reading challenges part 2

To answer the question that parents ask about whether their child has Dyslexia, the answer is usually yes. Dyslexia literally means: not (dys), reading (lexic) or not reading well. Children with Dyslexia have normal or even bright intelligence but difficulties with learning to read. So almost all of the children with enough reading trouble to be in my office are Dyslexic. I quickly explain that this does not mean that they are going to have a life-long learning disability. The brain, especially children’s brains have neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to create new cells and new connections between the cells in response to experiences.

The majority of children who have problems with the Orthographic step, the first brain processing step for reading, are klutzy. They may still be using training wheels on their bikes or took a long time to learn to ride without them. They may not have mastered how to tie their shoes or use the bunny ears method where the two hands make the same moves at the same time mirroring each other. When I ask about bike riding and shoe tying parents are usually surprised. They came because their child has reading problems. They are even more surprised when I tell them that their child’s motor skills are related to their reading problems.

There are a few key underlying brain connection issues: the major connection bridging that connects the two sides of the brain (called the corpus callosum) is underdeveloped. The circuits in the brain that read information from the body are not working as well as they do in typical children and the chief structure in charge of balance in the brain (the cerebellum) also needs better connections with higher parts of the brain.

There is a lot of talk about bridging the two sides of the brain but that is only one part of the puzzle. Getting the brain and body talking to each other is also a key part. For example; catching a ball well requires the two sides of the brain to work together to catch with both hands. But it also requires the brain to know exactly where the hands are so that it can give the right movement commands to them. 

After a child has dropped or bobbled the smallish soft and knobby ball I just threw, I have the child bend and straighten her/his fingers and thumbs several times in a row, then turn their hands palms up/fingers straight and together, then turn palms down then with wrists up in a “stop” sign. Immediately afterwards I throw the ball back to them again and they usually catch it. The child often stares at the ball amazed that they caught it. The proprioceptive input (the signals from the joints in the fingers and wrists about their movements) gave the motor planning part of the brain the information it needed to give the hands the right movement commands. This effect is like turning on a brief light that quickly goes out. With enough practice the circuits became permanent and this helps with a child’s visual motor skills such as printing the alphabet.

Triangles are usually difficult for a five year old child to copy if they have these issues.  If a five year old child who could not copy a triangle does several good catches in a row, often I give him/her another triangle to copy. They are usually able to do it then.  The important factors in getting good ball catching/throwing skills area doing the cuing movements enough in the beginning and doing some playing catch most days. Then work on printing the alphabet or reading basic sight words immediately after a successful session of playing catch

Improving balance is also crucial to becoming successful at the first reading step of Orthographic processing. When a five year old child gains the ability to balance for thirty seconds on each foot (single leg balance), it almost always unlocks the ability to do that first step of reading basic words. Doing foot and ankle movements similar to the hand movements right before trying to stand on one foot can often immediately improve how well the child does with single leg balance. There are several other exercises that also help. Next time I will also discus them.

So what does all of this really have to do with reading? A lot. I will explain next week.

reading problems in children

A lot of parents are very frustrated now with trying to help their children who are struggling with learning to read. I have been hearing a lot about this because I am a specialist in helping children overcoming reading problems. One of the first things that might help parents understand reading problems is to know how the brain processes words when you read. It uses three steps and a child may have problems on just one of them or even all three.

The first step is called Orthographic – knowing letters and sight words. Early signs that a child is going to have problems with this step are difficulty learning to print their name, problems with printing the alphabet past the first few letters (if they do not have anything to copy or trace), and reversals of letters. Often children who have trouble with this step can sing the alphabet but can’t print it well. They may need several minutes to print the alphabet while they use the song to cue them about what comes next, going back to A each time and singing it forward as they figure out what letter comes next.

The second step is called Phonological – matching the letters and syllables to the sounds that they represent. This step is much harder for children learning to read English than most other languages because the symbols don’t always have the same sound (think of the letter “c” for instance which can sound like a “k” or an “s”) and different syllables can represent the same sound (think of oh and bow). A lot of attention has focused on this step over the last twenty years. It is a very significant part of the problem that a child may have. It is not always the whole answer because children’s problems may mostly be on that first step. Also, once children conquer basic reading they may have problems when they start reading sentences and paragraphs. They may make errors even though they can sound out the words if they are on a vocabulary list. They may guess at words based on the first letter (reading Basketball for Baseball for example) substitute vowels (come for came) or miss words like no, an, or the entire. These errors are often blamed on the child’s not taking enough time or making enough effort to get the words right. It is usually just a problem with how the muscles of the eyes move them across the page.

The third step is called Mnemonic -the memory of what the word means. In a way, this is the step that tends to be overlooked. It is a given that the words a second grader reads almost always well known to the child. It is only in higher grades usually starting in the Fifth Grade that it start to show up. Even if there were early struggles, a child may be reading okay by then. Problems with reading comprehension can be disabling as a child gets into middle school and starts failing tests or makes much lower grades. They are not often, however, recognized as correctable problems with how the brain processes reading.

There are a couple of simple exercises that correct this problem that I will get to in another blog. The true phonological processing problems are related to how accurately the brain hears sounds. There is some controversy about this. I will go into that and ways that can be helpful to work on it in my next blog.

Often when I discuss my evaluation with a child’s parent they ask me, “Does that mean that my child has Dyslexia?”