In a school learning environment, teachers are first to notice signs indicating a different learning preference in a student and share these observations with the parent(s). This practice occurs when teacher(s) have in-depth knowledge and training on learning disabilities, their symptoms and how the disability negatively impacts the learning process. But what happens when teachers fail to detect these different learning preferences because they lack the training and knowledge necessary to understand the discrepancy? The student goes undetected and undiagnosed and is left to suffer tremendous academic failure throughout the school years.
Sadly, most kindergarten through twelfth-grade teachers lack the training needed to detect specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia. And although some may have received a few credit hours while acquiring their teaching credential, most agree that it was forgotten shortly afterwards and never brought up again. These facts are indisputable. Waiting for teachers and school administration to be trained on dyslexia is not an option dyslexic children can depend on.
The only way to counter-act the underlying problem is for parents to learn everything possible about dyslexia, how it affects their children and what will help them during their school-age years. Parents and teachers need to be attuned to the following symptoms that are indicative of dyslexia:
- Difficulty with short-term “working” memory. Dyslexic children’s ability to process information in their short-term working memory is compromised, thereby preventing them from holding information long enough to process completely. Working memory refers to the ability to hold on to pieces of information until the pieces blend into a full thought or concept. To read each word until the end of a sentence or paragraph and understand the full content is an example of working memory.
Short-term memory is the active process of storing and retaining information for a limited period. The information is temporarily available but not yet stored for long-term retention. Short-term and working memory issues result in an inability to recall information such as a lengthy passage from a story they just read (lacking in comprehension/memory issues), being unable to remember important facts on tests, misspelling words, having a weak vocabulary, not remembering the order of operations in mathematics or word problems and much more. Untrained and misinformed teachers believe that memory and organizational problems are under the child’s control. They are wrong.
- Difficulty in reading fluidly (smoothly). Because of short-term memory issues, children with dyslexia often find it difficult to pronounce words correctly, or they miss words completely when reading. Add stress and anxiety to the mix, and dyslexic children may lose their place while reading and even begin stuttering, all the while not remembering anything they may have read aloud in class.
- Organization difficulties. Most dyslexics have difficulty organizing materials and often lose, forget or misplace papers, notebooks or homework assignments. They also have difficulty with school projects that are due at a specific time. Problems with organizing their time or environment are also prevalent, including telling time with an analog clock, as well as becoming misplaced in unfamiliar surroundings
- Difficulty inferring the meaning of words or concepts. Jokes, idioms or puns are often not understood. Problems occur with words that might have different meanings depending on how they are used, such as “the dog,” which refers to a pet, versus “you dog,” which suggests an insult.
- Sequencing difficulties. Dyslexics have difficulty organizing thoughts into their proper order, such as the alphabet, months of the year, math order of operations, or multiplication tables. A school assignment may have all the important facts but not be in proper order.
- Avoidance of opportunities for reading, especially aloud in a classroom setting. If gone undiagnosed, dyslexic children will do everything possible to avoid reading aloud. They have already experienced tremendous embarrassment and teasing by their peers. Some teachers even believe that a dyslexic child’s seeming lack of effort or attention is the reason for their below average reading level. These types of negative comments only cause the dyslexic child to avoid reading at all, which can then lead to hesitation in speech (fear of speaking improperly).
- Distractibility and oversensitivity to loud sounds and background noise. Dyslexics often show symptoms of overstimulation in their brain’s auditory processing cortex. Auditory over-stimulation can occur when there is a weakness in learning to decode language (during the working memory process). When this occurs, their auditory sense becomes stronger in order to compensate for other areas of weakness. Similar compensations occur in those who are blind, where sense of smell or hearing may become more stimulated to compensate for lack of ability to see. Most dyslexics exhibit signs of being easily distracted. Some teachers believe these students have difficulty staying on task because they consciously choose to be distracted with other things, and will reprimand them for such behavior. These teachers couldn’t be more wrong.
- Dyslexics do not choose to be distracted. Their auditory processing is simply over-stimulated, whereby the brain is processing information at a greater frequency, responding to every sound or background noise, unable to ignore or filter out nonsense activity from their surroundings. This interrupts their ability to focus on the tasks required of them in a classroom setting, including difficulty processing and understanding things said when there are competing sounds. Parents and teachers accuse children with dyslexia of having poor attention span and lacking in concentration, but it isn’t their fault. • Difficulty following directions. Again, the dyslexic’s working memory is the problem. Without the ability to process all the information into short-term memory, not all information gets relayed or placed in order. Not only do some directions get missed or mixed up, but they can also be confused with subsequent directions received later in the day. Teachers and parents can become easily frustrated because they feel the dyslexic child has complete control over this process and is just being lazy. This is not the case.
- Confusion due to visual crowding/overload. When there is too much information on a page (cramped text, lines, symbols or diagrams), a dyslexic’s brain may react to visual crowding. The visual working memory “desk space” is overloaded. They become confused as to what to focus on. This is known as a figure ground problem. They may unintentionally skip words, skip problems on worksheets and tests, skip lines, read the same line twice or show difficulty distinguishing subtle differences in shapes or certain letters or numbers, thus misreading the symbols. Visual overload drains the brain’s ability to process information, so reading ability is slow and exhaustive. Crowding of text, lines, symbols, diagrams and info graphics is overwhelmingly evident in the design layout of most school textbooks. Novels are printed in text sizes so small that even non-dyslexics can have reading fatigue. Visual crowding contributes significantly to slowness in reading words. And to save cost of paper and printer ink, teachers will cram worksheets or test information onto fewer pages or even onto just one page. These worksheets and tests are quite often recopied over and over again, which ends up distorting or shrinking the text and lightening or smearing the wording, lines and symbols.
- Inability to understand and process the written word due in part to some teachers’ poor penmanship. Common penmanship problems include incorrect posture and alignment of letters, mixing printed and cursive letters in the same word, scribbling unidentifiably, miniature style writing and incomplete written words and sentences.
- Difficulty reading and processing information presented by poorly designed school materials, worksheets, textbooks and tests. Dyslexics’ ability to process information is dramatically reduced and creates many academic challenges, such as:
- Difficulty distinguishing between similar forms such as circle vs. oval and square vs. rectangle.
- Difficulty classifying things; struggling to see similarities and differences.
- Confusion with order of vowels, such as oa/ao and ou/uo.
- Difficulty with spatial terms, such as in, out, over, in between, and below.
- Difficulty looking up places on a map or words in a dictionary.
- Difficulty understanding assignments or tests with double-negative confusion. Tests that contain double-negative questions do not measure the student’s level of understanding. Instead, they are meant to trick the reader into thinking the opposite, which has nothing to do with learning the content.
- Difficulty making friends; being socially awkward. A dyslexic child can be extremely social with family and close family friends; however, it can be a different story in a school environment. Being criticized, teased or humiliated (bullied) in the classroom or on the playground is all it takes for the dyslexic child to begin withdrawing socially. Peers learn quickly which students struggle in school, and some teachers do nothing to shield this fact from the rest of the class. Once this information is disclosed, dyslexic students will start avoiding emotional pain by staying quiet and avoiding classroom participation. Their social development skills begin to suffer, as do their self-confidence and self- esteem.
- Struggling academically and not wanting to attend school. An emotionally safe learning environment is extremely important for dyslexic children. If they do not want to go to school, something is wrong in their school environment. Not feeling successful in school learning will trigger this response. Dyslexic children overwhelmingly feel different when they cannot learn the same way as their peers and their schoolwork reflects red marked corrections and a low grade. And if the teacher does not detect a learning difference preference and continues to teach the same way, the dyslexic student will continue to struggle and fail academically.
- Stress and anxiety. Dyslexics suffer higher levels of stress and anxiety during testing situations, which dramatically reduces their ability to focus. Also prevalent are feelings of being overwhelmed with large amounts of reading or writing.