Looking back, Shannon Mischuk can see warning signs of dyslexia. But she didn’t realize that her son, Jacob, had major reading difficulties until she got a note from the school at the end of grade one, saying he had been approved for an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for reading. When, by midway through grade three, Jacob had still not caught up, the school put him on the wait-list for a learning disabilities assessment. This past June, as he finished grade three, Jacob was diagnosed with dyslexia.
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Dyslexia, a type of learning disability, is the most common cause of reading problems. Linda Siegel, an emeritus professor of the University of British Columbia and author of Understanding Dyslexia and Other Learning Disabilities, explains that it’s rooted in phonological awareness—the ability to listen to, discriminate and manipulate sounds—which allows us to do things important to decoding written language, like recognize rhyming words, break words into syllables, and learn the letters of the alphabet and link them to sounds. Understanding these building blocks of language is an essential foundation for learning to read.
Siegel has developed a kindergarten screening test that can be done in 20 minutes by a teacher. “If there are signs of delay, there is an intervention that, if done well, can prevent many reading problems from developing,” she says. While the overall incidence of dyslexia in Canada is at least seven percent, in the North Vancouver School District where this approach has been implemented, only one to two percent of children become dyslexic.
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However, in most boards, children must demonstrate persistent reading difficulties before they’re considered for assessment. The testing is complex and expensive for the school board, so there may only be a few spots available. The alternative—to pay for private assessment—costs more than many families can afford. So, many kids struggle through years of waiting and the discouragement and self-esteem hits that go hand in hand with learning disabilities.
The earlier kids get extra support, the better, so it’s key to be alert to the early signs. Many of the following issues are seen temporarily in all kids, but you’re looking for a pattern of several of these signs persisting after most of their peers have progressed past them:
* difficulty recognizing rhymes, identifying the initial sound of a word, saying that word without the initial sound
* an inconsistent memory for words, mispronouncing or mixing up words
* difficulty naming the letters of the alphabet, associating letters with their sounds and decoding or sounding out single words
* continuing to use the pictures in the book to “read” and an overreliance on context and guessing words
* difficult, slow reading and poor comprehension
Mischuk, who has three older children, says that Jacob never sang the alphabet song and, as a preschooler, wasn’t interested in being read to and didn’t repeat jingles or quotes from TV like his siblings did. He had difficulty recognizing both his name in writing and words that didn’t have pictures associated with them. “It took him all of grade two to recognize words like and, the and for,” Mischuk says.
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If you’re concerned, the first step is to compare notes with your child’s teacher. Many parents have to advocate strongly for their kids to be assessed, but Siegel says that, generally, parents are right when they detect a difficulty and need to be persistent. Once diagnosed, interventions can help. In the meantime, provide a language-rich environment, reading aloud to your child and playing rhyming and word games. Siegel cautions not to let reading dominate your child’s life, or his frustration may grow. Be sure he also has time to enjoy his own interests.
Resource: Abracadabra is a free language and reading program developed at Concordia University in Montreal. There is a full version for school use, and a “light” version, which parents can use at home. “It looks like a computer game and contains well-designed activities for teaching skills,” says Siegel. Visit abralite.concordia.ca
A version of this article appeared in our October 2014 issue with the headline “Signs of Dyslexia,” p. 76.