What is Dyslexia After All?

     Before you were even born, science can tell us your genetic predisposition to dyslexia Tim Conway, The Morris Center. The affected neurons didn’t formulate in a routine manner, but rather, went to another area than where they were supposed to be.  Because of this, language takes more work to build those important networks. And we know this by the sixth month gestation.  

     Neuroscience tells us that for the general population the spacing and distribution of frontal processing units called minicolumns, are bell-shaped. When mini columns are very densely packed together they make connections with columns with very similar functions.  In Autism, for example, the axons are extremely close together, and therefore axon lengths are very short and autistic individuals are able to thrive in highly detailed skill sets. 

      Dyslexics, are the opposite. The minicolumns within the cortex stringing together axons are very far apart in the dyslexic brain . Because the mini columns of the cortex are spaced very far part, the axon lengths are significantly longer and the axons make connections with columns of many purposes. Consequently dyslexics are known to possess four strength profiles:

  1. spatial reasoning (manipulating objects in space, excelling in careers like art and architecture) 
  2. interconnected reasoning (the ability to form connections between seemingly unrelated subjects).
  3. narrative reasoning (the ability to construct a connected series of mental scenes from fragments of past personal experience . Just ask a dyslexic the plot of a book they read and hold on!) and
  4. making best-fit predictions in situations with incomplete information (entrepreneurs)  

                                                                            Eide and Eide, The Dyslexic Advantage

     But what does all this mean?  Dyslexics excel at higher order processing but lack the foundational skills to be able to bridge the presentation/articulation of this genius with the minutia of text. The problem is that our entire educational system is designed toward the latter, and does not laud the former.  Yet higher order processing is laudable and should be not only valued, but revered, accentuated, validated, appreciated, and rewarded! 

     I was valedictorian of my high school (1986) and my grades really mattered to me.  I graduated Cum Laude from the University of Notre Dame (1990) and with Honors from the University of Iowa College of Law (1993).  I was willing to work very hard, and knew how to study.  I say that carefully . . . I knew how to study. I knew how to take a test, I knew how to extract what the teachers wanted, I was willing to study everything in case something might be on the test.  After college I walked into the law school and then my finely controlled,  perfectly organized planet fell apart!  To my dismay, in law school there was not a single quiz, assignment, paper or test, short of the final exam which was 100% of our grade.  In every single class.  I could no longer study for the test, I had to study to learn, and this was entirely new to me.  I remember my first law school professor mentioning the word “synthesize” and I had no idea whatsoever he was talking about. He wanted us to make connections between cases, connections between data, connections between facts.  But he did not provide those connections.  Looking back I see it was of course the ideal training for legal writing and arguing.  But at the time, I was completely lost.  I could no longer memorize as “understanding” but had to wholly grasp the big picture. This was the single most grueling component of my entire academic career.  It took me the better part of two YEARS to learn how to make connections between seemingly unrelated items and successfully argue their applicability.  I had been through four years of high school, four years of college, but had not truly learned, understood, as was intended.  I could memorize, and was willing to put in all the time to do so.  I worked hard.  But it never occurred to me that I was to sit back and digest all this information, that it was somehow related to a much bigger picture.  

     I was the student rewarded academically through every single step, I was lauded.  But I did not “understand.” Most of our population, the dyslexic students, have this ability innately.  WHAT A GIFT!!!  At age twenty-two I had to be completely broken down, and then totally rebuilt, to understand what the word synthesize means.  But eight of my children synthesize with automaticity.  

     When I caught onto this, I have to say it was an absolute treasure to teach my children, every single minute.  These kids would make organic, unsolicited connections between subjects, between authors, and it was brilliant.

     My daughter Maura was a freshman in high school and truly loved the sciences.  She had already completed Biology and was then taking Anatomy.  I wanted her to have an appreciation for the journey science has taken and for the specific players in that journey.  For history class, we created “The History of Science” in which she studied biographical or autobiographical work on Pascal, Tesla, Curie,Pasteur, La Flesche, Braille, and Muir. She had written various narrations (reports) on the books as we went along.  The narrations were very difficult for her to write and consequently took an unusually significant amount of time to produce.  She could converse with me readily about the book, but the written production was an entirely different task.  Her narrations were often ten pages typed and highly detailed.  After awhile, I asked her to take a ten page narration and make it two pages, knowing that would certainly be her challenge set in writing.  I was trying to figure out what made the narrations so laborious, why the narrations were all so lengthy?  She successfully narrowed the narration to two pages without much angst.  Still trying to isolate this area, I asked her to write a report on all her books so far.  At age fourteen, she produced a document that was near graduate level quality.  Without being burdened by the minutia of detail, which had made the heretofore narrations so burdensome, she could fly.  She wove intimate connections between Pascal and Newton, and wove in Mark Twain because he was alive at the time. When I asked her about this narration, she said it was easy.  Maura can hire a research assistant to fill in the data on a subject, but you cannot hire out these connections.  This was brilliance, and I was exhilarated.  My kids were the opposite of me; they could not “study” and “ace a test” but they could truly “learn” as the word was intended. Wow. 

     What a crime we are asking these students to be less of themselves!  We are judging them by a skill set that is perfunctory (yet necessary), and not by one that is radiant and wise.  It took me nearly 18 years of education, including higher education,  to be able to do what comes naturally to dyslexics.  But because my measuring tape is set to measure phonology, I miss the sagacity of an entirely population. What’s more, as an academic culture we are taking it a major step further and punishing this population!  We are labeling this population!  We are shaming this population!  Indefensible. In fact, it has been found that “Phonologic abilities are not related to intelligence and, in fact, are quite independent of intelligence.” Sally Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia (56)


What is Dyslexia?

     The International Dyslexia Association as well as the National Institute of Child Health and Development both conclude that the deficit in phonology in a dyslexic is unexpected compared to other abilities: 

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. International Dyslexia Association, 2002

     Dyslexia is defined by a variety of sources, but each source includes the      characterization as an “unexpected” deficit; the child’s intelligence would suggest that reading would not be a problem. Premier Yale researcher and author, Sally Shaywitz, defines dyslexia as an unexpected difficulty in reading in an individual who has the intelligence to be a much better reader. She has described it as “a sea of brilliance interspersed with isolated islands of weakness.”  In other words, an isolated weakness in getting to the sounds of words surrounded by an array of strengths in thinking and reasoning. Overcoming Dyslexia, Shaywtz, (93),

     Dyslexia is very common, affecting 20 percent of the population and comprising about 80 percent of all learning disabilities. Schaywitz Overcoming Dyslexia (29-30). Dyslexia is persistent, a chronic condition, and does not represent a temporary lag in reading development. Shaywitz Overcoming Dyslexia (33). While the remediation addresses functionality, it does not in any way “cure” or remove or redefine dyslexia. 

     Language is really, really tough for our kids. There are no instincts here--each action must be first planned, and then, perhaps painfully, executed. I believe with all I am that our population, our students, our dyslexics, can learn just enough language, enough writing, enough reading skills (through various appropriate science based modalities) to play ball with the big boys. To be on the field, to play ball in the system.   Language will no longer be their barrier to access to the game, or to success.  Text is NOT the determinant, it is the threshold, at best.  In a 2015 Tedx Talk, Dean Bragonier, founder of Noticeability, commented that there are a lot of problems in our society which need solutions, and, “some of the most creative, innovative minds are at this moment atrophying behind bars.  And that is all a result of a system that relies upon the most archaic form of educational medium . . .text.”  So by advocating for remediation I am not asking our dyslexics to accept the paradigm, absolutely not.  I am agreeing that reading and writing are a threshold. Given appropriate instruction meeting very specific criteria our students can learn to read and to write to pass the threshold into the game.  

     Science tells us that phonology is one of our earliest developing systems, then syntax, then word order and then spelling. This is universally true in all cultures--speech develops first and reading later. But what is phonology? In fact, what is a phoneme? A phoneme is the smallest unit of speech that distinguishes one word from another. It is the fundamental element of the language system and an essential building block of all spoken and written language. Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia (41). Is phonology, then, just the ability to identify a sound?  No, in fact it is much, much, more!  It is a complex science absolutely foundational to one’s ability to read and write. Phonology has many diverse components: am I aware of how my mouth feels as I make a sound? Can I hear sound correctly? Do I connect the correct sound with the correct visual clue? Dyslexics have characteristic weakness in phonology, in  the part of the brain where sounds of language are put together to form words, and where words are broken down into foundational sounds.  For dyslexics, the left side of the brain is less active in reading; the brain structure is different in very specific areas essential for language!

     Phonology is the basis of the language system--it is the foundation, the floor of language skills. It has been said that the phonological code is the only code of language. Dyslexics do not possess the code. Phonology is the base step of the pyramid of our complex language. If, then, neuroscience shows us the language foundation for dyslexics is weak, how can it be expected that secondary and higher language skills such as semantics, syntax, discourse, could develop?  Their house is built on sand and it will not, and has not, stood.   These kids have used every ounce of their strength to compensate, to strategize, to participate in the phonological system.  They were never given the code to get in, so they used whatever savvy they had to fake it.  The educational system, the societal system, required this of them.  And they rose to the occasion, but at a great personal cost.

      We know that 92% of children who lack phonemic awareness at the beginning of first grade will fail to learn to read except through memorization of words. Susan Barton, Bright Solutions. We know that children at risk for reading failure can be identified in kindergarten and children who are poor readers in third grade are highly likely (74%)  to remain so in ninth grade, and special education does not close the reading gap.  G. Reid Lyon, , National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Research Program in Reading Development; International Dyslexia Association . 

     Given a traditional method, dyslexics can likely learn phonics or language in isolation, but they cannot apply it to an unknown word. They cannot perform word attack, they cannot read nonsense words.  This is a failed system.  Our goal is not achievement of a specific task on a certain day, but comprehension, manipulation, and application. 

     What does this type of appropriate instruction for a dyslexic student look like?

     For a child with dyslexia, independent, scientific, replicated research supports the use of a reading system that is simultaneously multi-sensory, systematic, and cumulative, with direct and explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, followed by synthetic and analytic phonics with intense practice. Susan Barton, Bright Solutions.

    At first you might think that sounds like a complex, perhaps impossible, system.  However, the Orton-Gillingham Multi-sensory Method was developed in the early 1930's with the goal of creating a sequential system that builds on itself in an almost 3-dimensional way. It must show how sounds and letters are related and how they act in words; it must also show how to attack a word and break it into smaller pieces. And it must be a multi-sensory approach, as dyslexic people learn best by involving all of their senses: visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic.

     The most infuriating fact is simply that we truly have the science to change lives.  But we are sitting on it: "There is an epidemic of reading failure that we have the scientific evidence to treat and we are not acknowledging or implementing it ,"  Sally Shaywitz.  The science has been here since the 1930's.  And yet, the children wait. And wait. And wait. 

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find any other disability affecting so many millions of children in the United States today, on which so much research has been done, so many thousands of articles written and yet concerning which so very little information has reached the average teacher or physician to say nothing of parents and the public. These children are as handicapped by the ignorance surrounding their problem as they are by the problem itself.  Careth Ellingson, Saturday Review, 1963.

     It surprises many to learn that very few teachers today are even exposed to the word dyslexia, whether in their training or continuing education. Yet, one-fifth of the student population has this condition. And the majority of that one-fifth end up on public assistance in a variety of  ways.  How can we as citizens defend these incongruous statements?  We are a triage society--we do the best we can to treat those who appear the worst,  or those making the most noise.  It is inherent in the dyslexic family that the parent has very little energy left to make global noise because he or she is so entirely spent trying to get just education for one day for one child. The energy that is left over is negligible or nonexistent. This was and is my full time job, and I homeschool.  I am battle ACT, the homeschool assistance program, the 504 team, and I homeschool.  Compound this by a zillion and that is what our public school parents are experiencing.  We need a loud, influential, tireless voice.  Decoding Dyslexia chapters in the US are trying to become that voice.  They warrant, and have earned, our respect and support. 

What will it take to make the change?  What will it take for the educational system to respect science? How many more lives will be, at best, underutilized, before we can implement change?  Why is the status quo tolerable for anyone?  In a society striving for inclusion we have wholly excluded twenty percent of the population.  Why is this acceptable to anyone? 

     This is certainly not the first time we, as a nation, have sat on science because we truly did not want to know.  For example, consider the science behind findings of harmful radiation in early x-rays.  New to the medical field, in the 1950’s British Scientist Alice Stewart received only one limited grant for research. She knew she had to make her one chance as thorough as possible.  She was troubled that while childhood death was previously linked to poverty, in the 1950’s it became linked to the affluent as well. Dr. Alice Stewart sent questionnaires to the families of deceased children querying every single facet of that child’s life. The data showed, two to one, that children that had died had mothers who had had x-rays while they were pregnant.  But the x-ray machine was new and impressive, and doctors did not harm their patients, they helped their patients. In 1956 British Scientist Alice Stewart published findings that openly contradicted conventional medical understanding.  No one wanted to hear that the new fangled machine, the x-ray machine, would harm anyone.  So Britain and the US sat on this finding for 25 years. And one baby died per week. For 25 years.

      You might think this is an extreme parallel, but pose that same question to a dyslexic student in our school system today. Their self esteem has died, their goals have died, their productivity has died, their belief in what is possible has died. Orton Gillingham is a science based multi-sensory sequential research based reading program that has been in existence since the mid 1930’s.  Science has shown us since the 1930’s findings that the dyslexic child can learn to read utilizing approved methods. “Science”  or data, tells us today of the profound correlation between dyslexia and childhood addiction (60%), juvenile detention (60%), incarceration (80%),and suicide.

What is the culpability in knowing this?

     We are approaching 80 years since OG was developed.  The criteria for application of science in our country should not be what culturally, or professionally, we do or do not WANT to learn, or what is CONVENIENT to learn.  We are bound, morally, professionally, legally, to apply OG methods to our students.  We are throwing a peoples away. 

Maggie McDonald, 2016

Maggie McDonald, 2016