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What Causes Dyslexia? An Alternative Theory

Reading is the most important skill that a child must acquire at school, because one must learn to read to be able to read to learn. The implication of this is that the child who is a poor reader will usually also be a poor learner.

Unfortunately poor reading skills, and therefore poor learning skills, have become a reality for an alarming number of people. In the U.S.A. the $14 million National Adult Literacy Survey of 1992 found that even though most adults in this survey had finished high school, 96% of them could not read, write, and figure well enough to go to college. Twenty-five percent were plainly unable to read.

Results of the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (renamed from 1992) found that reading comprehension levels did not significantly change between 1992 and 2003 and that there was little change in adults' ability to read and understand sentences and paragraphs.

According to the Institute for Global Education and Service Learning, 40% of American children have difficulty reading or learning to read, and as many as three-quarters of students who are poor readers in third grade will remain poor readers in high school.

Even more alarming is that reading difficulties are not limited to people who are environmentally, culturally or economically disadvantaged. Many children come from good homes, go to good schools and score average or above average on IQ tests. Yet, they battle to learn to read, and some may never succeed.

Generally, after environmental factors and low intellectual abilities have been ruled out as a possible cause of a reading difficulty, a learning disability, specifically a reading disability and commonly called dyslexia, is ruled in. Indeed, the most common way of diagnosing dyslexia is to look for a discrepancy between someone's general ability as measured by an IQ assessment and his or her performance on standardized measures of reading and spelling.

The Institute for Global Education and Service Learning states that as many as 1 in 5 children will manifest a significant reading disability, while the Orton Dyslexia Society asserts that at least one in every ten of otherwise able people has serious dyslexia problems.

Find the Cause to Find a Cure

Most problems can only be solved if one knows what causes the problem. A disease such as scurvy claimed the lives of thousands of seamen during long sea voyages. The disease was cured fairly quickly once the cause was discovered, viz. a Vitamin C deficiency. A viable point of departure in LD research would therefore be to ask the question, "What is the cause of dyslexia?"

The idea that dyslexia is a certifiable biological disorder, a physical problem that could be diagnosed and treated accordingly, gained credence during the 1960s and 1970s, giving rise to an armada of theories. One such a theory states that dyslexia is the result when the link between the language, hearing and comprehension centers of the brain is somehow misconfigured during fetal development. Another theory states that dyslexia is caused by "faulty wiring in the brain," whereas another holds that a subtle impairment of vision may be responsible, while yet another believes that a cerebellar-vestibular dysfunction may be responsible for the learning disability.

Others hold that the neurological dysfunction is genetically determined and inherited from generation to generation. They support this view by referring to many studies that have indicated that there is often a family history of learning disabilities. Hornsby, for example, state that 88 percent of dyslexics had a near relative who had similar problems with reading and spelling. According to an American study the risk that a child will have a reading problem is increased from four to thirteen times if one of the parents has a similar problem. This tendency for dyslexia to "run in families" have been confirmed by numerous studies.

Many possible explanations have been offered for this tendency. While Dr. Toril Fagerheim of Norway has apparently identified the involvement of chromosome 2, others maintain that the quantitative trait locus on the short arm of chromosome 6 is involved, and Lubs et al. say that chromosome 15 is involved too. A study of more than 200 families of children who are dyslexic has revealed that a region of chromosome 18 is strongly associated with the condition. The list goes on. And on.

All these theories most of them blaming some difference in structure or function between the brain of the dyslexic and that of the so-called normal reader, or some genetic trait have lead to nothing at all. Despite all these theories and all the intervention efforts based on them, not to mention the vast amounts of money expended in the process, the numbers of dyslexics continue to escalate.

The theory that dyslexia has a neurological basis leaves many questions unanswered. Why is this supposedly non-contagious "ailment" on the increase? Compare the present situation with, for example, that of a century ago. In 1910 the literacy rate in the U.S.A. was so high it was predicted, "the public schools will in a short time practically eliminate illiteracy." In 1935, a survey of the 375,000 men working in the Civilian Conservation Corps a government-sponsored work project to provide employment found an illiteracy rate of 1.9 percent. It is most noteworthy that this last figure was found among men primarily of low socio-economic status. It is even more noteworthy that the illiteracy rates of the first half of the twentieth century reflected, for the most part, people who had never had the advantage of schooling.

It is also impossible to explain how a neurological dysfunction can be more prevalent in specific areas or countries. While the National Commission on Excellence in 1983 warned that the American nation was "at risk," remedial reading facilities were not needed at all in Japan due to the rarity of reading problems.

While only 75 percent of U.S. high school students graduated in the 1980s, Japan succeeded in leading fully 91 percent of their students through a much more challenging school curriculum. According to Thomas Rohlen, the Japanese high school diploma was arguably the equivalent of a U.S.A. bachelor's degree. "I found this conclusion hard to believe at first," he wrote in his book Japan's High Schools. "But the more I looked at the fundamental facts, the more convinced I became that the majority of high school graduates in Japan would compare well with our university graduates in terms of basic knowledge in all fields and in mathematics and in science skills." And the last sobering piece of news is that Japan averaged forty-one students per class, compared to twenty-six for the United States, and the over-all per-pupil expenditure in Japan was 50 percent less than in the U.S.A.

At the time, some argued that reading problems were virtually nonexistent in Japan because their written language is easier than our Latin alphabet. That, however, is simply not true. The Japanese Kanji ideograms consist of 1,850 characters. In addition there are two Kana syllabaries, which like our Latin alphabet use symbols to represent sounds. Each Kana syllabary has 46 basic letters compared to our 26.

Things have changed, however, because today dyslexia is said to affect 6% of Japanese children.

Differences in the Brain Not the Equivalent of a Neurological Disorder

It is also important to note that differences in brain structures and functions do not necessarily equal brain disorders. Differences between dyslexics' brains and those of normal readers are not necessarily the cause of a reading difficulty. Such differences can well be the effect of a learning difficulty.

Latest neurological findings show that the brain is plastic throughout life – it is constantly changing. Changes associated with learning occur mostly at the level of the connections between neurons – new connections can form and the internal structure of the existing synapses can change. New neurons are constantly being born, particularly in the learning and memory centers. When you become an expert in a specific domain, the areas in your brain that deal with this type of skill will grow.

An interesting study in London, for example, has found that an area of the brain associated with navigation was larger in London's famed taxi drivers than in other people. The drivers' brains have adapted to help them store a detailed mental map of the city, shrinking in one area to allow growth in another.

Gaser and Schlaug found gray matter volume differences in motor, auditory, and visual-spatial brain regions when comparing professional musicians with a matched group of amateur musicians and non-musicians. Gray matter (cortex) volume was highest in professional musicians, intermediate in amateur musicians, and lowest in non-musicians.

In the same way, the structure and function of the dyslexic's brain will change if he is taught to read properly.

Genetics in Learning Disabilities

It would be foolish to deny that genes may play a role in human capabilities and talents or even difficulties. However, to determine the relative importance of the role of genes and the role of the environment will forever be impossible. How much does the genetic make-up of a person contribute to his talents or difficulties, and how much the fact that the family members share the same unique environment? Take Mozart as an example. He was one of the most brilliant musicians of all time. All the members of his family were musicians and from the moment of his birth he was continually exposed to music. Suppose he had been adopted immediately after birth by other parents who played no music. Would we then have known about Mozart? It is possible, but highly unlikely.

The brilliant work done by the late Shinichi Suzuki of Japan also shows how musical talent may be developed by exposure. Suzuki trained thousands of violinists, who from a very young age took part in concerts lasting more than two hours, playing works by Mozart, Beethoven and Liszt. He started stimulating these future violinists from before birth. As a result of his research he concluded that what a child becomes, is totally dependent on how he is educated. "Talent is not an accident of birth," he said.

Research on the role of the environment in children's intellectual development has also shown that a stimulating environment can dramatically increase IQ, whereas a deprived environment can lead to a decrease in IQ. A particularly interesting project on early intellectual stimulation involved twenty-five children in an orphanage. These children were seriously environmentally deprived because the orphanage was crowded and understaffed. Thirteen babies of the average age of nineteen months were transferred to the Glenwood State School for retarded adult women and each baby was put in the personal care of a woman. Skeels, who conducted the experiment, deliberately chose the most deficient of the orphans to be placed in the Glenwood School. Their average IQ was 64, while the average IQ of the twelve who stayed behind in the orphanage was 87.

In the Glenwood State School the children were placed in open, active wards with the older and relatively bright women. Their substitute mothers overwhelmed them with love and cuddling. Toys were available, they were taken on outings and they were talked to a lot. The women were taught how to stimulate the babies intellectually and how to elicit language from them.

After eighteen months, the dramatic findings were that the children who were placed with substitute mothers, and therefore received additional stimulation, on average showed an increase of 29 IQ points! A follow-up study was conducted two and a half years later. Eleven of the thirteen children originally transferred to the Glenwood home had been adopted and their average IQ was now 101. The two children who had not been adopted were reinstitutionalized and lost their initial gain. The control group, the twelve children who had not been transferred to Glenwood, had remained in institution wards and now had an average IQ of 66 (an average decrease of 21 points). Although the value of IQ tests is grossly exaggerated today, this astounding difference between these two groups is hard to ignore.

More telling than the increase or decrease in IQ, however, is the difference in the quality of life these two groups enjoyed. When these children reached young adulthood, another follow-up study brought the following to light: "The experimental group had become productive, functioning adults, while the control group, for the most part, had been institutionalized as mentally retarded."

From the examples above, and many other cases in the literature, we contend that, even if it were possible to inherit a learning disability, a human being is not merely a slave to his genes, but can learn to overcome this problem. Human life can be compared to a game of cards. At birth, every person is dealt a hand of cards his genetic make-up. Some receive a good hand, others a less good one. Success in any game, however, is almost always a matter of erudition. It is undeniably so that there are often certain innate qualities that will give one person an advantage over another in a specific game. However, without having learned the game and without regular and rigorous practice, nobody will ever become a champion at any game. In the same way the outcome of the game of life is not solely determined by the quality of a person's initial hand of cards, but also by the way in which he takes part in the game of life. His ability to take part in the game of life satisfactorily, perhaps even successfully, will be determined to a very large extent by the quality and quantity of education that he has enjoyed.

Perhaps it is appropriate to elaborate on Poplin's well-known dictum that we are educators and need NOT know what goes on in the brain. Perhaps we should add that we are educators of children not of brains, and also not of genes.

An Alternative Theory

When a person fails to learn something, there are at least two possible reasons why he failed. The first is that there may be something wrong with the person. The second is that there may be something wrong with the way in which he was taught. Unfortunately most people have so far jumped to the very hasty conclusion that, when the otherwise normal child fails to learn to read, it must be the first possibility that applies.

When teaching, it is imperative to take note of the fact that learning is a stratified process. One step needs to be mastered well enough before subsequent steps can be learned. This means that there is a sequence involved in learning. It is like climbing a ladder; if you miss one of the rungs of the ladder, you will fall off. If you miss out on one of the important steps in the learning process, you will not be able to master subsequent steps.

A simple and practical example of this is the fact that one has to learn to count before it becomes possible to learn to add and subtract. If one tried to teach a child to add and subtract before he had been taught to count, one would quickly discover that no amount of effort would ever succeed in teaching the child these skills. Conceivably people who abide by the learning disabilities idea would then conclude that the child suffered from a neurological dysfunction, or from "dyscalculia," overlooking that the ability to count must be acquired first, before it becomes possible to learn to add and subtract.

This principle is also of great importance on the sports field. If we go to a soccer field to watch a soccer coach at work, we shall soon find that he spends much time drilling his players on basic skills, like heading, passing, dribbling, kicking, etc. The players who are most proficient at these basic skills usually turn out to be the best players in the actual game situation.

In the same way, there are also certain skills and knowledge that a child must acquire first, before it becomes possible for him to become a good reader. Foundational skills like concentration, visual discrimination, accurate perception and memorizing, skills of association, auditory memory and lateral interpretation are all functions that form the foundation of good reading and spelling. Until a child has mastered these foundational skills first, reading will remain a closed or, at most, a half-open book to him.

Teaching these foundational skills used to form part of the educational system for many centuries, but have since been removed from Western education by "innovative" educators such as John Dewey and his cohorts. In this way the epidemic that is now called "dyslexia" was created.

Already in 1974, in Reading Teacher, Bateman suggested that the term "learning disabilities" be replaced by teaching disabilities. The focus, he said, should be on the inadequate skills of the adults who are supposed to teach the children, instead of on blaming the children of mysterious brain dysfunctions. In 1987 Dr. Thomas Armstrong coined the word dysteachia to refer to children suffering from "pedagogical illness" or inappropriate teaching strategies.

Case Study

Dyslexia turned school into a nightmare for Werner van Zyl. Because his IQ was tested at 148 the Louw parents found it strange that their son Werner would battle at school. And battle he did. The written word remained a closed book to him. He attended third grade in a remedial class for two years, after which he was placed in a school for learning-disabled children, repeating third grade for the third time. His condition was diagnosed as "minimal brain dysfunction."

Although his parents went from pillar to post to try and solve his reading problem, nothing seemed to help. As he grew older, a sense of inferiority took hold and he had to receive treatment for depression. "I didn't know what to do, which way to turn. Nothing we did seemed to help his problem," says his mother Nellie van Zyl.

That was until the Van Zyls discovered Audiblox. Audiblox is a system of cognitive exercises, aimed at developing and automatizing the foundational skills of reading and spelling.

Before Werner started with Audiblox at the time he was in tenth grade his reading efficiency was assessed at the Technikon Pretoria by means of an ophthalmograph or eye-camera. It was found to be equal to that of a second-grade child. This meant that his reading ability was about ten years behind his chronological age. His eyes fixated 164 times and regressed 36 times with every one hundred words of reading. His reading speed was only 107 words per minute.

Five months later, after working faithfully according to a customized Audiblox program for two half-hour sessions per day, five days per week, Werner's reading efficiency was retested. It then equaled a ninth-grade level. The number of fixations dropped to 37 and regressions to three. His reading speed was now 163 words per minute.

Six months after this second reading test, Werner's reading efficiency was tested once again and found to be equal to a second-year college level. His eyes now fixated only 37 times in one hundred words. The number of regressions, already low, remained the same. He could now read 230 words per minute. This means that, in less than one year, Werner's reading efficiency level improved by twelve years.

There is no doubt that Audiblox was the turning point in Werner's life. After school he became an architect.

Edublox offers multisensory cognitive training programs, aimed at developing and automatizing the foundational skills of reading and spelling. Our programs are effective for a variety of learning difficulties, including dyslexia. Click here for more information.

Name has been changed and stock photo used.

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