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Depending on what decade we grew up in, most of us can recall watching PBS as children. We practiced putting sounds together to make words with silhouette blending (pu + sh = PUSH!) on Electric Company. On Sesame Street we learned about lowercase “n,” standing on a hill all alone until one day a rocket ship brought her a friend. We were exposed to all kinds of great children’s classics like Curious George during Captain Kangaroo’s “Reading Stories” sessions. And who could forget Reading Rainbow (with its fantastic theme song!), which took us places we never thought possible, even to space—all through the pages of a book.

Many of us have passed this gift to our own children, introducing them to PBS programs like WordGirl, where they learn to speak multisyllabic vocabulary words before they can even read single syllables on a printed page. What if they have trouble with the words on a page, though? What if their rocket ship to space doesn’t work as well as the next student’s because they find themselves stumbling over the letters or not being able to get them down on paper?

Dyslexia research

Students like Josh Thibeau, 12, of West Newbury, Massachusetts, knows well the stigma associated with his struggle. “There was a student that said, ‘Are you stupid?’ because my brain was working in a different way. And I’m just like, ‘No, I am not stupid…I’m just dyslexic.’” According to the International Dyslexia Association, as many as 15-20% of the U.S. population have some symptoms of dyslexia, including slow or inaccurate reading, poor spelling, poor writing, or mixing up similar words. The learning disability often runs in families, and the Thibeaus are no exception: Josh and his three biological siblings all have dyslexia to some degree.

Now, research published in the August 2013 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience reveals that it is possible using magnetic resonance imaging to detect some of the signs of dyslexia in the brain even before kids learn to read. Being able to identify the disorder at an earlier age may influence how parents, educators, and clinicians tackle it.

In first grade, Josh was involved in one such study with Nadine Gaab of Boston Children’s Hospital and John Gabrieli at MIT to investigate what role genetics and environmental factors play in dyslexia and to examine the arcuate fasciculus, an arch-shaped bundle of fibers that connects the frontal language areas of the brain to the areas in the temporal lobe that are important for language.

The researchers plan to follow three waves of children as they progress to second grade and evaluate whether the brain measures they have identified predict poor reading skills. For Gabrieli, the big question is how the study will play out over time. “Can we, through a combination of behavioral and brain measures, get a lot more accurate at seeing who will become a dyslexic child, with the hope that that would motivate aggressive interventions that would help these children right from the start, instead of waiting for them to fail?”

Josh’s mother, Janet, is hopeful for what this discovery could mean for kids like her son. “You see kids struggle and not get their needs met and you see them turning into teenagers who make bad or unsafe choices…. These are really bright kids who are capable of a lot once those underlying weaknesses are met.”

RTI: Integrating science with education

Response to intervention (RTI) has challenged educators and school systems nationwide to design instructional techniques that are rooted in scientifically based approaches. Integrating RTI With Neuropsychology: A Scientific Approach to Reading, by Steven Feifer, PhD, and Douglas Della Toffalo, PhD (School Neuropsych Press, 2007), examines the important relationship between the brain–behavioral tenets of cognitive neuropsychology and educational approaches to reading. The neurological underpinnings of reading are described in an accessible manner that is easy for educators to retain and apply.

Richard Selznick, PhD, author of Dyslexia Screening: Essential Concepts for Schools & Parents (SDL Consulting/Publishing, 2015), explains the importance of screening for dyslexia and all of the components that make up a screening program for schools. Reviewer Howard Margolis, professor emeritus of reading disabilities and special education at City University of New York, says about Selznick’s book: “He provides a practical roadmap for increasing the accuracy of screening while avoiding many of the pitfalls that plague screenings.”

Coming soon from PAR: The Feifer Assessment of Reading can help explain why a student struggles

Many reading assessments merely report the level at which students read but don’t explain why they struggle in this area. In response to this need, Steven Feifer, PhD, developed the Feifer Assessment of Reading™ (FAR™) on the premise that treatments for reading disorders vary by dyslexic subtype and that neuropsychological processes often predict reading outcomes. It was constructed to isolate, measure, and analyze specific cognitive processes involved with the reading process. Clinical psychologists, neuropsychologists, school psychologists, special educators, educational diagnosticians, and reading specialists can use the FAR for help in determining appropriate interventions for examinees in prekindergarten to college (ages 4-21 years), including those compatible with RTI.

Resources to share with parents

Every child learns to speak at his or her own pace, but general guidelines do exist for knowing whether yours is on the right track. For instance, by the end of 3 months, your child might make cooing sounds; by the end of 6 months, babble and make a variety of sounds; by the end of 12 months, say words like mama and dada; by the end of 18 months, say as many as 8-10 words; and by the end of 24 months, ask one- to two-word questions like “Go bye-bye?” The University of Michigan’s Dyslexia Help Web site provides in-depth checklists that can help determine if an assessment might be helpful in determining a language-based learning disability.

To encourage these developmental milestones and to help your child become a reader, Reading Is Fundamental suggests the following tips for parents of young children: read aloud to your child every day; create a print-rich home environment; model reading and writing; use grocery shopping to encourage reading; cook with your child to develop literacy; explore books together; tell stories together; sing and rhyme with your child; write with your child; and visit the library often. Another good resource for you and your child can be found on the U.S. Department of Education Web site.

Reading for fun with your young child is crucial to fostering later success in reading proficiency, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress 2010 reading assessment of fourth-grade students. Get some great ideas on how to incorporate more read-aloud activities into your home at by visiting the Literacy Connections Web site, which contains myriad resources.

Stay connected

We hope you find this newsletter to be informative and useful—please feel free to pass it along to colleagues or members of your staff and to contact me if you have any questions or comments or would like to learn more about the FAR! At PAR, we truly appreciate the opportunity to serve as a resource for the important work you do.