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Moving Beyond Dyslexia

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Title1/LAP Dyslexia Connection 

Learning diversity: Moving way beyond dyslexia

February 17, 2011 12:00 AM



When we think about dyslexia, we typically think about a disability. We focus on difficulties in learning to read and write. But there's plenty of evidence that suggests we should think about a whole lot more than that — and in fact change the way we think.


To learn more, I had a series of conversations with Katherine Gaudet, the director of the Sally Borden School at Friends Academy in North Dartmouth. To get me rolling, Gaudet provided a snapshot of children with dyslexia:

"These are children who have so many strengths. They are creative, imaginative and are good problem-solvers who have superior reasoning skills. They can visualize their ideas in 3D, turning them around in their minds. They think outside of the box. They are good at working with all kinds of technology such as computers, iPods and digital cameras. They can take things apart and put them back together again easily. They can excel in music, drama, athletics, engineering, architecture and/or art. They can also have difficulty in learning sounds of letters, and in reading, writing, spelling and sometimes math."


This is not what we typically hear about dyslexia. Indeed, cutting-edge educators now talk about "learning diversity" rather than "learning disabilities" — what Gaudet calls the "new LD." Simply put, not all kids learn the same way. Some kids may have particular strengths with acquiring and using language, and some may have inherent problems with learning to read. Conversely, some kids may excel at spatial skills, whereas others may struggle.


In terms of educational strategies, Gaudet suggests the result of this new thinking is that kids with dyslexia can "profit from an alternative curriculum that stretches their considerable strengths along with bolstering the challenges that they face." Rather than spending every day at school trying to learn reading and writing using strategies that are not suited to their learning styles, kids with dyslexia can have remarkable success with programs that are designed to address the way they process information.


I'll give an example that I thought was amazing. One approach, called Lindamood-Bell Phoneme Sequencing, or LiPS, develops the phonemic awareness foundational to learning how to read. Students learn to recognize how their mouths create the sounds of language. This kinesthetic feedback enables reading and spelling by giving a whole new source of sensory feedback associated with learning language, which Gaudet describes as "a useful strategy for the dyslexic child's toolbox."


Another approach to learning how to read, Orton-Gillingham, provides a structured, sequential framework for promoting literacy skills that integrates multiple sensory experiences. The program gives students immediate feedback and a predictable sequence that integrates reading, writing and spelling. Focusing on both the decoding and encoding of language, the Orton-Gillingham methodology teaches phonetics and emphasizes visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning styles. Instruction begins by focusing on phonology and gradually moves towards the study of more advanced morphological structure.


As I am barely scratching the surface of the complexity of these educational programs, it should be emphasized that educators go through intensive training in order to provide these services. What's exciting for parents is that this dedicated effort on the part of educators really works! Gaudet reflected, "We have seen extraordinary progress among our students in the Sally Borden School. The average progress that the typical student sees is 1.4 year's growth in reading ability within the school year. What may seem like a miracle to some is just the result of providing students with the structured, sequential, multisensory program suited to the way their brain works that they need in order to thrive."


But perhaps the most important component of the curriculum is that it devotes considerable resources to building students' strengths. "Children with dyslexia bring considerable gifts to school, which, in the push to remediate reading, can be overlooked or not expanded. At the Sally Borden School we focus on developing these gifts by providing an environment that honors them. For example, these students are intuitive with technology, so each child has a MacBook, iPod and digital camera for use in their academic program. These tools use a child's strengths to help bolster challenges," Gaudet added.


She described to me additional features at The Sally Borden School that make it an optimal educational setting for kids with dyslexia. For example, classroom displays on the walls are minimal. Why? Kids with dyslexia can become visually overwhelmed with too much stimulation. Even the color choice is strategic — warm, soft earth tones are used. The overall result is that the kids can focus on the material that they are working on without getting distracted by stimuli that would not typically interfere with other kids' activities.


Since students with dyslexia can excel at creating and building, classrooms are also stocked with building materials, art supplies and games that challenge and stretch students' perceptual strengths. Students are also involved in a robotics program at school and have had photography instruction. "Our integration with Friends Academy's strong arts program is a plus for Sally Borden students. They are naturally inclined to excel in the arts, so having art for three periods, for example, each week, develops these natural abilities," Gaudet stated.


It's really important for parents to be aware of the developmental signals that their child may be best served by an alternative educational program. For example, during kindergarten you might take notice if your child is having difficulties identifying letters, assigning the sounds to letters and remembering the alphabet. In first grade, difficulties with learning to read and reading fluency may become apparent. Teachers are, of course, a very reliable source for getting a sense of your child's profile of strengths and challenges. By the end of first grade, if there seem to be indicators that are consistent with dyslexia, there are specific tests and assessments that could clarify the situation.


In addition to this very brief overview, I always encourage parents to trust their "gut feelings." You are the best observer of your child. You would know better than anyone what he or she is good at, what he likes to do, what things she gravitates to doing and what things come hard for her. This is critical information to help guide you to an educational program that is optimal for your child, so that he or she can be in a setting where he can develop strengths and also learn strategies to deal with his learning challenges.


If you think that your child is not progressing with reading the way you feel he or she should, you could be right. Finding professionals who can test reading skills could be critical to early intervention. Research has shown that children who are proficient readers by the end of third grade are more successful in school, work and life.


It's clear that educators have moved way beyond dyslexia and have made tremendous strides in developing multiple forms of education that suit different learning styles. But just in case you can't shake the notion that dyslexia is a disability, you should pop into Katherine Gaudet's office and have a look at some of the posters on her wall. They list a number of individuals who had dyslexia — people like Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and John Lennon. As Gaudet noted, "These are people who made a difference because of their difference."


Learning diversity indeed!


Richard Rende, Ph.D., lives in Dartmouth. He is a developmental psychologist and research professor at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University. His research program focuses on family influences on the development of behavior problems in childhood, adolescence and the transition to adulthood. His work has been supported by the National Institute on Mental Health, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The opinions expressed in this column are his and his alone.


What’s it like to have dyslexia? These eight videos chosen by our community will give you a peek into the experience of dyslexia—from brain function to celebrities’ take on it, and more. Click on the colorful brain image below to start the slideshow, and add your favorite videos in the comments.

 NC for LD website



 Title1/LAP Dyslexia Connection

2013 Dyslexia News, Updates, Downloads


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