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I Suspect My Child Has A Reading Disability. Now What?

I read with interest an article, “Defeating Dyslexia at Home,”   by Katherine Kersten, an op-ed contributor to the Minneapolis daily, The Star-Tribune.  It was indeed heartening to hear that Kersten was able to create and implement a home school program that resulted in such a success story.  Sadly, in my almost thirty years of working with children with dyslexia, I have found this to be the exception rather than the rule.  Most parents have neither the time nor the expertise to solve the conundrum of dyslexia.  Well- meaning parents have no idea where to begin looking for help and too often they fall victim to either a “quick-fix” approach or to waiting, hoping that the light bulb will turn on for their child.  Both approaches can lead to extreme and unnecessary frustration.

There are no quick fixes or silver bullet cures when it comes to dyslexia.  However, there is hope.  According to a multitude of research studies sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), we know with certainty that early identification and the proper form of intervention make huge differences in narrowing the gap between a child’s potential to read and his/her actual reading ability.  According to replicated research, 90% to 95% of poor readers can increase reading skills to an average level if the problem is identified in its early stages and the proper form of intervention is implemented.  Conversely, waiting or using an incorrect intervention can have significant, negative consequences.  In fact, research also reveals that if students are not diagnosed and appropriate intervention is not started by nine years of age, 75% of the children with a reading difficulty will continue to struggle through high school.   Clearly, waiting is a dangerous game.

Five variables contribute to the closing of the gap between reading potential and actual performance including: the skill and knowledge base of the teacher, the proper form of intervention and the intervention’s intensity, frequency, and duration.  The first step to finding a solution to the five-variable equation comes with a thorough psycho-educational assessment.  This assessment will measure the individual’s potential and his/her actual reading ability.  Processing tests will help determine the severity of the issue, what is causing the problem, and what intervention(s) would be most appropriate.  Time and frustration will be saved if the assessment occurs at the first hint of a reading problem.  Students can be assessed through their local public school districts or privately.  The assessment should be completed by an educational psychologist who has been trained to give both cognitive assessments and achievement tests.   Depending upon the difficulties of the child, an assessment would include cognitive processing, reading and spelling assessments, and sometimes math, speech and language, written expression, and visual-motor integration testing.

Once the nature and severity of the problem(s) are understood, the intensity, frequency, and duration of the most appropriate intervention can be determined.  A struggling reader will most often require a reading specialist who has both an explicit awareness of the structures of language and who uses a diagnostic-prescriptive approach to help him/her close the gap.  A teacher who does not have an explicit understanding of phonemic awareness, phonics, morphology, orthography, syntax, and semantics (the structures of language) will not be able to impart effectively this critical knowledge to his/her students.  Without this knowledge of language, a student and teacher will most likely wander aimlessly in the forest of reading issues and both will undoubtedly become frustrated by the many dead ends.  On the other hand, a teacher with proper training will be able to both find the correct path(s) and will be able to skillfully navigate students around the expected and unexpected obstacles on that path.

There are resources for those struggling with dyslexia.  If you have questions about identification, intervention, or dyslexia in general, you can contact the International Dyslexia Association (www.interdys.org; 410.296.0232).  The organization has a wealth of information and can direct you to a chapter in your area.  You can also contact Groves academy (www.grovesacademy.org; 952.920.6377).  Finally, I would strongly recommend reading Sally Shaywitz’s book, Overcoming Dyslexia.  In the book, she clearly describes dyslexia and offers specific recommendations for parents and provides a list of resources for going forward.

John Alexander, Head of School, Groves Academy