University of Warsaw
This research paper concerns the issue of developmental dyslexia. The author indicates that a good and effective teacher has to have the knowledge about dyslexia in order to be able to recognise this learning dysfunction and be able to support and provide each learner with a suitable intervention and English language instruction.
Developmental dyslexia is the most extensively studied learning difficulty as Nijakowska (2010) points out. Indeed, the word dyslexia derives from Greek and it is composed of two elements, the prefix ‘dys’ meaning ‘malfunction’ or ‘difficulty’ and the root-word ‘lexis’, which means ‘language’.
Even though there is not one universally accepted definition of dyslexia, it is generally defined as a disorder manifested by a learning disability which is language-based. All in all, dyslexia is described as a difficulty in acquiring reading and writing skills or as a dysfunction in speaking and spelling (Lyon, Shaywitz and Shaywitz, 2003; Nijakowska, 2007; 2010; Ott, 1997; Washburn, Binks-Cantrell and Joshi, 2013). The World Federation of Neurology and the American Psychiatric Association define dyslexia as reading and writing difficulties which are encountered by students with dyslexia even if adequate instruction and socio-cultural chances are given to them (Kormos and Smith, 2012; Nijakowska, 2007; 2010; Ott, 1997). However, the International Dyslexia Association, 2007 (as cited in Washburn, Binks-Cantrell and Joshi, 2013, p. 4) describes dyslexia as follows:
Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.
The diagnosis of dyslexia can be made to third and fourth-graders. The severity of this malfunction varies with regard to every pupil and as a result, individualized approach is a key feature which should be followed by educators. It has to be clear that dyslexic pupils have an adequate level of intelligence. As recent studies indicated, children from every socioeconomic and ethnic group can experience a reading difficulty and suffer from dyslexia. As a consequence of being dyslexic and experiencing a school failure, dyslexic learners very often experience emotional and motivational problems. Characteristic features of their adverse feelings caused by writing and reading difficulties include either low self-esteem or low self-perception sometimes resulting in aggression or withdrawal. It is of paramount importance to provide those learners with instant support and intervene as early as possible (Lyan, 2012; Kormos and Smith, 2012; Nijakowska, 2007; 2010).
Furthermore, additional disorders may be experienced by dyslexic pupils. These include dyscalculia, dysgraphia, dysorthography, attention-deficit disorder or ADHD. The former is a difficulty in mathematical operation and processing. Dysgraphia causes difficulties in graphic presentation of writing while dysorthography is a disorder of written language which influences spelling mistakes (Nijakowska, 2007; 2010; Washburn, Binks-Cantrell and Joshi, 2013).
Diverse factors cause dyslexia; however, these are different for every child. Clearly, dyslexic learners’ senses of hearing and sight are not impaired. Moreover, their level of intelligence is not lower. Dyslexia is neither caused by didactic negligence nor emotional problems. Primary causes of dyslexia consist of genetic, cognitive and behavioural ones.
Taking genetic causes of dyslexia into account, it is proven that parents with dyslexia are more likely to have dyslexic children in comparison to parents who do not have dyslexia. Lots of genes have an impact on the occurrence of dyslexia; however, none of them has been ever recognised. Genes have an influence on the recognition of words, deficits in an orthographic and phonological awareness, phonological decoding skills and phoneme segmentation. The severity of the disorder is comparable for dyslexic children and their dyslexic parents. Impairments in phonological and orthographic awareness and defective skills of phoneme segmentation are influenced by various genes.
Furthermore, dyslexia is certainly a neurological condition. Dyslexic students have a deficit in the phonological processing at the cognitive level. The brains of dyslexic students differ from brains of non-dyslexic learners. Firstly, their planum temporale, especially the left one is smaller than that of non-dyslexic learners since the asymmetry of it is limited. Moreover, the dyslexics’ one ear advantage is also reduced. Secondly, the corpus callosum, which is responsible for communication, is bigger. In addition, in dyslexics’ brains the cerebellar hemispheres are symmetrical; therefore, they can cause writing and reading problems. Moreover, the cerebral cortex of dyslexic learners is disorganised and their memory is poor. The difference in the brain of a dyslexic child is caused by the difference in genes which are responsible for carrying information. Damage in the brain of a dyslexic child or a brain dysfunction may be the cause of dyslexia. Indeed, dyslexia is not caused by the only one difference in a brain due to the fact that the neuroanatomical basis of dyslexia is intricate. However, when a central nervous system matures, the impairments may be reduced and compensated (Kormos and Smith, 2012; Nijakowska, 2007; 2010; Washburn, Binks-Cantrell and Joshi, 2013).
In addition, Nijakowska (2007) points out that some dyslexics have impairments in psychomotor development, which can also induce reading and writing problems. However, if deficits exist together, problems with learning are stronger. Children who have a lack of the integration of perceptual-motor functions are at risk of dyslexia.
Having indicated that the severity of dyslexia is different for every child, symptoms of this dysfunction vary and alter with age as well. Regardless of being an intelligent person, dyslexic learners confront learning difficulties. Washburn, Joshi and Binks-Cantrell (2011) point out that 15-20% of the general population suffer from dyslexia symptoms. Early symptoms of dyslexia may be noticed when learners’ writing and reading abilities develop. Dyslexic learners deal with various learning difficulties (Brady and Moats, 1997; Kormos and Smith, 2012; Nijakowska, 2007; 2010).
Learners with dyslexia experience a wide range of difficulties in language-related tasks. Reading and spelling difficulties are the main symptoms. Dyslexic learners experience difficulties with the representation of speech sounds and the segmentation of words into syllables because of a deficit in the phonological processing. Encountering difficulties with decoding words, learners with dyslexia neither are able to read accurately and quickly nor understand the context of a text. For instance, a differentiation of voiced and voiceless sounds is a real difficulty for them. It also results in difficulties with understanding a writing system. They name letters, numbers, colours and objects very slowly and encounter the slow pace of reading. Learning difficulties of dyslexic children include fluency problems. In addition, difficulties with the comprehension of a text may be caused by a deficit in a word recognition. However, comprehension of a listened text does not cause difficulties (Brady and Moats, 1997).
Learners with dyslexia are not able to learn the same number of words as students who do not have dyslexia. However, dyslexics’ skills of phonological processing are impaired to different extents, and that is what the severity of this specific developmental reading disorder depends. Furthermore, dyslexic students struggle with impediments to working memory and the automatic development of skills. As a result, it is very problematic for them to keep lots of information together. In addition, phonological processing and phonological short-term memory disorders may cause unclear pronunciation. Dyslexics have also problems with the grapheme-phoneme relations. They are neither able to isolate language sounds nor to differentiate their written forms. Their syllabic awareness is limited; hence, spelling difficulties cause problems with literacy. Another characteristic feature of dyslexic learners is their low-quality handwriting caused by motor problems (Brady & Moats, 1997; Kormos and Smith, 2012; Lyon, 2002; Lyon, Shaywitz and Shaywitz, 2003; Nijakowska, 2007; 2010; Washburn, Joshi and Binks-Cantrell, 2011; Washburn, Binks-Cantrell and Joshi, 2013).
Moreover, pupils with dyslexia have a weak grammatical awareness. They have syntactic and semantic deficits. Taking a semantic impairment into consideration, dyslexics’ utterances neither have complicated structures nor good content. In reference to syntactic structure of utterances, these are of weak content and weak grammar. It is hard for dyslexic learners to divide sentences into words (Kormos & Smith, 2012; Nijakowska, 2007; 2010; Washburn, Joshi and Cantrell, 2010).
Dyslexic learners do not only face learning difficulties but also problems with time-keeping and with the organisation of academic work, e.g. meeting deadlines, which contributes to their low results. Therefore, learners with dyslexia have behavioural problems and may have low self-esteem since they are discontent with their low results and the lack of progress.
Due to the fact that dyslexic students experience different learning problems, methods of teaching need to include specific intervention adequate to special educational needs of every individual. However, in spite of reading, writing and spelling difficulties, dyslexic learners achieve successes in other academic disciplines. Indeed, specific and clear steps should be taken in order to reduce learners’ dissatisfaction and learning difficulties (Nijakowska, 2010; Washburn, Binks-Cantrell and Joshi, 2013).
It is indicated that the earlier dyslexia is identified, the greater chance to curb learning difficulties. Even though the early identification does not eliminate the problem of dyslexia, it exerts positive influence on lessening the severity of this dysfunction and excluding the possibility of a reading failure. It is worth realising that parents, health care professionals, education professionals and politicians are key individuals in detecting dyslexia. In order to determine it, educators have to gain knowledge about this dysfunction. It is even claimed by researchers that the areas of difficulty and weaknesses may be recognised at the age of three or four.
If effective practice, effort and time are dedicated, the effects may compensate for reading problems to some extent. Indeed, an intensive, systematic and clear instruction, which is based on research, has to be provided to dyslexic learners. Intervention and treatment need to be tailored individually to every pupil. Therefore, proper steps should be taken for the sake of catering for individual needs of dyslexic students. Learners with dyslexia need explicit rather than implicit reading instruction in reference to phonology, phonetics and sound-symbol correspondences. However, it does not have either the same or straightforwardly positive effects on every pupil. The differences are in both orthographic and phonological word decoding. Moreover, monitored reading instruction is a key element of the appropriate intervention for dyslexic learners (Lyon, 2002; Nijakowska, 2007; 2010; Ott, 1997; Washburn, Binks-Cantrell and Joshi, 2011; 2013).
As far as letter-sound correspondences and phonological awareness are considered, these also require a direct instruction in order to improve reading and spelling skills and the identification of words. Nijakowska (2010) points out that “instruction plays a vital role in creating brain activation patterns, allowing successful reading in children with dyslexia” (p. 116).
A different view of dyslexia is presented in the book A Gift of Dyslexia by Ronald D. Davis. Himself dyslexic, he does not see dyslexia as a disorder; for him it is not a subnormal way the brain works, but just different. He gives multiple examples of ways in which a dyslexic brain works faster and more effectively that non-dyslexic. Dyslexics naturally process information very fast and from many angles at the same, they may come to right solutions immediately, without going through the stages of the process, they think in pictures, are very creative, they have a wonderful spatial intelligence. He describes the state of a dyslexic brain as “disorientation”, which is a state of confusion that makes the child wonder and explore. It is not a coincidence that many most creative people are dyslexic.
Sadly, it is not a coincidence that many school dropouts and prison inmates are dyslexic, either. As long as the dyslexic can function in their state of disorientation, explore the world freely and process countless pieces of information at the same time, their learning and creativity is limitless. However, school is not usually conducive to working in the dyslexic way. It requires students to structure their thought process in a logical, linear way, follow procedures rather than their own curiosity or intuition, does not appreciate answers that are too quick or work that is too messy. All this, coupled with the insistence on punctuality and deadlines, makes the dyslexic child fail. It is not only reading that these children have problems with, it is the traditional school in general, and very often with the expectations of the society in general. If school fails the child in helping them to learn, they can only get low-level manual jobs; without being able to read small print they may fall into all sorts of traps and they may find themselves outside the “normal” society, and often in prison. Fortunately, some end up as geniuses and celebrities.
In his book Davis offers solutions that are different from the traditional approach to helping dyslexics cope with school problems. In his opinion the most important skill is to control the state of disorientation, i.e. get out of it when the situation requires, and come back to it at other times, particularly for creativity and problem-solving.
It is also important that educators understand the problems that dyslexic students face at school and offer support in the form of extra time for written work, using bigger letters on worksheets, involving art activities into teaching, making materials colourful and visually stimulating, letting students choose the kind of work that shows their strengths, appreciating intuitive insights and assessing the effort involved in producing written work. Usually non-dyslexic students will also benefit from these changes, as they enhance the quality of teaching and the fairness of assessment in general.
Summing up, dyslexia is a complex disorder which requires special help and knowledge of appropriately qualified teachers. There are various symptoms and causes of dyslexia including the difference in the brain of dyslexic learners as compared to the non-dyslexic. This specific learning dysfunction may cause difficulties with writing, reading and spelling, thus dyslexic pupils fail in the process of education. Therefore, the students’ learning failures very often result in the feeling of resignation and unwillingness to go to school. Catering for the special needs of learners with dyslexia is of paramount importance due to the fact that the students need to be supported in their efforts. However, the effective intervention involves not only appropriate instruction, but also building the learner’s self-esteem.
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