Dyslexia and Your Child

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a disability that hampers a person's ability to learn, write and sometimes even speak. The word `dyslexia' derives from the Greek meaning `difficulty with words'. It is a common learning disability among children in Malaysia as there are approximately 500,000 children who suffer from it.

There are three main types of dyslexia - trauma dyslexia, primary dyslexia and developmental dyslexia. Trauma dyslexia develops when a trauma or injury occurs to the part of the brain that controls writing and reading while primary dyslexia occurs when the cerebral cortex or the left side of the brain does not mature as the child does. Developmental dyslexia occurs when there is hormonal development during fetal growth.

If your child is unable to read, write or spell as well as his peers, don't be quick to call him dumb or stupid. The problem may be much deeper. Children with dyslexia have often been called dumb or lazy even though they are actually children with above average intelligence. These children may be able to answer questions that a teacher poses to them correctly but when the same questions are asked in a written method, they may not be able to do as well.

Where to look for help

There are organisations and associations in Malaysia that can help your children cope with dyslexia. Among them are the Kiwanis Disability Information and SupportCentre (KDISC) and the Persatuan Dyslexia Wilayah Persekutuan.

KDISC is an online resource centre that aims to equip parents with the information they need on their child's disability and educates them on ways to cope with it. It also gives support and assistance to disabled people and their families.

Persatuan Dyslexia Wilayah Persekutuan is an organisation that centres on the education and welfare of dyslexic children and adults. It also provides seminars, workshops and activities for parents of dyslexic children.

Tell-tale signs

* If your child has poor coordination and is frequently clumsy, it could be a sign that he could be dyslexic. A dyslexic child will struggle to feed himself or even walk, as dyslexia affects a child's motor skills.

* Another sign that your child could be suffering from dyslexia is if he regularly gets confused by letters, numbers or words. When asked to read or write, he often transposes and repeats letters and numbers. For example, he could read `tar' as `rat', `dog' as `god' and `172' as `271'.

* A child that complains about seeing a non-existent movement in the letter or numbers when he is reading or writing could also be suffering from dyslexia if the eye doctor has confirmed that there is nothing wrong with his vision.

* Dyslexia not only affects reading and writing, it also affects numbers. Memorising the multiplication table will be difficult for a dyslexic child and he may also find it difficult to count objects and deal with money.

* If your child has awful handwriting and you have been telling him to work on it, it may not actually be his fault. A dyslexic child can have dreadful handwriting. This condition is known as dysgraphia. He would usually hold his pencil with his thumb above his fingers, like how one would ball his fist to throw a punch, but with a pencil inside.

* The child will also find it hard to keep letters in a straight line and to let the letters sit on the line when he is writing a sentence.

* He may also have trouble spacing his words. It will either be spaced too far apart or too close together.

Dyslexia in different languages

DYSYSLEXIA can be understood from many perspectives. Parents and teachers are often the first persons to realise that something is amiss through behavioural signs and symptoms.

The most common behavioural signs and symptoms are inability to read or spell simple and common words.

Associate Professor Dr Lee Lay Wah, School of Educational Studies, USM, says that her research has shown that children with dyslexia in Malaysia and in the UK show similar behavioural signs and symptoms. In other words, the signs and symptoms of dyslexia are quite similar across different cultures and languages.

Researchers often go beyond behavioural signs and symptoms to study the underlying cognitive problems of dyslexia. The most established cognitive deficit to explain dyslexia is the phonological processing deficit.

Dr Lee goes on to say that her research has shown that children with dyslexia learning to read in Bahasa Malaysia also exhibit deficits in the phonological component of language. For example, they show great difficulty in blending individual sounds. An example would be /m/ + /a/ + /k/ that when blended produce `mak'.

Sometimes they also show deficits in holding more than two sounds in short-term memory. For example, they can blend /m/ and /a/ to produce `ma', but with the introduction of a third sound such as /k/, confusion starts to set in.

Typically, they are also slower in trying to retrieve words already learned from their long-term memory. This means that their reading can still be slow and laborious even after they are able to decode, hence work will still need to be done on fluency.

Their decoding difficulties are often unexpected in relation to their other cognitive abilities. They do not have problems with listening comprehension.

Children with dyslexia cannot read because they typically have problems translating print to sound (decoding). If a child has not acquired the knowledge and skills required in translating print to sound, then the child will have problems reading regardless of the language. For example, if a person is tone deaf, whether he is learning to sing a simple folk song or an opera, he will still struggle.

However, research does show that there are a smaller percentage of children with literacy difficulties in transparent languages. Bahasa Malaysia is considered a transparent language as the letters correspond quite perfectly with the sounds in our language.

Nevertheless, no matter how transparent a language, there are still some inconsistencies which need to be taught explicitly to children with dyslexia.

For example in Bahasa Malaysia, the letter `e' represents two sound units. Dr Lee says that her preliminary research shows that about 25 per cent of words in children's stories in Bahasa Malaysia are words with letter-sound inconsistencies. It is about 75 per cent in English children's stories.

It is easier to learn a transparent language like Bahasa Malaysia compared to an opaque language like English as there are less inconsistencies to deal with.

However, a child in a multi-lingual environment such as ours has to learn two or three languages simultaneously, which might add to his confusion.

Research has shown that dyslexia can manifest differently based on the orthography of the language.

In Mandarin for example, tone awareness and syllable awareness are found to be more important for early language acquisition compared to phoneme awareness in alphabetic languages.

There are many facets to dyslexia and this is just the tip of the iceberg. It is always good to learn and understand it better, especially if your child has been diagnosed with the condition.

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