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A New Chapter on Understanding Reading Disabilities

There are some childhood experiences that a person never forgets.

For 51-year-old David Peak, who is dyslexic, it’s the dread he felt every time he had to read aloud in class. "I felt intimidated because most people could read so much faster and better than I could," says Peak, who is among about 10 percent of Americans with reading disabilities.

Like many dyslexics, Peak also has trouble with spelling. As an adult, he compensates by memorizing the spelling of many of the words he uses in written reports at work. "It’s like a handicap, so you learn how to adjust."

Today, updated knowledge offers the potential for children to avoid the life-long consequences of a reading disability. Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center has made major findings in the field.

For example:

  • It’s a fallacy that reading disabilities are more common among boys than girls. This knowledge could lead to earlier diagnosis of girls with the disorder. Schools currently identify reading disabilities three to four times more often in boys than girls.
  • Less than an hour’s worth of testing in first grade can predict which children will still read poorly in 12th grade unless they get special instruction. A major predictive factor is an awareness of how sounds work together to form words.
  • Most children can learn to read with almost any teaching method, but some children – perhaps as many as 30 percent – need systematic instruction in phonics to master reading. Many school systems, however, use a "whole language" approach to reading that includes only limited instruction in phonics.
  • Providing at-risk children special instruction in the early grades can have lasting effects. A study of Forsyth County children showed that a group that received tutoring in first and second grades did better on standardized tests through high school.
  • Researchers are close to finding the genes responsible for reading disability, which could lead to a test to identify at-risk children early so they can get help before they develop school problems.

It is now known that learning disabilities are not a single disorder, but a general category. One area – basic reading skills – accounts for 85 percent of all learning disabilities.

Professionals in the field now use the terms reading disability and dyslexia interchangeably. The notion of dyslexia as a disorder in which children reverse letters in their brain – reading CAT as CTA, for example – is outdated.

Now, researchers understand that the problem has to do with how well people can decode language.

"What’s unmistakable is that when children have trouble learning to read, more than 80 percent of them are having trouble with sounds, not sight," said Frank Wood, PhD, professor of neuropsychology. "There is no evidence that dyslexics see things differently."

Instead, dyslexics have problems understanding how sounds are arranged within words. Tests for the disorder include asking children to identify rhyming sounds, tap out the number of syllables in a word, or say what sound is left when you remove a letter from a word, such as the "m" from "mat."

Researchers have found that the most effective treatment for dyslexia is instruction in phonics, or the way the sound system works.

"The evidence is unambiguous that when children have trouble learning to read, almost all of them have trouble with sounds; and they won’t learn to read until they learn the sound system," said Wood.