Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Don't "Dys" Labels: Defining Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, and Dyscalculia

Labels are tools. Labels are only words to help us define and understand phenomena we see in learning development. When we have children who struggle with learning, labels help us find resources and make connections. Most importantly, labels help us approach learning using appropriate strategies with proven effective outcomes.

Labels also create a cycle of understanding:  the better we define a cluster of learning struggles, the more researchers begin to identify neurocognitive connections, the more educators explore strategies for improvement. As this cycle continues, information about various treatment options--and their efficacy--is made available. Resources grow.

In other words--and this is the goal--the better we are able to differentiate between types of learning struggles, by assigning labels and solidifying our understanding, the better our intervention. 

This blog defines four common labels associated with reading and writing difficulties. In future posts, I will share how each type of learning struggle should be matched with appropriate, research-based intervention. The following definitions are taken from the book, Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, OWL LD, and Dyscalculia: Lessons from Science and Teaching, by Virginia Berninger and Beverly Wolf (21-22).

Dysgraphia is perhaps the most debated and confusing label. It is also poorly diagnosed with few assessment tools available. Unfortunately dysgraphia continues to be defined and treated primarily as a fine motor disorder, despite research to the contrary. The word dysgraphia is from the Greek base word graph, which means letter. Dysgraphia is an impairment in letter formation.

“Dysgraphia is a Specific Language Disability in students for whom developmental motor coordination disorder (outside the normal range) can be ruled out.”

Children with dysgraphia “have difficulty with:
  • subword letter formation--producing legible letters others can recognize
  • [writing] automatically in a consistent way that does not drain limited working memory resources”
In summary, dysgraphia is a written language disorder that:
  • interferes with the “serial production of strokes to form a handwritten letter”
  • “involves . . .  finding, retrieving, and producing letters, which is a subword level language skill”
  • interferes with spelling and written composition
  • may occur without additional difficulty in reading (dyslexia).

Dyslexia  is also from a Greek base word lex, which means word. It involves impairment in word-level reading and spelling skills. Part of the definition is that dyslexia occurs in the absence of other specific developmental disabilities. In other words, listening comprehension and oral expression are not impaired.

Dyslexia is a Specific Learning Disability that can involve any or all of the following delays in:
  • both accuracy and rate of oral reading
  • only rate of oral reading 
  • reading of only nonsense words
  • reading of both real and nonsense words
  • silent reading rate
  • written spelling 
Dyslexia may occur with or without dysgraphia.

Dyscalculia is often overlooked, and research is fairly new in understanding the possible co-occurrence of dyscalculia and dysgraphia. Based in another Greek base word, dyscalculia is an impairment in calculation, including:
  • computational procedures
  • basic addition 
  • subtraction,
  • multiplication
  • division operations
Children with dyscalculia may not be impaired in their comprehension of all quantitative skills. Like the other three, it is a disorder at the sub-word level, involving fast mapping and automaticity of symbols--in this case, math symbols.

OWL LD is an acronym for Oral Written Language Learning Disability. Because learning struggle involves more global language skills, an OWL LD becomes evident in the early toddler and preschool years as children struggle to progress in both their verbal and listening language development.

Characteristics of an OWL LD include children who “tend to:
  • be late talkers
  • struggle with understanding heard language,
  • [struggle in] combining words to express ideas and intentions in oral language.”
In addition, some children with language impairment “may show signs of co-occurring dysgraphia and/or dyslexia.”

Most educators are less familiar with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia, but they are more familiar with reading and writing struggles that are the result of underlying language impairment. When weak language skills impact reading and writing, it is diagnosed as an Oral Written Language Learning Disability.

It is easy to see that understanding the areas of weakness is critical for determining proper intervention. It doesn’t help to work on context cues with a student who cannot decode, or a graphic organizer for a student who cannot spell. We need to understand where kids struggle, and strengthen those skills.

Labels do not define who a child is, but it can give us a better sense of what a child is living with in their educational life. Better understanding leads us to better support.


Tuesday, February 6, 2018

What is Dyslexia and Dysgraphia? Neuroscience Explores the Answers...

CAUTION: This blog provides an in-depth explanation of the research surrounding dyslexia and dysgraphia! Proceed at your own risk...

There are a few researchers I follow closely in an effort to keep abreast of the ever-growing definition of Dyslexia and Dysgraphia. Technology is changing the way we think about these two areas of reading and writing struggle. With the advent of the fMRI (Functional MRI) in the 1990s, neuroscience is providing insight we never had before, helping to shape our understanding of diagnosis and intervention.

The greatest take-away from the research is this: dyslexia is primarily a language disorder rather than a visual disorder; dysgraphia is primarily a language disorder more than a fine motor weakness. Knowing this helps us understand that we need to approach reading and writing from a language perspective, rather than with vision therapy and occupational therapy alone--although those therapies may be required in some cases for kids who also have visual or fine motor impairments. This information is relatively new, and is therefore not widely understood.

In many public schools, Speech-Language Pathologists can not work on reading and writing and many intervention specialists are not trained in dyslexia interventions. Thus, parents need to fill the gap, providing appropriate treatment, either by educating themselves, or by finding private tutors who understand dyslexia and dysgraphia.

One of my favorite researchers to follow is Virginia Berninger, PhD. Berninger coined the model I always quote:

In their book, Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, OWL LD and Dyscalculia: Lessons from Science and Teaching, Virginia Berninger and Beverly Wolf summarize the latest research and its indications for effective intervention. As I discuss their book, I will summarize a few salient points and cite important quotes for you.

To fully understand dyslexia and dysgraphia, we need to understand reading and writing. When focused on teaching reading and writing, it is easy to forget that all learning reflects the status of the developing brain. All language is cognitive, and all cognition is neurological. Therefore, we educators must acknowledge neuroscientists and their discoveries.

Neuroscience reveals that there are key regions within the left hemisphere that execute reading and writing. "Broca's area [located on the left side of the brain, near the front] has been shown to house executive functions for all language systems--listening, speaking, reading, and writing" (4). Wernicke's area (located in the left temporal lobe) is the region involved in language comprehension. "According to contemporary brain imaging research, structural and functional differences occur between typical readers and writers and individuals with specific learning disabilities (SLDs) in both Broca's and Wenicke's regions" (4).

In addition, scientists have determined the hereditary nature of dyslexia and dysgraphia, manifested in families with various severity levels and learning struggles. Two specific genes have been associated with dyslexia in replicated research studies.

So what does this mean?

"Collectively, these genetic findings have educational implications. Genes may influence learning in at least three ways:

"First, genes may affect how the brain is wired during early fetal development" (11). In a conference I attended in 2016, presented by Nadine Gaab from Harvard Medical School, Gaab supported Berninger and Wolf, noting that fetal differences are being observed in her research studies.

"Second, genes may affect maturation of the brain after birth by guiding the process of [myelination]"(11), which is the coating of axons needed to transmit signals with more speed and efficiency . In other words, myelination is needed for learning, and this process may be delayed or impaired. Nadine Gaab described this as a weakness in white matter, which acts to communicate between key language regions. White matter is "the information highway" from the front to the back of the brain. Gaab gave the metaphor that weakness in white matter results in an information highway that is less robust and often bumpy.

Third, as stated above, "genes may contribute to two core types of impairments typically found in children with dyslexia: phonological and executive function" (11).

Another key area of the brain involved in reading and writing is a region in the back of the brain responsible for word-form memory. This region is "where spoken and written words are coded into memory for further processing . . . Children with and without dyslexia differ not only in phonological coding . . . but also in orthographic coding" (11). In other words, children with dyslexia have weakness in both phonological processing (managing sound) for reading, but also in developing the sound-to-symbol relationship needed for writing, and the word-form memory needed for reading fluency, writing fluency, and spelling. 

One final thought, as this is a lot to take in: There is research supporting the efficacy of multisensory intervention strategies for improving reading and writing, demonstrating that phonics practice is not enough. Reading and writing intervention needs to include phonological processing practice, orthographic (writing) practice, and morphological (word study) practice.

These combined interventions result in "chemical activation in the brain" in the key regions of weakness (12).

You may have noticed that this summary of recent research was only the most salient points through page 12 of Berninger & Wolf's book. Whew! Dyslexia and dysgraphia are complex problems requiring complex intervention. This is why we break our classes into four parts: Phonics & Spelling (where we show you how we support phonological processing), Vocabulary & Word Study (where we demonstrate strategies to improve morphological knowledge), Grammar & Punctuation (where we help kids connect to other language regions on the information highway), and Supported Writing & Editing (where we demonstrate kind and gentle orthographic training).

This is also why, in our Roots Entwined classes, we passionately promote a learning process we call Intentional Copywork and Dictation, in which phonics, spelling, word study, grammar, and comprehension are all taught in mini-lessons, then practiced in writing, week after week. This practice includes all the individual skills of reading/writing (mini lessons) and then works on consolidating them all together (copywork and dictation), which makes for intentional learning.

At Rooted in Language, we believe what the research supports: Strengthening all key areas of weakness, through skill training and consolidation practice (as described above) in reading and writing, is the very best way to help struggling learners progress.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Our Trees Book Has Many Branches!

The New Year often means new plans.
In preparation for a new start, Michelle, a home educator, asked me this question:

“I have Annotating Literary Elements and Trees in the Forest. Should I work on both at the same time or try one activity from one book and then the other?”

This request arrived just in time for the first anniversary of Trees in the Forest: Growing Readers and Writers through Deep Comprehension. It has been a fantastic year, with great sales, allowing us to reduce the price going forward. Thank you to everyone who has supported our launch as Rooted in Language. Thanks to you, we are able to share even more great teaching strategies and tools in the coming year!

To answer the question, I have to recap our production, a bit. So bear with me, as it answers the question in full.

When I wrote Trees in the Forest with Tracy Molitors, I wanted to present an overview of why deep comprehension matters, and include a few of my favorite ideas or strategies for helping kids improve this skill. The book was not meant to be all–encompassing; rather, it was meant to share some great tools to inspire learning.

During the book launch, we began to help others expand on the book’s ideas, leading to the publication of Explore-a-Story. Explore-a-Story provides direct insight into how to use one of the book’s methods.

We were unable to delve into the concept of annotation within the book, being aware that this complex and important idea would require its own exploration.  We originally developed Bookmarks, our tool to aid in annotation, but even that required more instruction. We needed to provide direct lessons, geared to both the independent student or the educator of younger students. So we created a multi-lesson approach to annotation called Annotating Literary Elements.

Now all these together combine to make a comprehensive approach to teaching deep reading! This leads us back to Michelle’s question: What order to teach?

Here is our recommendations on how to order our resources and use them to full effect:

  1. The educator begins reading Trees in the Forest through the First Tree (the first activity). Try the exercise for yourself, but don’t yet teach it to kids.
  2. Teach the Second Tree to your students of any age, and do the activity together. Fully engage in conversation, discussing what it means to “converse with a story,” and how one’s own internal conversation changes the story. This exercise can be repeated with other picture books throughout the year, or each year.
  3. Teach the Third Tree, using Explore-a-Story to support writing about characters. This is a Write-Draw-Think activity, so it is a multi-sensory way to explore character. Discussions on the character’s conflict and possible story themes should occur as a result. Use this exercise now and again throughout the year.
  4. Engage in the Fourth Tree with your students, sharing your writing as a form of poetry. Discuss the writer’s word choice and how chosen phrases came together to create a complete picture. Repeat as often as desired.
  5. Listen to our Podcast on Blart: A Little Blob of Art, and then do the Sixth Tree together. Notice how the exercise helps kids elaborate on ideas, as well as discovering theme. Discuss how writers use story to comment on the human experience. Use this method of writing throughout the year on various genres, including movies, poems, short stories, and novels. Use this method to help older writers develop a thesis and write introductory and conclusion paragraphs in literary analysis papers.
  6. Listen to our Podcast on Annotating Literary Elements (ALE), and then teach Lesson One. Do not be afraid to spend many months on this lesson, using various pieces of literature. Always engage in this exercise for any literature that will be analyzed in a formal paper. The bits and pieces of writing in this exercise are important warm-ups for both discussion and writing.
  7. Teach Lesson Two from ALE. Be sure to revisit this lesson when discussing or analyzing poetry or lyrical prose in the future. Use the vocabulary of Musical Elements when discussing songs, as well.
  8. Teach Lesson Three from ALE. You will notice that the exercise in this lesson is the same as the Fifth Tree in the Trees in the Forest book. You are coming full circle in teaching using our materials and ideas. Be sure to discuss how the writer uses images and figurative language to enhance a passage. Revisit the “Colors of the Canopy” lesson in the future, using copywork passages or poetry.
  9. Teach Lesson Four from ALE. Take your time. You are putting together many ideas, so it is better to go slowly. This will need to be practiced more than once, so we have also provided a follow-up lesson called Annotation Bookmarks Extension Activity. This will give your students an opportunity to absorb all of the information while applying their knowledge to a ballad poem.
  10. If you have younger children, you can teach them how to track literary elements using our strategy called Fishing for Meaning, rather than using the more advanced Bookmarks. Fishing for Meaning is a great strategy we use to help kids uncover and write what is hidden within the depths of a story. You may choose to use a different short story or a current novel for this exercise.
  11. Finally, read the Seventh Tree and have your children try the exercise from the First Tree. By now they have gained the tools to analyze text, and they have learned how to capture their thoughts in Bits and Pieces of writing.

Once you have worked through all of our strategies for improving comprehension, analyzing literature, and stimulating analytical writing, you can continue these strategies for years to come. As always, we teach our strategies using more simple text, but we help kids apply those strategies to more advanced literature as they mature. And don’t forget, analyzing poetry, videos, movies, commercials, magazine articles, short stories and non-fiction is all a part of creating a comprehensive language arts program, and helping kids learn how to learn!