Overcoming Dyslexia

Research Supports Phonics Intervention

In 1987, a report from the Interagency Committee on Learning Disabilities (ICLD), (which is composed of representatives of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and of the Department of Education) declared that the time was right to begin an intensive, all-out drive to understand learning disabilities. The report called for the establishment of NIH-supported Centers for the Study of Learning and Attention. Three centers were chosen: University of Colorado, Johns Hopkins University, and one at Yale University directed by Sally and Bennett Shaywitz. p. 26

The following is a very brief summary of their findings published in a book based on the results of years of research, Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, M.D.* She and her husband were in charge of the study at Yale.

Incredible as it may seem, today we can actually see someone's brain at work as they read. Using an MRI, researchers virtually track the printed word as it initially registers as a visual icon, is transformed into the sounds (phonemes) of language, and simultaneously activates its meaning stored within the brain's own internal dictionary. p. 59

At all ages, good readers show a consistent pattern: strong activation in the back of the brain with lesser activation in the front. In contrast, brain activation in dyslexic children show increased activation in frontal regions which increases so that by adolescence they were demonstrating a pattern of over-activation in the frontal (Brocas') region. It is as if these struggling readers are using the systems in front of the brain to try to compensate for the disruption in the back of the brain. p.81

The National Reading Panel found that programs that teach phonics systematically and explicitly (beginning with a single letter (phoneme) and then blending and building, left to right, to form a word) are the most effective. Systematic phonics is an organized method of teaching how letters relate to sounds. (Organized, cumulative, logical sequence.) Students learn how to convert letters to specific sounds and then how to blend the sounds together to read a word. They learn how different patterns of letters represent different sounds. They learn rules, and then they learn exceptions to those rules. After a while a student has the knowledge required to analyze and identify just about any word he encounters. This is the goal of systematic, explicit phonics instruction. What is so critical and so unique about learning phonics in this way is that it allows the reader to apply his accumulating knowledge to deciphering and reading words he has never seen before. No other method of teaching reading can make this claim. p.200

Not only what is taught is important but how it is taught. Effective reading programs are taught not only systematically, but explicitly as well. Students are not left to their own devices. Whole Language reading programs teach phonics without having students work on words; words are not systematically analyzed or pulled apart. The focus is not on the sounds of language, but on meaning. Phonics instructs a student to try to analyze the word and to sound it out, while whole language emphasizes guessing the word from the context of the story or from pictures accompanying the story. In phonics the clues to identifying the word lie within the word itself. Students are encouraged to attend to the finer points of the word's structure. In whole language the clues are external to the word and are to be derived from the meaning of the story. The National Reading Panel found the children who are taught phonics systematically and explicitly make greater progress in reading than those taught with any other type of instruction and that beginning the teaching of phonics in kindergarten or first grade produces the best results. P. 210

The following is a result of intervention using systematic, explicit phonics:

Images obtained immediately after the intervention showed the tentative emergence of primary left-side systems used by good readers as well as the development of right-side secondary pathways for reading. The final set of images obtained one year after the intervention had ended was startling. Not only were the right-side auxiliary pathways much less prominent but, more important, there was further development of the primary neural systems on the left side of the brain. Their activation patterns were comparable to those obtained from children who had always been good readers. p. 86

After more than a century of frustration, it has now been shown that the brain can be re-wired and that struggling children can become skilled readers! p. 86

Without reading intervention, individuals with dyslexia remain poor readers, reading both inaccurately and slowly. p. 85

*Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, M.D., Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2003.

Additional Information

Dyslexia does not reflect an overall defect in language, but, rather, a localized weakness within a specific component of the language system; the phonologic module. The phonologic module is the language factory, the functional part of the brain where the sounds of language are put together to form words and where words are broken down into their elemental sounds. p.40

Just as proteins must first be broken down into their underlying amino acids before they can be digested, words must first be broken down into their underlying phonemes before they can be processed by the language system. p.42

Dyslexic children and adults have difficulty developing an awareness that spoken and written words are comprised of these phonemes or building blocks. p. 43

For print to gain entry into the language module, the reader must somehow convert the print on a page into a linguistic code - the phonetic code, the only code recognized and accepted by the language system. Unless the reader-to-be can convert the printed characters on the page into the phonetic code, these letters remain just a bunch of lines and circles totally devoid of linguistic meaning. p. 50

Once translated into the phonetic code, printed words are now accepted by the neural circuitry already in place for processing spoken language. Decoding into phonemes, words are processed automatically by the language system. The reading code is deciphered! p.51

Even in high school students, phonemic awareness was the best predictor of the ability to read words accurately or quickly. p.55

It is phonemic awareness and not intelligence that best predicts ease of learning to read. p. 57

Learn more about Overcoming Dyslexia.