OK, so probably most of my readers don’t have a need for dyslexia books. I’m posting these notes here to jog my memory in the future, and just in case anyone who needs such information drops by.
Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, M.D. Shaywitz is a Yale doctor who has been involved in dyslexia research for decades, including writing an article about dyslexia that was published in Smithsonian magazine in the mid-1990s. This is a thick and comprehensive book about the history, nature and treatment of dyslexia. On the one hand, very good information, at least considering that it’s now nearly a decade old. On the other hand, the text was so dense, with tiny type and frequent fillers about the marvels of modern science, that I found myself wanting to hurl the book across the room and tell Shaywitz to get to the point already. The revolutionary teaching method promised in the subtitle was not introduced until page 172, especially amazing given that dyslexia is often inherited, making it very likely that a dyslexic parent would be trying to muddle through this. /end rant
Facts about dyslexia that I did not know: According to Shaywitz, current research indicates that the root of dyslexia is phonological, not visual as is still commonly assumed. The brain just doesn’t want to convert sounds to symbols and back. Brain scans show activity in very different parts for dyslexics and non-dyslexics, so the they are learning to read in very different ways. Dyslexia affects just as many girls as boys, and lower class as middle class, though girls and lower class kids tend to be underidentified – because girls are quiet and lower class are sadly just not expected to succeed academically. Though in general dyslexia is highly underdiagnosed, she cites research showing that about 20% of people have dyslexia. Maybe I shouldn’t be so concerned about no one else needing this information.
After sections on the history of dyslexia and modern research into dyslexia, Shaywitz goes into diagnosing dyslexia, in preschoolers, early elementary, late elementary, and high school and college. (I hadn’t known that my son’s epic disinterest in nursery rhymes and alphabet books as a child was an early sign.) The last two sections of the book cover helping dyslexics learn to read and long-term approaches to education. The keys are to work on sounds, building up a reservoir of recognized words; teach rules and bits of words to help break apart new words; and provide lots and lots of practice, especially with a teacher or parent early on. Then, remember that dyslexia is “an island of weakness in a sea of strengths” and make sure to keep the focus on strengths. Adaptive technology like speech recognition software, homonym finders, and laptops for note-taking in class (thankfully no longer rare) can all be very helpful once the focus of education has shifted to reading to learn and writing to demonstrate knowledge rather than learning to read and write. In exams, separate, quiet room, extra time, and avoiding multiple choice tests (where helpful context is absent) are keys to success. So far, I’m pleased to say that the only thing we did wrong per her advice was to have the boy repeat grade (though as we had him start kindergarten at four, I’m thinking that’s not all that bad.), rather than having him tested a year earlier. She says that research shows that reading instruction improves reading, not being older. Kids who start sooner, read sooner.
The book has a few areas where it is showing its age: it gives specific hardware requirements for software programs (much better to have said simply that it requires top-of-the-line home computers. Shaywitz had high hopes for the NCLB evidence-based reading instruction requirements, which now have had time to show results. I hadn’t realized how much charter schools have spread in the past decade. Wikipedia reveals that they started in 1991 , but she doesn’t give any educational options besides public and private schools. Come to think of it, she doesn’t include homeschooling as an option, either. Finally, in her going over what skills are expected to be learned when, I noticed that she still expects children to learn their letters in Kindergarten and reading in grade 1, which has now shifted a year earlier – one of the things that made me mad when I was visiting Kindergartens. When did this change?
I read through this book much more slowly than my typical reading speed. But it is still the most comprehensive book I’ve found on the topic, and the only one that goes into the history and science of dyslexia as well as the symptoms.