Dyslexia and Child Development

After years of teaching phonics to young people who've struggled with learning to read, I've come to see dyslexia as a puzzle, a developmental puzzle really, and want to share my thoughts on the matter here in Understanding the Dyslexia Puzzle. I hope to offer parents of a struggling reader ways to help your child overcome a reading problem that you might not have considered before. My views are based on several years of experience working with struggling readers.

Note: Educators treat dyslexia as a medical condition and generally leave its diagnosis to the medical community. While I think there are medical conditions underlying dyslexia, here I'm more concerned with explaining actions that parents can take to get your child on a track where he will learn to read.

Is Your Child's Reading Problem Dyslexia?

Because of the close association in people's minds between reading and dyslexia, that's often the first concern of most parents when they find that their child is struggling with reading. First, however, you should rule out the possibility that your child just isn't getting good reading instruction. If a large number of his classmates are also struggling, that just might be the case.

English is a messy language but it does have an underlying phonics structure. The first intervention if you suspect your child just isn't getting good instruction is to try a good phonics program and see if it helps. If your child continues to resist learning to read, the information in this section of my website could prove helpful. From this point on, I'll refer to difficulty learning to read as dyslexia.

Is Dyslexia a Genetic Condition?

The answer is almost certainly yes. Any grade school teacher can tell you that reading struggles (dyslexia) runs in families. I now see dyslexia as a genetic condition that sets a child up for reading struggles, but doesn't preordain them. I also think that measures can be taken to address certain symptoms of dyslexia, measures that can improve your child's ability to learn to read.

If your children are genetically predisposed to dyslexia, it's possible that something in any particular child's environment triggers it. It's also possible that changing that environment will prevent dyslexia from being triggered at all. And, once triggered, maybe a change in the environment can reverse the process. The question is whether that is even possible. The developmental aspect of dyslexia discussed next 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 or poor development across several fronts. For example, 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. I've come to think that the reading struggles are a symptom of a broader pattern of developmental delay, and I've broadened my view of dyslexia to include those developmental delays.

Note, however, that it is usually the reading struggle that marks the dyslexic child, not the other developmental issues that are often also present. Yet addressing some of those other developmental issues could be the key to dealing with the reading struggles. But how do you do that?

The Earliest Intervention - Dietary Considerations

It turns out that various tests can pick out a child that is going to struggle with reading well before they actually start learning to read. That is consistent with my view that dyslexia is part of a pattern of delayed development. This raises the question: If we intervene early enough, can we put the child back on a path of normal development?

We might eventually find that there are several aspects of the modern diet that threaten normal child development and end up triggering a genetic predisposition to dyslexia. The two that most concern me are the Omega-3 essential fatty acids and Vitamin D3, particularly the latter one. Vitamin D3 is not strictly a dietary concern, however. It's often referred to as the "sunshine vitamin" because our bodies generate all of the D3 we need if we get sufficient sunshine on a regular basis. During winter months we get it mainly from D3 stored in our fat cells along with a modest amount from our diets.

Widespread Omega-3 and vitamin D3 deficiencies are both recent occurrences.

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?

Dietary considerations could be important to getting a very young child, even before childbirth, off to a good start developmentally. But if a child is old enough to be showing early signs of struggling to read then a vision issue might be the main cause of his struggles. 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. The reason I feel so strongly about this is that problems with visual skills can be corrected, usually with vision therapy.

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 tend to produce a lot of dyslexic children) and in the developmental area (because we are often able to pick out those destined to be 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 often they're not seeing what we think they're seeing.

So, my recommendation to any parent of a struggling reader of any age is to get their child to a developmental optometrist and have his vision skills evaluated. In a large percentage of cases, the dyslexic child's vision skills will be found deficient. Fortunately, in most cases, if the child undergoes vision therapy, those vision skills deficits can be corrected. And 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 phonics curriculum available here on my site. The OnTrack Reading Phonics Program 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 many of the children I worked with probably were fighting the sort of vision skills problems that would require vision therapy to correct. Trying to get them to learn the phonics first was going at it the hard way.

Addressing the visual skills issues first enables phonics instruction to be more readily absorbed

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 Dr. Ann Wonderling . 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.

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. But I now absolutely recommend that any child struggling with reading, especially one who has had a fair amount of phonics instruction already, should be seen by a developmental optometrist before undergoing my phonics program. The money is better spent on getting the appropriate vision skills examination by a developmental optometrist. (For more on this see the page Find a Vision Therapy Provider found in The Vision Piece of the Dyslexia Puzzle)

Summing Up

If you have a struggling reader, or if you're concerned that 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, especially if development is not proceeding at a proper rate.

Next, if signs appear during initial reading instruction that all is not going smoothly, suspect a vision skills problem. This is the developmental issue that, if present, will likely become the greatest 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. It's important that your child understands English phonics, especially if he's already struggled with early reading instruction. To meet that need, The OnTrack Reading Phonics Program covers all the phonics he will ever need. However, many children with intact vision skills 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. By doing so it's possible that you can help your child become a successful reader.