Overcoming Dyslexia / Sally Shaywitz

This review appeared on my previous blog, Rat's Reading.

Jason bugged me to read this book for a while and give him my take on it. I read another book on dyslexia a couple of years ago. After the initial review, I found even more information on it that pointed to that book’s shortcomings. This one, Overcoming Dyslexia, by Sally Shaywitz, I have to say is much better. Still, this is no five star review.

Cover of Overcoming Dyslexia

The book covers 4 parts: the science behind reading and dyslexia, diagnosing dyslexia in children & adults, teaching reading in general, and teaching reading to dyslexics. I hold more confidence that the first two parts are solid than I do the latter two.

In part 1, Shaywitz explains the history of dyslexia, going back to the first doctors to identify it and related disabilities. Then she goes into what’s missing in dyslexics: phonologic ability. Essentially the ability to automatically break apart words into their constituent sounds. According to the book, it’s more fundamental than people typically think. The myth is that dyslexics see words and letters in the wrong order and position. According to the book, it can be found even without resorting to written matter. Dyslexics have trouble, for instance, breaking the word cat into the sounds of c, a, and t, when asked. Or at least they do at a young age. There are other indicators as well. But that’s fundamentally the problem. If a dyslexic can’t do that, they will also have problems associating alphabets with sounds. And according to the research she touts, it’s sounds we understand, though good readers are so accustomed to converting to sounds and then understanding the words that the conversion happens without conscious recognition.

Part 2 is about recognizing dyslexia. There’s a lot of references in these chapters to multitudes of tests that can determine if someone is dyslexic. Some are individually administered. Others are geared toward classroom testing to identify at-risk children. The biggest piece to take away from this section is to test early if there is any doubt that someone might be dyslexic. According to Shaywitz, early intervention is best. Can’t disagree with that. If the premise of part 1 is correct, then part 2 is probably good as well. It tests for the things in part 1.

Where she starts going scattershot though is in part 3. The author was on the National Reading Panel (N.R.P.), which was a government panel to determine what programs were effective at teaching reading. Her claim is that the programs she lists are endorsed by that panel as generally effective as proven by scientific studies. Not necessarily for everyone, but on the whole they were the most effective programs. I haven’t yet gone to the government web to verify her claims. Essentially the programs recommended were mostly based on phonics. She lists quite a few, though not Hooked on Phonics. I suspect the N.R.P. web site will have more thorough information. In addition, she also writes a bunch about some effective components of some of these programs, as well as useful things for parents to do. And even reading material for kids. She recommends Cricket for Kids, a magazine I loved as a child. I don’t think my mom kept the back issues though. Her evidence that these programs and methods are effective though cannot be found in the book. Which is why I hope the N.R.P. has the info.

Her last section covers teaching reading to dyslexics. Accord to this book, the components are quite similar to effective methods for teaching everyone, but with more emphasis than ever on the phonics. There’s a chapter in there on teaching reading to dyslexic adults, who have already worked around the phonologic issue but in a manner that hasn’t made them fluent readers. Mostly these items suggest programs to use. The book doesn’t cover a lot of specifics.

Throughout the book, there are a couple of items. First, she has lots and lots of external references. Sometimes it’s to authority (e.g., the N.R.P.) and sometimes it’s suggestions of programs and web sites. As I wrote, she even goes so far as to suggest reading material. The second item is that Shaywitz fluffs much of the book with cheerleading. Not for herself (mostly), but instead for dyslexics. She fills the book with uplifting tales of dyslexics who were amazingly smart people but because of their dyslexia had problems in school. Some of them are pseudonym-ed patients of hers, some are famous and semi-famous people. You too are amazingly smart, is the general gist of these anecdotes. The first thing noted was nice. The second got tiring.

Overall, I believe a worthwhile book though, even if the information isn’t really as new or effective as the title suggests.

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