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“Mom, I Can’t Read!”: The truth about literacy, struggling readers, and dyslexia

June 4, 2012 in Special Education Articles by Jess


Fact 1:

Approximately 20% of children reach age 11 and are not able to pass a reading test.  

Fact 2:

It is estimated that up to 60 million people in the United States have dyslexia and struggle to read. 

Fact 3:

It doesn’t have to be this way.  

Highly Visual Learning 

With synthetic phonics system firmly in vogue as the go-to method for literacy instruction, many children are learning to read easily nowadays. However, with 1 in 5 children failing to grasp basic phonics, there is clearly more work to be done.  

In fact, some of you may have noticed that your own child labors over reading, reads short words incorrectly, guesses at words based on pictorial clues or context, doesn’t seem to understand what he reads or even flips words like ‘was’ into ‘saw’ in his writing.  


Children, like everyone, have different learning styles. Some children are kinesthetic learners, some are visual, others verbal or aural.  We all naturally use the parts of the brain that work best for us. The more we rely on those parts, the more they develop, to the detriment of other areas. When this scientific truth is applied to literacy, it can have a dangerous result. 

Visual learners seem to be particularly at risk when it comes to reading, though at first this risk may be well hidden. Children with this visual learning style will usually succeed in early literacy tasks, learning the alphabet and simple words through sight-memorisation and repetition. Both of these methods appeal to their highly engaged visual capacity.  

But their reading technique will eventually fail them.    

As text grows more complex they can no longer reliably use sight-reading or context clues as a trigger for the correct word, so they begin to guess, often wildly. Meanwhile their peers progress while they struggle, which leads to frustration, collapsed confidence, and even a refusal to read. 

If you recognize these patterns in your own children, it is likely they are highly visual sight-readers. Some of you will have children who have been labelled as dyslexic. Though not all highly visual learners have dyslexia, most dyslexics are highly visual learners. I should be said that although dyslexia causes problems in some areas of learning, it carries certain distinct advantages. There is a growing body of research in the scientific community on the enhanced perceptual abilities of dyslexics, including acute peripheral vision, excellent processing of “big-picture” gist when presented with a visual scene, and superior perception of variations in spatial patterns or pictorial connections. 

But where does this leave the highly visual learner when it comes to reading? 

The Science of Reading 

In a grossly simplified description, the conventional reader’s brain processes written language by first taking in a word through the visual cortex, and then processing it in the auditory cortex. Here the letters and letter groups are mapped to the phonemes (sounds) which are stored in the auditory memory. These sounds, now recognised by the reader, are blended into words. This stream of words is then passed to the prefrontal cortex where the actual meaning of the words is processed. 

However, in the dyslexic reader’s brain, the auditory cortex is bypassed. You can see this lack of activity in that area of the brain on an MRI scan. The visual information presented by a word moves directly from the visual cortex into the prefrontal cortex. So the word ‘cow’ is processed in exactly the same way as a picture of a cow might be.  

This technique works for a small number of words, but eventually the visual memory cannot keep up with the huge volume of words that need to be processed in the English language and thus sight-reading fails.

The Art of Changing a Brain 

Most reading recovery schemes recommend an intensive application of the same learning approach that has already failed. 

If you think about it, this is like asking someone who is not nearly tall enough to reach a certain tree branch to just “try harder”! 

What must be done instead is to find a way to re-activate the auditory processing cortex in the reading process.  

The best way to accomplish this is to appeal to the visual processing strength of the dyslexic child without allowing a visual-only processing of words. The learner must be given visually imaginative tools which can then be used to help decode (break down) the phonic structure of each word. When the phonic structure of a word is processed, this forces the engagement of the auditory cortex. 

By presenting this child with visually memorable characters which represent the various English-language phonemes and placing these characters above the appropriate letter pattern, decoding can be achieved easily.  These characters enable the child to grasp abstract information like phonemes and retain them in her visual cortex until the brain relearns how to read with an engaged auditory cortex and no longer needs this visual stimulus.  

In this way, sight-readers are weaned off their habit of jumping to a guess and instead are taught to scan each word to match the letter patterns with the sound patterns.  

Easier said than done? 

Many of you might be thinking, “Phew. That was an awfully big mouthful of long words and foreign concepts. Can it actually be done?” 

Yes! It is not an overnight process to say the least, but when the visual learner is engaged in this way through short daily practice, significant progress can be made in anywhere from 3 to 9 months, with most children achieving an excellent level of reading within a year. As always the sooner a reading problem is tackled the better, with the optimal age to embark on this kind of approach being between 5 and 9 years of age. 

There is an abundance of hope for dyslexic children. Understanding the problem and how to solve it is the vital first step in setting your child on the right path to a lifetime of happy reading.  

Oxford Learning Solutions publish the Easyread System. Easyread uses imaginative synthetic phonics to teach struggling learners how to read, specializing in cases of dyslexia, highly visual learning and auditory processing deficits. Visit us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/easyreadsystem.

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Why Is Learning Style So Important?

January 22, 2012 in Special Education Articles by Jess

Most people have a preferred way to learn. Some learn best by listening, some have to observe every step, while others have to do it to learn it. The fact is that individuals need all three modalities to truly commit information to memory: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. While most are typically stronger in one area than another, the trick is figuring out the preferred modality and capitalizing on strengths. Take a few minutes to complete this informal inventory. The answers may surprise you. Read the rest of this entry →

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