Overcoming dyslexia & other LD

Here are five articles that have to do with accommodating and overcoming reading and other learning disabilies, such as organizational and memory difficulties. The technical aids and learning strategies are from a book I wrote on the topic (see Feature Pages), as well as what I learned from clients when I operated my own reading clinic. The main point is, with regular practice, they work and they work well.

Dyslexia 1 – What can be done about it

To begin with, dyslexia, like all learning disabilities, can be very complicated. So, what I plan to do is write a series of three articles that will help children, teens and adults who are still in school or adults who are dealing with work and everyday life situations. The various posts could also help teachers at all levels of the learning spectrum. The topics will cover :

  1. What dyslexia is and what can be done,
  2. Using a tape-recorder to enhance reading, and
  3. Strategies & technical aids (that can be used in school or everyday situations).

This is not an academic exercise. This is simply by a blogger who also happens to be a retired educator who previously worked with children and adults who have this problem. What I write will be completely based on a college level textbook I personally wrote which was published back in the early 1990’s.

I can use that handbook, even though it was written sixteen years ago, because none of the information is dated. Everything I wrote then is as relevant today as it was then because learning strategies don’t change. They are simply commonsense techniques that we all use to learn, but which people with dyslexia don’t use automatically.

What has changed are the number of electronic devices that are available today that weren’t available then. Yet, the original Franklin Spelling Ace is still the phonetic spell checker of choice.

Dyslexia is a reading disability that affects all aspects of your life. It’s much more than reversing letters or words, that is just one symptom. It is also about the proper sequencing of ideas — which can affect how effective a person is at problem solving. Although some would separate dyslexia with dysgraphia (writing disabilities), in the U.K. and Australia, the term dyslexia is used to include all types of “learning disabilities.” I am going to use the term dyslexia in that broader sense.

I worked with children, teens and adults and the problems were often the same. Children usually hated school because not being able to read affected everything the child had to do. With teens, they were ready to drop out or just wanting to be finished. And, with adults, while some were far from reaching their potential, others struggled and yet were doing exceptionally well at their chosen work or service — because learning disabilities has very little to do with IQ, other than the higher the IQ the more frustration will be felt.

First and foremost, overcoming the effects of dyslexia involves learning effective learning and memory strategies. Why? Because the memory is what learning and information processing is all about. Just think about what happens to a person who is suffering from dementia? The memory, or lack of it, affects the person’s whole life.

The memory consists of three inter-connected processes — immediate recall, short-term memory and long-term memory (where facts, colours, sounds and emotions are stored). So when information or emotions are taken in, something happens that allows us to hold on to that information long enough that it can be processed into our long term memory. Later, when we need that information again, all we need to do is think of a word or idea and, all of a sudden, it’s there. At least, that is how it works in theory.

For example, let’s say you visit the home where you were brought up. Someone else may have lived there for forty years after your family left, but the minute you walk through the front door, all the emotions and events that happened there (positive and negative) come flowing over you. It can be an overwhelming experience. You were not even aware that all those memories were stored inside your brain.

How do you remember things? Let’s say you are at a party and you are about to be introduced to six people, what do you do? Do you try and associate a word to a name? Or, what do you do when you are given a phone number on the run — chunk the numbers together and say it out loud several times? Yet, although those techniques (chunking, association and verbal rehearsal) are simple and commonplace, many individuals with dyslexia don’t use them automatically.

Now, I need to ask — when you (or your children) are reading “silently,” are you able to “hear” what you are reading in your head? That is what is called sub-vocalizing. It is imperative that individuals be able to do that with ease for letters, words and information to be readily processed.

So, although, reading is visual because you see shapes, it is also auditory because each one of those shapes has a sound. If you can only read by reading out loud or whispering, you need to learn to use a tape-recorder to train your mind to read silently. I will write about that in Part 2.

Reading involves two processes: fluency and comprehension. In the first instance, fluency means being able to “say” or “decode” the letters and combinations of the letters, as well as knowing what words mean. It then means being able to put those words in sentences. That first phase is called “The Learning to Read” phase and should be completely automatic by the end of Grade 3.

The next phase is comprehension, “The Reading to Learn” phase and involves being able to identify one or more main ideas, make inferences and draw conclusions. As I said above, without fluency being completely automatic, comprehension will be very difficult if not nearly impossible.

Here is an example of a simple compensation that individuals, parents or teachers can use. Have children use post-it notes of all different colours and sizes to help them keep track of information. The notes act as a memory technique and the papers can be shifted this way and that to put a story in a proper sequence.

In Part 2 I will talk about the use of the tape-recorder. It is an inexpensive way of training your mind, or your child’s mind, to process information that is presented verbally — an absolutely essential skill and one which is a major symptom of dyslexia.

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Dyslexia 2 – Tape-recorder to improve reading

In this article, I am going to talk about how to use a simple tape-recorder (with a “record” feature), to re-train your brain to learn to SEQUENCE what you hear and read. Why is that important? Because, although reading is a visual decoding process, it is also an auditory/verbal one as well. And, as anyone who struggles with this disorder will tell you, they often have trouble remembering what they hear.

What we will be doing by using a tape-recorder is reinforcing and improving fluency skills– which in turn will help the reader’s comprehension. In technical terms, it is called a “multi-sensory strategy.”

TRY THIS:

Get a short article from a newspaper or magazine, or even this post. Or, if you are working with a child, use a sentence or short paragraph from a school or favourite story. Now, slowly read the entire article or paragraph into the tape-recorder. At this point, do not worry about comprehension, just recording each and every word.

Once the recording is finished, put on earphones and listen to what you recorded, carefully following the text with a pencil or your finger. If you start to feel tired, stop and come back to the task later.

Once the recording and listening process is fully completed, then and only then, do you think about main ideas or other technical aspects of the reading. No matter who uses this strategy to improve reading, if the child or adult is dyslexic, be patient, because this will be very difficult to do at first.

The more you practice, the faster you will get and the easier it will get. But, guaranteed, if this is done three times a week for several weeks, both fluency and comprehension will improve dramatically. Why — because the individual’s mind will be learning to process information in both visual and verbal sequences.

Other ways of using this approach:

If a child or teen has to study for a test, take part of what they need to learn and have them tape-record what it is they have to recall. Tell them not to worry about remembering anything. Just say the words and listen back. Then, once they have completed that process, casually ask them if they remember anything.

You will be absolutely amazed at how much they do recall. To those who try this and similar techniques on themselves or with their children, let me assure you that they work.

Eventually, the tape-recorder won’t be necessary.

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Dyslexia 3 – Strategies & compensatory aids

This article deals with the day-to-day challenges of dyslexia and other similar learning problems. If you would like another source for multi-sensory techniques, I would recommend your paying a visit to Marie Carbo’s “National Reading Style Institute” website. Although her approach is similar to what I describe in these posts, it is also somewhat different — but very effective as well.

To keep this post as short as possible, I am simply going to itemize the various learning and study strategies, followed by some technical aids that can help as well.

Too often the very person who needs these strategies and aids is the last person to use them because it means they have to try something new. I would encourage those who feel that way to try just the same, because after some practice, you will find they help a lot.

  • Post-it Notes & Tape-Recorder: I talked about post-it notes in Part 1 and the tape-recorder in Part 2 but they are worth mentioning again because they are so very easy to get and to use. Keep post-it notes in your purse or pocket or car. Use the various sizes, depending on the situation. Put one word or a single sentence on them. For example, let’s say children have to prepare a speech. Have them do their research while keeping track of ideas on the post-it notes. Years ago, we used to use index cards to do this but post-it notes are so much more convenient. In any event, when the research is finished, have them add further ideas on the little notes and move them around until they are in the right sequence. Then, once they are in the correct order, they can either write about them — or use a tape-recorder to “talk” about each point. If they use a tape-recorder, once they have finished “talking” about their points, they can put on earphones and transcribe what they dictated. That would be the first draft of their speech.
  • Colour-Coding & Organizers: Whether for school or work, everyone needs to be organized. If students are in high school, college or university, they need binders and related materials for each course. I would recommend colour-coding everything. For example, use a blue binder for history, blue separators inside the binder and blue three-ring duo-tangs (if they are needed) for handing in assignments for that course. And, use blue markers for headings. Then, do the same for other courses — picking whatever colours you want. In terms of organizers, everyone needs something. I use a simple old fashioned pen and pencil day-timer. But, you can also get the electronic variety which some people prefer. The main thing is to use something because most of us, whether we have dyslexia or not, cannot remember more than three to five things at a time — meaning we all need strategies to make sure we don’t forget important appointments or when work needs to done.
  • Graphic or Sequential Organizers: Let’s say you have to write a letter or a blog post, how do you organize what it is you want to write? I have a small steno-type notepad with the line down the middle of each page. I write the main ideas I want to write about on the left side and more detailed points opposite on the right side. I still do that when I am preparing for these posts. Sure, sometimes I wing it, but for the most part I plan what I want to say. I am sure that anyone who has dyslexia will be nodding when I say that you need to have some kind of organizer to help you plan and organize your day (as well as a way of remembering what you have to do). Some people like flowcharts and maps. Others like the post-it notes or point-form lists. We all have different learning styles. I like sequential organizers — lists of things to do or say. But, no matter what your preference, pick whatever works for you, but use something.
  • Pre-writing and Writing: People with dyslexia tend to think that they should be able to write what they want first time through. Well, that is not the way writing works. You have to plan what you want to say — using the post-it notes or an organizer and then write a draft. If, as I suggested above, you prefer to talk, just dictate what you want to say into a tape-recorder and then transcribe what you said. But, remember, that is simply the first draft. Then, the real writing starts — the revisions and the editing. I probably do three to four revisions of what I am posting. That is what it means “to write.”
  • Note-taking: For students at university, or people taking upgrading or other types of courses, use some kind of note-taking strategy that you feel comfortable with. There is no way you will ever be able to jot down every point an instructor is saying, so just write down the main ideas and concepts (and page numbers if there is an article or text involved). I recommend a three column format — small on the left side of the page, large in the middle and small on the right side. In the left column, jot down dates of tests and when assignments are due, as well as other reminders. In the middle, jot down the main thoughts of the lecture or seminar. Use your own “headings” and do lots of underlining. Then, use the small right column to jot down ideas that might need to be expanded. You can use your ordinary lined 3-ring binder paper and either draw in the columns or make space for them without the actual lines. In this way, if you are studying for an exam, or you have to report to your co-workers what you covered at the course, everything is available to you (in your notes or colour-coded binder).

Note: I would never recommend anyone use a “note-taker” in college or university. Why? Because no matter how good or how bad your note-taking skills are (unless you do not have use of your hands), you are having to pay attention and making your own decisions about what you think is important. In short, you are involved in your own learning, something another human being cannot do for you.

Similarly, I never recommend using tape-recorders to record lectures. A person with dyslexia is already struggling with time issues, so having to transcribe fifteen hours a week just adds a huge time constraint on an already heavy load. Just take what notes you can, borrow someone else’s notes later and learn at your own pace.

The difference between having a notetaker and borrowing notes is that you were paying attention during the class. Someone’s else’s notes can then be used to fill in the gaps of what you missed. Reading your own notes, as well as someone else’s notes, actually reinforces what you heard.

  • Technical Aids: I have long recommended the Franklin series because they seem to be far more “phonetic” than other brands. Although they are available on-line, you can also find them at most electronic stores. The key is to ask for a “phonetic” type spell checker or dictionary. That is how they differ from a computer spell checker program. The person with dyslexia has to be taught, no matter how late in life, to sound out words and phrases — which will help make the reading fluency phase automatic. So, the spell checker involves three purposes: (1) to help you find the correct spelling of a word, (2) to teach you how to sound out a word, and (3) to eventually remember how the word was spelled. In other words, it’s not just an accommodation, it is a reading “fluency” tool as well. Of course, there are also laptop computers and hand-held computers. But, the Franklin Spelling Ace is battery operated, not expensive and is small — fitting in the palm of your hand and looking just like a calculator. It usually retails for between $30.00 and $50.00 — a nice birthday gift for someone with spelling difficulties.

Conclusion: So, there you have it. In Part 1, I talked about what dyslexia looks like and the general way of compensating for its negative effects. In Part 2, I explained how the tape-recorder can be used to improve and compensate for reading and writing difficulties. And, here in Part 3, I presented a number of commonsense learning strategies and technical aids that will help anyone, but particularly those who have dyslexia (whether diagnosed or not).

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