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Dr. Sally Shaywitz, Yale U School of Medicine
By Joan Baum, Ph.D.

Sally Shaywitz“It’s time to call things what they really are,” declares neuroscientist Dr. Sally Shaywitz, the Audrey G. Ratner Professor in Learning Development at Yale University School of Medicine, and co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity. And she does just that in her best seller, Overcoming Dyslexia, detailing how to recognize and treat a disorder that now affects one in five children. Subtitled “A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level (Knopf, Vintage),” the book lays out not only the latest research about recognizing this brain-based learning difficulty but does so in a compassionate and accessible way that has proven indispensable to parents, teachers, and policy makers. Her book provides “tools” on how to identify dyslexic children and adults and empirical data on the kinds of resources that can make a difference at home and in school, including specific methods that can strengthen reading decoding and fluency. Dyslexic readers can indeed “overcome” some difficulties and in the process, gain self-esteem, so essential a component in any pedagogy.

For sure, as Shaywitz notes, there’s confusion, if not downright denial, about dyslexia — but there need not and should not be. While learning to read and accessing and retrieving a spoken word are often problematic, the ability to think and reason and have empathy are not affected, in fact, are marked strengths in those who are dyslexic. As many role models out there show, dyslexic individuals can achieve because logic and reasoning are not adversely affected by dyslexia. The list includes, for example, financial services innovator Charles Schwab, the writer John Irving, the renowned attorney David Boies (he didn’t learn to read until the 3rd grade!) and a host of well-known innovators, scientists, physicians, and even poets. She emphasizes that slow reading should not be confused with slow thinking, nor should word retrieval difficulties and lack of glibness be misunderstood as lack of knowledge.

What is dyslexia? Shaywitz offers this definition: dyslexia is an unexpected difficulty in reading, in relation to an individual’s level of intelligence, age, grade or professional status. It emanates from difficulty in accessing the individual sounds of spoken words so that there is a predictable array of symptoms, including [difficulty with] spoken word retrieval, reading ease and speed, spelling and learning a second language.” She emphasizes that awareness of the basic difficulty in dyslexia allows educators, evaluators and parents to know what signs to look for to recognize dyslexia. Importantly, dyslexia is a clinical diagnosis based on a synthesis of an individual’s history, observation of his or her speaking and reading and test results. Shaywitz reminds us that tests are only proxys, it is the reality of an individual’s real life experiences that are of primary importance in diagnosing dyslexia.

So why, Shaywitz wonders, are many school systems slow to acknowledge what can be done, and why don’t schools of education include such information and training in their curricula? Parents turn to teachers and schools for enriched understanding and effective interventions for what they see in their children. Teachers need to know about specific approaches that make a difference. Policy makers such as Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and LA State Superintendent John White and LA Congressman Bill Casssidy, M.D. understand and are leaders in helping educators introduce effective techniques that can identify dyslexia as early as possible. What are some signs? Preschoolers who don’t “get rhymes” or kids who don’t know how to pull letter sounds apart — a “b” in “blue” that then can be recognized in another word beginning with “b.” Technology can certainly aid in such efforts, especially where extensive reading of texts constitutes the heart of an academic discipline

In 1998, Shaywitz points out, Congress seemed to acknowledge an “epidemic” of reading problems — she was one of 13 professionals who served on a National Reading Panel that carefully reviewed data and publicized the evidence of what approaches and methods are most effective in teaching reading. Dyslexia affects all manner of learners, she emphasizes. In fact, NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) flagged as 57 percent the number of children of college graduates who were not reading at appropriate age levels.

A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of CUNY who was first interested in law, until a beloved mentor at City College, the late mathematician Bernard Sohmer, encouraged her to pursue science. Shaywitz was awarded a full scholarhsip to The Albert Einstein College of Medicine and there were sown the seeds of her mission to overcome dyslexia. At Yale, where she works with her husband and her colleague, Dr. Bennett Shaywitz, the Charles and Helen Schwab Professor in Dyslexia and Learning Development, and Chief of Pediatric Neurology, she recalls when she got a call one day to see children with learning difficulties and was immediately “intrigued” and “touched” by what she saw — the despair of the children and their parents, the failure of others to look into the latest research. Extremely helpful have been the findings of brain imaging studies where Dr. Bennett Shaywitz has led the application of fMRI to understanding the neural basis of dyslexia. Dr. Shaywitz notes that, “brain imaging has made a heretofore invisible disability visible; there can no longer be any doubt as to the reality of dyslexia.”

Shaywitz is understandably proud of the many teachers and parents who have read her book or attended her presentations who write to her and refer to her book as their “bible.” She has been and continues to be involved in the classroom and working with regular and special education teachers in study groups. She notes the charter schools in the CT area her Center has partnered with, an effort that produced many benefits, most importantly to the children themselves.

Dyslexia is universal, found world-wide (“Overcoming Dyslexia has been translated into among other languages, Japanese, Chinese and Korean). Dyslexia affects every segment of our society, the most affluent as well the most disadvantaged; children who are highly gifted and can read accurately but not automatically as well as average children who continue to struggle to identify single words. It’s “shameful,” she says, that more is not being done, particularly in schools with large concentrations of poor and disadvantaged youngsters who are often dismissed as slow or retarded. She repeats that sobering statistic — one in five. #



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