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Dyslexia and the Brain: What Does Current Research Tell Us? - Part 3

By: Roxanne F. Hudson, Leslie High, and Stephanie Al Otaiba -

Important considerations to keep in mind about the brain research

While research advances have allowed us to look more closely within the brain for the first time and revealed important information about how and where we think during reading, there are important considerations that must be remembered.

One is that with the exception of the research by B.E. Shaywitz, S. Shaywitz, and their colleagues, the sample sizes in each study are very small. The evidence from these small studies is converging into results that are reliable, but the results may change as more and more participants are included in the research base. This is especially true with children where both the number of studies and the sample sizes are quite small.

Second, we must consider the type of task being used in the magnet. Because of the requirement that the person's head not move during the imaging, researchers are not able to study people actually reading aloud. Instead, they give tasks that require the person to read silently and then make a decision that he or she indicates with a push button (e.g., Do the letters t and v rhyme? Do leat and jete rhyme?).

Because the researchers have worked carefully on these tasks and have specified the particular process that is being measured, we can trust their conclusions about what the activation levels mean; however, the tasks are quite removed from natural classroom reading and should not be interpreted as if they were the same. The area of brain research is developing rapidly; technological advances are being made that will address these issues as time goes on.

Recommendations for teachers
What does all of this information mean for school personnel and their students? Once teachers understand the underlying processes and causes of reading disabilities, they can use this information as they work with students and their families. The following are specific recommendations based on the neurological research:

Adequate assessment of language processing is important in determining why students struggle to learn to read.
Dyslexia, or reading disability, is a disorder of the language processing systems in the brain. Specific information about exactly what sorts of weaknesses are present is needed in order to determine the appropriate instruction to meet each student's needs.

Imaging research confirms that simple tasks can more reliably be interpreted as "red flags" suggesting that a young child may be at risk for dyslexia.
It is vital to begin using screening and progress monitoring procedures early on to measure children's understanding of sounds in speech, letter sounds in words, and fluent word recognition. Using such assessment in an ongoing way throughout a child's school career can help teachers know what skills to teach and whether a child is developing these skills.

Explicit, intense, systematic instruction in the sound structure of language (phonemic awareness) and in how sounds relate to letters (phonics) is needed for readers with dyslexia.
Imaging research confirmed that instruction in the alphabetic principle caused distinct differences in brain activation patterns in the students with RD (Shaywitz et al., 2004). Keep in mind that the intervention was explicit, intense, long term, and specifically focused on phonological processing, phonics, and fluency.

The roles of motivation and fear of failing are important when discussing reading problems.
Students do not struggle simply because they are not trying hard enough. They may have a brain difference that requires them to be taught in a more intense fashion than their peers. Without intense intervention, low motivation may develop as students try to avoid a difficult and painful task.

School personnel can use their knowledge of the neurological characteristics and basis of dyslexia to help their students understand their strengths and weaknesses around reading and language.
Understanding a possible reason why they find something difficult that no one else seems to struggle with may help relieve some of the mystery and negative feelings that many people with a disability feel. Sharing our knowledge of brain research may demystify dyslexia and help students and their parents realize that language processing is only one of many talents that they have and that they are not "stupid," they simply process language differently than their peers.

Recommendations for parents
The identification of a child with dyslexia is a difficult time for parents and teachers. We suggest that teachers can help parents learn more about their child's difficulty in the following ways:

Teachers can share information about the student's specific areas of weakness and strength and help parents realize the underlying causes of their child's difficulty.
This conversation can also include information about how to help their child use areas of strength to support areas of weakness.

It is critical to help parents get clear about what dyslexia is and is not.
Sharing the common misconceptions and the correct information found in Table 1 with parents may help clear up any confusion that may exist.

Early intervention with intense, explicit instruction is critical for helping students avoid the lifelong consequences of poor reading.
Engaging parents early in the process of identifying what programs and services are best for their child will ensure greater levels of success and cooperation between home and school.

There are many organizations devoted to supporting individuals with RD and their families.
Accessing the knowledge, support, and advocacy of these organizations is critical for many families. A list of several large organizations to share with parents can be found in Table 3.

Finally, teachers can often best help families by simply listening to the parents and their concerns for their children.
Understanding a disability label and what that means for the future of their child is a very emotional process for parents and many times teachers can help by providing a sympathetic ear as well as information.



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