Rummaging through the overflowing bookcase in her room one evening, Michelle chose the book she wanted her mother to read as part of their nightly bedtime ritual. It seemed like an ordinary choice. So Beth Wallace sat down with her then 7-year-old and read Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco, the story of a young girl named Trisha whose friends think she's dumb because she's having trouble learning to read. Trisha's life changes when her teacher, Mr. Falker, offers to help her after school. When the book was over, Michelle turned to her mother with tearful eyes and asked, "Why can't someone help me to read?"
Although Wallace now realizes there had been several earlier signs pointing to dyslexia -- in kindergarten Michelle wrote the letters of her name in a different order each time, and in first grade she couldn't identify short common words -- it took until that evening for the Tallahassee, FL, mom to recognize that there was indeed a problem and something had to be done about it.
In 2004 in the U.S., 15% to 20% of people have a reading disability and, of those, 85% have dyslexia, according to the International Dyslexia Association in Baltimore. Simply put, dyslexia is a language-based disorder that affects reading and writing. Research shows that it's caused by varying degrees of faulty wiring in the brain. Instead of realizing that the word bat is made up of three units of speech, or phonemes -- b, aaaa, and t -- a dyslexic hears only one sound. So when it comes to sounding out words -- the first step in learning to read -- a child like Michelle faces an uphill battle.
Recent breakthroughs show, however, that the battle can be won if kids receive early help. In fact, new research funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) in Bethesda, MD, reveals that early intervention actually alters pathways in the brain. In other words, "with proper teaching and stimulation, dyslexia may be correctable," says Sally Shaywitz, M.D., co-director of the Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention in New Haven, CT, and author of the acclaimed book Overcoming Dyslexia, who co-led the study. Researchers enrolled 37 struggling readers, ages 6 to 9, in a program that included a focus on phonemic awareness and phonics and compared them to 12 poor readers who received the kinds of intervention typically given at school, such as remedial reading and tutoring. The first group scored significantly higher in reading skills than the second. What's more, sophisticated imaging technology showed that the brains of the 37 formerly poor readers were working more like the brains of good readers; they showed increased activity in an area that automatically recognizes words.