Mistaking dyslexia


Daniel Britton’s Alphabet

In “Powerful images show what it’s like to read when you have dyslexia,” Ana Swanson reported about the typeface developed by Daniel Britton in 2013. As an individual with dyslexia, Mr. Britton, who works in graphic design, created a typeface that omits parts of capital letters, as illustrated here, putatively to simulate the experience of reading with dyslexia.

I am saddened by the possibility that people may get the mistaken impression that dyslexia is caused by misperception of the shapes or forms of letters. Fortunately, Ms. Swanson discounts this mistake at two points in her article. First, she notes that the font is not designed to mimic what a person with dyslexia sees when she or he reads, but to force skilled readers to lose fluency. Second, although I might quibble with the phrasing she uses, Ms. Swanson puts the focus in the right place when she reports

Dyslexia doesn’t really have anything to do with the way that people see letters. The condition is actually related to sound, according to a review of the disorder’s background that PBS created for parents.

People with dyslexia have what’s called “weak phonemic awareness,” meaning it’s more difficult for them to hear and distinguish the individual sounds, or phonemes, of a language. Because of this limitation, they have trouble rhyming, spelling and making connections between sounds and words, and that leads to long-term difficulties with reading and writing

In alphabetic languages, readers learn to turn those little squiggles—whether they are printed in Mr. Britton’s typeface or Helvetica, Times New Roman, Alhambra, Beech, Cirilico….—into their sound equivalents and compress those stretched-out strings (“say it fast!”) into words. In a simple way, that’s one little part of the decoding part of reading. It’s helped, in fact, when learners get practice with different fonts, so that they don’t get the misunderstanding that the letter t might also be written t or t or t or t or t (ugh) or t or t or t.

Janet W. Lerner

Janet Weiss Lerner, author of one of the first and most enduring texts about Learning Disabilities, died 25 May 2015. She was 88 years old. She began her career studying under Sam Kirk, Alfred Strauss, and Laura Lehtinen; having learned from the pioneers in the history of special education, Professor Lerner went on to exert giant influence, herself, especially in the area of Learning Disabilities.

Professor Lerner completed a Bachelors of Arts at Milwaukee State Teachers College (now the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) when Professor Kirk chaired the special education department there; later she took a Masters of Education from National Louis University and a Doctor of Philosophy from New York University. She taught at multiple grade levels in both general and special education in New York and Chicago, often focusing on helping children with reading problems.
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Function-based interventions for LD?

Most readers are likely familiar with the idea that one can, by carefully assessing the antecedents and consequences of a problem behavior, essentially determine what is causing that problem behavior to occur. Given that at least some—many?—students with Learning Disabilities (LD) have some problem-some behaviors, wouldn’t it be cool if there was an evidence base about using functional analysis techniques to document development of procedures for addressing the problem behaviors of students with LD?

In “A Systematic Review of Function-Based Interventions for Students with Learning Disabilities,” Professor John McKenna and his colleagues examined the research literature in search of that very evidence base. They were able to locate only a few studies that met the most rigorous standards, but those studies allowed them to conclude that this idea is a promising one. Here’s the source and the abstract with a hot DOI. I think the publisher (Wiley) may be allowing public access to the entire article, so try clicking on the PDF to download it. (I can’t tell, ’cause I’m working from my office, which has free access anyway; drop a comment to let me know.)

McKenna, J. W., Flower, A., Kim, M. K., Ciullo, S., & Haring, C. (2015). A systematic review of function-based interventions for students with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 30, 15-28. DOI:10.1111/ldrp.12049

Students with learning disabilities (LD) experience pervasive academic deficits requiring extensive academic intervention; however, they may also engage in problem behaviors that adversely affect teaching and learning, thus lessening the potential impact of specialized instruction and supports. The learning deficits of students with LD are prevalent in the extant research, but behavioral needs appear to receive less attention. The authors report the results of a systematic review investigating the evidence-base for function-based interventions for students with LD using the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) criteria for evaluating single-case studies. Fourteen studies with 17 participants met inclusion criteria, with the majority occurring in elementary settings. Although interventions tended to be effective, few included maintenance and generalization measures. Because of the small number of studies (n = 4) that met WWC design and effectiveness standards, the authors conclude that function-based interventions, although promising, cannot currently be considered an evidence-based practice for students with LD. Implications for practice, areas for future research, and study limitations are reported.

What supports do parents of students with LD consider important?

Linsey Silverstein, who is a doctoral student at Alliant International University in San Diego (CA, US), is hoping parents of children with learning disabilities can help her to ascertain what type support parents need from professionals, whether they’re interested in support groups, and what difficulties they encounter. Ms. Silverstein is inviting parents to participate in an anonymous, on-line survey that she estimates will require 15-30 minutes and has been approved by her institutions research review board.

People interested in learning more may download an accompanying flyer or go directly to the survey Web site.

Could digital devices make attention worse?

Ever wondered if using digital devices is harmful to kids?

For those who just popped into this century, it is obvious that the education press is ripe with discussion of digital devices in classrooms. For the rest of us, the number of stories about the promise of tablets, games, and all their brothers, sisters, and cousins has just grown greater every year.

All this growth of technology has led people to voice reservations about technology in education, including education for students with learning disabilities. Some people probably needlessly fret that digital devices might deter children from learning to read and write (as noted at # 10 in “10 Big Concerns about Tablets in the Classroom”), and common complaints are that the devices are inherently distracting, that multi-tasking will reduce productivity, and that students will use them to do things other than assigned tasks (e.g., messaging each other). Probably most of these are overstated.

In fact, psychologist (and friend of LD Blog) Dan Willingham published an opinion piece in the New York (NY, US) Times entitled “Smartphones Don’t Make Us Dumb” that debunked the idea that devices disrupt attention, if not promoting inattention.

AS much as we love our digital devices, many of us have an uneasy sense that they are destroying our attention spans. We skitter from app to app, seldom alighting for long. Our ability to concentrate is shot, right?

Research shows that our intuition is wrong.

You should read Dan’s entire column (see link at the title), however, to get his full take on these ideas. You’ll have to concentrate, of course. (Also, watch for his forthcoming book, Raising Kids Who Read. I bet it’s going to be a good one.)

Ensley on LD

In a post on her blog that was also carried by the Huffington Post, Karem Ensley discussed “3 Things You Should Know About Learning Disabilities.” I don’t want to steal her content (better that one read it in its original form), but suffice it to say that she focused on foundational points (e.g., having LD does not mean one is dumb) and avoided falling into popular traps (e.g., she addressed “learning differently” without going for learning styles).

LD misrepresented again

In a recent installment of “Stephanie’s Heroes,” Stephanie Satchell, a local TV reporter, tells the story of Lauren Baetsen, Emily Nemec, and Amanda Halacy who are undergraduates at the University of Virginia and who will spend their summer working with children who have moderate to severe intellectual disabilities and other disabilities in Lusaka, Zambia. The effort by these young women makes for a marvelous story, and I’m very glad Ms. Stachell covered it. It’s too bad she does not know “learning disabilities” from this host of other problems, though.
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Virginia CEC for 2014 to feature Lavoie

When the Virginia Federation of the Council for Exceptional Children holds its annual conference in the fall of 2014, it will feature widely known speaker Rick Lavoie. The conference, which will be held in Virginia Beach at the Virginia Beach Resort Hotel, is slated for 17 and 18 October 2014. Learn more by visiting the Virginia Federation’s Web page.

ResearchILD conference 2014

The annual conference of the Research Institute for Learning and Development (ResearchILD) will be held 14 and 15 March 2014. The theme of the conference for this year is “Myths and Realities in Education: Executive Function, Attention, and Learning Differences.”

Ably led for many years by Lynn Meltzer and held at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the conference features an extensive series of sessions. Go to the ResearchILD Website to learn more or simply download a PDF copy of the brochure.

The House should support Resolution 456

U.S. Representative Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, with the support of Representative Julia Brownley of California, introduced a resolution to the U.S. House of Representatives 10 January 2014 calling on “State and local educational agencies to recognize that dyslexia has significant educational implications that must be addressed.” The resolution, which was foreshadowed by a kick-off event by the Congressional Dyslexia Caucus in November of 2013, is drawing support around the Internet, as it should, from diverse sources:

  • Sally and Bennett Shaywitz, noted advocates and researchers on dyslexia, posted a notice on their site, Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, and published a guest editorial in the influential political news source, The Hill calling for support of the resolution.
  • Pete and Pam Wright of Wrightslaw, the widely esteemed site for legal information about students with disabilities, lent their support to the effort, recommending constituents contact their representatives.
  • Over on Barto’s World (long-time connection with LD Blog), Amy Barto posted an entry pointing to the Yale Center’s and Wrightslaw’s pages.
  • Over on High Expectations Advocacy, Sandra Fitzpatrick posted a blog entry pointing to the Yale Center post and recommending that people contact their own representatives to encourage those legislators to support the resolution.
  • Joan Brennan, at Help for Struggling Readers provided a message of support including some useful links (along with some links to her own product).

Dyslexia is the most common reason that students are identified as having learning disabilities in the US. It is, indeed, a problem that deserves very careful consideration and systematic, evidence-based treatment. Even though some may glamorize it and others may ignore it, I agree that the most appropriate course of action is to recognize it and empower schools (and others) to address it effectively and humanely.

Readers interested in obtaining a PDF copy of the full resolution can download one.