How to help a child with dyslexia

By Drum Digital
27 May 2014

It takes hard work, but parents can help dyslexic children to succeed at school despite the stigma associated with the condition. We give expert advice on helping your child.

It takes hard work, but parents can help dyslexic children to succeed at school despite the stigma associated with the condition.

A mom tells her story

One day after school Branden Brooks’ mom told him to remove his lunchbox from his schoolbag, put his shoes away and drop his clothes in the washing basket. About 10 minutes later she popped into his room, only to see him sitting on his bed – still in his school uniform. “Branden was always in trouble with me because I thought he wasn’t listening,” says his mom, Annemarie Brooks of Pretoria. “I thought he was lazy.” To make matters worse, seven-year-old Branden often got poor-behaviour reports at school and was mocked by his friends because he couldn’t read or spell. At the end of his Grade 2 year, Annemarie and her husband, Phillip, were told their son might have to repeat the year. He was swopping the letters “b” and “d”, he couldn’t spell, his concentration was poor and he struggled to distinguish right from left. “He didn’t want to go to school,” Annemarie says. “He said he wished he was dead so he wouldn’t have to battle anymore.”

It turns out Branden wasn’t a lazy boy. He suffered from the same thing Orlando Bloom, Steven Spielberg, Keira Knightley, and Jamie Oliver suffer from – dyslexia. His parents were upset by this diagnosis and immediately sought help. Branden attended an intensive course at Edublox reading and learning clinic in Pretoria for four weeks. Then he attended an hour-long class once a week for 10 months, which included exercises to develop his concentration, perception, memory and logic. Annemarie and Phillip were given daily exercises to do with their son.

At the end of that year his marks had improved remarkably. “He still swops letters and his spelling is a challenge but Branden [who turns 11 this month] has gone from being a shy child to a happy one.”

What is dyslexia?

“Dyslexia isn’t a disability but rather an inability related to the skills affecting reading and spelling,” says Susan du Plessis of Edublox. Skills such as concentration and the ability to interpret what you see, upon which reading and spelling are built, aren’t properly developed. One in 10 South Africans suffer from dyslexia, which means about five million people in schools and the workplace have this learning and reading problem.

For a long time many people believed the brain couldn’t be rewired and dyslexia couldn’t be overcome. But therapy can help. “If the cause of the problem gets attended to dyslexia can be overcome,” Du Plessis says.

The cause is often an impaired auditive and visual memory. In other words, the child sees and hears the words but struggles to remember them. Parents can do simple exercises with their children to develop these skills. In exceptional cases where the child has fallen far behind at school, placing them in a special class or school can help. “It’s preferable that this is only a temporary measure until learning skills, reading and spelling are up to standard.”

There’s a misconception that dyslexic people are stupid or lazy and this stigma must be addressed. “The negative label often causes children to develop a victim mentality and feel completely helpless,” Du Plessis says.

Have your child tested

The diagnosis of dyslexia in South Africa is now easier, thanks to a test Sandra Swart,  paediatric optometrist of Vereeniging, has developed with John Griffin, a professor of ophthalmology at Marshall B Ketchum University in California. “It’s the first and only standardised diagnostic test South Africans can use to determine the type and degree of dyslexia,” Swart says. Anyone registered with the Health Professions Council of SA can administer the test.

She stresses it’s important to identify and diagnose the condition early. “A child with dyslexia can reach their full potential, but they should be tested early. They can be taught therapeutic programmes to deal with the problem.”

Signs of dyslexia

“Children with learning difficulties often struggle to see what they’re reading,” Cape Town-based educational psychologist Anel Annandale says. It’s also important to determine if there are other factors influencing the child’s ability to learn. The most common signs of dyslexia are:

  • Swopping. Children with dyslexia often swop letters such as “b” and “d” or write “rot” as “tor”.
  • Omissions. They read or write “bom” instead of “boom”, for example.
  • A child who reads haltingly and often loses their place on the page.
  • They see the letters of a word in the wrong order, for example, “etib” instead of “bite”.
  • Dyslexic children often spell words phonetically.
  • Poor or slow writing.
  • B Reads with little comprehension or
  • doesn’t remember what they’ve read.
  • Battles to follow instructions.
  • Dyslexic kids often confuse left and right, and up and down.

Types of dyslexia

There are three main types of dyslexia and four additional types, each of which is a combination of the three main types:

  • Motor dyslexia: When letters and numbers are reversed and the mirror image of a letter is written, such as the letters “b” and “d”.
  • Phonetic (auditive) dyslexia: This is the inability to associate symbols and sounds with one another. In other words, you see a word but don’t hear the sound of it in your mind.
  • Visual dyslexia: You see a word but can’t immediately process it. This sort of dyslexia is hereditary.

Source: Sandra Swart

Help for parents

As soon as a child is diagnosed with dyslexia their parents can take some therapeutic action:

  • Give one instruction at a time. Don’t shout at the child if they don’t carry out the instruction. Rather repeat it.
  • Tell the child’s teacher about their learning difficulties.
  • Use the child’s strengths when helping them with homework. If they struggle visually but are aurally strong help by reading the work to them.
  • Don’t do their schoolwork for them. The child must learn to be independent, no matter how much help they need.
  • Don’t lose hope. With the right help, dyslexia is a temporary inability.
  • Making special allowances for the child at school should be the last resort after all others have been exhausted.

Source: Susan du Plessis

Exercise, exercise, exercise

  • Teach children from an early age to name their body parts – for example, right hand, left hand, left foot, right foot.
  • Practise left and right continually. This should be practised over and over again daily so the child can internalise the concept.
  • Play memory games. A simple game is to place toys, for instance, on a table and give them 10 seconds to look at them. Then cover the toys and ask the child to name them.
  • Say a word - for example, “tree”. The child says “tree”. Say another word - “chair”, for example. The child then says “tree, chair”. Add another word and have them repeat each of the words including the new one.

What teachers can do

Share these tips for your child’s teacher:

  • Create a positive learning environment where children are encouraged and every child experiences a sense of success and self-worth.
  • If you suspect a learner has dyslexia talk to the parents as soon as possible.
  • Enlarge the spacing between letters and words on the board, and on worksheets and examination papers. This helps dyslexic children to read on average 20 per cent faster and they make only half the mistakes they would otherwise.

Source: Susan du Plessis

- Shané Barnard

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