treat, diagnose, or “fix” anyone. They are simply sensory-based activities that target the skills areas related to dyslexia.
Primitive reflexes have an impact on learning. We are all born with primitive reflexes and these reflexes should naturally integrate as we grow - this means they develop into higher level movement patterns, or “go away.” If a child does not naturally integrate their primitive reflexes (this can happen for a variety of reasons and the reason is oftentimes unknown), challenges in gross motor development, fine motor development, and cognitive development can occur.
When we talk about dyslexia, there are a couple of primitive reflexes that have been shown to have an impact:
A series of research studies and the outcomes can be found here.
If you’ve never heard of primitive reflexes and their impact on learning, that’s ok! Many people haven’t. But now that you know, let’s talk about what you can do!
First, let’s talk about some of the other signs that these 4 primitive reflexes may still be present, or retained, along with the signs of dyslexia.
A retained TLR might look like:
A retained Spinal Galant might look like:
A retained ATNR might look like:
A retained STNR might look like:
If you suspect that your child might have a retained primitive reflex, the first step is getting an evaluation for occupational therapy or another professional who is trained in primitive reflex integration - physical therapy, cranio-sacral therapy, or chiropractic care are some other options to look into. The goal: to integrate any retained primitive reflexes through a series of specific exercises that create new neural pathways in the brain. Additionally, you can learn more about primitive reflex integration with our digital course.
Oftentimes, dyslexia co-occurs with auditory processing disorder. If you suspect that your child is showing signs of auditory processing disorder, chat with your pediatrician to get an evaluation.
The Listening Program is a great program to look into if you’re seeing signs of dyslexia. This program uses evidence-based music therapy to improve attention, boost memory, strengthen learning skills, and more. Learn more about The Listening Program here.
Check out the Phonics Phone! This is a simple tube that is shaped like a phone - an “old school” phone with one end for your ear and the other for your mouth. This phone is used so that the child can hear what they are saying - specifically it is used while reading so that the child can speak quietly into the phone and better “hear” themselves. Check out more about the Phonics Phone here.
A great activity to target the auditory system and help with some of the challenges associated with dyslexia is using a metronome. You can download a free app on your phone or find a metronome on YouTube. Coordinate activities with the metronome, set to 60 beats per minute (BPM):
Oftentimes, a child with dyslexia also struggles with visual perception and/or visual motor skills. Visual perception differs from visual acuity in that it’s not how well you can see, but how your brain interprets what you see and how you react. Visual motor is the ability to coordinate your vision with your movement. Additionally, ocular motor skills are the ability to coordinate both eyes for smooth movements.
If you suspect that your child has severe visual perceptual deficits, you can talk with your pediatrician about getting screened for vision therapy. Additionally, learn more about Irlen Syndrome, a perceptual processing disorder, here.
Simple visual tracking exercises are a great place to start. Holding an item 6-12 inches away, slowly move it in different directions and have your child follow it with both eyes. This can be very tiring, so only do it a couple of times! The more you practice it, the longer your child should be able to do it and the smoother the tracking should become.
The same activities with a metronome, as mentioned above in Auditory Activities, can also be used to help improve visual motor and ocular motor skills.
Some strategies can be utilized to help your child improve their success and self-esteem with school-based activities, specifically reading and writing.
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