Talking Is Easy...Why Isn't Reading?
Author: Jessi Dolnik
Nine-year-old Cole is one of the brightest children in his third-grade class. He has a fantastic vocabulary and knows everything there is to know about football—he can even tell you who played in each of the last 10 National Championship games and who won. But when it comes to reading about football—or anything else—Cole has a lot of trouble. It takes him a long time to read each word and even longer to read whole sentences. He often has to guess at how you say a word—and sometimes his guess is wrong. He relies on pictures. Reading out loud is especially stressful and embarrassing. His teacher recently told Cole’s parents that she thinks he could benefit from extra help in reading, or “resource,” at school.
Most people assume that part of being smart is being able to read well. About 100 years ago, though, doctors figured out that some people, even some very smart people who do really well at many other things, have trouble learning to read. This difficulty with reading is called dyslexia.
No one is born knowing how to read; we all have to learn how. When you were a baby, just being around people who were talking was enough to get you started talking, too. Human brains are just designed to make talking happen almost automatically. Reading is different, though. When you read, your brain has to do a lot of things at once. It has to connect letters with sounds and put those sounds together in the right order. Then it has to help you put letters, words, and paragraphs together in ways that let you read them quickly and understand what they mean. It also has to connect words and sentences with other kinds of knowledge. When you see “c-a-t” on a piece of paper, your brain doesn’t just have to read the word “cat”; it also has to make the connection that “cat” means a furry, four-legged animal that meows.
What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is not just flipping letters and numbers. Dyslexia is sort of an invisible problem. It’s not an illness like chicken pox or a cold. In school, teachers can see Cole working hard, but they can’t see all the steps his brain has to take to make sense of the words on the worksheet he’s attempting to do.
Many kids with dyslexia worry that there is something wrong with their brain. That’s a pretty scary thought. Thanks to recent research, though, we have scientific proof that a dyslexic person’s brain is normal and healthy. When you have dyslexia, though, your brain takes longer to make some of these connections, and does it in more steps. It especially has trouble matching the letters you see on the page with the sounds those letters and combinations of letters make. And when you have trouble with that step, it makes all the other steps harder.
Dyslexia isn’t rare. Sometimes several people in the same family have dyslexia. It is estimated that between 5-10 percent of the population could be classified as dyslexic.
A new way to learn
Cole was diagnosed with dyslexia. He is actually lucky that he has already found out that he has dyslexia. You see, the younger you are when you figure out that reading is tough for you, the sooner you—with the help of trained professionals in the area of dyslexia, teachers and parents—can find ways to learn that make it easier. Even though dyslexia isn’t something Cole will grow out of, there are methods and techniques available to help Cole read better… even enjoy reading.
One thing we know for certain about dyslexia is that this is one small area of difficulty in a sea of strengths. Having trouble with reading does not mean that you’ll have trouble with everything. In fact, most kids with dyslexia are very good at lots of other things.
People with dyslexia are often very creative and typically develop some clever skills to help them figure out words and sentences that give them trouble at first. Dyslexics often think of unexpected ways to solve a problem or tackle a challenge.
We don’t fully understand whether this kind of creativity comes from the extra work dyslexics have to do to succeed at reading or whether dyslexics are just naturally creative. What we do know is that many, many people with dyslexia, even some who really struggled with reading and writing in elementary school and high school, went on to college and work in jobs they love.
Cole’s family accessed the tools to make his reading experience a better one. He is now reading at grade level with individualized supports in place. Most important, he is happy.
Jessi Dolnik, MA, CCC-SLP is a pediatric speech-language pathologist & founder of Lowcountry Therapy Center & Lowcountry Dyslexia Center.