Dyslexia: It’s not the end of the world

Although it remains a complex neurological problem, dyslexia isn’t a rare condition. This is because in South Africa, 16% of learners deal with learning difficulties, and it is estimated that one in every 10 people worldwide has dyslexia. Living as a dyslexic can be a very difficult experience, not just for the child, but also for parents who struggle to help their kids overcome the condition. Moneybags journalist, Ochega Ataguba speaks to experts about strategies and resources that can be used to diagnose and manage dyslexia to enhance literary skills.

In a world where school results define success, there’s no denying that many parents will have high expectations for their children and expect them to excel at learning, particularly reading and writing.

So it can be a blow to parents when they realise that, in comparison with other kids, their child may require special help to be able to perform the natural task of reading and writing. “But it is more important to know that this problem can be solved and there is hope,” says Susan du Plessis, director of educational programmes at Edublox Learning Clinic, Cape Town.

Although dyslexia is often associated with low intelligence, Ronita Engelbrecht, psychologist and dyslexia therapist explains that people with the condition are usually creatively minded with an exceptional ability to excel in music and other creative arts.

“Their brains are wired in such a way that messages are sent to neural pathways and arrive at a destination with parts missing, which is why they find it difficult to study and assimilate ideas on paper”, explains Engelbrecht. However, dyslexics are able to flourish more in a visual creative learning environment, she adds.

What can cause Dyslexia?

On the one hand of the debate, dyslexia is regarded as an impossible condition that cannot be cured or treated. Conversely, du Plesis claims that “the brain is plastic and can change”. In other words, it is flexible and capable of overcoming obstacles like dyslexia. According to du Plesis, “the brain can be likened to muscles in the body with the capacity to be developed and improved when stretched or exercised the proper way.” She believes that though genes play a role, often, what appears to be dyslexia is a lack of certain cognitive skills, which often results from faulty teaching techniques. With the right treatment and consistent exercises dyslexics can greatly improve their reading abilities and achieve total recovery.

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a term used for people whose literacy skills (reading, writing, and spelling) do not match their actual intelligence (IQ). “Though some IQ tests can be distorted by dyslexia, as some IQ tests rely heavily on reading, this allows dyslexics to score lower than their actual IQ would suggest. This is often the case when verbal scores are low, and non-verbal scores are high,” says Axel Gudmundsson, director of Gifted Dyslexics and Capella House School, Kommetjie.

How do you detect learning disorders?

Some experts believe that learning difficulties are linked to abnormalities in several genes that predispose people to problems but don’t on their own cause them. “Measuring learning disabilities in a child is inherently complex and more difficult than measuring it in adults,” says Engelbrecht.

This is because children go through a natural phase of development where they go from learning to walk to talking and writing as they grow so their evolving characteristics complicates the tasks of assessing function. For this reason, experts don’t agree precisely on what set of problems make up the condition called dyslexia. Engelbrecht adds that dyslexics display different patterns of difficulty and each individual displays a unique set of symptoms. However some of the general symptoms Include:

  1. Inconsistency in spelling
  2. An unusual pencil grip and illegible handwriting.
  3. Mispronouncing and misspelling words phonetically.
  4. Weakness in fine and gross motor skills and inconsistency in using the left and right hand.

The best form of diagnoses, according the Engelbrecht, is to complete a formal assessment form with an educational psychologist.

Gudmundsson believes that though dyslexia develops due to abnormalities in genes, children generally have the potential for developing dyslexia because the condition develops when primary education does not cater for the learning style of a non-verbal (potentially dyslexic) thinker. “We know this, because when a teacher is trained in using our methods in teaching how to read, special needs referrals (dyslexia referrals) can be eliminated,” he says.

Teaching techniques

There are some techniques available that can be used to manage dyslexia and learning difficulties however some experts have their doubts about the effectiveness of some of these programmes.  One of the techniques known as the Davis dyslexia method is widely available and accepted in South Africa. It involves the use of Davis symbol mastery to improve spelling skills and is said to have a phenomenally high success rate.

According to reports, researchers at the University of South Africa compared the progress of 18 dyslexics who were given instructions using Davis Dyslaxia correction techniques and a control group taught with phonological strategies. After nine months, the Davis students performed better. Some other learning techniques and correctional programmes available for dyslexics include Edublox, Wise Eye, Dore programme and the Tina Cowley method.

How are these techniques administered?

To administer the Tina Cowley technique, a unique patented keyboard is used to address reading difficulties. Du Plesis however maintains that the Edublox teaching technique provides a more holistic approach to managing dyslexia.

Conversely, Gudmundsson maintains that the Davis dyslexia learning strategies should be used to eliminate the problem right from the start. “This also eliminates the need for diagnosis and any separation from other children as most dyslexics are highly intelligent, and it can be damaging for their self-esteem to be sent to a special school full of children with all kinds of retardation. But staying in a mainstream school without using truly effective methods to address the problem can also damage the self-esteem of the dyslexic child,” he cautions. “This is a very difficult choice for parents, but Davis dyslexia programme can remove this hard choice for parents, because after this correction programme, the child will succeed in a mainstream school,” Gudmundsson declares.

Gudmundsson points out that you can choose a do-it-yourself Davis programme, by simply buying the book (The Gift of Dyslexia) and some plasticine — an investment of less than R500. “Then there will be about 50 hours of follow-up work to secure the improvement will using this programme,” he maintains.

To find out more, take a look at the Davis Association International free online assessment screening tool at: http://www.testdyslexia.com/