Acknowledging that your child has a chronic learning disability can be scary. "However, now that we know how to help children with dyslexia, we've found that getting a diagnosis actually empowers kids and parents," says Dr. Shaywitz. Experts advise these strategies for every age.
Be on the lookout for early signs in your toddler or preschooler. Family history is a big predictor: Up to one half of kids with a parent or a sibling with dyslexia also have it. Early speech delays (such as not saying first words by 15 months) and difficulty pronouncing or getting words out once a child is talking may mean he's having word-retrieval problems that might be associated with reading issues later. However, the inability to appreciate rhymes is a key early sign of dyslexia, says Dr. Shaywitz. If your toddler doesn't seem to play with and repeat the rhyming sounds he hears in Mother Goose or Dr. Seuss, pay attention to whether he has problems learning letters and letter sounds as he moves into preschool.
When you suspect a problem, have her evaluated as soon as possible. In kindergarten, a child with dyslexia will have trouble recognizing the sounds within spoken words and associating letters with their sounds. She'll also struggle to break words into phonemes; you might try testing this by giving her a simple word and asking her to identify the sounds within it. Kids who have dyslexia also fail to recognize common sight words, but not always. "Kids may memorize certain words but not know how to decode new ones," says Dr. Shaywitz. If your kindergartner or first-grader is dealing with any of these issues, make a formal request (in writing, to the school principal) that she be tested for dyslexia. If your child is homeschooled or attends a private school that doesn't offer special-education services, you can make the request of your local public school, which is legally responsible to provide evaluations for all children in its zoning area.
Early on, before a child is expected to read, language specialists can assess her spoken-language skills that are the foundation of learning to read. Later, a psychologist should give your child a comprehensive assessment that includes her medical and developmental history, oral language abilities, phonemic awareness, and, depending on her age, reading and writing skills. If you have trouble getting your child evaluated within a month or two, or you're told that your child doesn't qualify for services when you have a strong feeling that she does have dyslexia, contact your state's branch of the Learning Disabilities Association of America (ldanatl.org) for guidance.
If your child is diagnosed with dyslexia, start an intensive tutoring program right away. Public schools should provide an Individual Education Program (IEP) for children with dyslexia. Formulated by the evaluating psychologist, teachers, and parents, the IEP is a road map for providing extra help for a child. It should include individual or small-group sessions four to five times a week with a reading specialist. (Private schools don't have to create IEPs, but many do.)
When your child is placed in a special reading program, ask what techniques the specialist uses. Most dyslexia experts prefer methods that have been scientifically studied, such as Orton-Gillingham (orton-gillingham.com). Dr. Wolf has launched a program called Rave-O, which is based on a five-year National Institute for Child Health and Human Development intervention research project. Other programs, such as Wilson Fundations (fundations.com) and Rowland Reading Foundation's Superkids Reading Program (rowlandreading.org), are designed for kids around kindergarten age. All of these programs focus on the individual sounds that make up words, and often include tools that engage more than one sense (such as moveable letter tiles) to provide a child with multiple cues for learning.
Consider additional tutoring if your school's special-education program falls short. There are many options to choose from, and also a lot of misleading information out there, says Dr. Shaywitz, so inquire about a program's success rate. "It's important to do your homework and find the program that best suits your child." Ask your pediatrician for referrals, and ask potential tutors if they partner with insurance companies. Masonic Learning Centers (childrensdyslexiacenters.org), like the one Olivia has gone to, provide free, high-quality tutoring to children with dyslexia in 15 states, although waiting lists can be long. Because dyslexia is a language disorder and not a visual problem, experts say there is no evidence that doing vision exercises or wearing special training glasses with colored lenses can benefit kids -- even though there are companies that sell them.
Insist on accommodations for a child who reads very slowly or has trouble retrieving words when speaking. Even when they learn to decode words accurately, most children with dyslexia still have trouble with articulating their thoughts and reading quickly and easily. This can make oral presentations and written tests unnecessarily difficult -- and embarrassing. Part of advocating for your child will be pressing the principal and teaching staff for accommodations that will be particularly helpful for your child, such as not being called upon to read aloud, having extra time on quizzes, and being allowed to dictate homework answers to you. When calling on her to answer a question, the teacher could also ask her to choose between two answers -- so that she can show that she knows the right answer even if it's tough for her to come up with the right words.
Keep your kid's spirits up. Dr. Shaywitz strongly believes that parents should tell their child that he has dyslexia as soon as he's been diagnosed. Letting him know that there's an explanation for the problems he's having in school will reduce his anxiety. For a young child, keep your explanation simple -- you could say something like, "you have trouble hearing small sounds in words," while also pointing out some of the things that he can do well. And tell him that dyslexia is something that lots of smart and cool people have. (Dr. Shaywitz says you might mention actor Orlando Bloom, Captain Underpants creator Dav Pikey, and Percy Jackson, the fictional hero of The Lightning Thief series, who was based on author Rick Riordan's son, who has dyslexia.)
Sarah Mott has seen Olivia's confidence improve tremendously since she found out she has dyslexia. "Before she was diagnosed, Olivia was an angel in the classroom but a terror at home," she says. "It was as if she wanted to hold it together in front of other kids, but then at home she'd break down. After she started intervention, we saw a huge difference in how she felt about herself." Once, when a classmate started teasing her that she had dyslexia and couldn't read, Olivia put a hand on her hip and said proudly, "I have dyslexia, and I can read!"
Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Parents magazine.
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