Monday, September 5, 2016

All about Dyslexia

Hello again! I meant to get this post up right after my previous post but life happened. ;) My last post was all about what happens in the brain while we read. Make sure you read that post first before continuing on to this one. This one will make more sense if you read that one first. After reading this post, you should also check out an older post about myths and misconceptions surrounding dyslexia. Knowing what dyslexia is NOT will help you understand what it IS. I am not an expert by any means. This has just become a passion of mine to learn more and spread any knowledge and understanding that I do have. I encourage you to do some more reading and, if possible, take a class or seminar by someone who is an expert so that you can learn more! The research about dyslexia is there and there is a lot of it. We just need to get it out there so it is common knowledge for all educators. Okay, I'll hop off my soapbox now and get to the good stuff. :)

I made this visual to quickly get out a few things that are important to know about dyslexia. Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. (IDA)

1. First, it is neurobiological. It is NOT from lack of effort or intelligence. There is a difference in the brain that develops before any formal instruction ever takes place. You will see below more about this.

2. It is a language based disability. It is not a problem with vision. (See my post on myths and misconceptions.) People with dyslexia have difficulty with language skills, including reading, spelling, writing, and even pronouncing words. 

3. Dyslexia is passed through families. When a child is struggling with reading, this is one of the first things I look for- family history. Many parents/grandparents might not know they have dyslexia but they will say they "had a hard time in school" or "don't like reading" or "aren't great readers." 
From "About 40% of the siblings of a person with dyslexia may have similar reading issues. Scientists have also located several genes associated with reading and language processing issues."

4. Dyslexia is more common than you realize. About 1 in 5 students have dyslexia. That means you most likely DO have a dyslexic student in your class. There is a wide spectrum of abilities and symptoms, so it is not always an obvious case. The more I learn about dyslexia, the more I see it. Think about it: If you have a class of 20, that means statistically, you have 4 kids who are struggling with this disability on some level. That's pretty significant!

Definition from International Dyslexia Association

As I mentioned above, there is a pretty wide spectrum when it comes to the severity of symptoms. I started studying dyslexia when I had a student who was/is profoundly dyslexic. It couldn't be ignored, even if I didn't know what I was dealing with. By studying his severe symptoms of dyslexia, I started to see the same symptoms in students who weren't struggling as much as he was. 

For more information about phonological awareness, click here.

This is the first thing I look for. When a student is struggling with phonemic awareness in kindergarten/early 1st grade, that is a red flag for you. I start working with kids in kindergarten who are struggling with phonemic awareness. Some of them turn out to be totally normal readers. Others, improve with intervention, but are identified later with dyslexia. The early intervention is significant for students with and without dyslexia because phonemic awareness is one of the main indicators of reading success. (See my post on phonemic awareness.

I think sometimes people think since I work at a private school, there must be no struggling readers. WRONG! Dyslexia doesn't care how much money your family has. It does not go away just because your family has read to you since birth. It is neurobiological, remember? Let me be clear though- being read to as a child is still incredibly important. It develops comprehension, vocabulary, language skills, and (hopefully) a love of literature and learning.  From what I understand, it won't prevent dyslexia though. 

I was also surprised to learn that dyslexia is equal among boys and girls. I do think girls tend to look for ways to compensate and please the teacher in the classroom, making it more difficult to spot sometimes. That's why assessments are so important. 

It's also important to remember that dyslexia has nothing to do with intelligence! In fact, dyslexics have average to above average intelligence. That's actually part of the definition. The best simple definition I heard was from PDX Reading Specialist. I don't know if she made this up or heard it somewhere else, but I'm giving her credit. This definition is simple and really sums it up.

Now that we've looked at what dyslexia is, we can look at some of the reasons why students struggle with this disability. Let's look at the brain! Disclaimer: I am not a brain scientist or an expert in any way. I'm simply taking information I've learned and sharing it with you all. First, let's review one slide from my last post. Make sure you read that one first. 

These are the three brain systems that are most active while reading. My previous post talked about the different roles each of these systems play.  

Remember that each system plays a part. They all work together to make reading a smooth process. 

Notice how they don't develop that left-side word form area, which leads to fluent reading.  This area is the place where word retrieval becomes automatic. 

To read a word, dyslexics take a longer path through the brain. They can get delayed in that slow, analytic frontal part of the brain.

New research has found that with appropriate instruction, we can begin to form new pathways for our dyslexic readers. That's why appropriate instruction is so important. (My next post will go into this more.)

Now let's look at the warning signs of dyslexia. When I see these symptoms, I'm not about to go diagnosing anything. (There are specialists for that.) I will, however, start giving them support they need. Early intervention is key! 

I don't work with preschoolers, but I do work with kindergartners. When a student is struggling to learn the alphabet and seems to forget a letter from one day to the next, I start intervention. When a student struggles with phonemic awareness, I start doing activities right away to develop that. Phonemic awareness activities should be fun! Every kindergarten classroom needs to have daily activities. These are simple and short activities. If a student isn't picking up these skills by mid-kinder, that's when I start intervention with them. It's still fun, simple activities though. I think the biggest warning sign for me is a student in mid-kinder who seems very bright and interested in learning, but struggles to remember their letters, days of the week, and other common things like that. If they are doing their little kinder journal and you see that they avoid sounding out words (instead they look around and only write words they can copy) or if they do try but it seems very difficult despite many opportunities to practice, I would look more into that. (Note: If kids come into your kinder class without literacy at home- no books, not read to, no instruction with letters prior- that is a different story usually. They need more exposure first before you can decide if it's a red flag. However, you would give them the same RTI at this point because you need to get them exposure.)

I can usually tell something is really wrong by mid/late first grade. If they are still really struggling with decoding or remembering sight words, that is a huge red flag. Poor spelling is still pretty common in first grade, but becomes a bigger red flag later. One of two of these symptoms alone are not red flags. Many kids have poor handwriting. Also, it's important to note that when kids are first learning to read, they will make frequent errors. I just look at all of these symptoms when I'm starting to wonder about a student. The biggest thing to look for is difficultly with phonics and/or learning sight words. I also look out for those kids who can memorize any sight word you put in front of them so they "word call" while they read. They can mask their disability. They sound like they are reading, but then you give them a word they don't know and their decoding skills are very poor. That is a red flag. They are memorizers, but are not actually reading. They must decode. These kids tend to have poor spelling because they can read those sight words well, but usually mix up letters when spelling those same words. I think the most common symptom is the problems with decoding. You'll get those kids who (by first grade) know their letters and the rules of phonics but they decode SO slowly. They sound out the same word on every page. They don't notice word families and other patterns that may help them. This is a red flag (after proper instruction and exposure.)

This is when spelling becomes a bigger red flag. Fluency is also a biggie. Comprehension problems are usually a result of the slow or inaccurate reading. These are kids that may have excellent comprehension during read-alouds but not when they read on their own. Third grade is usually the time where dyslexics hit a wall. If they were able to compensate with or hide their disability in the earlier grades, they usually can't anymore. That's because there are so many more words! They can't memorize every word anymore. Multi-syllable words become common. So many words look the same. Advanced decoding is necessary.

I hope this post was helpful! My information came from these resources.

Click on the picture to download these links.

To read more about dyslexia, click here and here or on the pictures below:

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Reading and the Brain

Hi everyone! This post has been a LONG time coming. By long time, I mean like 2 years. This post contains information from several places. I've included a list at the end of this post. 

This post is part of a series that I'm doing about dyslexia. Make sure you check out my last post about the myths of dyslexia. This post doesn't quite dive into dyslexia, but it sure does set the stage! This post is all about how our brain reads. I find this all SO fascinating! Before i go any further, I have to say a little disclaimer: I am not  a brain scientist. I do not have a PHD or anything like that. This comes from the past 4 years of reading articles and books, taking online classes and other pd workshops on the topic. I am slightly obsessed with the topic of dyslexia, but I don't feel like I can call myself an expert. I do feel like it is SO important to share the knowledge that I do have. After reading these posts (especially the next post after this one,)  I encourage you to keep learning and start making adjustments to your teaching so you can meet the needs of students with dyslexia (which happen to be 1 in 5.) I'm STILL making these adjustments, learning, and trying to meet the needs of these students. It's not easy, but I feel like it's so important to at least get this dialogue started (or continue it if you've already started) so we can make positive changes together. Okay, my little speech is over and now to the good stuff! :)

Since this blog post is SO long and has so much information, I've made a little "key" to help organize all this. 

I think it's best to start with this little fact:

The first time I heard this was from a presentation a few years ago from Dr. Louisa Moats. It totally woke me up!I had never really realized this little fact. 

When we speak and listen, we don't need to break apart the individual phonemes that make up words. In fact, we aren't really aware of them at first. We say words as bigger parts. When we learn to read and write, we must first figure out that all of our words are made up of smaller phonemes, or sounds. Instead of hearing and saying a word as a whole, we must break it apart into much smaller sounds. We rely on our language modules in our brains to convert this print into the linguistic code (phonetic code) we have created. We can't do this until we have that ability to break apart words into their individual phonemes. "70-80% of American children learn how to transform printed symbols into a phonetic code without much difficulty." (Shaywitz, 2003) Think about that. Are you thinking about the remaining 20%?

I've seen this Scarborough rope in every presentation I've been to. It's that good! Basically, it's showing you what it takes to be a truly "skilled" readers. Many of our dyslexic students have the language compression, but the skills involved in the word recognition part is a roadblock. For this post, we will be focusing on that bottom part of this "rope."

This is the same information, just another way to look at it:

Since reading skills are tied to these language skills, it is important to look at all of them. I will come back to this slide later, when I talk more about reading instruction. 

Before we jump to the brain, let's look a little more at the skills involved in the learning to read. 

The first part of this picture shows the bottom part of Scarborough's rope.   The last one (meaning) is the top part of the rope.

Breaking it down, here is how the average child learns to read.

Phonological awareness comes easier to some kids than others. Many children develop it without any real instruction by the time they need to learn to read. Others need a little boost in the form of fun nursery rhymes, games that play with words, and minimal instruction. Still, there are many (20%ish) who need intensive instruction with phonemic awareness before beginning to learn to read.   

To read more about phonological awareness, click HERE.

This is the idea that those lines and circles actually carry meaning when they are linked together.  Words are made up of letters and letters represent sounds.

This process is faster for some and slower for others. For many children, it is incredible difficult. 

After students are able to decode words, they can start committing them to memory. The average reader needs to see a word 4-14 times before they can read it with automaticity. (Dyslexic readers need to see it 40+ times!) The more a reader is exposed to words, the quicker they are committing these words to memory.  According to research, teaching students to sound out words actually "sparks more optimal brain circuitry than instructing them to memorize the word."  Isn't that interesting?! (You can read more from this article HERE.) You will see below where in the brain this all happens. 

There are still those words that don't follow common spelling patterns. These high-frequency words do need to be practiced a lot. (To see a post about sight words click HERE.)

I don't go into comprehension in this post very much, but obviously that is the end goal. It's the whole reason why we teach phonics and sight words. Phonemic awareness and alphabetic principal leads to breaking the phonetic code which leads to automatic word retrieval which leads to fluency which allows the reader to truly gain access to the text and, hopefully, read for meaning. Of course there are those students who can word call like crazy but can't comprehend. That's because that skill happens as a result of activation in a different part of the brain. I will be doing another blog post about compression and those higher order language skills necessary for full comprehension to happen.

Now, onto what is happening in our brains when we are reading. Above is the process that we can see. As teachers, we see this happening every year with our students. They start out sounding out words, and as they year goes on, they become more and more fluent. By the end of first grade, most kids are reading 40-60 words/minute. So, how does this happen? Why do some kids still struggle after loads of practice and quality instruction? The answers are all there, thanks to fMRI's (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging.) Scientists can now literally see what is happening in our brains when we read and what is happening in the brains of struggling readers.  I'm going to try to break it down as best I can. Keep in mind, I'm a super slow learner. Ha! I also have no background in brain anything.

Brain clip art: copyright Away With The Pixels 

Remember when I mentioned that reading is not a natural skill that we are born to do? There are no parts of the brain that are innately dedicated to learning to read. Instead there are parts of the brain that are used for spoken language and object recognition, which we use for reading. (Dehaene &Cohen, 2007)

Through fMRI's, scientists have found that there are three main brain systems that are active while reading.

This information is from Sally Shaywitz book: Overcoming Dyslexia

Two of these pathways for reading are in the posterior system (back of the brain.) 

Think about our beginning readers. They are relying on this because they have not had enough exposure to automatically identify every word. (You'll learn more about this in a sec.) Our new readers need multiple opportunities to practice this skill. 
To to do this, they need to :
  1. Know the letters and the sounds they represent with automaticity. If they don't have these sounds down, it will slow them down with this process. Simply knowing the letters isn't enough. We need to give students plenty of practice to master this skill and develop automaticity. 
  2. Have phonemic awareness (they must be able to pull those sounds apart and blend the individual sounds together with relative ease.) 

This is the part of the brain that we hope is getting busy as our students finish first grade and entering second grade, right?! There are two things that pop in my head when I read over this.

1) It does start with phonics and repetitive exposures to sounding out those words DOES usually lead to eventually recognizing the word with automaticity later. Phonics is a tool to getting to that goal of automaticity. Back to that research I mentioned above. They found in the study that when teaching two groups using different methods (teaching phonics vs. whole word memorizing,) that the brain showed more activation on the left with the phonics method and more on the right with the whole word method. Strong activation on the left was the "hallmark" for skilled readers, which also happens to be lacking in struggling readers.

2) Some words are more difficult to sound out- sight words. These words, along with other high-frequency words, need to be practiced often so we can get them into their word form area and build that "exact model" to be retrieved quickly and effortlessly.

I recently went to an excellent teacher training by PDX Reading Specialist, Barbara Steinberg. She pointed out that our brains can only hold so many words to be memorized. So what we are actually doing is memorizing word parts more often. These parts are what we retrieve so quickly and link together to make more words. This points more to the importance of teaching phonics and morphology.

The third pathway is in the front of the brain in the Broca's area. Remember from above, that the frontal system is responsible for phonological processing and semantic processing (word analysis). (Willis, 2008)

This part of the brain helps a person vocalize words and start to analyzes phonemes.

With dyslexics, there is a neurobiological reason for why they struggle with reading. My next blog post is all about how a dyslexic brain reads. Here's a hint- there are different levels of activation in various parts of the brain that I've mentioned. Stay tuned!

Language Processes of Skilled Readers 

This brings us back to the yellow slides. ;) When these brain systems all work together, it seems like reading is seamless. Let's review the types of language processing that needs to occur to be a skilled reader. These are the major components of the structure of our language:

These pieces all work together to create meaningful communication (whether it be oral or written.)

We all know how important this is! I've had students who seem to have great phonemic awareness but they cannot remember a word! They sound out words every time.

If a student has weak orthography processing, they can't make a mental picture in their brain. They must rely completely on phonics instead of reading by sight. This leads to choppy reading.  

I will be doing another blog post on morphology. I'm learning about how important it is for our students to know and understand affixes. 

This slide above is to help with all the vocab I'm throwing at you...

These next slides show the higher level language skills. It's important to start focusing on these even with our beginning readers. The frontal lobe is responsible for comprehension. Have you ever had a student that is a slow reader and bad speller BUT has awesome comprehension. Here's why: The frontal systems are working like crazy. They are bright kids and they get it. Their brains are just not using the same pathways that would make their reading fluent. This is why we want to make sure that, although our remedial instruction is at their reading level, they are still exposed to TONS of literature at their intellectual level. Read-alouds and audio books are great for this. Have you ever had a struggling reader who is the first one to raise his/her hand with a thoughtful comment or question about your read-aloud? Yep. They need that and we need to make sure we are engaging their brains and helping them grow their vocabulary and higher-order thinking skills. (I promise- more about this in future posts!)

Click on the picture to get to that PA post.

To get to the sight word post, click on this picture.

To read more about Structured Literacy, click on the picture above.

UPDATE: Click HERE for the next post about dyslexia.

To download this page with the links to these resources, click on the picture. 

I highly recommend reading Sally Shaywitz's book called Overcoming Dyslexia.