February 22, 2011

DYSLEXIA or SLOW LEARNER? What are these learning disabilities?

by Lynden Punnett Dip.SpLD(Dyslexia)

Is my child Dyslexic … or just a little slow learning to read?

This is the dilemma facing many concerned parents.

What is Dyslexia?

The word ‘dyslexia’ comes from the Greek and means ‘difficulty with words’. Dyslexia is often described as a hidden disability.

If you have not experienced dyslexia before, it can be difficult to identify. It affects everyone slightly differently, and ranges in its impact from mild to very profound. Many dyslexics also have other problems such as Dyspraxia, Speech and Language Difficulties, Asperger’s Syndrome, or ADHD, also to varying degrees. Many also develop coping mechanisms that can mask some aspects of their difficulties. All these things can make dyslexia even harder to diagnose, and make it more difficult to select the best educational solution.

One very important point to remember is that dyslexics come from right across the intelligence spectrum, and many have considerable strengths. This can further complicate identification, but makes it important to do so if dyslexic children are to achieve their full potential.

The earlier dyslexia can be identified, and appropriate remediation provided, the better the outcome. Although commonly regarded as a difficulty with reading or writing, there are many other symptoms which can help parents to spot dyslexia much earlier. No child is likely to display all the following symptoms, but if you recognise even three or four as being typical of your child, you should seriously consider assessment by an Educational Psychologist or other suitably qualified professional.

Pre-school & Primary School signs:

There is a strong genetic element to dyslexia. If there is any family history of dyslexia or reading difficulties you should be on the alert for other warning signs. Here are a few:-
Problems with speech, for example

  • Being slow to start talking.
  • When they do talk, having trouble pronouncing M’s and N’s, R’s and L’s.
  • Reversing or mixing up sounds in multi-syllable words (favourites include aminal for animal, hekalopter for helicopter, bisgetti for spaghetti, or famously for President Bush, nucular for nuclear!).

Physical symptoms

  • Trouble with tying shoe laces and getting dressed.
  • Slow to establish a dominant hand, i.e. right or left handed.
  • A lot of ear infections.
  • Co-ordination problems (excessive tripping, falling over, bumping into things, difficulty catching or kicking a ball).
  • Difficulty clapping a simple rhythm.

Organisational problems:

  • Difficulty with ‘sequencing’, e.g. ‘do this, then do that’, or undertaking any task that involves a sequence of actions, such as handwriting.
  • Often forgetting or losing belongings.

Other developmental problems:

  • Difficulty identifying ‘directional’ opposites such as over/ under, right/ left, before/ after.
  • Likes listening to stories but shows no interest in trying to read the words.
  • Cannot identify simple rhymes.
  • Difficulty learning the names of letters or sounds, or learning the alphabet.

Aged 12 or over.

As for primary schools, plus:

  • Still reads inaccurately.
  • Still has difficulties in spelling.
  • Needs to have instructions and telephone numbers repeated.
  • Gets ‘tied up’ using long words, e.g. ‘preliminary’, ‘philosophical’.
  • Confuses places, times, dates.
  • Has difficulty with planning and writing essays.
  • Has difficulty processing complex language or long series of instructions at speed.
  • Has poor confidence and self-esteem.
  • Has areas of strength as well as weakness.

Reading and spelling:

Once a dyslexic child does start to learn to read and write, they make types of mistakes that are very specific, and readily identified by a professional. These include:

  • Cannot or will not sound out the phonemes, or sounds, in an unknown word.
  • May read a word on one page but not recognise it on the next.
  • Can tire very quickly if reading out loud.
  • Can struggle with isolated words, where there is no context to help them.
  • Reading mistakes will often follow similar patterns, e.g. substituting words with the same first and last letters, the same letters in a different order, or the same shape.
  • Reading comprehension is often much lower than listening comprehension, due to the effort required to read.
  • The problems with directionality will often show through in individual letters, i.e. n/u; p/b/d; m/w
  • Spelling is often much worse than reading, and can include very frequently used words (e.g. does, because, they, there, where).
  • It tends to be resistant to conventional teaching methods, but its effects can be mitigated by appropriately specific intervention, including the application of information technology and supportive counselling

Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty which mainly affects the development of literacy and language related skills. It is likely to be present at birth and to be lifelong in its effects. It is characterised by difficulties with phonological processing, rapid naming, working memory, processing speed, and the automatic development of skills that may not match up to an individual’s other cognitive abilities. Stanovich (1996) has suggested that the main difference between dyslexic learners and what might be called typical slow learners is in their IQ and that both experience at least some of the underlying cognitive difficulties that characterise dyslexia.

Various studies done in other countries have shown the significantly higher prevalence rate of illiteracy among prisoners, including juvenile delinquents. A 2005 study in United Kingdom showed that 80 per cent of prisoners have poor writing skills, 50 per cent have reading difficulties and 65 per cent have trouble with numeracy. An investigation into the learning abilities of the current prison population of St. Vincent & the Grenadines would more than likely reveal similar figures.

The Slow Learner

A “slow learner” is not a diagnostic category, it is a term people use to describe a student who has the ability to learn necessary academic skills, but at rate and depth below average same age peers. In order to grasp new concepts, a slow learner needs more time, more repetition, and often more resources from teachers to be successful. Reasoning skills are typically delayed, which makes new concepts difficult to learn.

A slow learner has traditionally been identified as anyone with a Full Scale IQ one standard deviation below the mean but not as low as two standard deviations below the mean. A slow learner does not meet criteria for an Intellectual Disability (also called mental retardation). However, she learns slower than average students and will need additional help to succeed.
What are some of the challenges educationally for struggling or slow learners?

Typically, a slow learner has difficulty with higher order thinking or reasoning skills. This suggests that it will be more challenging to learn new concepts. New skills need to be based upon already mastered concepts. This can be difficult when the majority of the class has already mastered a concept and is moving on, the slow learner needs more time. This can lead to gaps in knowledge and basic skills. The more gaps in a content area, the more challenging it is for anyone to learn new concepts. It’s also important to recognize that these students are typically keenly aware they are struggling and self confidence can be an issue. They are prone to anxiety, low self image, and eventually may be quick to give up. They often feel “stupid” and start hating school. They spend all day doing something that is difficult for them, it can be very draining. Finding other activities that the student can be successful in is very important. There should be emphasis on strengths as well. Schools often look for a discrepancy between a student’s ability and where they are performing. Slow learners tend to perform at their ability level, which is below average. To the disappointment of many, slow learners often do not receive special education services but will require additional help, support, and accommodations through regular education.

Most Slow Learners grow up to work in skilled or semiskilled jobs such as construction or office work. Unfortunately, because school is so hard for them, many of these children drop out of high school. Slow Learners may have problems not only with math and reading but also with coordination such as penmanship, sports, or dressing. Often they are quiet and shy, and they have trouble making friends. They may have a poor self confidence. They have trouble with abstract thinking such as in social studies or doing math word problems. They often have a short attention span. All of these problems cause them to have a poor self esteem.