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Dyslexia: Is the Shoe Perhaps on the Wrong Foot?
Reading is the most important skill that a child must acquire at school, because one must learn to read to be able to read to learn. The implication of this is that a child who is a poor reader will usually also be a poor learner.
Unfortunately, poor reading skills, and therefore poor learning skills, have become a reality for an alarming number of people. The $14 million National Adult Literacy Survey of 1993 found that although the majority of adults in this survey had completed high school, 96% of them could not read, write and figure well enough to go to college. Even more to the point, 25% were clearly unable to read.
Even more alarming is that reading difficulties are not limited to people who are environmentally, culturally or economically disadvantaged. Many children come from good homes, go to good schools and score average to above average on IQ tests. Yet, they struggle to learn to read, and many never succeed.
Children with reading difficulties share a number of common symptoms. They are inclined to invert letters or words, to omit letters, to lose their place, to remember little of what they have read, or to read with poor comprehension. These children are considered to suffer from a learning disability (LD), commonly called dyslexia.
According to the Orton Dyslexia Society, at least one in ten otherwise able-bodied people have serious dyslexia problems. The Foundation for Children with Learning Disabilities states that children with learning disabilities represent more than ten million of the total population of the United States. Estimates of students with learning disabilities who are dyslexic range between 70 and 80 percent.
FIND THE CAUSE TO FIND THE CURE
Most problems can only be solved if one knows what is causing the problem. A disease like scurvy claimed the lives of thousands of sailors during long sea voyages. The disease was cured quite quickly once the cause was discovered, viz. a deficiency of vitamin C. A viable starting point in LD research would therefore be to ask the question: “What is the CAUSE of dyslexia?”
The idea that dyslexia is a certified biological disorder, a physical problem that could be diagnosed and treated accordingly, gained credence during the 1960s and 1970s, giving rise to an armada of theories. Such a theory says that dyslexia is the result when the link between language, hearing and the brain’s compression centers is somehow misconfigured during fetal development. Another theory states that dyslexia is caused by “defective wiring in the brain”, while another argues that a subtle vision impairment may be responsible, while yet another believes that a cerebellar-vestibular dysfunction may be responsible for the learning disability. All these theories – most of them blaming some difference in structure between the brain of the dyslexic and that of the so-called normal reader – have led to nothing. Despite all these theories and all the intervention efforts based on them, not to mention the large amounts of money spent in the process, the number of dyslexics continues to grow.
Except for the fact that proof of a neurological deficit still eludes researchers, this theory leaves many questions unanswered. If dyslexia has a neurological basis, why is this supposedly non-contagious “disease” on the rise? Compare the current situation with, for example, that of a century ago. In 1910, the literacy rate in the United States was so high that it was predicted, “the public schools will in a short time practically eliminate illiteracy.” In 1935, a survey of the 375,000 men working in the Civilian Conservation Corps—a government-sponsored labor project to provide employment—found an illiteracy rate of 1.9 percent. It is more noteworthy that this last figure was found among men mainly of low socio-economic status. It is even more to note that the illiteracy rates of the first half of the 20th century reflected, for the most part, people who had never had the advantage of schooling.
It is also impossible to explain how a neurological disorder can be more prevalent in specific areas or countries. While the National Commission for Excellence in 1983 warned that the American nation was “at risk”, remedial reading facilities were not needed at all in Japan due to the rarity of reading problems. Some argue that reading problems were practically non-existent in Japan because their written language is easier than our Latin alphabet. That, however, is simply not true. Japanese Kanji ideograms consist of 1,850 characters. In addition, there are two Kana syllabaries, which – like our Latin alphabet – use symbols to represent sounds. Each Kana syllabary has 46 basic letters compared to our 26.
DIFFERENCES IN BRAIN STRUCTURE NOT THE EQUIVALENT OF A NEUROLOGICAL DISORDER
It is also important to note that differences in brain structures do not necessarily equal brain disorders. The differences between the brains of dyslexics and those of normal readers are not necessarily the cause of a reading difficulty. Such differences may well be the EFFECT of a learning difficulty.
The latest neurological findings – for example through the work of Michael Merzenich of the University of San Francisco – show that while certain areas of the brain are designated for specific purposes, brain cells and cortical maps change in response to learning An interesting study in London found that an area of the brain associated with navigation was larger in famous London taxi drivers than in other people. Drivers’ brains have adapted to help store a detailed mental map of the city, shrinking in one area to allow growth in another.
The tendency over the past almost a century has been to try to put the shoe of dyslexia on the feet of children who have not learned to read. All efforts to make this shoe fit have failed. If a shoe doesn’t fit one foot, shouldn’t we try on the other foot?
PUT THE SHOE ON THE OTHER FOOT
When a person fails to learn something, there are at least two possible reasons why he failed. The first is that there may be something wrong with the person. The second is that there may be something wrong with the way it was taught. Unfortunately, most people have jumped to the very hasty conclusion that when the otherwise normal child fails to learn to read, it must be the first possibility that applies.
When teaching, it is imperative to take note of the fact that learning is a layered process. A step must be mastered well enough before subsequent steps can be learned. This means that there is a sequence involved in learning. It’s like climbing a ladder; if you miss one of the steps of the ladder, you will fall. If you miss one of the important steps in the learning process, you will not be able to master the next steps.
A simple and practical example of this is the fact that one must learn to count before it is possible to learn to add and subtract. If we tried to teach a child to add and subtract before we taught him to count, we would quickly discover that no amount of effort would succeed in teaching the child these skills. Conceivably people who respect the idea of learning disabilities would then conclude that the child suffered from a neurological disorder, or from “dyscalculia”, neglecting that the ability to count must be acquired FIRST, before it is possible to learn to add and subtract.
This principle is also of great importance in the sports field. If we go to a soccer field to watch a soccer coach at work, we will quickly find that he spends a lot of time drilling his players on basic skills, such as heading, passing, dribbling, kicking, etc. Players who are more proficient in these basic skills are usually the best players in the actual game situation.
In the same way, there are also certain skills and knowledge that a child must acquire FIRST, before it is possible for him to become a good reader. Basic skills such as concentration, visual discrimination, accurate perception and memorization, association skills, auditory memory and lateral interpretation are all functions that form the basis of good reading and spelling. Until a child has mastered these basic skills first, reading remains a closed book – or at most half open – to him.
The teaching of these basic skills used to be part of the educational system for many centuries, but they have since been removed from Western education by “innovative” educators such as John Dewey and his cohorts. In this way was created the epidemic that is now called “dyslexia”.
Already in 1974, in “Reading Teacher”, Bateman suggested that the term “learning disability” be replaced by “teaching disability”. The focus, he said, should be on the inadequate skills of the adults who have to teach the children, instead of blaming the children for mysterious brain malfunctions. In 1987, Dr. Thomas Armstrong coined the word “dysteachia” to refer to children suffering from “pedagogical disease” or inappropriate teaching strategies.
Perhaps it is time we investigate the possibility that Bateman and Armstrong may have been correct when they said the shoe was on the wrong foot.
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