As I write this, millions of children are eagerly awaiting tomorrow’s release of the latest Harry Potter book. How marvelous that children in an electronic era will read and enjoy an 870 page book!

Unfortunately, reading an 870 page book is way beyond the imagination of many thousands of children who suffer from dyslexia. They’re waiting for the film version.

Dyslexia is a brain disorder that’s estimated to affect from 5-17% of the population. Dyslexics have the intelligence and motivation to read, but they experience great difficulty in learning to read smoothly. Some, such as the renowned novelist John Irving and the financier Charles Schwab make amazing adaptations into a successful life. Most, however, suffer throughout life since fluid reading ability is central to success in our culture.

Recent research discoveries spurred on by advances in brain imaging technology, and the recent publication of an excellent book on dyslexia provide hope for parents and dyslexics who considered their situation to be hopeless.

The Nature of the Problem
The words in our language are constructed from various sequences of its 44 distinct sounds (phonemes). The information in a word is coded into the sequence of its phonemes and not into the phonemes themselves. Dog and god contain the same sounds but since the sequences differ, so do the meanings. It’s a marvelously efficient system that allows us to construct an infinite number of words out of a small number of phonemes within a relatively small brain space. Genetics works similarly. Twenty amino acids can create an infinite number of proteins because a protein’s information is coded into its sequence of amino acids and not into the amino acids themselves. Our body and brain’s ability to correctly and rapidly process genetic and language sequences is thus central to human biology and culture.

Most children easily learn the common words that represent objects and events in their life (semantics). The words in a sentence similarly follow a preferred sequence that enhances meaning (syntax). By the time they enter school, most children have developed an adequate vocabulary, informally mastered the syntactical conventions of our language, and can correctly string sentences into interesting conversation and stories (discourse).

Language proficiency thus begins with an auditory system that can hear speech sounds, and an innate phonological module that can rapidly process speech by separating heard words into their phonemes and combining phonemes into spoken words. Most children have such capability. Speech comprehension and production are unfortunately delayed in children with an impaired phonological module. Their module simply won’t become robust in a speaking environment if most words are processed as jumbled noise and not discrete phoneme sequences.

The problem gets worse when these children enter school and are expected to automatically associate the 26 letters of our written alphabet with the 44 phonemes that they have yet to master. Most of their classmates are up to the challenge, but the dyslexics begin their long slide into despair.

Emerging Solutions
Fast ForWord® Language software has successfully increased the phonological processing rate of children who have an impaired phonological module—thus solving a key element of the speech problem for many potential dyslexics. Further, a recent Stanford University study (Temple, 2003) discovered that 8-12 year old dyslexic children used Fast ForWord Language software significantly improved oral language and reading performance, and experienced increased activity in multiple brain areas involved in language processing.

Sally Shaywitz, a renowned researcher in the field of dyslexia, has just published a fine, non-technical, practical resource for parents, educators, and others who confront dyslexia— Overcoming dyslexia: A new and complete science-based program for reading problems at any level (2003).

She draws much on the years of groundbreaking research in the demystification and remediation of dyslexia that she and her colleagues have carried out at the Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention. As indicated above, brain imaging technology has sparked much recent dyslexic research, and the book provides a complete synthesis of current research on the various brain systems and processes involved in dyslexic impairment.

Parents and educators will especially appreciate the clearly written well-illustrated sections that explain language and reading and how and where our brain processes reading. The mystery disappears when you understand the biology.

Most of the book is devoted to excellent step by step advice on how to diagnose dyslexia, and how to remedy it. Shaywitz has a no-nonsense view of dyslexia and is very optimistic about its remediation. Identifying signs of dyslexia typically emerge during the preschool years, and so she argues for early diagnosis, and a vigorous intervention program that should continue as long as necessary. She encourages parents to become quite assertive if their child’s school doesn’t have an adequate program or capable teachers. She argues passionately that since dyslexia can now be successfully remediated, it should be. No ifs or buts. Good for her!

She provides very specific suggestions for both parents and teachers on how to provide the constant experiences that will turn a dyslexic’s sluggish language system into a robust system—and sound advice on how to make reading a positive experience that enhances a dyslexic’s self-esteem. The book also suggests a useful program for adult dyslexics.

Many case studies add a human dimension to the book. She ends the book with the heartwarming optimistic stories of seven dyslexics who were able to overcome their reading handicap and succeed in careers one typically couldn’t imagine a dyslexic entering.

If dyslexia is a negative part of your life, get Sally Shaywitz’s book, and follow her positive advice.