Dyslexia in children and adults is often addressed according to two models, each of which generally focus on linguistic or language-related skills. “These methods emphasize strategy and cognitive development and are not based on a brain processing relationship, which is dysfunctional in dyslexia. Consequently, these techniques have not produced consistent reading improvement.” (Goldstein, 2001) Goldstein’s assessments still ring true today. Even so, many dyslexia treatment options tout an emphasis on “teaching” those with dyslexia words in a clearer way as if other reading educational efforts have somehow failed. The problem is, of course, that dyslexia is not necessarily a letter recognition problem, it is instead a cognitive processing problem. This means that dyslexia treatments based on language skills alone often fail.
One of the most common misconceptions about reading skills and acquisition of reading ability is that reading involves only a simple recognition of letters and subsequent knowledge of how to phonologically string those letters together into words. According to this simplistic model of reading, someone with dyslexia is simply not “seeing” the letters correctly, thus there is a perceived deficit in vision or sight. Although visual cues often play a role in the formation of dyslexia treatments, sight alone is only the tip of a very large iceberg. After all, when we see a sequence of letters, it has no meaning as an object until our brain, working as an integrated network of sensory systems, assigns significance to the abstract grouping of letters. Visual processing disorders, which are NOT related to the ability to see clearly, involve difficulties understanding visual information such as movement, spatial relationships, form, or direction. Such visual processing challenges, together with Central Auditory Processing problems, are frequently found in combination and result in a formal dyslexia diagnosis or poor academic performance.
However, the process is far more complicated on a cognitive level–mere recognition of words and sounds is only the first part in a long series of events that occur quickly and unconsciously in those without dyslexia but this process is “sidetracked” as the two hemispheres of the brain react differently than they would in non-dyslexic readers. Therefore, one of the fundamental flaws of traditional dyslexia treatment is that there is a heavy focus on teaching the words themselves while overlooking the fact that the problem lies in brain’s processing of letters as opposed to some kind of simple lack of understanding of letters, words and phonology.
A great deal of contemporary research focuses on the issue of brain processing in dyslexia treatment with multiple studies examining the delay or miscommunication between the left and right hemisphere of the brain, or problems with specific areas of the brain, including “planum temporal symmetry or angular gyrus dysfunction, that result in reading impairments and do not suggest developmental hemispheric changes as a rationale for dyslexia” (Goldstein 2001). While the results of these imaging-based studies continue to change our view of the cognitive and brain processing end of dyslexia treatment, one thing is clear—simply focusing on “teaching” those with dyslexia the letters or word sounds in a more focused way is simply inadequate. If the basic brain processes that govern the abstract meaning behind words and letters are not improved, then all of the phonics and letter training in the world will likely not solve the challenges that dyslexic readers face.
Goldstein, B., & Obrzut, J. (2001). Neuropsychological Treatment of Dyslexia in the Classroom Setting. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 34(3), 276.