What is dyslexia & what can be done about it?

Given it is summer time and the slow season for the release of new research findings, I am going to update and combine two practical articles on dyslexia  (and what to do to overcome it) that I wrote a few years ago. Originally published on my blog in 2008  (see here and here), they are based on a textbook I wrote in the early 1990’s. 

At the time my book was first published, it was considered a seminal work on “learning strategies” because of an eight-to-ten-step process I developed using a tape-recorder. The good news is, that while the content in that book is twenty years old now, the ideas within it are timeless.

Copyright and attributions:

First, however, credit where credit is due. Such researchers as S.T. Orton and A. Gillingham, Marie Carbo, G.R. Alley and D.D. Deshler come to mind, as well as D.J. Johnson and J.W. Blalock and D.G. Bachor and C. Crealock, without whose work I could not have written my original book. What has changed since my original work, of course, are the number of electronic devices (e-books and smart phones that have memo pads and built-in organizers) that are available today that weren’t available then.

However, my favourite still remains the Franklin Spelling Ace because it is phonetic. Type in “fizishun” and you will instantly get “physician.” I hear that there is now an updated version that includes the dictionary meaning so you know you have the right word, as well as a synthesizer that repeats the word.

Defining dyslexia:

The term dyslexia is explained differently depending on where you live. In the U.K. and Australia, for example, dyslexia is a generalized syndrome, much like we in Canada and the U.S. refer to “learning disabilities.” However, in the context of this article, dyslexia will refer to reading and related processing difficulties related to phonemic awareness, decoding skills, vocabulary development, visual and auditory integration and memory and cognition processing.

Sequencing & memory

Memory and cognition involves at least three inter-connected processes — immediate recall, short-term memory and long-term memory (where facts, colours, sounds and emotions are stored). So when information or emotions are taken in when we are reading, something happens that allows us to hold on to that information long enough to be processed into our long term memory. Later, when we need that information again, all we need to do is think of a word or idea and, all of a sudden, it’s there. At least, that is how it is supposed to work in theory.

Silent Reading & Sub-vocalizing:

Reading is not only a visual and memory processing skill. It also involves auditory processing, an aspect of dyslexia that few discuss. For example, we have to be able to read “silently” without moving our lips. Think about that. As you are reading this text, you are silent, yet you are “hearing” the words in your head. That is called “sub-vocalizing, a very important aspect of learning to read because we are internalizing sounds — although there are differing opinions on this.

In the case of hearing impairment or profound deafness, individuals have to learn to read “visually” which is helped by “signing.” However, for those who can hear, given what I learned in my reading clinic, it is imperative that individuals be able to read silently with ease for letters, words and information to be readily processed into memory.

The Reading Process:

Before I get into how to use a tape-recorder to compensate for dyslexia, let’s understand that reading involves two processes that overlap — “Learning to Read” skills (decoding, word identification and sentence integation) and “Reading to Learn” skills (comprehension — finding main ideas, drawing conclusions, making inferences and so on).

Traditionally, those processes were thought to be separate and distinct but for some time now, we have known they must be simultaneous — although once the first phase is automatic, reading is almost entirely about comprehension.

That said, any time we encounter reading materials that are technical or new to us, we have to resort to decoding and figuring out word meanings again.   

Using a tape-recorder as a multi-sensory strategy:

When you use a tape-recorder (that has both playback and record features) as a multi-sensory approach, several learning processes are going on simultaneously. The main technique is, of course, the repeated readings strategy — which involves reading something three times, but in a slightly different way each time. Plus, there are a variety of other learning strategies being used as well, such as using post-it notes or highlighting (signaling) main ideas.

So, readers, try this:

  • First reading: Get a short article from a newspaper or magazine, or even this post. Now, slowly read the entire article or a series of paragraphs into the tape-recorder (children could do as little as one sentence). At this point, do not worry about comprehension, just record each and every word in your usual voice.
  • Second reading: Once the recording is finished, put on earphones or ear buds and listen to what you recorded, carefully following the text with the eraser end of a pencil or your finger. Following along is crucial in order to “attend” to what you are hearing.
  • Third reading: Then, once the recording and listening steps are fully completed, go back over the written copy and pick out the main ideas.  I would recommend post-it notes or a highlighter pen if the material is not borrowed. If a summary has to be written, then I would definitely use post-it notes because they can be moved around into their correct sequence and used as the basis for writing.

The crux of the matter is that by the time the three steps are completed, the individual will, not only know how to decode the material, but have a clear understanding of it as well.  Eventually, of course, the tape-recorder will no longer be necessary — meaning the dyslexia will have been overcome.

Endnote: Over the years, I had several clients who were college and university students who had been diagnosed as dyslexic as children. They used the tape-recorder technique all the time when preparing for exams (e.g., recording and listening to lecture notes) or to understand key readings when preparing to write an essay.