WHAT A DIFFERENCE!
Understanding, teaching, and empowering students with language-based learning differences such as dyslexia
Kendra McCuine, M.Ed, teacher and interim director of the Hope Graham Program (HGP) at Bancroft School, writes about the beautiful and amazing dyslexic brain. Read on and discover further proof of what Hope Graham students already know: Dyslexia is a difference, not a disability!
The Business of Changing Brains
HGP is certainly all about effective teaching for students with language-based learning differences. But did you know that we’re really in the business of changing the structure of students’ brains? Relatively recent advances in the field of neuroscience have given educators empirical evidence about how dyslexic and non-dyslexic brains learn to read, enabling us to design more effective reading interventions for those who need them.
In the not-so-distant past, neuroscientists and educators didn’t fully understand why a lot of really bright kids, like those in HGP, had a really hard time learning to read. Before fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) made its debut in 1991, the technology to prove that some brains read differently just didn’t exist. There was a lot of skepticism around whether dyslexia was even “real,” and a lot of misinformed but well-meaning people sold, bought, and used a variety of ultimately useless products to help dyslexic kids read. Worst of all, these students’ inherent intelligence, strengths, and talents were sometimes overlooked simply because of their difficulties in one aspect of school. But by the early 2000s, fMRI enabled researchers to prove, with clear evidence, what lots and lots of people had suspected for a long time: dyslexia is indeed an inherited difference in the brain, and it does not impact an individual’s intelligence.
These scientists discovered that proficient readers primarily use the left side of their brain for reading. This is the most efficient route for turning groups of symbols (letters) into full words that carry meaning, like a highway to reading. However, for dyslexic readers, most of that highway’s lanes are blocked off. Their brains try to compensate by using the right side instead, but like a bumpy back road, this route doesn’t get them to fluent reading nearly as quickly as an efficient left side would.
Discovering why a dyslexic brain can be so intelligent yet have such a hard time reading was incredibly exciting. Among educators, however, questions remained about what kinds of intervention might help these students. Reading teachers had been arguing for quite some time about whether reading should be taught by directly teaching students phonics, or by exposing them to a lot of literature without direct instruction. Some researchers set out to discover what happens when a dyslexic student (or adult) is given a top-notch phonics-based reading intervention, such as those based on the principles of Orton-Gillingham, our main teaching method in HGP.
Here’s what they found:
In the top row of this image, the kindergartner is clearly using a bumpy back road (the right side of the brain) to try to read the words in front of her. However, look what happens to her brain by the time she's in first grade, after receiving some really good intervention. The left side is beginning to activate during reading! The brain is becoming more efficient at transforming letters into sounds. And as this child continues with the intervention, those connections will grow stronger and stronger. Thanks to the fact that our brain pathways don’t “harden” until our 20s, the effects we see on this kindergartner are achievable well into late adolescence.
Image source: http://www.commlearn.com/dyslexia-and-the-brain/
In HGP, we work on this kind of brain “rewiring” every day. Whether a second grader learning vowel-consonant-e syllables, a fifth grader deciphering vowel digraphs, or an eighth grader mastering Latin and Greek morphology, our students are constantly working to build and strengthen the neurological connections that they need for proficient reading. The best part? They get to do the hard work of building new neural connections within a school that recognizes and encourages their individual strengths and talents.
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