Cracking The Code

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Most of this new research has been supported by the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, an arm of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. It has helped dispel some common myths about dyslexia. It also has pinpointed a possible biological origin for reading disorders and identified ways educators can spot and treat such problems before young children fail in school.

But the work has been controversial, in part because it taps into the national debate between whole language proponents and phonics advocates over the best way to teach reading. As a result, schools and teacher training programs have been slow to embrace the findings.

Traditionally, children have been labeled dyslexic if they are otherwise intelligent and suffer no other physiological problem—a hearing impairment, for example—that might cause reading difficulties. But many researchers now believe this definition is too narrow. They maintain it leaves out large numbers of children who cannot read because they are from disadvantaged homes and haven't been exposed to books, read to, or taught the alphabet. Dyslexia, one such researcher says, "is just a fancy name for not being able to read."

Because of the disagreement over definitions, estimates on the number of dyslexic children vary wildly. Some researchers put it as low as 5 percent. Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a researcher at Yale University's school of medicine, has tracked 451 schoolchildren in New Haven, Connecticut, since 1983 and estimates that some 20 percent are reading disabled. G. Reid Lyon, who heads up the NIH's division on child development and behavior, says the slice could be much larger—as high as 40 percent—if you include children who can't read because they were not exposed to the printed word or were not taught well.

Contrary to popular belief, people who are dyslexic do not necessarily see or write letters backward or in reverse order. They just can't make much sense of the written language. As Swift's young son Toby puts it, words "just look like a lot of letters."

Contrary to popular belief, people who are dyslexic do not necessarily see or write letters backward.

In fact, the latest research suggests that reading problems have little to do with the print a child sees on a page. Rather they may be a manifestation of a much broader problem with language comprehension itself. Someone who has trouble reading, for example, might also have problems with word recall and idiomatic expressions.

Virtually all studies of dyslexia agree on one point: The problem is rooted in a person's inability to distinguish phonemes, the smallest sounds that make up speech. The word "bat," for example, is made up of three phonemes, or sounds. The English language contains 44 such sounds in all.

Many people with dyslexia can't detect the tiny sounds in "bat," Lyon says. "The minute I say that word, the 'a' and the 't' fold up into the 'b' sound and become one pulse of sound." In normally developing readers, the brain registers those constituent sounds. With this skill in place, beginning readers can then begin learning phonics, the process of linking letters to sounds.

Those who cannot distinguish the small sounds will have little success decoding words phonetically. The sounding-out process is so laborious that they have no energy left to understand what they have just read. Therefore, children with reading disorders may need to be trained to distinguish the phonemes.

Frank Vellutino, a professor of psychology at State University of New York at Albany, suggests a simple diagnostic tool. "Give children a set of nonsense words," he says. "The child who can't pronounce them is the child with basic reading disabilities." In his studies, Vellutino has been able to identify potential poor readers as early as kindergarten by asking them to perform small tasks, such as pronouncing nonsense words, identifying letters of the alphabet, and distinguishing sounds that make up words.

The notion that reading disabilities and language problems might have deeper biological causes has been bolstered by NIH-funded research on human brains. In one such study, Dr.

The autopsied brains of poor readers are fundamentally different from those of normal readers.

Albert Galaburda of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston examined autopsied brains of poor readers and found them to be fundamentally different from those of normal readers. Some neurons or brain cells form out of place in the areas of the brain that control language—an abnormality that occurs before a child is born. The defect, he says, may affect the way nerve cells connect with one another later in life, as well.

The research that most directly bears on the futures of poor readers like Toby Swift was conducted in the classroom. Vellutino and colleagues at SUNY-Albany worked with 76 middle-class children with reading problems who otherwise showed average or above-average intelligence. Beginning in 1st grade, the students were given 30 minutes a day of one-on-one tutoring. During this time, they read new stories and familiar ones, studied letter-sound relationships and useful spelling patterns, and learned to recognize a number of words by sight.

Vellutino's aim was not to pinpoint what specific strategies worked best but to find out whether the tutoring sessions could be used as a means of diagnosing readers most in need of help. He discovered, however, that the diagnostic sessions improved the reading of almost all the students. At the end of one semester, 70 percent of the children were reading in the average range. At the end of two semesters, only 15 percent of the students were still struggling.

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