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Imagine having to deal with each word you see as if you had never come across it before, and you will start to get the idea. That's exactly what Abbe Winn of Atlanta, Georgia, realized that her daughter Kate, now age 9, was doing in kindergarten. "I noticed that when her teacher sent home a list of spelling words, she had a real hard time," Abbe says. "We'd get to the word the and come back five minutes later, and she had no idea what it was."
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.
It helps to tap into a student's interests. For Monique Beltran, 13, of Los Angeles, the turning point came with the computer game Pokémon. "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. Ideally, all children should be screened in kindergartento minimize educational delay and preserve self-confidence. How do you know someone has dyslexia before he or she has learned to read? Certain behaviorslike trouble rhyming wordsare good clues that something is amiss. Later, you might 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.
If caught soon enough, can a child's dyslexia be reversed? The evidence looks promising. In her book, Shaywitz reports that brain scans of dyslexic kindergartners and first-graders who have benefited from a year's worth of targeted instruction start to resemble those of children who have never had any difficulty reading.
That doesn't mean older sufferers need despair. Shaywitz's brain scans of adult dyslexics suggest they can compensate by tapping into the processing power on their brains' right side. Just don't expect what works for young children to work for adults. "If you're 18 and you're about to graduate and you don't have phonemic awareness, that may not be your top priority," says Chris Schnieders, director of teacher training at the Frostig Center in Pasadena, California. "It's a little bit late to start 'Buh is for baby' at that point."
Technology can play a supporting role. Some dyslexics supplement their reading with books on tape. Because their condition affects the ability to write as well as read, a growing number of dyslexics are turning to voice-recognition software for help in preparing term papers, memos and reports. A couple of small studies have shown that the software can also bolster the ability to read. "We found improvement in word recognition, in reading comprehension and spelling," says Marshall Raskind, director of research at the Frostig Center. He suspects that the ability to say, hear and see words almost simultaneously provides good training for the brain.
There are, alas, no quick fixes. Dyslexic students often have to put many more hours into their course work than naturally skilled readers do. But the results are worth it. In the seventh grade, Sean Slattery was barely reading on a first-grade level. Now, after four years at the Frostig Center, he has nearly caught up to where he should be. In May, on his third try, Slattery passed California's high school exit exam.
That's another thing about dyslexics: they learn to persevere. Now Slattery has his eye on a career as an underwater welder. "There's a lot of reading involved" between the course work and the instruction manuals, he says. "But I'm looking forward to it, actually." The written word is not going to hold him back anymore.