05 June 2011

Dyslexia and Life

It is probable that struggling to read alphabetic text is "more normal" than reading well. That "struggle," that "difficulty," also might provide some very human advantages... except, of course, in school, or elsewhere among the "print-centric." 
"Dyslexic children use nearly five times the brain area as normal children while performing a simple language task, according to a new study by an interdisciplinary team of University of Washington researchers. The study shows for the first time that there are chemical differences in the brain function of dyslexic and non-dyslexic children," said a 1999 University of Washington study.
'"People often don't see how hard it is for dyslexic children to do a task that others do so effortlessly," added Berninger, a professor of educational psychology. "There are learning differences in children. We can't blame the schools or hold teachers accountable for teaching dyslexic children unless both teachers and the schools are given specialized training to deal with these children."'

So, when I received this wonderful birthday card last month, I thought about all of this. And I thought about the young Mr. Justin Hamilton, @EDPressSec on Twitter, who called me "a bomb thrower" in a Twitter direct message when I called his Department of Education's "crackdown" on alternative testing for special education students, "child abuse." (I could not respond to Mr. Hamilton privately, since he refuses to follow me on Twitter, as he refuses to follow virtually any other actual educator.)

But we know that if, for example, the United States Department of Education insisted that you could not graduate from high school without running a sub-6 minute mile - and offered no exemptions for those who might use a wheelchair or walking supports - we'd see that as abusive. Imagine that video, the kid who can't walk trying to drag himself around the track. And there is nothing at all different from that image than Arne Duncan and Justin Hamilton insisting that a dyslexic student "read" the way Arne and Justin and Barack prefer to - forcing a student who - genetically cannot do something "that way" - to struggle and find themselves, their teachers, and their school communities punished for their "failings."

This, like much of what happens to dyslexic kids during school reading programs, is abuse. It is an insistence that people be converted from who they are, at any cost. And this is true of Reading Recovery, of Success for All, of all the KIPP Academy reading efforts, even most of what you hear at TEDxED.
'"Dyslexia is a lifelong condition, but dyslexics may learn to compensate for it later in life. We know dyslexia is a genetic and neurological disorder. It is not brain damage. Dyslexics often have enormous talents in other parts of their brain and shine in many fields, e.g. Thomas Edison and financier Charles Schwab."

"In the language tests, the boys heard a series of word pairs that consisted of either two non-rhyming words such as "fly" and "church," two rhyming words such as "fly" and "eye," a non-rhyming real word and non-word such as "crow" and "treel," and a rhyming word and non-word such as "meal" and "treel." The boys were asked if the word pairs rhymed or didn't rhyme and if the pairs contained two real words or one real and one non-word. They responded by raising a hand to indicate yes or no. In the music test, the boys heard pairs of notes and raised one hand if they thought the notes were identical and the other if they believed them to be different.

"While the dyslexic boys exhibited nearly five times more brain lactate activation during a language task that asked them to interpret the sounds of words, there was no difference in the two groups during the musical tone test. This means the difference between the dyslexics and the normal children relates to auditory language and not to nonlinguistic auditory function, according to Richards and Berninger"
That 4.6 times the brain area, why does that matter? Speaking with a colleague's class of sophomore future teachers a few years ago one of the students asked, "If you could read "normally" - they did use their fingers to make the quotation marks, which I appreciated - wouldn't you want to?"

"What would I have to give up in exchange for that?" I asked in return. The class was confused, so I tried to explain that the 'clumsy' 'inefficient' form of reading I do is just part of what I consider a vastly different brain system which just might be far better at processing the complex imagery of multitasking (which "good readers" often claim is impossible) and multi-level perception. I think of all the things I have been "good at" in my life - design, storytelling, visual memory, police work, comprehending differing cultures, and I think all of those successes are due, in part, to the way my brain processes information - that "disorder" called dyslexia. If I could process print efficiently, would all that be lost? It seems likely, which is probably why "poor reading" is far more common among humans than "proficient reading."

Dyslexics do not use the left temporal region (as "good readers" do)
to sound out words. In fact, dyslexics and other poor readers
even avoid using that region when "successfully
compensating." (Shaywitz, 2003)

The world of evolution chooses "winners," and the multitasker, the multi-level comprehender, the visual thinker, remains extraordinarily valuable in many places around the earth.

The fact that, as one example, the United States has never, in over 150 years of trying, gotten two-thirds of Americans beyond the sixth grade reading level (what NAEP calls "proficient) suggests that facts are facts, more struggle with reading than succeed. More brains are wired "abnormally" - by school standards - than are wired "normally."

This was a gigantic problem during the Gutenberg Era, but thankfully, the Gutenberg Era is pretty much over everywhere but in school, and for everybody but the U.S. Department of Education. We don't read manuals anymore, we find the right clip on YouTube to lead us through a process. We don't write checks anymore, we swipe cards or punch numbers into our computers or phones, or we bump phones, or our phones get scanned. We don't use handwriting anymore, because it is slow and difficult to read, although our Windows tablets can convert our handwriting into real text. And if we struggle to read alphabetical text stamped onto paper or displayed on a screen these days, we turn on our reading software, and convert it to audio.

Even "out in the real world," where once menus written in fancy script like the one on the front of the above birthday cards had generations of American boys telling waiters "I'll have what she's having" on our dates, we can now go online, pull down the menu, convert it to normal text or audio, and act like we belong in the world when that waiter arrives.

But in schools, and especially on Duncan-promoted high stakes tests, none of these current century rules apply. Instead, we're back in the 1950s when dyslexia was often called "minimal brain damage" or minimal brain dysfunction," and those who "had that" disease were called - without any code words being used - "retarded." ("Retarded" meaning, since the 1870s in U.S. education, "unable to operate at the "normal" grade level for your age.")

We don't teach kids how to use these solutions, we don't teach them to choose the right solutions, and we don't evaluate them on how they'll actually function when they escape school. Instead "we" - starting with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his flak Justin Hamilton - bully these kids, and torture them on standardized tests, and call them, and all who try to help them, "failures."

And sorry Justin, insult me if you must, but this is child abuse. There is no other way to describe it. And we need to stop it, and realize Gutenberg is dead, and we need to give students the tools they need to access communication and information, and to express themselves.

Because the alternative is awful. I want Justin and Arne to know that. I've even written a book, in part, about that. And if Mr. Hamilton or Mr. Duncan won't order it from Amazon (or the accessible pdf form), if they ask, I'll send them that chapter. Maybe, using their preferred reading method, they can read it, and start to understand. And then maybe they can go down the hall and actually listen to Karen Cator, and read her plan, and start to make education less about force from above, and more about letting the most kids succeed.

- Ira Socol


Diane said...

Excellent post. Thank you for that. Both of my sons are dyslexic. I agree with you 100%.

Miss Shuganah said...

Kid O will never hold a pen and write on paper.

Doesn't matter whether the origin of something is genetic or not or neurological as opposed to brain damage. It still causes a stigma.

In Kid O's case,because she cannot talk, she is considered a lesser being. Now at least she is considered to have the mentality of a 5-10 year old instead of an 18 month old. She has never been properly assessed and may never be. And no one will ever say, "Oops, we goofed."

She does surprise people though in how fast she moves. She can drag herself around on a floor in quasi-commando style. She moves her arms and drags her long legs behind. She rolls rather well, too. And, before they know it she is out the door. Always a surprised reaction... "How'd you get there so fast?" She's sneaky that way, just as she is with what she learns and what she knows.

As far as people like Justin and Arne go, they are they very same people who will not look into Kid O's eyes and see a soul there, so why waste my energy? She laughs at all of them.

st said...

I agree there's no need to write perfectly when we have spell check, voice recognition etc. But in today's world students do need to at least recognize letters and sound out words. I was told that "dyslexia is the only disorder we treat through learning" - review it enough times and the student will learn to read. Just wondering where you would draw the line.

irasocol said...


"dyslexia is the only disorder we treat through learning" but that doesn't mean we effect it through repetitive teaching.

Now I don't believe dyslexia is a "disorder." As I point out, my guess - and that of others - is that it is the majority position of the human race. So calling it a "disorder" could be akin to considering (as one 20th century European nation did) that not having blond hair and blue eyes was a "disorder."

So, I don't believe in "treatment" because I don't want you to change me into you.

But I believe in helping students learn to communicate, which involves adopting and adapting the technologies of our culture to support that communication.

As for "in today's world students do need to at least recognize letters and sound out words" I could not disagree more. No one really reads by recognizing letters. Brain research shows that there is no difference between how the Chinese read and Europeans read. It is only theoretically "alphabetical text," actually we all read via what we call "sightword recognition" - which is the recognition of pictograms. Thus, in the same way, phonics and phonologics are only a way to discover unfamiliar words, and for most readers, text-to-speech supports this discovery much more efficiently.

In 15+ years of working with struggling readers - some in reading intervention programs for 30+ years, I have found that "review it enough times and the student will learn to read" is not only untrue, but truly abusive.

We know better.

- Ira Socol

monika hardy said...

excellent post Ira.

a student in the lab writes stigmatizing the human brain: http://lucasponder.blogspot.com/2011/05/stigmatizing-human-mind.html

warm regards...

st said...

Thanks for elaborating. During my recent internship the school used the Sonday program, which does reinforce sight words. For one student with severe dyslexia (5th grader still struggling to recognize letters) it wasn't enough - that's where the repetition came in. I'm convinced there's a better way. I just don't think though that technology is enough - he comes from a low-income home and wouldn't have ready access every day. He may need to look up a phone number, read the street address, etc. and doesn't have a computer that can do the work for him.

irasocol said...


One of the great things about tech of the moment is that we do not need computers at home to provide tech support. Android and iPhones both offer Text-To-Speech and Speech Recognition free. And we have the AccessApps/Freedom Stick option http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2011/05/freedom-stick-and-massive-resistance.html - we can convert text to speech and send kids home listening on $20 mp3 player/flash drives. There's even the Reading Pen http://www.wizcomtech.com/eng/catalog/platforms/01/default.asp?pCat=8&PlatformID=22 for easy "carry along" TTS (we have used this a great deal with adults in employment, to read addresses, bills, menus, medical information, prescription bottles, etc). So, for the cost of one textbook, we can equip kids with great solutions.

(And it is important to note here that this technology is most important in lower SES homes, where parents may not be able to read to young children, or support their literacy learning.)

Here's the thing: For about 50% of the kids I've worked with since 1996 these technologies are both accommodation and remedial - the text-to-speech improves sightword recognition and "traditional" reading improves. But for the other 50% I don't care how often you force repetition on them - or how long you use the technology - they remain technology dependent, that is, the brain connections do not happen (Other studies suggest similar results). So, for those students, its like telling a student who needs glasses, "just keep looking at it, your eyes will get better."

I just want you to consider your view here, you are saying (unintentionally), yes - the technology is there - but no - poor kids can't have it so they need to struggle. I don't accept that as an answer, which is why I've been working in the open source world for so long.

- Ira Socol

Kim said...

I am currently assigned to read your blog. It is interesting because I am also taking an online educational reading foundations course. The title of my textbook is, TEACHING CHILDREN TO READ: THE TEACHER MAKES THE DIFFERENCE. We also have a textbook teaching us phonics. I am thinking all this training is intended for the children who learn reading "normally." And I hope if I encounter a student struggling with the disorder of dyslexia, they have someone like you in their life to teach them in a way they can learn to read. I realize how unfamiliar I am with dyslexia, and your strategies for struggling readers are foreign to me.

Carl said...

Wow, outstanding post. I was lucky enough to carpool with a teacher who was dyslexic. Your post is a reminder to watch for and help students who struggle to make sense of what, we as teachers, ask students to do.

Liz Ditz said...

Dear Ira,

Great post. I wonder if you have read (or listened to) Dehaene's Reading in the Brain (website: http://readinginthebrain.pagesperso-orange.fr/intro.htm?

It's quite accessible to the lay reader. In my mind, it should be mandatory in teacher prep classes.

While I am a great fan of assistive tech (see below) I am not as sure as you are that we are at the end of the Gutenburg era (or even that teaching handwriting should be abandoned).

On AAT and accessing written material. I have seen remarkable changes from students having simultaneous access to print and oral forms of texts (especially difficult texts). The changes include huge increases in comprehension and improvements in text-only reading speed.

I do have hopes for early diagnosis and remediation, like the Nemours BrightStart program. (Website: http://www.nemours.org/service/preventive/brightstart/screening.html

The point is to get the content into the students' brains, and then the second point is to get the content back out. Not just in the form of performance on high-stakes tests, but to supply the furniture of their minds.

Miss Shuganah said...


second point is to get the content back out.

Excellent point and distinction. In Kid O's case and with others like her to limited AT, this is exactly the crux of the matter. Proving her intelligence is exactly in this part of the equation. We can say until we are blue in the face that she understands everything, but until she can show this she is stuck with a better but still inappropriate label.

To me this is not just about whether someone is dyslexic or whatever disability they have. It's about educating all so they all kids can demonstrate and learn up to their potential.

irasocol said...

Liz, Miss S:

As I said 'not-so-long-ago' - http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2010/03/reading-is-not-goal.html - "Reading is defined as getting information from a recorded source into your head, Writing is defined as getting information from your head into a form which others can access." And to which I might have added, "Arithmetic is defined as having a common system for sharing quantifiable data." So I'm with you both.

But as far as the Gutenberg Era, well, I think it ended a few years ago - everywhere but in schools. Since 2005 more data has been input into phones than any other type of device. Books are available in any format you like. Far more information - since the 1980s - has been passed via audio and video than via print. Less than 10% of New York Times readers see a paper version. Less than 5% of Guardian readers see a paper version. Amazon sells more Kindle books than hardcovers. Most best-selling books in Japan are delivered to phones. I tell my car where I want to go and it tells me how to get there, no visuals needed.

This is good. http://youtu.be/7UXh7Vb1XL8 The Gutenberg Era was brutally limiting in its communications choices, and led to powerful elite controls on information and cognitive authority. It created the rather strange notion of "fixed knowledge" and, since at least the 1840s as Dickens "blogged," authors and creators have been straining against its tight boundaries.

So this is a chance for the liberation of the many.

- Ira Socol

Miss Shuganah said...

I am oddly a traditionalist when it comes to books, but I am finally wrapping my mind around the end of Gutenberg.

Since Kid O is severely disabled, it's unlikely she will ever really hold a pen or pencil. She does not have differentiated use of her fingers. Her hands are claws.

She needs other ways to express what she knows.

The maddening thing is... doesn't anyone look another person in the eyes? I don't mean stare... I mean just look for a moment to see another intelligent being? I suspect not. Or at least not often enough. Otherwise no one would have put you in the dumb class. We need to set aside our pre-existing prejudices and presumptions. I have come a long way in the last fifteen years. The more I am around so-called disabled people, the more I conclude that I am shortsighted. More and more concluding that different does not necessarily mean disabled. Perhaps in another twenty years or so when we have a better way to assess all people, we will finally get past these labels which tend to do more harm than good.

Kildonan said...

As a facility dedicated to teaching students with dyslexia, we really connect with your blog post. Challenges prevail while helping children and young adults reach their academic potential. Using an innovative curriculum and technologies along with encouragement, patience and love - whether home schooled, public schooled or private schooled - is the key. We should always be aware that sometimes just one person can make an incredible positive difference in someone's life - and it is a wonderful feeling to be that person!

Anonymous said...

I agree that my dyslexic son possess strengths that I, as somewhat typical reader, do not. I have read that there was a study that some of these can be lost when taught to read.
But our world is full of print. Street signs for example, how can he read these when driving if never taught?
Additionally, due to an extreme expressive language and speech delay some of the access to technology does not help him. Voice to text search for example doesn't work well and often causes frustration. He verbally cannot express himself to complete writing assignments. What can he do then? It a double wammy.

So how do I help him? I dont think just teaching him to rely on tech is the full answer for him even though he very intuitive and can figure out most any computer game with only reading about a 1st grade level; hes in 4th. Some of the curriculum isnt assessable and not all teachers are good at teaching him to use tech.

So I do think we need to get our kids Reading to some degree so that they can function on this world and be happy. They may not always have the technology to help in all situations. So when do I throw in the towel and teach him to fully rely on tech?

Lastly we need to change the educational institution as well (but my son will be long graduated before that happens). We need to see dyslexia as a learning difference not a disability but for now this is how the system is set up.