Dyslexia and Child Development
Dyslexia is a puzzle, an intricately woven developmental puzzle, that continues to frustrate the affected children, their parents and their teachers. Even the medical personnel involved rarely offer a satisfying answer once they've issued a diagnosis of dyslexia, instead usually recommending that various classroom accommodations be made to deal with it.
Here, in Understanding the Dyslexia Puzzle, I hope to offer parents of a struggling reader ways to help your child overcome the reading problem, although other developmental aspects of dyslexia might still persist. These are my personal opinions, based on several years of experience working with struggling readers. Many of them overcame their reading problems when their parents took the actions I describe here. First, though, let me discuss dyslexia as I see it.
Is a Reading Problem Dyslexia?
The quality of the reading instruction does matter. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Many parents first become concerned with dyslexia when they find that their child is struggling with reading, and they go looking for answers. Sometimes they find that an exceptionally poor teaching strategy was employed, or no strategy at all, and that changing the method of instruction, or just the instructor, is sufficient to get their child back on track. In such cases, the poor reading was obviously just a symptom of poor or insufficient instruction, not dyslexia.
However, in most cases the reading struggle continues regardless of the instructional interventions used. In such cases, parents are justified in suspecting that their child is dyslexic, and that they will have to take further actions to address the issue. But what actions? To some extent, that depends upon the age of the child, so let's begin at the beginning.
Is Dyslexia a Genetic Condition?
The answer is almost certainly yes, but that does not mean that dyslexia, or at least some of the more frustrating symptoms of dyslexia, can't be treated. This is an extremely important concept to grasp. A genetic predisposition to a condition does not mean that the condition is pre-ordained; it means that the condition, in this case dyslexia, might occur if the environment is favorable for its occurrence. Furthermore, even if the environment is favorable for a time, it's possible that changing that environment might have a treatment effect, that is, might actually reverse the condition.
Put simply, the dyslexia gene, or genes, might have been turned "on" by something in your child's early environment, but it might still be possible to change that environment and switch the offending genes back to the "off" position. Anything which accomplished that would be considered to have had a treatment effect on the dyslexia. The big question is whether that is even possible. The developmental aspect of dyslexia offers some hope that it is.
Is Dyslexia a Developmental Condition?
Again, the answer is almost certainly yes. Dyslexia appears to be part of a broader pattern of delayed development across several fronts or, in some cases, disruption of normal child developmental patterns. As examples of developmental delay, many dyslexics experienced delayed speech development, had trouble fighting off normal childhood ailments indicating inefficient immune system development, or exhibited delayed fine motor or gross motor control in childhood. And as an example of disruption in the normal developmental sequence, many dyslexics just skipped the crawling phase of child development and went right to walking, an event that can frustrate development of essential binocular vision skills according to some developmental optometrists.
Note, however, that it is usually the reading struggle that marks the dyslexic child, not the other developmental issues that often accompany dyslexia. However, these other developmental issues can be the key to dealing with the reading struggles. Put another way, to fix the reading problem, you might instead need to address those other developmental issues. But how do you do that?
The Earliest Intervention - Dietary Considerations
Researchers are now discovering something that many educators have known for years, that you can often pick out a child that is going to struggle with reading well before they actually start learning to read. That is consistent with the assertion here that dyslexia is part of a pattern of delayed development. This raises the following question: If we intervene early enough, can we put the child back on a path of normal development?
Evidence exists that dietary considerations could be important in this regard. Along with diet, it's possible that a widespread vitamin D3 deficiency has been building in the population since the early 1990's, and that this deficiency could be affecting normal child development processes. Some, in fact, claim that the rapid incidence of autism and autism-spectrum conditions (which are examples of severe developmental issues, both delayed and disrupted) is due to a deficiency of vitamin D3 caused specifically by medical advice to avoid direct sunlight that has been widely promulgated since 1989. Pediatricians took up that cause, and have since advised pregnant women to avoid direct sunlight and to do the same with their young children. Because this is a group of patients highly likely to follow their doctors' advice, the recommendation to avoid direct sunlight has been followed by millions of mothers since the early 1990's.
Thus, the first intervention, if you suspect you are raising a child predisposed to dyslexia, or who is already manifesting early signs of dyslexia, is to ensure sufficient vitamin D3, as well as considering other dietary needs are being met. In particular, you should ensure that your child is getting sufficient Omega-3 essential fatty acids, typically supplied by fish oil supplements, and sometimes by the correct diet. See The Diet Piece of the Dyslexia Puzzle for more information. If you do decide to pursue vitamin D3 supplementation, also be sure to read Vitamin D3 Questions in that section of this website.
Is Dyslexia a Vision Problem?
Speaking from my personal experience working with a large number of struggling readers, one-on-one, over more than a decade, I now strongly recommend that every dyslexic individual, child or adult, be seen by a developmental optometrist to rule out the possibility that deficient vision skills are causing the child to struggle with reading.
As I discuss thoroughly in The Vision Piece of the Dyslexia Puzzle, a large percentage of the struggling readers I encountered showed distinct signs of experiencing problems with their visual skills, and addressing those problems was often the key to getting them reading successfully.
This is why I consider dyslexia to be a puzzle. By itself, it's mainly considered by parents of a dyslexic child to be an issue with reading acquisition, but in my experience considerably more is going on, both in the genetic area (because dyslexic parents raise a lot of dyslexic children) and in the developmental area (because we are able to pick out poor readers even before they start reading instruction.)
But, are vision skills problems dyslexia? Well, no, but they are a common occurrence among a lot of children considered dyslexic, so common, in fact, that I consider it a very common symptom of dyslexia. A delay, or disruption, in the acquisition of normal vision skills, such as the ability to efficiently converge the eyes when reading, for example, is something many dyslexic children experience. The vision skills issue is just a part of the pattern of delayed development, or dyslexia, but can lead to serious problems when a child is learning to read.
The Next Logical Intervention - Vision Therapy
When you read The Vision Piece of the Dyslexia Puzzle, you will learn that my personal experience with struggling readers has convinced me that a significant share of them suffer from undiagnosed, and therefore untreated, visual skills problems. Their visual acuity is often fine, but their visual skills are deficient, and their poor visual skills make it difficult for them to correctly and easily view the printed page. This, in fact, is one reason they often seem to struggle with phonics instruction. We can't understand how they can fail to grasp what we're teaching them when they're looking right at it, but they're not seeing what we think they're seeing.
So, my recommendation to any parent of a struggling reader, of any age from 5 to 25, is to get them to a developmental optometrist and have their vision skills evaluated. In a large percentage of cases, the dsylexic child's vision skills will be found deficient. Fortunately, in most cases, if the child undergoes vision therapy, those vision skills deficits can be remedied. Thus, by addressing delayed or disrupted vision skills development, we improve the child's ability to deal with print.
The Follow-Up Intervention - Phonics Instruction
Phonics instruction is what I offered when I worked with struggling readers although, ironically, I eventually came to see that as the lesser of their problems. In fact, I used the same method that is available here on my site, the OnTrack Reading Phonics Program, a method that can has been designed to be used by any parent with their child. It is an exceptionally effective method for catching a child up quickly when he lacks an understanding of phonics.
However, over the course of several years, I learned that I was "putting the cart before the horse" in most cases. That is, I learned that most of the children I worked with probably were fighting the sort of vision skills problems that would require vision therapy to correct. While attempting to get them to absorb phonics instruction before correcting the vision skills deficits could be done, it was going at it the hard way.
Fortunately, in the later years of my reading practice, I ended up working in conjunction with a vision therapy department, the Family Vision Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin, operated by Drs. Ann Wonderling and Richard Foss. I continued to get clients who had not undergone vision therapy, but I also worked with a lot of children following vision therapy, and my experience was that a child who had undergone vision therapy was generally an easy child to teach. This was not the case with many of my young clients who had not had vision therapy.
Therefore, while I believe I have developed one of the strongest phonics programs you will find for quickly teaching a child all the phonics he will require to become a successful reader, I now absolutely recommend that any child struggling with reading, and especially a child who has had a fair amount of phonics instruction already, should be seen by a developmental optometrist first, before attempting my program, or any other reading program for that matter. The money is better spent on getting the appropriate vision skills examination by a developmental optometrist. (For more on this in The Vision Piece, see the page Find a Vision Therapy Provider.)
If you have a struggling reader, or if you think you will have one in just a couple of years in the case of a very young child, first ensure that your child is not vitamin D3 deficient, and is getting sufficient Omega-3's, particularly if you are noticing that developmental milestones are not being met in a reasonable time frame. Pay some attention to ensuring the rest of your child's diet is also satisfactory, again, especially if development is not proceeding at a proper rate.
Next, if signs appear during initial reading instruction that all is not going to go smoothly, immediately begin to suspect a vision skills problem, for this is the developmental issue that, if it is present, will likely become the largest impediment to your child's reading success.
And then, once you're convinced that your child's vision skills are intact, proceed with reading instruction. Here, my bias leans heavily toward ensuring that your child understands English phonics. The OnTrack Reading Phonics Program covers all the phonics he will ever need, but many children learn to read regardless of the method used, so it's entirely possible that your child might begin to pick up whatever reading instruction is being offered in school, once the vision needs have been met.
And finally, because I view dyslexia as a spectrum of delayed development, with each child displaying different patterns of delay or disruption of development, it's quite likely that other developmental issues will still be present, and that some of those issues might continue to make reading something of a challenge. In particular, some children who've undergone both vision therapy and phonics instruction will continue to read more slowly than their peers, but generally they will become readers. The slower pace could be due to other developmental delays, in the auditory realm, for example, in the fine or gross motor realms, or even something remaining unaddressed in the visual realm. As I said at the beginning, dyslexia is something of a puzzle. My intent here is to help you sort through the pieces of that puzzle so that you can help your child become one of the successful readers that the above approach has turned out during my years of experience working with struggling readers.