Dyslexia: When Early Identification and Intervention are Critical

byMoshe Shtuhl, Ph.D.

A consensus among child development specialists is that early identification of children with developmental and learning challenges is critical. Early intervention takes advantage of what is often referred to as brain plasticity or neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change and reorganize itself based on experience. Neuroplasticity seems to be especially dramatic at a young age. Intervening early also spares the child the experience of secondary negative consequences related to their challenges. For example, a child who does not keep up with learning at school due to learning or attention difficulties might not develop the study skills required for success, and his self esteem could suffer, which in turn could create a negative cycle of discouragement and failure. Extensive research over the past 20 years on dyslexia confirms the importance of early identification and treatment of children with dyslexia.

Dyslexia is a reading disorder, a significant difficulty with reading acquisition. This can be a life-long disability and, though some people with dyslexia have done just fine in life (Charles Schwab, for one), addressing it early can make a huge difference.

Reading mastery, unlike the mastery of language, always requires hard and deliberate work. Whereas most young children learn a language just by being around people who speak the language, no child can learn to read just by spending time with readers. In human evolution, reading appeared relatively late and we are not as hard wired to learn to read as we are to acquire language.

While all children need to work hard to learn to read, some children, many of them very bright, continue to struggle with reading. This phenomenon has mystified child development researchers and over the last century generated various theories and therapies.

Up until about two decades ago, it was believed that for most children dyslexia was caused by weaknesses within the visual system. There was a suggestion, for example, that when children consistently reverse letters, it is a sign of dyslexia. It was also believed that all children with signs of dyslexia should receive some kind of visual therapy to address the root cause of dyslexia. Today we know that this is not the case. In fact most children with dyslexia present with specific weakness with their auditory system. While some children can benefit from visual training, the majority of children need a specialized program that helps them with phonological processing (the ability to manipulate sounds) and with rapid automatic naming (the ability to quickly label visual stimuli). We also know that reversing letters is a normal phenomenon we should not worry about by itself, unless the child is older than eight.

The obvious indicator of a reading disorder is that the child does not make sufficient progress with reading acquisition. However, since children differ in terms of how quickly they master reading, the risk is that if we have to wait until a child is well behind their peers to intervene; then we might miss the most productive time to intervene, which is as early as possible.

Research has shown that preschoolers often show the following early signs of dyslexia:

  • Difficulty with rhyming
  • Difficulty accessing the right word (e.g., “I put it in the thingee”)
  • Have a hard time learning to name colors or letters and the sounds associated with them
  • Have a family history of dyslexia

In kindergarten and first years of school, children with a reading disorder usually showing the following:

  • Child does not sound out words phonetically or make phonetic spelling mistakes. Whereas “enuff” is phonetically correct, “effun” is not.
  • Lack of fluency in reading compared to peers
  • Extensive use of guessing of words, either based on the first letter or on the context of the reading.

If there is a concern about reading, testing can determine if the child meets criteria for a reading disorder and will identify the root cause(s) of the reading problem. Testing will also rule out other potential related challenges, such as attention or visual problems that might affect the child’s rate of reading acquisition.

Once a reading disorder is identified, the hard but very productive work of overcoming dyslexia can start in earnest. To learn more about dyslexia, please see the book Overcoming Dyslexia.