Monday, November 12, 2007

To Win Dyslexia Ode

Dyslexia: Is the Shoe Perhaps on the Wrong Foot?

Reading is the most important skill that a child must acquire at school, because one must learn to read to be able to read to learn. The implication of this is that the child who is a poor reader will usually also be a poor learner.

Unfortunately poor reading skills, and therefore poor learning skills, have become a reality for an alarming number of people. The $14 million National Adult Literacy Survey of 1993 found that even though most adults in this survey had finished high school, 96% of them could not read, write, and figure well enough to go to college. Even more to the point, 25% were plainly unable to read.

Even more alarming is that reading difficulties are not limited to people who are environmentally, culturally or economically disadvantaged. Many children come from good homes, go to good schools and score average to above average on IQ tests. Yet, they battle to learn to read, and many never succeed.

Children with reading difficulties share a number of common symptoms. They are inclined to reverse letters or words, to omit letters, to lose their place, to remember little of what they have read, or to read with poor comprehension. These children are considered to suffer from a learning disability (LD), commonly called dyslexia.

According to the Orton Dyslexia Society at least one in every ten of otherwise able people has serious dyslexia problems. The Foundation of Children with Learning Disabilities states that learning-disabled children represent more than ten million of the total population of the U.S.A. Estimates of learning-disabled students being dyslexic vary between 70 and 80 percent.


Most problems can only be solved if one knows what causes the problem. A disease such as scurvy claimed the lives of thousands of seamen during long sea voyages. The disease was cured fairly quickly once the cause was discovered, viz. a Vitamin C deficiency. A viable point of departure in LD research would therefore be to ask the question, “What is the CAUSE of dyslexia?”

The idea that dyslexia is a certifiable biological disorder, a physical problem that could be diagnosed and treated accordingly, gained credence during the 1960s and 1970s, giving rise to an armada of theories. One such a theory states that dyslexia is the result when the link between the language, hearing and comprehension centers of the brain is somehow misconfigured during fetal development. Another theory states that dyslexia is caused by “faulty wiring in the brain,” whereas another holds that a subtle impairment of vision may be responsible, while yet another believes that a cerebellar-vestibular dysfunction may be responsible for the learning disability. All these theories – most of them blaming some difference in structure between the brain of the dyslexic and that of the so-called normal reader – have lead to nothing at all. Despite all these theories and all the intervention efforts based on them, not to mention the vast amounts of money expended in the process, the numbers of dyslexics continue to escalate.

Except for the fact that proof of a neurological deficit still eludes the researchers, this theory leaves many questions unanswered. If dyslexia has a neurological basis, why is this supposedly non-contagious “ailment” on the increase? Compare the present situation with, for example, that of a century ago. In 1910 the literacy rate in the U.S.A. was so high it was predicted, “the public schools will in a short time practically eliminate illiteracy.” In 1935, a survey of the 375,000 men working in the Civilian Conservation Corps – a government-sponsored work project to provide employment – found an illiteracy rate of 1.9 percent. It is most noteworthy that this last figure was found among men primarily of low socio-economic status. It is even more noteworthy that the illiteracy rates of the first half of the twentieth century reflected, for the most part, people who had never had the advantage of schooling.

It is also impossible to explain how a neurological dysfunction can be more prevalent in specific areas or countries. While the National Commission on Excellence in 1983 warned that the American nation was “at risk,” remedial reading facilities were not needed at all in Japan due to the rarity of reading problems. Some would argue that reading problems were virtually nonexistent in Japan because their written language is easier than our Latin alphabet. That, however, is simply not true. The Japanese Kanji ideograms consist of 1,850 characters. In addition there are two Kana syllabaries, which – like our Latin alphabet – use symbols to represent sounds. Each Kana syllabary has 46 basic letters compared to our 26.


It is also important to note that differences in brain structures do not necessarily equal brain disorders. Differences between dyslexics’ brains and those of normal readers are not necessarily the cause of a reading difficulty. Such differences can well be the EFFECT of a learning difficulty.

Latest neurological findings – for example through the work of Michael Merzenich of the University of San Francisco – show that, while certain areas of the brain are designated for specific purposes, brain cells and cortical maps do change in response to learning. An interesting study in London has found that an area of the brain associated with navigation was larger in London’s famed taxi drivers than in other people. The drivers’ brains have adapted to help them store a detailed mental map of the city, shrinking in one area to allow growth in another.

The tendency over the past nearly a century has been to try and fit the dyslexia shoe on the foot of the children who fail to learn to read. All efforts to make this shoe fit have failed. If a shoe does not fit one foot, shouldn’t we try it on the other foot?


When a person fails to learn something, there are at least two possible reasons why he failed. The first is that there may be something wrong with the person. The second is that there may be something wrong with the way in which he was taught. Unfortunately most people have so far jumped to the very hasty conclusion that, when the otherwise normal child fails to learn to read, it must be the first possibility that applies.

When teaching, it is imperative to take note of the fact that learning is a stratified process. One step needs to be mastered well enough before subsequent steps can be learned. This means that there is a sequence involved in learning. It is like climbing a ladder; if you miss one of the rungs of the ladder, you will fall off. If you miss out on one of the important steps in the learning process, you will not be able to master subsequent steps.

A simple and practical example of this is the fact that one has to learn to count before it becomes possible to learn to add and subtract. If one tried to teach a child to add and subtract before he had been taught to count, one would quickly discover that no amount of effort would ever succeed in teaching the child these skills. Conceivably people who abide by the learning disabilities idea would then conclude that the child suffered from a neurological dysfunction, or from “dyscalculia,” overlooking that the ability to count must be acquired FIRST, BEFORE it becomes possible to learn to add and subtract.

This principle is also of great importance on the sports field. If we go to a soccer field to watch a soccer coach at work, we shall soon find that he spends much time drilling his players on basic skills, like heading, passing, dribbling, kicking, etc. The players who are most proficient at these basic skills usually turn out to be the best players in the actual game situation.

In the same way, there are also certain skills and knowledge that a child must acquire FIRST, BEFORE it becomes possible for him to become a good reader. Basic skills like concentration, visual discrimination, accurate perception and memorizing, skills of association, auditory memory and lateral interpretation are all functions that form the foundation of good reading and spelling. Until a child has mastered these basic skills first, reading will remain a closed – or at most half-open – book to him.

Teaching these basic skills used to form part of the educational system for many centuries, but have since been removed from Western education by “innovative” educators such as John Dewey and his cohorts. In this way the epidemic that is now called “dyslexia” was created.

Already in 1974, in “Reading Teacher,” Bateman suggested that the term “learning disabilities” be replaced by “teaching disabilities.” The focus, he said, should be on the inadequate skills of the adults who are supposed to teach the children, instead of on blaming the children of mysterious brain dysfunctions. In 1987 Dr. Thomas Armstrong coined the word “dysteachia” to refer to children suffering from “pedagogical illness” or inappropriate teaching strategies.

Perhaps it is time that we investigate the possibility that Bateman and Armstrong may have been correct when they said that the shoe was on the wrong foot.

Susan du Plessis is the co-author of “The Right to Read; Beating Dyslexia and Other Learning Disabilities,” and the author or co-author of four other books on learning and learning disabilities. She has been involved in helping children reach their full potential for 15 years. She holds BD and BA Hons (psychology). Visit her website at

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