Reading expert discusses dylexia; says English is part of problem

“English is a great language, but it’s part of the problem.”

Words of wisdom from Margie Gillis, project director at the Haskins Literacy Initiative at Yale University, delivered earlier this month to a room of parents and educators at Royle School. Gillis’s visit was sponsored by the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee, and she spoke for roughly two hours about dyslexia being both a blessing and a curse.

As with any learning disability, teachers make the biggest difference with students and their ability to learn, Gillis said.

“They are the most important variable,” she said.

Gillis’s husband, daughter and son all have dyslexia, which is condition where a person has difficulty pulling apart the sounds of words. It is not an intellectual disability, and there is a growing amount of evidence showing the dyslexic mind has distinct advantages.

“This has nothing to do with intelligence,” Gillis said. “But when peers [learn to read] seemingly effortlessly, you start thinking, ‘There’s got to be something wrong with me and it must be that I’m dumb.’”

“Knowing and telling your children that your mind is different, it’s not bad or worse,” is crucial to maintaining their self-esteem and interest in learning, Gillis said.

Some of the difficulties that come with dyslexia remain with a person for life. Gillis’s husband, for example, is a terrible speller, especially with certain words, she said.

“You learn to read as a dyslexic,” she said. “It’s the spelling that’s a stickler.”

Gillis began her talk by noting that 95% of people can learn to read, and said “literacy is the language of opportunity.”

Conversely, illiteracy is directly related to anti-social behavior. Ten to 15% of children with serious reading problems will drop out of high school, and about half of youth with criminal records or with a history of substance abuse have reading problems, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Additionally, 70% of prisoners fall into the lowest two levels of reading proficiency. For those who are released from prison, recidivism rates vary widely between those who get help reading and those who do not. Inmates have a 16% chance of returning to prison if they receive literacy help, as opposed to 70% who receive no help.

While Gillis did not discuss this element, known as the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline, she mentioned that written language is not a biological function of our brain, which makes its very existence antithetical to human nature. Speech, by contrast, is a biological function.

“Written language is largely a cultural invention,” Gillis said, quoting her Haskins colleague Ken Pugh. “Moreover, spoken language is mastered naturally in almost all people, without direct instruction, but reading is difficult and reading failure occurs in large numbers of children across all written languages.”

Symptoms of dyslexia vary, but consist mostly of an inability to decode printed words [see chart at end of story for list of symptoms by age group].

The earliest warning signs involve preschool children who have difficulty learning numbers or letters, are prone to reversing words or forgetting colors or days of the week, and are slow with developing oral language skills. Dyslexia can be inherited, according to the National Institute of Health, and many cases of dyslexia are genetically determined, Gillis said.

Dyslexic brains also show different activation patterns when examined under an MRI scan.

In normal readers, the brain’s frontal lobe and temporoparietal junction are excited while reading a passage, but dyslexic readers have little to no activation in the temporoparietal region, which is partially responsible for collecting and processing visual information.

Gillis is quick to warn, however, that there is no single part of the brain responsible for dyslexic thinking patterns. She also said that it’s rare to find a case of “classic dyslexia,” where the person’s only disability is dyslexia. Many children who have dyslexia also have attention deficit hyperactive disorder, memory problems and language processing disorders.

Roughly 15 to 20% of Americans — up to 60 million people — have some form of dyslexia, according to research at the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. Teaching dyslexic children can be difficult, but research from the National Reading Panel found that phonics instruction is more effective than other methods. Phonics is the use of the sounds of letters and combinations of letters to help with reading.

Gillis discussed a variety of teaching techniques to help children with dyslexia learn to read, such as picture sorts, “Blachman, Road to the Code,” Elkonin boxes, and the Lindamood phoneme sequencing program.

Parents and teachers should not encourage memorization of sight words, but should instead work on developing the student’s ability to read using “decodable text,” Gillis said. Accuracy should be a priority over speed, and educators should understand that oral reading is difficult for most students.

The reading expert, who also runs Literacy How and is a co-founder and current board president of Smart Kids with LD, noted that dyslexic people are often exceptional at spatial analysis, mechanical aptitude, creative problem-solving, visualization, artistic expression and athletics.

But she warned that sometimes schools misunderstand what dyslexia is. This is partially due to the inability of the state or federal governments to define dyslexia as an actual disorder. Federal and state legislation are pending to define dyslexia, spearheaded by the Bipartisan Congressional Dyslexia Caucus.

Because of this lack of a definition, there is also a lack of understanding, Gillis said. Sometimes a school will tell a parent to be patient and give the child time, which is often bad advice.

“If parents don’t feel it’s right, don’t let the teacher or administration tell you, ‘Don’t worry, give it some time,’” Gillis said. “That’s not right… I tell parents you know your child better than anyone… You have to say, ‘I know my child as a parent. Here, let me help you know my child better.’”

Gillis emphasized that working collaboratively as a team with parents and educators is crucial to ensuring all kids learn how to read.

More info:,,,,,,

Originally published in the Darien Times.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s