Coping with dyslexia

Early intervention makes learning to read easier


Jennifer Burklow

Lisa Hannum's son was struggling with reading. She found help at a conference sponsored by the Illinois branch of the International Dyslexia Association.

"That is sort of when the sun came out for me," says the Schaumburg mother. "I finally understood why my son could not learn how to read."

Dyslexia is an inheritable, neurological condition affecting language abilities. Simply put, the brains of people with dyslexia are wired in a way that makes it difficult to master language tasks.

Dyslexia affects boys and girls equally and cuts across socio-economic divisions. The National Institutes of Health estimate up to 20 percent of the U.S. population has a learning disability and 80 percent of that group has dyslexia.

Gina Cooke, director of the Valley of Chicago Learning Center for Children in LaGrange, puts it this way: Dyslexia is "an unexpected difficulty with written language. It's the unexpected component that is really the hallmark of the disability. You have children and adults who are very bright, very capable-and you wouldn't expect them to have these language difficulties."

Intervene early

With intervention, people with dyslexia can learn to read. And the younger the child, the easier it is, says Hannum, now president of the Illinois branch of the International Dyslexia Association.

People with dyslexia are unable to distinguish the sounds that make up words and often have trouble matching sounds to letters, Hannum says.

Research shows that multisensory instruction-using sight, hearing and touch-that begins with phonemic (sound) awareness is most effective. "Through intervention you retrain the brain so that they're using the parts that read efficiently," Hannum says.

A successful multisensory program deals with the five components of language: sound differentiation, the relationship between letters and their sounds, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension, Hannum says. That's what Cooke offers at the Valley of Chicago Learning Center, one of 53 centers run by the 32° Scottish Rite Masons in 15 states.

The approach works. Tinley Park mom Laura Kennedy began taking her daughter Kathleen, now 12, to the center when she was 8. Kennedy says Kathleen's letter and number reversals in kindergarten and nonsensical writing in first and second grade were clues something was amiss. "I'm a teacher myself; I knew."

Kathleen was diagnosed with dyslexia and referred to the center. This year she "graduated" and "feels great about it. She sits on a daily basis and writes letters to friends," Kennedy says. "She never used to do this."

Finding out what's wrong

Diagnosing dyslexia can be difficult. The first step is to talk to your child's teachers, principal, counselor and school psychologist. Cooke says some kids learn to compensate for their disability and won't be easily diagnosed. Parents should go outside the school system if necessary.

"Don't buy the 'he'll catch up' [theory]," Hannum says. "It only happens in a very, very minimal number of cases. The kids who are at a disadvantage, the disadvantage only becomes wider."

Kennedy adds: "Don't be afraid to face the possible diagnosis. ... So many parents think it's a death sentence, and it's not."

Instead, Kennedy says, believe in your child. "If they know you believe in them, they'll believe in themselves."

The Illinois branch of the International Dyslexia Association presents its annual conference Oct. 20-21 at the Drury Lane Conference Center in Oak Brook. The group also offers workshops Oct. 22-Dec. 31 throughout the Chicago area. Call (630) 469-6900 or e-mail

Jennifer Burklow, Chicago Parent copy editor, lives in La Grange Park with her daughters, 13 and 18, and her husband.

The International Dyslexia Association Web site ( says parents should be concerned if a child struggles with some of the following:

- Understanding that words are made up of sounds.

-  Assigning the correct sounds to letters.

-  Correctly pronouncing sounds and words.

-  Spontaneous spelling (people with dyslexia can memorize spelling lists, so look at spontaneous spelling).

-  Learning sequential information.

-  Reading with age-appropriate speed, accuracy and comprehension.

-  Expressing thoughts in writing or orally.

- Learning numbers and facts.

-  Answering open-ended questions.

-  Organizing thoughts, time or a sequence of tasks.

- Confusing directions in space and time (such as left and right and up and down).


-  Dyslexia usually involves letter reversal. Not true, says Gina Cooke, director of the Valley of Chicago Learning Center for Children in LaGrange. "Many people with dyslexia don't have it."

- Dyslexia is a visual deficit. In reality, dyslexia is a deficit in the ability to distinguish sounds, Cooke says.

- Dyslexia is a reflection of low intelligence. "It's not," Cooke says. "Many, many famous dyslexics are known to be very bright," including inventors Thomas Edison and Leonardo da Vinci.

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