WHERE READING GOES WRONG
This is a hard topic. There is a lot that experts don’t know yet about the brain or how people read. This is because…
THE BRAIN IS A COMPLICATED PLACE.
Because the brain is so complicated, nobody’s brain is wired perfectly for all of the jobs we need it to do.
But here is what experts agree on so far when it comes to reading:
● Speaking is natural, reading is not
● Fluent readers are good in three areas:
○ Sounding out words (decoding)
○ Recognizing words fast enough to read smoothly (rapid word recall)
○ Understanding what has been written (comprehension)
● Dyslexia is a problem with the first two reading areas:
○ Decoding — Breaking words into their sounds
○ Rapid Word Recall — Recognizing words quickly
SPEAKING IS NATURAL, READING IS NOT
All humans talk. Even non-verbal people “talk” using sign language or gestures. Speaking is natural.
But reading is not natural. You have to learn how to do it.
For 90% of human history, nobody was dyslexic. That’s because nobody had invented writing yet. Everyone’s brains were all wired a little differently. But early people hunted and farmed and wove and cooked without any trouble.
Even after writing was invented, only a very small number of people could read and write. Medieval kings often had official scribes to read and write for them, because even royalty didn’t know how. They didn’t learn to read because it took so much time and effort, and there were so few books — it just wasn’t worth it.
It was only as printing became widespread in the last three hundred years that more people learned to read and write. And so it was only in the last three hundred years that more people began to have the problems that we now call dyslexia.
SO WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
To learn to read, the brain has to link together many different areas of the brain. None of these areas evolved to read. They all have other jobs already. When we make the brain do jobs it was never meant to do, the wiring can get crossed.
And that is exactly what we do when we read and write. Writing is a way of recording sounds and turning them into something that makes sense of sounds when you look at letters – mixing two different systems together.
Two Problem Areas
Remember at the top of this post that I said that fluent readers are good at recalling the right word, sounding the word out, and then connecting the word with the correct meaning.
And I said that two of these skills give dyslexics problems: recalling words and sounding words out.
Poor Word Recall
The first challenge for dyslexics is recalling the right words in the right order. Poor or slow word recall can be a toughie anytime a dyslexic uses language. It can show up when you are just talking, but it is especially common when you are reading. People who have trouble quickly remembering the right word may not do well answering questions in class, on oral tests or presentations, as well as anything that requires reading.
What does poor word recall look like?
Like everything else about dyslexia, poor word recall can have a lot of different looks. William James (Harvard professor from 1873-1907) was the first to describe when a word is just out of reach of your memory. A word being on the “tip of the tongue” is something that he, as a dyslexic, may have experienced a lot.
My daughter has the same trouble. When she was young, she would stop talking in the middle of a sentence. I would wait for her to start talking again. When she didn’t, I’d start in with my side of the conversation. My daughter would hold up her hand: “I’m not done talking.” When I asked her why she stopped talking in the middle of the sentence, she said that she was trying to remember the right word.
Carolyn Greider won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for her research on how cells in the body age. Her poor word recall looks a little different. While Carolyn was in school, sometimes the wrong words came out in place of the words she meant to say. My husband has the same problem. He might say “sweet” when he means “sweat”.
“When the time comes for your brain to process the information, the second word comes up faster than the first one. So when it’s in your head, all of a sudden, it comes out backwards and you think of the word backwards”.— Caitlyn (Bruce) Jenner, Olympic Gold Medalist.
Can’t Sound it Out
The other puzzle for dyslexics is that you don’t hear the separate sounds of the words.
Fluent Readers Sound It Out
To learn to read, everybody must learn to break words down into their separate sounds. That’s why beginning readers say “duh o g” for “dog”. People call this decoding or sounding it out. Putting letters together to create a word is called encoding or spelling. Most people learn to sound out and spell words easily.
Decode means to sound a word out by breaking it into its sounds. It is also called sounding it out.
Encode means to spell a word. It is also called spelling.
The separate sounds (“duh o g”) of the word are called phonemes.
Dyslexics Don’t Hear the Parts
But most people with dyslexia don’t hear the separate parts of a word. If you can’t hear it, you can’t sound it out. And you can’t connect the sounds to letters so you can read. For example, people in my family might hear “batter” as “badder” or “canned” as “can’t”. Even if they can break the word apart, they hear the wrong sounds.
“When I was in elementary school I was considered a poor speller and somebody who couldn’t sound out words, so I was taken into remedial classes…”— Carolyn Greider, Nobel Prize winner for Medicine for research on how cells age.
Dyslexics Don’t Become Fluent Readers
Fluency is when a reader is able to sound out and remember a word easily enough that you have brain power leftover to understand the story. The end result of fluency is that wonderful feeling of being pulled completely into a book.
“I, myself, was always recognized . . . as the “slow one” in the family. It was quite true, and I knew it and accepted it. Writing and spelling were always terribly difficult for me. My letters were without originality. I was . . . an extraordinarily bad speller and have remained so until this day.”— Agatha Christie, writer of Murder on the Orient Express and other mysteries, whose books sold over one billion copies.
Probably like most people with dyslexia, you have managed to learn to read by working harder than the fluent readers around you. You use lots of tricks to make up for your poor reading skills.
But because people with dyslexia have trouble sounding words out or remembering words quickly, you don’t become fluent readers. This can slow down your understanding of what has been written.
And not reading fluently can be very frustrating.
Allen, Scott. 2009. “11 Celebrities Who Overcame Dyslexia.” Mental Floss. October 9, 2009. http://mentalfloss.com/article/22968/11-celebrities-who-overcame-dyslexia.
Armstrong, Thomas. 2003. “Coming to Grips with the Musculature of Words.” In The Multiple Intelligences of Reading and Writing: Making the Words Come Alive.
Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development. http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/102280/chapters/Coming-to-Grips-with-the-Musculature-of-Words.aspx.
Crockett, Kathy. “Carol Greider, Scientist, Nobel Prize Winner.” The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity. Accessed November 9, 2017. http://dyslexia.yale.edu/story/carol-greider-ph-d/.
Jenner, Caitlyn. n.d. “Caitlyn Jenner Quotes.” BrainyQuote. Accessed November 9, 2017a. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/c/caitlynjen362264.html.
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James, William. “Principles of Psychology.” Classics in the History of Psychology, 1890. http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/James/Principles/.
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