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Dyslexia and Rewiring the Brain

by Eddie Rayner

Jacob, a young Year 7 student in Manchester, England, has recently been in the news for proclaiming: “Dyslexia makes me think differently. Einstein had it; a load of famous people had it. So now I think about it, I’m okay with it. Now, to me, dyslexia is a superpower!”  Neurophysiologist Tim Conway agrees, but goes further, believing that the superpower of dyslexia has nothing to do with the condition itself, but instead has everything to do with the superpower of the brain.

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he brain is not, of course, pre-wired for reading, spelling and writing, just as it isn’t pre-wired for walking and dancing. However, it is pre-wired for learning, and Conway believes that with the correct learning experiences, both at home and in school, the brain can construct more robust ‘wiring’ and stronger skills, even for those children struggling with dyslexia.

There has been considerable research, published in peer-reviewed journals, to back this hypothesis up; clearly illustrating that even a severely dyslexic child can make a significant improvement in phonological awareness and reading skills. This research shows that we can prevent more than 90% of students from reading below grade level. But only if appropriate instruction in developmental language is given (not phonics programmes) as the first teaching a child’s brain receives for language development and then reading lessons.

At the very outset, it is important to understand that the number one predictor of being able to read well is not a reading skill. It is the speech perception skill of being able to recognise and manipulate the sounds within a spoken word (phonological awareness). Despite this, though, the majority of schools start reading instruction with phonics programmes which, while a crucial skill, are not the predictor of successful reading skills. Indeed, in every language in the world, we learn to talk first, then read and spell, and lastly build up the ability to compose essays. So, Conway, argues, if schools continue to ‘build the house of reading skills from the second storey up’, while mistakenly assuming that all young people have an equally strong ‘foundation of speech perception/phonological awareness skills’, we will continue to have one in every five children with mild, moderate or acute dyslexia.

Simos et al., in 2001, showed that if children with dyslexia had access to rigorous and scientifically verified interventions, their readings skills could develop to within the ‘average’ range. Once this level is reached, children no longer meet the criteria for dyslexia. And research shows that even the most severely dyslexic child can make an enormous improvement in phonological awareness and reading skills. Moreover, it is essential to point out that the brain activity of those children who received an evidence-based intervention was indistinguishable to the brain activity of conventional readers who had well developed phonological awareness.

Further research and evidence-based intervention must continue to be carried out; for the fact is that the inability to correct this difficulty is causing far more problems than most people perhaps realise. Today, as a society, we tend to concentrate on the positives of everything, and while it’s nice to be positive, it can also brush problems under the carpet.

Nowadays, we hear that Jennifer Aniston (pictured), Whoopi Goldberg, Goldie Hawn and Billy Bob Thornton have dyslexia – all ‘celebrities’ in the public eye. What we hear less about is that several studies testify that 89% of teenagers who commit suicide have spelling mistakes in their suicide notes that are similar to those children with dyslexia. Other studies report that 50-85% of people in prison are functionally illiterate.

But the solutions are out there. Provide the human brain with well-researched and highly effective learning experiences, and it can rewire itself and build new skills. Ultimately, therefore, dyslexia’s real superpower is not that all dyslexics become billionaire entrepreneurs such as Sir Richard Branson. It is that they have access to the world’s finest and most complex computer to help with their condition – it’s called the human brain.