Thursday, August 5, 2010

Can you say, "Phonological Awareness"?

To understand phonological awareness, we must first know what a phoneme is. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in our language that makes a difference in a word’s meaning. For example, the word cat has three phonemes, /k/ /a/ /t/. By changing the first phoneme, we can produce the word rat. Changing the second phoneme creates the word cut, and we can create the word cab by altering the final phoneme. Words in the English language are composed of strings of phonemes. This is fortunate because it allows us to create all the words we will ever need by using various combinations of just 44 different speech sounds.

Speech scientists have discovered that the human brain is specifically adapted for processing many different kinds of linguistic information, and one part of our biological endowment allows us to process the complex phonological information in speech without actually being aware of the individual phonemes themselves. This is one of the human abilities that makes acquiring speech a natural process, so that almost everyone in the world learns to speak a language with very little direct instruction. However, because phonemes are represented by letters in print, learning to read requires that children become consciously aware of phonemes as individual segments in words. In fact, phonological awareness is most commonly defined as one’s sensitivity to, or explicit awareness of, the phonological structure of words in one’s language. In short, it involves the ability to notice, think about, or manipulate the individual sounds in words.

One of the early signs of emerging sensitivity to the phonological structure of words is the ability to play rhyming games. In order to tell whether two words rhyme, the child must attend to the sounds in the words rather than to the meaning of the words. In addition, the child must focus attention on only one part of a word rather than on the way it sounds as a whole. As children grow in awareness of the phonemes in words, they become better able to judge whether words have the same first or last sounds; with further development, they become able to isolate and pronounce the first, last, or middle sounds in words. At its highest levels of development, awareness of individual phonemes in words is evidenced by the ability to separately pronounce the sounds in even multi-syllable words or to tell exactly how two words like task and tacks are different.

Acquiring phonological awareness involves two things: learning that words can be divided into segments of sound smaller than a syllable, and learning about individual phonemes themselves. As children acquire more and more conscious knowledge of the distinctive features of phonemes (how they sound when they occur in words, or how they feel when they are pronounced), they become more adept at noticing their identity and order when they occur in words. For example, while children in the first semester of first grade might be able to isolate and identify the first or last sound of a word like man, by the end of first grade, most children can easily, and relatively automatically, segment all the sounds in a more complex word like clap.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Dyslexia's Special Club

What do Charles Schwab, David Boies, Tom Cruise, Nelson Rockefeller -- and it's suspected even Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison -- have in common?

They are all famous, yes. And also dyslexic.

Of course, considering 15 to 20 percent of the population is affected with a language-based learning disability -- and dyslexia is the most common of these -- purely statistically a handful of dyslexics are going to make it big. But research suggests it goes deeper than that: Experts are discovering a link between dyslexia and success.

In the spirit of raising awareness, the Child Mind Institute, an organization devoted to children's mental health, hosted a lecture series on dyslexia last week in New York City. President of the institute Harold Koplewicz, M.D. interviewed one such dyslexic-turned-success, actor and all-out movie star Orlando Bloom.

"It was a struggle. It was a lot of work," Bloom told the audience at Rockefeller University. "I had to work three times as hard to get two-thirds of the way.

"I was frustrated with that learning disability. It makes you feel stupid."

A great relief came for the actor at age seven, when he was tested and diagnosed with dyslexia, and also told he had a high IQ score. It was a blessing to get that diagnoses, he said. He knew he wasn't dumb.

A blessing indeed it was. The generation before Bloom's didn't fare so well. For decades the learning disability has been misunderstood -- or not understood at all -- and dyslexics knew only that they weren't "normal." They couldn't keep up in class, couldn't spell or read properly. They were called stupid or lazy -- and too often, they believed it.

The 1990s marked a crucial turning point, when scientists discovered the disability was linked to neurological differences in the brain -- differences that had nothing to do with cognition, IQ or intelligence.

Technology became available that enabled scientists to observe the brain while a person read, spoke or processed phonological structures of language -- i.e. what the brain is doing when we "sound out" words, or make links between the way a word sounds and what it looks like on a page. Scientists discovered the sections of the brain that process language work differently in people with dyslexia.

Nowadays, research is showing not only that dyslexics aren't stupid; they're often exceptionally bright in other areas. With reading, spelling and organization a constant struggle, dyslexic children (and adults) are forced to find alternative, innovative strategies to learn.

They often rely on creativity, reasoning, problem-solving and empathy to achieve their goals -- building skills that can serve them well in life beyond the classroom, explained Sally Shaywitz, M.D., co-founder of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity and author of Overcoming Dyslexia, at the lecture series.

"Creativity is the key for any child with dyslexia, or for anyone for that matter. Then you can think outside of the box," said Bloom. "Teach them anything is attainable. Let them run with what you see is whatever they need to run with."

Growing up, he was able to capitalize on his acting talent, his natural leadership (captain of the school soccer team, of the hockey team ... ) and his "way with the ladies" (he sheepishly admitted he could often get by with "a wink and a smile").

"I'm lucky," he conceded. "I've always been lucky."

But many other children aren't as lucky, and the low self-esteem brought on by dyslexia often takes an unrecoverable toll.

"Obviously, most people don't turn out like Orlando," said Dr. Koplewicz after his interview with Bloom. Many people don't make it through school. They end up with substance abuse problems and addictions, or even in jail, he said.

Youth with untreated dyslexia are more than twice as likely to drop out of high school (36 percent of students) and become unemployed, underemployed or incarcerated, according to the society for neuroscience, 2004.

Children who are bright and talented often won't see it come to fruition because the dyslexia stands in the way. And a big part of that self-esteem. Proper diagnoses can bring peace of mind. It can also mean getting the appropriate attention, extra time and special help needed to manage the challenge.

The earlier, the better: There's a big difference between beginning special training in kindergarten or first grade versus third grade or later. By the third grade 74 percent of kids who are already poor readers will remain so into adulthood, research has shown.

"It's not something that ever goes away," said Bloom. "But you learn how to manage it."

He offered advice to children: First, don't be shy or ashamed. Ask for help. Say, "I have dyslexia. I need some extra time on this test or homework assignment."

Also, don't see it as a problem, but a gift -- a special club. "It's not a disability; it's a challenge," he said. Even an opportunity.

Dyslexic children grow up to be brilliant doctors, lawyers, actors, writers and inventors. Bloom encouraged kids to never give up on their dreams: "Take this obstacle and make it the reason to have a big life."

The Huffington Post Meghan Neal