Donna Ricks interviews Sally Shawitz for First Voice.

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Donna Ricks is an interviewer and media consultant. Audio and transcripts of her interviews are available at http://www.7to7.net Dr. Sally Shaywitz is professor of pediatrics and child study at the Yale University School of Medicine, where she co-directs the Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention.

Donna:

The book is Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level and the author is Sally E. Shaywitz, M.D. Sally, welcome to First Voice.

Sally:

Glad to be here.

Donna:

We've known for a long time that some intelligent children have trouble reading, but brain imaging opened the door to our understanding.

Sally:

That’s correct. The hallmark of dyslexia is that it’s an unexpected difficulty in learning to read. That means that the children and adults who struggle to read are motivated, intelligent. Because of that, sometimes people have wondered “Is it real?” Sometimes because they’re so bright they’re accused of not being motivated or not trying hard enough. Now, with the ability to actually image the brain, as a child or adult reads, we can actually see hard evidence, biological evidence of a disruption in the pathways for reading. What brain imaging has allowed us to do is to peer into the brain and see what happens when children and adults try to read, and as a result we’ve been able to discover what the major system for reading are in the brain and that there are differences between good and struggling readers and what those differences are.

Very recently we’ve been able to see what happens if you provide a child who is a struggling reader an effective reading intervention. In a recent study, that’s exactly what we did. What we were able to discover is that children who are provided with a highly effective reading intervention actually change their brain organization. So the systems for reading in the brain are malleable. If evidence based reading program is provided, those systems can reorganize and the children can read more accurately, more fluently and can comprehend better. That’s an exciting and very, very hopeful sign.

Donna:

I have always heard that dyslexic children see letters and words backward and reversals are an invariable sign.

Sally:

The belief that children who are dyslexic see letters and words backward is a very common belief, but not a correct one. Back in 1896 when dyslexia was first described, the people who were asked to see dyslexic children were optomologists. The belief was that is was a problem in the eyes, because people read with their eyes, it must be a difficulty in seeing.

Now, what we’ve been able to learn, the community of scientists studying dyslexia, is that the problem involves language. In fact it involves language at its most basic level, that is, getting to the sound of spoken words.

Let me take just a moment to explain this a little better. Spoken language has been with us for hundreds of thousands of years. We as humans are genetically programmed, our brains are hardwired for spoken language. Virtually everyone in society speaks. When a baby is born you don’t have to have a spoken language curriculum. The baby, as she or he grows, will learn to speak instinctively.

If we think about written language, it’s very different. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s very recent, five or six thousand years. There are societies on earth who don’t have a written language. We as humans are not hard wired for written language. As opposed to spoken language, which is instinctive, written language is acquired, it must be taught. So the question becomes what has to be taught. What children have to learn is how these abstract notations that are letters connect to the sound of spoken language. That’s how children break the reading code.

So the prime difficulty in reading doesn’t involve so much how you see letters, but the ability to get to the individual sounds of spoken language.

Donna:

Is there one clue, which is the first sign to look for in young children?

Sally:

Yes, there is. With our new understanding that the fundamental first step is getting to the sounds of spoken language, we can now begin to identify at risk children, even before the time they’re expected to read. The signs we look for involve spoken language. There may be a delay in spoken language. One of the most important signs is for the child, when they’re three or four, to not appreciate rhymes, to not know that mat and cat and hat rhyme.

When a child is asked about rhymes, it is the first time a child begins to focus on parts of a spoken word. To know that cat and hat rhyme, you have to know that they both contain “at.”

So a child who has difficulty appreciating rhymes, or remembering rhymes, or telling you what word rhymes with another, that’s an important clue in a preschool child may be at risk for reading problems.

Donna:

You have a great checklist in your book of what children should be able to read, broken down by age.

Sally:

What I wanted to provide for parents and educator alike is how to recognize the clues to dyslexia at different ages. There are clues you can recognize in the preschool years, clues in kindergarten and first grade, clues from second grade on and also clues in adolescence and young adults.

So, for example, in a school age child, there’s on set of clues that involve spoken language: a child might mispronounce long or unfamiliar words, might confuse words that sound alike, such as saying humanity for humidity.

Then there are problems in reading. A child who is very slow in accruing a strategy in sounding out words. One very important sign is a child who has a terrific fear of reading out loud and when the child reads out loud the reading is choppy, it’s labored, it’s not smooth or fluent, it almost seems as if the child is reading a foreign language.

Other clues involve children who read very slowly, who don’t finish their tests, whose homework goes on forever and children who avoid reading or who have poor spelling, those are all important clues.

Another clue is a child who understands the work and gets the concept, when given a test, doesn’t do well. Sometimes these children read slowly and don’t finish the test.

Donna:

Dyslexic children tend to "talk around" a word. Tell us what that means.

Sally:

Because dyslexic children have trouble getting to the basic sounds of words, they have trouble pulling up the right word. So if they want to say something, they may know exactly what they want to say, but they can’t get the word out. So they say, “You know, I left the stuff.” They use very non-specific words or they’ll say a word that sounds like a word.

Donna:

But if given a choice, dyslexic children almost always recognize a word.

Sally:

Exactly. So if a child is looking at a picture of a volcano, but instead pulls up tornado, you might say to them, “Did you mean volcano or tornado?” The child will invariably say, “Oh, volcano.”

When he hears it he recognizes it because it’s not a problem with meaning, it’s a problem with the sound of words.

Donna:

So, how do we help them read?

Sally:

That’s a very important question. The good news, the hopeful news, and one of the reasons I’ve written “Overcoming Dyslexia" is to share this knowledge. We’ve learned so much about what has to happen for a child to be able to learn how to read. It’s based on the understanding that children have to be able to notice the individual sounds of words. For example, to be able to understand that the word “man” has three sounds in it.

That’s the first step, children can be taught this in preschool. They need to be able to recognize how letters represent these sounds. Then children are taught not only how to read accurately but fluently. Of course, you also want to teach children what words mean, vocabulary, and strategies to understand what they mean.

Donna:

If a child is dyslexic, can he be a good writer?

Sally:

That’s a good question, because many people confuse difficulties in reading and the ability to write. In fact, some of the most accomplished writers that we know happen to be dyslexic. For example, John Irving, he won an Academy Award for the Cider House Rules, is dyslexic. Stephen J. Cannell, who wrote the television series the A-Team and the Rockford Files, is also dyslexic. He always likes to make people understand that dyslexia affects your ability to read and to spell, but not to have an imagination and be creative.

Donna:

Is dyslexia inherited?

Sally:

There’s indication that inheritance plays a significant role. We know that dyslexia runs in families and if you have a parent or sibling who’s dyslexic that increases the probability that you are too.

For example, between ¼ and ½ of the children born to a dyslexic parent will also be dyslexic. Conversely, if a child in the family is dyslexic, about ½ of his brothers and sisters will likely be dyslexic. So in cases where a child is identified as dyslexic, and his parents are then evaluated, in as many as 1/3 to ½ of the cases, a parent will turn out to be dyslexic. In fact what often happens, once a child is identified as dyslexic, parents discover that they are dyslexic. This happened in the case of John Irving, the writer and in the case of Charles Schwab, the financier and many others.

So it can be an important clue.

Donna:

Sally, thanks for speaking with us today.

Sally:

My pleasure.

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