The solutions to dyslexia are indeed simple and involve no cost, but have the potential to change mainstream, as well as special education.

The traditional approach to reading starts with the letters of the alphabet and their sounds. It is an over-learned process and we will go to the grave being able to sing the alphabet song. The next step involves combining letters and sounds into words; setting the stage for phonetic decoding, a skill that allows us to discover the meaning of new words.

The approach is successful for about 80% of students, but a major problem for the remaining 20% who are called dyslexic. Dyslexia is not a monolithic disorder and may be accompanied by other issues like ADHD and central processing disorder. But the most common type of dyslexia is marked by a problem in phonics and reading aloud. Brain imaging studies have shown that this type of dyslexia is accompanied by decreased activity in the area of the brain responsible for phonetic decoding.

The most common treatment for Dyslexia is focused on this phonetic deficit. Hooked on Phonics and Orton-Gillingham are two well-known organizations that have developed programs to deal with this issue, but they have met with limited success. Dyslexia is unusually resistant and only the most determined students are successful.

The alternative approach to Dyslexia that I propose starts with a simple question. If we know that a child has a particular weakness that has a physical basis in the brain, why does the education establishment insist on trying to fix that issue? Teachers are not brain surgeons. We do not try to teach the blind to see or the deaf to hear. We find accommodations to those issues, but try to fix the phonetic decoding problem in dyslexia. Aside from the futility, this seems in contrary to the laws on accommodation for disability.

The purpose of reading is to get meaning from the printed word and phonetic decoding is one way to do this. But it is not the only way. For example, the deaf can learn to read and perhaps dyslexics would benefit from those same techniques.

But the “phonics sstablishment” has convinced Education that phonetic decoding is the only way children can really learn to read. In other words, comprehension is a by-product of reading. A case of the tail wagging the dog.

The proponents of phonetic decoding ask the question, what happens when you come across a word you do not know. There are several answers. You could ask someone or you could look it up on your smart phone. But what would happen if there is no one around and you do not have your phone? Well, if the word is phonetically regular and is already in your auditory vocabulary, phonetic decoding would be useful. It seems like a lot of effort for this rather rare occurrence.

Phonetic decoding has three main disadvantages. English is at best only 50% phonetic. Speed reading means to read without phonetic decoding and you have to forget all you learned about it. It is not effective for up to 20% of people.

The simple solution to dyslexia is postpone the alphabet until the child can read.

Consider how a child learns to speak. We do not start out with the sounds of letters. The child is taught word by word, not letter by letter. We should do the same thing with reading. Pairing the printed word with a picture, action or verbal statement would teach the child to understand text. Then the letters of the alphabet could be taught along with their sounds in context using the words they already read. Phonetic decoding could then be taught as a by-product of reading. And those who could not phonetically decode would still be able to read.

The most exciting implication of this approach is that children can be taught to read while they are learning to speak. Whatever we do to teach speaking we can include the printed word and the child will understand the printed word before he or she can say it. Children are using electronic devices earlier and earlier and if we take this approach the developers will soon have applications that will develop reading and writing skills. I would expect that three year old children will texting and students will come to school reading and writing. Dyslexia will be as uncommon as speaking disorders.

Note 1
Not all dyslexia results from a phonetic decoding issue and we will have to deal these students differently. For example, there are visual issues where words jump on page. About 5% of students show this and are helped by Irlen lenses.

Note 2
Visit www.brillkids.com and scroll down to the videos to see how babies can learn to read.

Dr. Robert Zenhausern has a Ph.D. in research psychology with an emphasis on research design and analysis. He taught for 35 years at St. John’s University in New York until he left to take over the Enabling Support Foundation. ESF is a non-profit that provides online support for mainstream and special education in emerging countries.
Dr. Zenhausern is digitaldrz on Skype and can be reached at drz@enabling.org

Photo Credit: cuidado infantil (cuidadoinfantil.net) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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