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So much for what dyslexia is. What many parents would like to know is what can be done about it. Fortunately, the human brain is particularly receptive to instruction. Otherwise practice would never make perfect. Different people respond to different approaches, depending on their personality and the nature of their disability. "The data we have don't show any one program that is head and shoulders above the rest," says Shaywitz. But the most successful programs emphasize the same core elements: practice manipulating phonemes, building vocabulary, increasing comprehension and improving the fluency of reading.
This kind of instruction leaves nothing to chance. "In most schools the emphasis is on children's learning to read sentences," says Gina Callaway, director of the Schenck School in Atlanta, which specializes in teaching dyslexic students using the Orton-Gillingham approach. "Here we have to teach them to recognize sounds, then syllables, then words and sentences. There's lots of practice and repetition." And a fair number of what the kids call tricks, or rules, for reading. (Among the most important and familiar: the magic e at the end of a word that makes a vowel say its name, as in make or cute.) A particularly good route to fluency is to practice reading aloud with a skilled reader who can gently correct mistakes. That way the brain builds up the right associations between words and sounds from the start.
There is no reason to assume that the public school system, despite its myriad problems, isn't up to the task. But it's a sad fact of life, particularly in larger or cash-starved institutions, that many kids fall through the cracks. A parent may have to keep up the pressure on the child's school district. Unfortunately, some have had to sue to get results. In extreme cases, parents can be reimbursed for private schooling, as two unanimous decisions by the Supreme Court, in 1985 and 1993, have made clear. (For help finding the right program for your child, see the accompanying story.)
It helps to tap into a student's interests. For Monique Beltran, 13, of Los Angeles, the turning point came with the computer game Pokemon. "I had to read to get to more levels," she says matter-of-factly. The computer game also showed Monique the value of reading outside of schoolwork, and she is eagerly devouring the latest Harry Potter book.
As you might expect, early intervention gives the best results. Yet for decades most schools wouldn't consider special education for a child until he or she had fallen at least a year behind. That may be changing. Congress is considering legislation that would eliminate the need to show a discrepancy between a child's IQ and his or her achievements before receiving a diagnosis of dyslexia.
Ideally, all children should be screened in kindergarten--to minimize educational delay and preserve self-confidence. How do you know someone has dyslexia before he or she has learned to read? Certain behaviors--like trouble rhyming words--are good clues that something is amiss. Later you may notice that your child is memorizing books rather than reading them. A kindergarten teacher's observation that reading isn't clicking with your son or daughter should be a call to action.