What does a parent or teacher do to help a child with a reading impairment?
That’s the question educator and researcher Mark Seidenberg tackles head on in chapter eight of “Language at the Speed of Sight.”
As I noted in a column last month, Seidenberg explores the complex process of reading in this recently published book. One of the main goals of Seidenberg’s research is to examine the causes of dyslexia (which he defines as any reading impairment) and suggest ways to help a child who is dyslexic.
Seidenberg notes that among the large number of children diagnosed with dyslexia, the reasons for their impairments can have any one (or more) of several causes.
The impairment might be caused by auditory or visual problems, a learning or language problem or an attention deficit. But, Seidenberg continues, the underlying causes may be based in the brain with “anomalies in the structure and functioning of the neural circuits.”
Seidenberg admits the reading science which explores all of these phenomena, although extensive, is still incomplete. Nevertheless, he believes that current research shows that “the effects of an underlying deficit may be altered by instructional practices and remediation.”
Based on his research and that of other scientists (who work in the fields of psychology and cognitive neuroscience), Seidenberg believes that intervention is not only important; it’s necessary.
Children with reading impairments “do not ‘grow out’ of the condition,” he writes. “They require extended attention focused on ameliorating problems before they snowball,” the earlier the better.
Seidenberg compares a reading impairment to a pitch impairment in singers. A fairly large number of people are atonal and can’t easily carry a tune. Like atonal singers, readers with impairments are often highly intelligent. He points out “the conditions that cause dyslexia in some individuals might promote the development of skills, even to an extraordinary level.”
It is important to recognize, Seidenberg adds, that because dyslexic readers have brains that process differently from others, to prevent frustration increasing within these readers, early intervention is needed. He recommends educators follow a process of “identifying children at risk for reading failure, closely monitoring their progress and tying interventions to their strengths and weaknesses.”
The process of identifying a reading impairment and developing an appropriate intervention is not easy and requires considerable expertise, including currency with advances in neuro-imaging and other brain research.
As I noted in my previous column on “Language at the Speed of Sight,” Seidenberg explains that the reading process includes three interrelated aspects — the sounds of words (phonology), the spelling of words (orthography) and the meaning of words (semantics). These functions of reading reside in different areas of the brain. Often dyslexia occurs when the brain “develops in ways that interfere with discovering commonalities” among these three functions.
This is a very complex issue, especially for parents and for educators who teach reading. I’m glad there are researchers like Seidenberg who continue to look for the underlying causes of reading impairments and the best ways to mitigate them.
Seidenberg points out that traditional ways of teaching reading, especially to students with impairments, may not be the best ways. It’s tempting to continue with approaches and practices that have been used for years, he writes, but traditional practices may not always be the most beneficial.
Schools that recognize the importance of keeping current with reading science need a commitment to continuous professional development, involving workshops and courses. Elementary schools also need to have reading specialists with both the expertise and time to work individually with dyslexic readers, in order to identify the unique causes of impairments in each child and provide the most beneficial courses of intervention.
Above all, helping children with reading impairments needs to be a team effort, with parents, teachers and reading specialists working closely together, in which parents are encouraged to ask questions and educators readily give explanatory answers.
I believe the commitment of time and effort for both parents and teachers is worth it. Reading is an important skill. Children who read successfully not only can advance more readily in life, they can also feel the pleasure and satisfaction which reading provides.
I appreciate Seidenberg’s book and all the research and care that went into it. It broadened my understanding and opened new doors into understanding the complex and fascinating process of reading.
Comments on the writings of John Spevak, a California Newspaper Publishers Association first-place award recipient for 2010 and 2014, are encouraged, and can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.