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When Jocelyn Sarvady's teacher noticed that she was stumbling over her ABCs and having trouble putting words together, the Atlanta kindergartner's mother was not initially worried. She had been a late bloomer herself.
"My presumption was that Jocelyn would eventually pick it up and go full speed ahead," Andy Sarvady said.
But within a few months of starting the first grade, it became clear to Sarvady that Jocelyn was falling behind her classmates. "She was clearly unable to read simple books that the other children had no trouble with, despite her obvious intelligence." At that point Sarvady arranged to have Jocelyn tested by a psychologist. The diagnosis: moderate to severe dyslexia.
Inherited differences in the way the brain processes language make reading and writing extraordinarily difficult for people with dyslexia. The areas of the brain that map spoken language onto written language are less active in dyslexics. As a result, they have a hard time differentiating the sounds that make up language and recognizing the meaning of written words.
But dyslexics' brains can be trained to process language more efficiently, according to a study recently published in the journal Neurology. Virginia Berninger, an educational psychologist, and her colleagues at the University of Washington demonstrated that two hours per day of reading instruction can strengthen important brain circuits in dyslexic children and help them become better readers. At the end of three weeks of instruction, the dyslexic children's brain activity was nearly identical to good readers'.
That doesn't mean the children were cured so they no longer needed special instruction, Berninger was quick to point out. "We simply showed that they are capable of learning," she said. "If we can do this in three weeks, imagine the outcome if they can keep doing this for nine months during the school year."
The instruction focused on analyzing the one- and two-letter sound units, or phonemes, that make up words. The children were also taught to pay attention to the parts of spoken and written words that signal meaning and grammar, such as prefixes and suffixes.
The goal of the research, Berninger said, is to develop science-based instruction that can be used in schools. The depth of phonics instruction in Georgia schools currently varies widely. Berninger said the most successful programs for dyslexics emphasize four core elements: manipulating the sound units of language, building vocabulary, increasing comprehension, and improving reading fluency.
She also stressed the importance of having teachers who are specifically trained in teaching children with learning differences. The Schenck School in Atlanta, a private school that specializes in teaching children with dyslexia, has started a teacher training program. So far, 25 teachers from the metro area, including a few from public schools, have received training in the Orton-Gillingham method, a decades-old approach that incorporates many of the elements Berninger advocates.
As many as 20 percent of people in the United States have a language-based learning difference. Dyslexia is the most common.
People used to think that a visual miswiring caused dyslexics to see letters and numbers upside down and backward, but scientists now know that isn't the case. "It may seem counterintuitive, but their problem is actually with spoken language," Berninger explained. Dyslexics may make subtle errors in speaking that aren't evident in normal conversation. That may be why the problem is usually not detected until children start learning to read and write.
Another enduring myth about dyslexia is that children outgrow it. Studies have shown that, without help, almost three-quarters of children who are poor readers in the third grade will still be poor readers when they enter high school. But children who get help early, in kindergarten and first grade, stand an excellent chance of becoming successful readers.
Pamela Rider, the specific learning disabilities coordinator for Gwinnett schools, said a kindergartner may have difficulty naming letters and assigning the correct sounds to them. If a child doesn't get rhymes, forgets things easily or has problems identifying shapes, that also might raise a red flag, Rider said.
So what can you do if you suspect your child may have a learning disability? The first step, after ruling out physical causes such as poor hearing or vision, is to have him or her tested by a trained psychologist. This is free in the public schools, and if your child meets certain qualifications, he or she is entitled to an appropriate education at no cost.
But Carla Duncan, the language arts coordinator for the Decatur city schools, said it can take several months before a child is referred for evaluation. In the meantime, teachers may try different modifications in the classroom, such as giving an oral instead of a written test, or having the child read out loud instead of silently.
Jocelyn Sarvady's teacher began to give her more time to finish projects. It was welcome help, her mother said, but it was a drop in the bucket compared with what she needed.
Duncan acknowledged that sometimes the public schools don't move as quickly as parents would like, but pointed out that dyslexia is difficult to diagnose. "We don't want to haphazardly label a child and put them somewhere they don't need to be," she said.
Private tutors or special schools are more costly alternatives to public school programs. Andy Sarvady ultimately enrolled Jocelyn at the Schenck School, which does offer some financial assistance to offset the $16,200 to $17,300 annual tuition. That was four years ago.
Sarvady said their solution certainly isn't for everyone, but it's made all the difference for Jocelyn, now 10. "The first time we had to go into her room and climb up the ladder to her bunk bed to take the flashlight away so she'd stop reading, we were overcome with joy," Sarvady said. "That was a landmark."
Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution