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Recognizing the symptoms of dyslexia

Faculty member helping parents, educators find ways to manage the condition

Contact: Gary H. Piatek

​​​​​​​​For those with undiagnosed or untreated dyslexia, experiences in the classroom sometimes include memorizing the shape of a word to get through vocabulary lessons or feeling anxiety when asked to read aloud because reading fluently is a challenge.

If left unmanaged, the condition can contribute to poor school performance, underemployment and low self-esteem, or even trouble following laws and rules. Now, a CMU faculty member is working to shed light on dyslexia, informing legislators, and helping parents or educators find ways to identify and address it.

"The training and information to recognize and manage dyslexia is not always made readily available to educators and parents. We want to change this on a large scale," said Katie Squires, an assistant professor in The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow College of Health Professions at Central Michigan University. The speech-language pathologist also is a former elementary school teacher.

Michigan is one of the few states where dyslexia screening is not required.

Understanding dyslexia

The condition, which is often hereditary and undiagnosed, affects as many as one in five people. Legendary business leaders, artists, producers, scientists and more — including Charles Schwab, Steven Spielberg, Steve Jobs and Keira Knightley — have been open about how dyslexia has impacted their lives.

Symptoms and severity of this language-based learning disability are different for each person, but there are common symptoms. Dyslexia can ultimately impact someone's ability to learn how to read or spell, develop a sense of direction, or understand cause and effect.

Squires has been recognized as a board-certified specialist in child language — one of fewer than 100 specialists nationwide. She says there is a direct connection between dyslexia and language development. The condition, however, isn't always just about learning to read.

"It's not just about flipping letters around," Squires said. "If someone said to me they have always been terrible at spelling in combination with something like following directions, reading aloud or understanding the consequences of their actions, they could potentially be someone who has dyslexia."

Concerns are typically raised around the time a person reaches third grade, due to classroom performance or episodes of acting out in class. Because parents and teachers are not always trained to see the signs, symptoms are often mistaken for other learning, social or classroom behavioral issues such as attention deficit disorder, poor social skills or level of intelligence.

"Two important things for parents, educators and others to know is that dyslexia isn't a measure of a person's intelligence, and it is possible to manage it with the right instruction and language strategies," said Squires. "People with dyslexia often have other nonlanguage skills that are great strengths."

When it comes to daily tasks or chores, those without dyslexia may approach projects or day-to-day tasks differently than someone with dyslexia. For example, an adult with dyslexia may use the images in the directions to determine steps to construct a bookshelf. A person without dyslexia may follow the written directions or a combination of the two.

Addressing symptoms early

"If you catch it early on, there is so much you can do," Squires said. "People with dyslexia benefit from a multisensory, structured literacy approach that focus on remediating the issues with phonemic awareness. It's a very different way to learn to read and spell than is commonly taught in schools."

In August, Squires and a team of students traveled with Mobile Health Central — a mobile health unit organized through The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow College of Health Professions — to conduct screenings for preschool children in Isabella, Gratiot, Montcalm, Clare and Gladwin counties.

"Although dyslexia cannot be formally diagnosed until a child is at least five and a half years old, we can accurately predict if a child is at risk for dyslexia during the preschool years," Squires said.

She also led lessons in two preschools using a two-tier instruction approach to facilitate language growth. All children were exposed to a technique called dialogic book reading. This method of shared book reading involves asking children questions — like "What color is the cat? Do you have a cat that color?" or "What do you think will happen next?" — as you read a story together. She also met with parents to teach them how to use dialogic reading at home.

Children who were identified as needing additional language support participated in a program called Story Champs. Using multisensory techniques to teach children to comprehend and retell the story, Squires saw tremendous growth in language and pre-literacy skills in six weeks, even for children with limited English skills. ​

Squires hopes to publish research from data collected during the screenings and other programs in the coming year to help others with this treatable condition.

For parents, educators and health professionals who think a child or teen may have undiagnosed dyslexia, Squires recommends starting by using self-assessment tests available online through International Dyslexia Association or others. They should also follow up with a speech-language pathologist in their school district or local community.

"Identifying dyslexia can be relatively simple, but early identification is key," Squires said.​

Finding resources for dyslexia

CMU assistant professor Katie Squires — a member of the board of directors for the Michigan branch of the International Dyslexia Association — recommends the following resources for parents, educators and health care professionals who want to begin exploring information about dyslexia and effective management:

Bright Solutions for Dyslexia, Inc.

Barton Reading & Spelling System

International Dyslexia Association​

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