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Maryanne Wolf, author of “Proust and the Squid:the Story and Science of the Reading Brain,” says if she were given five minutes to summarize for teachers the implications of the twentieth century’s complicated history of dyslexia, this is the kind of thing she would say:
- Learning to read, like baseball, is a wonderful thing that can go wrong for many reasons. If there is no obvious reason for a child’s difficulties, it’s critical to have him or her evaluated by a reading specialist or clinician.
- There is no one form of dyslexia. It’s a continuum of developmental reading difficulties that reflects the many components of reading, as well as the specific writing system of the child’s given language. These children exhibit a variety of deficits, some subtle involving fluency and comprehension and some (especially with English readers) involving decoding and an inability to learn the rules of sound/symbol correspondence. Some involve spelling and writing as well.
- Two of the best known deficits involve phonology and reading fluency, and the brain processes that underlie them. Measures of phoneme awareness (“cat” is made up of three sounds) and naming-speed processes are the two best predictors of reading failure in many languages (English is one) — along, of course, with vocabulary. Phoneme awareness difficulties lead to decoding problems and should be tested for in kindergarten. Children who will have reading fluency problems often exhibit early naming-speed deficits: they are frequently overlooked early on because they are adequate decoders, just slow at it (this leads to problems later when the amount of reading overwhelms them.)
- Early vocabulary knowledge is critical later on. Children from linguistically impoverished backgrounds (second language learners; speakers of dialects such as Hawaiian pidgin, Gullah or African American vernacular; or just verbally uncommunicative families) may often not process standard English phonemes the same way as other students; they may not recognize the words once they do. It is essential to discover whether there is a learning disability in addition to problems with learning standard American English. [Note: those vernaculars are honorable and valid, with their own highly complex grammatical stuctures. They are appropriate in their communities. They are, however, not standard American English, which is what is spoken in the world of business and academia, and what must be taught in school.]
- Intervention should address ALL components of reading. The development of each of reading’s contributing components should be addressed — orthography, phonology, morphology and vocabulary — as well as their connection, their fluency, and their integration in comprehension.
- Dyslexic children are not “dumb,” “stubborn,” or “just not working to potential” They will be accused of these things all throughout their schooling. It is vital for parents and teachers to ensure that all children with any form of reading problem receive immediate, intensive intervention, and are not blamed for their situation. A support system should be in place form the first indication of difficulty until the child becomes an independent fluent reader. The frustration of reading failure leads to a cycle of learning failure, dropping out and delinquency.
this is adapted from Maryanne Wolf’s “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain,” Harper Collins 2007, pp130-133. ISBN 978-0-06-018639-5. Wolf’s book is a great resource for those who have read Sally Shaywitz’s “Overcoming Dyslexia” and would like to dig deeper — quite a bit deeper — into how the reading brain functions.
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