For the week of August 19 thru August 25, 1998  

What is Dyslexia?

Yale researchers address local conference

Express Staff Writer

g19dslx1.gif (10446 bytes)Dr. Sally Shaywitz presents results of findings on dyslexia to the audience at the Bridges to Learning conference in Sun Valley. (Express photos by Charmaine McCann)

Renowned researchers Dr. Sally Shaywitz and Dr. Bennett Shaywitz, who discovered the neural pathway for reading that lies behind the cause for dyslexia, presented their research to a group of 300 teachers and educators last weekend at the Bridges to Learning conference in Sun Valley.

The Shaywitzes, a married couple, are co-directors of the Yale Center for Learning and Attention at Yale University. The breakthrough allows educators and specialists to better diagnose and find remedies for dyslexics.

According to Dr. Sally Shaywitz, dyslexia is a disorder that causes great difficulty in reading that, until the discovery, was attributed to laziness or a lack of intelligence.

"What is dyslexia? It is bright people who have difficulty reading," said Shaywitz. "In our society the ability to read is taken as a proxy to intelligence, and that is the paradox of dyslexia," she said.

Among their studies, the researchers designed the Connecticut Longitude Study in 1983, and followed 445 children from kindergarten through high school and beyond. Through cognitive tests, assessment tests and student surveys, the couple found that reading disabilities affect 20 percent of the population, as opposed to the 4-5 percent reported by the Department of Education.

g19dslx2.gif (12430 bytes)Dr. Dennett Shaywitz, co-director with his wife of the Yale Center for Learning and Attention.

The study also showed that over time a dyslexic’s ability to read will improve, but the gap between a dyslexic reader and a normal reader remains the same.

"The gap never gets smaller; it is a persistent, chronic problem," Shaywitz said.

She explained the core deficit responsible for dyslexia is found within the language system in the brain. The English language contains 44 phonemes, which are the smallest units of sound.

Shaywitz explained that the word "bat" has three phonemes; "buh," "aah," and "tuh." She said the brain pulls out the sounds of a particular word and connects the sounds in the order of the word, but dyslexics have trouble transforming the visual word, or alphabetical code, into a linguistic code.

Illustrating the point, Shaywitz told the story of a student who, when asked by her teacher to identify a picture of a volcano, answered tornado. Although she recognized and knew what a tornado was, she had trouble retrieving the correct phonemes.

Bennett explained the method the Shaywitzes used to reach their findings.

The couple monitored readers’ brain action with functional magnetic resonance imaging, or a fMRI, to identify which part of the brain is active while performing broken-down tasks of reading. The fMRI monitored the presence of oxygen-rich blood, which is present in an active part of the brain.

Bennett said a group of 29 adults with dyslexia and 32 competent readers were asked to identify letters, decide which letters rhymed such as "d" and "c," and then decide which nonsense words rhymed. He said the two groups showed very different brain patterns.

In an unimpaired reader, the path starts in the back of the brain in the primary visual cortex, which registers what the eyes see, moves forward to the visual association area, and then moves to an area behind the eyes called Wernike’s area where the brains converts sounds to words.

In the dyslexic brain, the Shaywitzes saw activation only in the front of the brain in an area called Borca’s area, which connects words with phonemes.

The couple said they hoped the research would provide for better intervention methods, and frame a direction for the future. They are currently conducting studies to determine whether a dyslexic’s brain pattern can be altered through an intensive phonetically-based intervention program.

The conference was sponsored by the Lee David Pesky Center for Learning Enrichment, a not-for-profit educational organization founded in 1996. Its services include psychoeducational assessments, individualized remediation plans, family and individual counseling, school consultations and classes for parents and teachers. The center is based in Boise, but will move into the Bill Janss Activity Center after its construction in Ketchum.



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