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When Johnny can't read — Modern technology and new approaches help kids with dyslexia

When Nathan Eberting finished fourth grade last spring, he received thrilling news. He was reading at grade level, something that seemed impossible a couple of years earlier. At the beginning of second grade, Nathan's reading skills were stuck at kindergarten level. His halting efforts to read were especially painful because his twin brother, Matthew, was racing through book after book.

“My boys had the same home environment, the same exposure to books, the same teachers,” said Kristin Eberting, Nathan’s mother. “One son could read, and the other was stumbling over ‘a’ and ‘the.’ ”

Diagnostic tests at school showed that Nathan had difficulties processing written language. But, he wasn’t far enough behind to meet Utah’s learning disability criteria for receiving specialized help through the school.

Millions of children who don’t qualify for special education have symptoms severe enough to make learning to read a struggle — Nathan is one. Some will eventually qualify for help, but perhaps not until they are three or more years behind in school. It’s a phenomenon known in the special education world as “waiting to fail.”

A common plague

Dyslexia, a disorder that occurs when the brain doesn’t recognize and process visual symbols of language, is the most common reading disorder. It is diagnosed as a learning disability in about 5 percent of the U.S. school population, qualifying those students for special education. But dyslexia occurs across a spectrum that ranges from mild to severe, and it affects learners of all IQ levels.

About one in five students show dyslexia symptoms such as slow or inaccurate reading, poor spelling, poor writing or mixing up similar words, according to the International Dyslexia Association, which celebrates National Dyslexia Awareness Month in October. But now, the way Americans respond to dyslexia is changing, as is our understanding of the disorder. Recent studies bolster awareness of dyslexia as a brain-based disorder and new technologies offer promising ways of mitigating dyslexia's consequences.

A 2013 study from MIT offers hope that dyslexia can be diagnosed and treated even before students enter school. The study found a correlation between poor pre-reading skills and the size of a brain structure that connects two language-processing areas. By using brain scans, researchers learned that children with a larger arcuate fasciculus have stronger ability to connect their understanding of spoken language to written language.

And a new study published by PLOS/ONE shows that reading from the screen of a smartphone provides better reading speed and comprehension for people with dyslexia than reading traditional blocks of text on paper. Other recent technological innovations — such as voice-recognition software and software that allows computers to read printed text aloud — are helping, too. But the mainstay of dyslexia treatment continues to be specialized tutoring to build awareness of how written language works.

People with dyslexia don’t see things backward, and some don’t reverse letters like “b” and “d.” But their ability to grasp the mechanics of written language is impaired. Dyslexia’s causes are not completely clear, but brain imagery studies reveal differences in brain development and function in people who have dyslexia, and dyslexia often runs in families.

Most dyslexia researchers agree that early intervention is critical, and that postponing it to see if a child is merely a late bloomer is futile. Ninety percent of children who are struggling with reading, writing and spelling by mid-year of first grade will still be struggling with those skills in eighth grade and on into adulthood unless they receive specialized help, according to the International Dyslexia Association.

Trouble with reading places children on a devastating downward spiral. Slow development of reading skills limits vocabulary growth and warps children’s attitudes about school, and themselves, according to a 2008 report from the Florida Center for Reading Research. Problems at school are compounded because the ability to learn about science, social studies and other subjects through reading is compromised. Difficulties interpreting written symbols can affect mathematics understanding, too. School becomes a place of failure.

For Nathan, who is sociable and extroverted by nature, poor performance at school caused him to lose heart, and he became reluctant to go. During second grade, Nathan was absent 19 times, his mother said. Soon after Nathan started second grade, Kristin Eberting sought help outside the school system, arranging for intensive tutoring by specialists at Dyslexia Center of Utah.

Brain wiring

Dyslexia expert Ben Shifrin knows what Nathan was feeling. Shifrin directs Maryland’s Jemicy School for dyslexic students, and serves on the National Advisory Committee on Exceptional Children. Shifrin didn’t let his own dyslexia stop him from graduating summa cum laude from Temple University with a master’s degree in special education.

But dyslexia made his school years miserable, and he doesn’t want other children to go through what he did. When Shifrin was in second grade, his mother was told that he was mentally retarded and would never learn to read.

“Kids with dyslexia are made to feel like they are not smart, and they develop low self-esteem,” Shifrin said. “We see a high dropout rate and high incidence of these kids using drugs, all because they are not diagnosed and taught correctly.”

Shifrin explains dyslexia as a difference in brain wiring. Human beings are genetically wired to pick up spoken language, and do it automatically, he said. “But we’re not all wired to read. It wasn’t a natural thing that all of our brains developed.”

Some people pick up on the relationships between letters and sounds naturally, and some can be taught those relationships without difficulty in a typical school setting. But many students have a hard time making those connections, Shifrin said, even if they have high IQs and are gifted in other academic areas.

“The child looks totally normal, and the teacher thinks they’re not trying,” he said.


Dyslexia isn’t caused by lack of intelligence, gumption or desire to learn, Shifrin said. With appropriate teaching methods, people who have it can learn successfully. It’s not an easy process, though.

Most tutoring programs are based on ideas first advanced by researchers Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham in the 1930s. To build the brain wiring needed for reading, the approach calls for carefully sequenced experiences with letters and sounds that incorporate sight, touch, hearing and movement. And a lot of repetition — much more than typical students need.

For Nathan, who had tried to memorize his alphabet sounds over and over without retaining what he learned, this worked. At the Dyslexia Center, he learned to draw a giant imaginary letter “A” in the sky with his extended arm while naming the letter and making its (short vowel) sound: “Aaaa.” Over and over.

Gradually all consonants and short vowel sounds were learned by similar methods and then long vowel sounds. Exercises in combining sounds followed. In time, what Nathan learned became part of his reading toolkit. The progression continued, including understanding of prefixes and suffixes and other clues to word decoding.

“People who have dyslexia need tools in order to decode words,” said Barbara Dianis, author of the book “Don’t Count Me Out.” Dianis, who has dyslexia, said that until phonetic skills are built up, reading, writing and spelling would be problematic for children with dyslexia. That requires intensive focus on relating basic speech sounds to written symbols — “phonemic awareness,” in professional terminology.

Getting help

The International Dyslexia Association’s website offers tips for parents to help them recognize signs of dyslexia in young children. These can include late talking, difficulties with rhyming, and trouble learning alphabet letters and their sounds.

Many schools do basic screening for dyslexia, but a concerned parent has the legal right to request a comprehensive evaluation. If a child’s reading struggles are severe enough to be diagnosed as a learning disability, he or she is legally entitled to special education programs that meet individual needs.

Struggling readers who don’t qualify for special education can be eligible to receive accommodations in the classroom, such as modified homework assignments and extra time to complete tasks. At Nathan’s school, he is required to learn only 10 spelling words each week, although the other students must learn 20. With hard work, he can learn his 10 words and pass his spelling test successfully, his mother said. Trying to learn 20 new words would be a weekly exercise in failure, she added.

Modern developments

Advances in technology have brought many useful tools to people with dyslexia and Shifrin relies on some of these. Although he overcame dyslexia well enough to earn an advanced degree, reading will never be his favorite thing, he said. Using voice recognition software helps him get words down on paper. Software that allows computers to read text aloud is a great study aid. And, Shifrin loves books on tape.

The study about reading from a smartphone or e-reader showed that when the device is formatted to display only a few words per line, dyslexic readers show significantly improved reading speed and comprehension when compared with reading traditional blocks of text printed on paper.

“Technology is like a seeing-eye dog for children who have dyslexia,” Shifrin said.

At the Eberting household, technology is used in a different way, one many mothers will recognize. Nathan spends long hours on schoolwork — he has to. But his mother breaks it up by allowing 10-minute breaks for computer gaming after each task he accomplishes.

For Nathan, now 10, the struggle isn’t over. Although his reading comprehension is at grade level, he reads slower than his fifth-grade peers, and has to work hard after school to stay on top of his homework. He’s doing it, though, and goes to school without dragging his feet. After three years of year-round tutoring, Nathan no longer needs tutoring during the school year, but will return to the Dyslexia Center during the summer.

A letter Nathan’s fourth-grade schoolteacher sent home last spring spoke of the remarkable improvement in his reading skills, then hinted at the bright future Nathan is building:

“Nathan is a sweet boy and will continue his progress with his good attitude and hard work.”

Email: Twitter: @celiarbaker