Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Trouble with Words

Trouble With Words

Reading and the Dyslexic Student

By Bob Georgeff, M.A.

Reading and the Dyslexic Student
Why do some children struggle to learn to read despite excellent instruction by a diligent parent? Why, when they seem to be trying, do these children become frustrated, making what appear to be careless errors? Frequently the reason is a weakness in their processing of speech sounds. The name which has been loosely used to describe this auditory processing weakness is dyslexia. The word dyslexia comes from the prefix dys, roughly translated “trouble with,” and the root lex, “words.”

Which is the best way, then, to teach the dyslexic student to read?  Look-Say?  Whole Language?  Phonics?  Good readers use elements of all three. So should you teach all three? The Look-Say method must be used with sight words, which of course can't be sounded out.  Whole-Language instruction involves the building of a student's oral vocabulary so that he may recognize a greater number of words in context. That makes good sense. The teaching of phonics should certainly play a dominant role in any approach to reading.

For a dyslexic, however, the problem goes beyond sight-word recognition, vocabulary development, and phonics knowledge. There is a foundation which must first be laid. That foundation is the training of the brain to process phonemes (speech sounds) efficiently.  This training takes place at a pre-phonics level of instruction. Later, the student will be able to put his knowledge of phonics to work in decoding. 

It has been the contention of a few veteran homeschoolers that the wide-spread use of phonics would cause reading problems to disappear. Some have held that remedial reading classes would be empty if phonics instruction prevailed. Taking this to heart, many parents have tried two or three phonics programs only to meet with limited success. Later they feel guilty that their instruction was somehow inferior since phonics was presented as the cure for reading difficulties. A possible explanation, however, is that their child did not apply his knowledge of phonics to the task of reading because he is unable to do so.  He is not mentally slow; instead his capacity to mentally process and accurately discern the sequence of phonemes within words is weak.

Reading and the Dyslexic Student

Because a child with dyslexia is able to pronounce words correctly, it is often felt that he is just plain lazy when it comes to decoding printed words. After all, the very words he uses in everyday speech go unrecognized when he begins to read. And sometimes he reads a word correctly, yet when it occurs again on the same page, he misses it! Parents who have strong auditory processing abilities themselves cannot explain such behavior. If a child can say a word correctly, it stands to reason that he should be able to read that same word correctly. So phonics then appears to be the only solution. If a student is taught the "parts" (phonic symbols), he should be able to decode the "whole" (a word).

John is drilled in phonics and memorizes all of the various spellings of the 44 English speech sounds. Then one day he reads the word "tack" as "track." His mom seeks to solve the problem by working from the "parts" to the "whole." Mom: "John, give me the sounds for all of the letters in that word." John: "t-a-ck." Mom: "Good, now try reading the word." John: "track."  Why did he still say "track"? Now Mom is perplexed.  The only recourse is to conclude that John wasn't being careful. Or maybe he rushed ... or he wasn't thinking ... or ...

The real problem is that John is not able to tell if he makes an error! He does not know if what he says with his mouth matches what he sees with his eyes. He cannot accurately tell which speech sounds are contained in a word, how many sounds that word has, the order of those sounds, and which sounds are alike and different. To him a word is a sound "blurb," a unit by itself. Now place a page of blurbs in front of him. He knows all of the parts that make up the blurbs and can read those parts in isolation. For instance, show him "ch" on a flash card, and he'll give you the correct sound. But put that same "ch" together with some other consonants and vowels, and he has to guess. Sure, he can use phonics for clues, but he'll still make errors without realizing it. 

That an understanding of phonics does not automatically unlock reading for the dyslexic is regularly made clear to me. As a special-needs consultant, I speak with homeschooling parents every week who ask why, after three phonics programs, tutoring, vision therapy, special glasses, etc., their child is not an independent reader. It is wonderful to relieve their guilt. They have not failed their child. The cause is often found to be an inheritable, physiological brain dysfunction which makes it very difficult for their child to become a self-correcting reader. 

Imagine a colorblind electrician who must go to work each day and match wires of different colors. He is intelligent, but he can't discern clear differences in color. He sees various shades of gray, yet it is difficult to tell which two are an exact match. He is forced to guess while splicing wires. Let's say he doesn't know he is color blind. He tries hard every day. He concentrates. He is diligent. He hopes to improve. Then he turns on the juice and shorts out another wiring project. This happens every week! Now the questions come. Why doesn't this happen to the other crew members? What is wrong with me? The boss told me I was being careless, but if I slow down I still make mistakes ...

The dyslexic child is intelligent, but he can't discern clear differences in speech sounds within words. He recognizes various sounds in isolation, yet it is difficult to tell them apart inside of a word. He is forced to guess while reading. Let's say he doesn't know he is dyslexic. He tries hard every day.  He concentrates. He is diligent. He hopes to improve. Then it's his turn to read out loud, and he trips over the words. This happens every week! Now the questions come. Why doesn't this happen to the other kids? What is wrong with me? My mom told me I was being careless, but if I slow down I still make mistakes...

For some students the weakness is severe, and they struggle with two-, three-, four-, and five-letter words, making the following types of errors:
  • substitutions—now instead of how; in instead of on
  • omissions—stay instead of stray; back instead of black
  • additions—stream instead of steam; where instead of were
  • repetitions—start instead of star
  • shifts—who instead of how; felt for left

For others this weakness does not create difficulty until they read two-, three-, or four-syllable words.  Examples of multisyllable word errors are:
  • scared instead of sacred
  • concentration instead of consternation
  • sufficiently instead of significantly
  • interpreted instead of interrupted
  • administered instead of administrated

Is there an amazing, easy-to-apply solution for the dyslexic reader? Is there an amazing, easy-to-apply solution for the person who has lost the use of one side of his body after a stroke? Because mental processing is the issue, the answer to both questions is that gains only come in small steps with intensive, repetitive stimulation . . . but they do come. The brain begins to compensate for the deficiency by rerouting electrical signals and forging new pathways within its structure.

Weakness in auditory processing cannot be remedied by mere phonics instruction. Poor phonological processing is the inability to process information about the quality of phonemes within the context of printed words.  Researchers have also termed the problem “weak phonemic segmentation.”  It is remedied by drill in the very types of reading and spelling errors made by dyslexics.

Reading and the Dyslexic StudentIn any discussion about the plight of dyslexia, it is important to remember 
that the dyslexic child does have abilities which the excellent reader may not possess. These children often have marked strengths in one or more of the following areas: mechanics, visual arts, computers, public speaking, music, social skills, athletics, inventiveness, creativity, intuitiveness, visual-spatial skills, etc.  It is as though God has wired the brains of these individuals for a different purpose. Does this mean that we do not work to re-mediate their weaknesses? Certainly not. It does mean that we need to recognize their strengths and let them shine in these areas! If we continually compare them with those who are successful in academics with normal effort, they will become discouraged. We need these students to become our future salespersons, inventors, mechanics, programmers, artists, managers, architects, builders, and business leaders.


  1. Thank you for writing this article! You've been so very insightful, and have articulated your words in such a way that makes dyslexia extremely understandable!

  2. My son is dyslexic and everyday is different. Although we have had good success using the NILD therapy program to address the brain's processing ability, we find there are days when applying what he knows just doesn't come easy. I love that you end by reminding us that our children have so many incredible gifts that often go unrecognized because they don't fall into the norms of education.