A friend of mine recently asked me “What is Dyslexia?" That is acutally a very difficult question to answer. Webster defines dyslexia as a disturbance in the ability to read. Sounds pretty simple right? Oddly, it never feels simple.
Samuel Torrey Orton, a neuropsychiatrist and pathologist at Columbia University did a great deal of early research on dyslexia in the early 1900’s. By the 1920’s he had a fairly good understanding of how the dyslexic mind did/or didn’t work. In the 1930’s he teamed up with educator Anna Gillingham and developed the Orton-Gillingham Method of Multisensory education. In the 1980’s when I was diacnosed with dyslexia, I was taught using this method.
Orton determined that while dyslexics are able to see and hear, they are not able to comprehend symbolic representation of sound. So while a dyslexic child can see the letter c on a page, and can hear the sound ka, they can’t make the connection that the letter and the sound are the same thing. In order to teach dyslexic children to read, the brain has to be tricked into making the connection through another sence.
So when I was a kid, I got to write the letter c in a tray of rice hundreds upon hundreds of times while simoltaniously saying “c, ka, ka, cat”. The idea was that if I saw the letter and felt the letter at the same time as I heard the sound and felt the sound, eventually my mind would figure out that I was seeing a sound.
In recent decades other methods of teaching dyslexic children have been developed. But I believe Samuel Orton had a pretty good idea of what he was dealing with back in the 1920’s and 30’s. Simply claiming that dyslexia is an inability to comprehend symbolic representation of sound is probably a very good definition.
Many nerological researchers are now attempting to learn more about the dyslexic brain by using various brain scan technics. I have never done any of this reasearch myself, and cannot claim any expertise on this subject. But I am interested enough in the working of my own mind to have read enough articles about recent technilogical break thoughs to give a brief summary.
This new research all tends to back up the hypothoses posed by Orton nearly 100 years ago. Research has shown that two different parts of the brain that are used while reading. One section of the brain is used very heavely by young readers and seems to be associated with sounding out words – literally decoding the symbolic representation of sound. Another part of the brain is used by more proficiant readers who are able to read more quickly without having to carefully sound out each letter.
The part of the brain used by young readers does not seem to work in dyslexics. In other words dyslexics can’t sound things out. They can’t comprehend the symbolic representation of sound. Instead nearly the entire brain of young dyslexics lights up (except the part they should be using) when attempting and failing to read. Young dyslexic minds struggle to comprehend the uncomprehensable by using other parts of their mind that are normally not involved in reading.
With enough effort the dyslexic mind can often narrow its path and teach itself how to read. Using tectile connections such as those developed by Orton and Gillingham in the 1930’s is one stratagy that seems to work in redirecting the mind. But the end result is the part that is important. Remember, when normal adults read, they don’t sound things out. They just read – using an entirely different part of the brain that that used by normal children. This section of the brain does work in dyslexics. When a literate dyslexic adult reads their brain behaves in almost exactly the same way as a literate non-dyslexic. All the problems with the dyslexic mind appear to be centered on the sounding out part of the brain, not the reading part of the brain.
So how do people get this odd brain damage linked to the symbolic representation of sound? Personal experience alone tells me that it’s an inharited trait – my brother, father, uncle, and grandfather have all been diacnosed with dyslexia. There are also hints of the disorter in a few of my other more distant relatives. Less personal and more scientific research has also lead people to accept the idea of dyslexia as a genetic trait. The exact gene associated with the dissorder has not yet been identified. Who knows, perhaps by the time my grandchildren are born they will be able to recieve a blood test at birth and then begin their multisensory education long before they have a chance to fall behind in school.