Dissecting Dyslexia with Brenda Fitzgerald

By: Sharita Hanley

For many, the word dyslexia leads to fear, confusion, questions, anxiety, misunderstanding, hopelessness and an overwhelming sense of “why.” But it doesn’t have to be this way. With proper understanding and training, parents, teachers, principals, tutors and even family and friends can come to fully understand what dyslexia is, what it means and how those who have it, can obtain and maintain successful lives by overcoming it.

So we sat down with Brenda Fitzgerald, an expert dyslexic Curriculum Specialist, who is also a founding member of GRACEPOINT School, Georgia’s premier Christian academy for dyslexic learners, as well as the Executive Director of Georgia’s Educational Training Agency, to help us dissect dyslexia from her 30 years of experience.

What exactly is dyslexia?

“Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in its origin,” Brenda explains, acknowledging that is not a general term to be used lightly. “It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and fluent word recognition, low reading comprehension levels and poor spelling abilities. It’s focused all around the phonological module,” she continues, emphasizing how that specific module of the brain is responsible for holding sounds of language long enough to read, write and spell them. Phonemes as they are scientifically called, are distinct units of sound that distinguish words from other words. Generally speaking, the 26 letters of the alphabet make up 44 phonemes (think of the letter “f” and all the sounds it makes: “f” as in far, “ff” as in cliff, “ph” as in phone, “gh” as in enough, “lf” as in half, “ft” as in often). Those suffering from dyslexia do not automatically grasp the various language sounds, so when it comes to reading, writing or spelling them, they struggle.

“It’s definitely a genetic trait…and often times, is misdiagnosed as attention deficit,” she shares, admitting one in five children have dyslexia. “Actually, about 18% of kids that have dyslexia also have what we call a comorbid [two or more disorders in the same person] issue with attention deficit.”

“Another thing that’s important for parents to know is that dyslexia can’t be cured. But with early intervention and evidence-based remediation and the proper accommodations, dyslexics can be extremely successful in all areas of their lives.” Early intervention of course, requires that parents and teachers know what to look for.

What are some signs parents should look for in regards to dyslexia?

 According to Brenda, the first thing parents should take note of is family history. “Usually the family history, won’t say “dyslexia,” but how people will share it is by saying things like, ‘you know my brother struggled in school,’ or ‘my dad has difficulty with spelling or reading and he struggles a little bit. That really is a red flag,” she says considering dyslexia is a genetic trait.

“The other thing you can start looking for in preschool is the fundamental building block of words. So in those early years, about four years of age, if the child is still leaving out phonemes in a word, adding phoneme sounds to a word, for example if they’re still saying “sghetti” instead of, “spaghetti,” or if they’re transposing words when they speak and putting the second syllable before the first syllable, those are all things parents can look for. Because right now, we’re not looking at a child at four and their ability to read, write and spell because we haven’t started building that academic house yet, but we have started building oral language.” Also, at four, the child who has great difficulty remembering how to write their name (one day they remember and the next they don’t) may show other signs of dyslexia. Another key thing you’re looking for, at four and a half to five years old is does the child rhyme.”

 “Then, when they get older, when they get to be five, six, seven, are they able to give those basic sounds of consonants and the short vowel sounds. Are they able to hone those sounds, manipulate those sounds, hold those sounds long enough to memory to attach them to a symbol. If a teacher says, ‘you know, they’re having some difficulty with that,’ and ‘they don’t particularly like to read,’ and they’re the ones in class having difficulty with sight words, those are the things you’re looking for in kindergarten.

“With a dyslexic child, which is unique to any other disability, they’re thinking and reasoning is not impacted. That’s critical for parents to know. But because of retrieval issues, it will look as if it is interfering with their IQ, and it may look as if this child is not as smart as they are, but their cognitive ability and reasoning is not impacted. Oftentimes, they are genius level in perceptual reasoning. So that’s why you see a lot of doctors, architects, engineers and teachers and artists with dyslexia. They are brilliant we just have to get them to break that code.”

If not, Brenda warns, by third grade, the child may really suffer. “That’s because they can no longer keep up with the pace. They understand those heavy literary concepts, but they just can’t fully grasp the words to read and spell them and that interferes with comprehension. So they will miss and guess and add words, and their spelling will be poor. Their reading fluency and reading speed might also not be there. They may understand it, but the speed at which they read may not be there. Parents will especially notice poor comprehension when their child reads something, but when something is read to them, their comprehension will be excellent.” But there’s hope.

So, what should parents and teachers do if they suspect dyslexia?

“The very first thing a parent needs to do first is to educate themselves.  Part of educating yourself would be going to the “Understanding Dyslexia” class put on by the Georgia Educational Training Agency and picking up Dr. Sally Shaywitz’s Overcoming Dyslexia. Those are two of the more solid resources.”

The second thing you do is get a psychological evaluation. Not all psychologists know it well and in public schools, it isn’t tested as thoroughly, so that needs to be a private evaluation. So a private evaluation is going to really probe very deep into that language side to see if we have expressive, receptive language or if we have dyslexia.”

“The third thing parents need to do, and you can do these things out of order, is to find a tutor. You can go to any school where the teachers understand dyslexia and the teachers are trained,” she explains, admitting her two favorite trainings are The Complete Reading Series and structured reading programs that focus on all five areas of reading. Parents can also search for tutors on the International Dyslexia Association and Wilson Language Training websites.

“The fourth and final thing is really recognize the gift of your child because God has blessed this child with gifts. The more you can develop those gifts, the better it’s going to be, because remediation is critical, but also developing the gifts of the child. It is as critical as remediation. In general, dsylexic kids they are phenomenal about seeing the big picture. They usually excel in math and are great engineers, mathematicians, artists, dancers, athletes and architects. I can’t tell you how many physicians tell me they’re dsylexic.”

What’s remediation and accommodation?

Once parents have accomplished all of the above, it’s time to remediate and accommodate. “It’s never too late to remediate,” Brenda emphasizes. “It’s hard to remediate later, but never too late. By the way, when I say the word remediation, here’s an analogy I commonly use.

“Remediation is literally the antibiotic used. For example, if your child has strep throat and you take them to the doctor, the physician is not going to give that child an aspirin. They’re going to give them the right remediate, the right antibiotic. And it will be the right antibiotic specifically for strep throat. Not only will they give them the right antibiotic, they’re going to give it to them for the right period of time.”

“So when we talk about remediation, we really are talking about the correct instructional practices, the correct curriculum, which includes the right amount of workbooks and the timeframe in which we administer that. It also includes the training of the teacher. So be sure to consider what kind of training the teacher or homeschool parent had. Accommodation would be the support like more time to finish the test, more time to do the homework assignment. It’s very important that both remediation and accommodations are addressed.”

A dedicated advocate at your service  

Having trained more than 10,000 teachers over the last 30 years, Brenda Fitzgerald is a dedicated advocate for those with dyslexia and their families. She wrote The Complete Reading Series for parents and teachers wanting to help but not knowing how to do it. She’s even been asked to speak and testify before the Senate Committee and is on the Dyslexia Task Force. It’s not something she planned, but she’s dedicated her life to it and gives God all the glory.

“He’s opened every door. We really are having a conversation – and I don’t know where this will go but, we’re having a conversation with universities and maybe even changing what they’re teaching young teachers coming out of education programs about how to handle dyslexia and how to better prepare schools and teachers. You know that’s the power of God. Only He could do that.”

Very true indeed. So let’s thank God and Brenda Fitzgerald for being a dedicated advocate for such an important and noteworthy cause.

For more information visit https://georgiaeta.com


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