No. 3281: DYSLEXIA AND READING

by Stephen Cook

Click here for audio of Episode 3281

Today, dyslexia and reading. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Reading's a skill we use every day. We read texts to stay connected, menus to order, and books for fun. Most adults read without much thought, but it's a very complex process - involving many regions of the brain. First, our eyes see a group of symbols called letters. Our brains match the letters to sounds, put the sounds together into words, and identify their meaning. This process is automatic for many of us, but not for some 44 million Americans with dyslexia.

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that affects reading, writing, and spelling. We know that about one fifth of the population is dyslexic, and many successful people have had the disorder: Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, and Steven Spielberg - to name a few.


Inferior Parietal Lobule - brain region affected by dyslexia.
  Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Modern research has shown us that the dyslexic brain works differently. Brain scans show more activity in the right hemisphere of the dyslexic brain during reading - the same areas for creativity, spatial awareness, and big-picture thinking. We now know many advantages to being dyslexic, but it does make reading harder.

The sad truth is that dyslexia can mean trouble. If it isn't treated early, dyslexics are more likely to struggle with school, depression, poverty, imprisonment, and even suicide. Fortunately, we've come a long way in our understanding of reading. Thanks to the ingenuity of scholars like Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham, we now have an effective way to teach reading using multiple senses at once.


Portraits of Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham
  Photo Credit: www.Ortonacademy.org.

This strategy is called multisensory teaching - where a child's senses of sight, sound, touch, and movement are all active in a reading lesson. To learn the letter D, for example, a child sees the letter D and a picture of a dog. This is visual input. He says the letter and the word (sound input) - Traces the letter in sand for touch and writes a giant D in the air for movement. By consistently teaching through these 4 senses, we give a child the best chances of learning to read. And by giving this gift of literacy to a child, imagine the inventive potential we're unlocking.


Figure shows a few techniques used to combine tactile, visual, auditory, and kinesthetic modalities in multisensory teaching.
  Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

So, the next time we take reading for granted, let's stop to think about the methods developed for teaching this vital skill. These multisensory methods are now proving to be effective beyond just the scope of dyslexia - even helping non-dyslexic students learn to read. For more information on helping a struggling reader, check out Neuhaus Education Center or the International Dyslexia Association.

I'm Stephen Cook, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.


(Theme music)


For a general overview of topics covered in this episode, Wikipedia has pages on dyslexia, Orton-Gillingham, and multisensory learning.

Here are links to more in-depth sources on the cognitive neuroscience of dyslexia, and multisensory teaching of basic language skills.

The International Dyslexia Association and Neuhaus Education Center, both nonprofits, are also excellent resources for information on the disorder and available therapy.

Parent and teacher resources for helping a child with dyslexia include the 2021 Texas Dyslexia Handbook and Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally and Jonathan Shaywitz.

Birsh, J. R. (2011). Multisensory teaching of basic language skills. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Pub. Co.

D'Mello, Anila M., and John DE Gabrieli. "Cognitive neuroscience of dyslexia." Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools 49.4 (2018): 798-809.

Shaywitz, S. E., & Shaywitz, J. (2020). Overcoming dyslexia: completely revised and updated. Hachette, UK.

Who were Orton and Gillingham?: Academy of Orton-Gillingham practitioners and educators. Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators | Upholding Excellence in Professional Practice. (2021, February 19). Retrieved May 11, 2022, from https://www.ortonacademy.org/resources/who-were-orton-and-gillingham/.


This episode was first aired on September 13, 2022