As with all new skills, learning to read is a process that requires practice. First, a person learns to read a word accurately. With practice, he becomes fluent, adding more expression and achieving better comprehension. But when dyslexia is added to the mix, practice is not just required, it is critical.
The difference is in how the brain works. A nondyslexic reader activates the front and back parts of the left-brain when reading—the side associated with language processing and reading—helping him associate words and sounds quickly and efficiently.
In contrast, the neural pathways in the back of the dyslexic brain are underactivated, while there is increased activation in the frontal regions. This variance in reading patterns means it takes the dyslexic reader more steps involving longer pathways to attain the same results. Thus, the dyslexic brain needs more time to read, and achieving long-term fluency is a lengthier process.
Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a professor of learning development at Yale University, recommends “guided repeated oral reading” as a way to improve fluency. The focus is on repetition in oral reading with ongoing constructive and positive feedback. This helps a dyslexic reader to build more precise neural representations of words within the brain and to pronounce the words accurately. With correct pronunciation, the reader’s ability to store and retrieve information associated with the word will improve, resulting in more accurate and rapid reading.
But just having more reading practice is not enough. It is essential to practice reading words at the right difficulty level. I often use the analogy of going to the gym for a workout. If our workout is too easy or too difficult, we do not achieve the best results. If we push ourselves just a little bit regularly, then we get stronger.
Repeated oral reading, exercised consistently, can help a dyslexic child improve fluency. The key is to choose the right reading materials with decodable words at the right reading level. Not only does this allow dyslexic children to decode and build new pathways in their brains in order to store words and their meaning, it also helps build self-confidence as the children see their hard work pay off. And this may just be the bridge between reading as an obligation and reading for fun.
Shaywitz, Sally, 2008. Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level. New York: Vintage.