By Sandie Barrie Blackley, MA/CCC-SLP, ASHA Fellow
The statistics are daunting and the challenge is huge: almost 40 percent of fourth-grade students in the United States read below grade level; many more struggle with subtle writing and spelling roadblocks. As a homeschool parent, how do you make sure your child does not become part of that statistic? In addition to the right materials and a good attitude, it’s also a matter of understanding your child’s brain!
Most people learn to read and write quite effortlessly. Modern brain science shows that in the first three years of formal education, specialized circuits in the left brain develop lightning-fast interconnections that link speech sounds, letter symbols and meaning. By the fourth grade, this neural network allows reading and writing to “run in the background,” leaving the bulk of the child’s cognitive resources free to send and receive information. Neuroscience also reveals what is different about the brains of people who struggle with reading and writing, including inherited factors, and pinpoints instructional routines that establish more efficient brain activation patterns. Still, sorting out how to help a struggling reader or writer can be overwhelming and stressful for parents.
What Causes Reading & Writing Problems?
By the time a child is in early elementary school, parents may observe that the child’s reading and/or writing skills are not developing effortlessly. Recent neuroscience shows that there are two main types of struggling readers and writers:
- Those with good listening comprehension but weaknesses in aspects of the writing code (word reading, spelling and/or writing);
- Those with weak listening comprehension, with or without difficulty with the writing coding.
The first is described, broadly, as dyslexia and is far more common than the second, known as specific language impairment. Children with dyslexia may twist or omit sounds in certain words (e.g., amunal for animal or busgetti for spaghetti) or have trouble learning certain language patterns (e.g., ABCs, phonics or multiplication tables). In some cases, the only clear indication of trouble is spelling. In dyslexia, the difficulty begins with the sound structure of words. Children may be able to memorize words for a spelling test but soon forget how to spell them.
The first step
The treatments for dyslexia and specific language impairment are very different. The first critical step is a professional language processing evaluation, which is different from a psycho-educational evaluation and, since it is focused, can be a fraction of the cost. Professionals who are qualified to test for and diagnose language processing problems include appropriately trained psychologists, speech-language pathologists and clinical educators. A language processing evaluation involves gathering detailed background information from parents and then administering a battery of standardized and descriptive tests for such things as speech sound awareness, working memory and naming fluency. The results are collected in a report that includes all of the data, an initial diagnosis and a treatment plan outlining: 1) how treatment should be customized, 2) which assistive technologies are most appropriate 3) and mandated accommodations (such as extra time on tests).
The next steps
Dyslexia is not outgrown, but it improves with structured practice. The “gold standard” for dyslexia treatment is the Orton-Gillingham approach, which has been used, tested, researched and validated for more than 70 years. With its emphasis on specific language content, the Orton-Gillingham approach is multisensory, structured, individual, explicit and analytic. It is logical and cumulative, helping the child to progress toward benchmarks as he or she gains control of predictable language patterns.
Successful use of Orton-Gillingham treatment is not just a matter of having the right materials and step-by-step instructions. No two dyslexics have exactly the same processing problems so even good, off-the-shelf programs can be difficult for parents to apply without professional guidance.
Lexercise solves this problem using technology, bringing an experienced professional into your home, via web-conferencing, to perform a language processing evaluation and then to guide you in weekly, online Orton-Gillingham therapy sessions. It is private, secure, interactive and highly motivating.