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By Clive (Max) Maxfield', Guest writer for the N2NA www.n2northalabama.com

If left untreated, kids with dyslexia can face an uphill struggle throughout their working lives. Fortunately, Huntsville, Alabama, is home to Greengate School, which is one of the premier dyslexia schools in the country.

Does Dyslexia Really Exist?

In 1925, the American physician and neural psychologist Samuel Torrey Orton determined that there was a syndrome unrelated to brain damage that made learning to read difficult. Orton teamed up with psychologist and educator Anna Gillingham, and almost all dyslexia intervention today is based on the principles of the Orton-Gillingham approach, which involves structured multi-sensory language training.

Different Wiring

We're all "hard-wired" for speech. We begin learning in the womb when we start to internalize sounds. Reading is not the same – it's a human-learned activity that most people have to be taught. Some people are simply not wired for reading – their brains are just organized differently – this is the root of what we now refer to as dyslexia.

It's important to remember that when it comes to reading and writing, every one of us is co-opting parts of the brain that were evolved for other purposes. We all start reading in the same way. The right parietal-temporal lobe in the brain is concerned with non-verbal memory. When we are learning to read, we use the right parietal-temporal lobe to sound out the individual letters and blend them together to form words. In fact we still use this approach to some extent when we're faced with an unfamiliar or complex word such as "strephosymbolia."

As we (non-dyslexics) progress, we start to hand things over to the left temporal and occipital lobes, which comprise the visual processing center of the mammalian brain. These are the areas that are associated with automatic and efficient reading and writing. This allows us to develop a very strong visual impression of words – the "shape" of the words, the length of words, their beginning and end letters – and reading becomes fast, efficient, and automatic.

What fMRI and PET scans reveal is that, when reading, non-dyslexics exhibit large amounts of activity in the left temporal lobe and occipital lobes. By comparison, dyslexics show little activity in these areas; for them, neural pathways are not strongly established between the various centers of the brain that are normally associated with reading, with the result that the bulk of the work continues to be performed in the right parietal-temporal lobe. This is why they continue to employ phonological processing – sounding out the letters and trying to blend them together to form words.

One result of these processing differences is to mix up letters like 'b' and 'd', 'm' and 'n', and 'p' and 'q'; to mirror-image letters like 's'; to reverse entire words and see "was" for "saw", for example; and also to reverse and transpose numbers, like writing 21 when they really intended to write 12. This latter case often results in an unwary math teacher counting a problem wrong when the kid actually got it right and simply wrote down the wrong answer.

Unfortunately, dyslexics are often perceived as being "less intelligent" and "below average." In reality, dyslexia is diagnosed in people of all levels of intelligence: below average, average, above average, and highly gifted. To put this another way, dyslexics' cognitive and thinking skills are just as good as everyone else's.

The good news is that if kids are diagnosed early enough and receive effective early intervention (in some cases starting as soon as kindergarten and the first grade) it's possible for them to completely overcome the difficulties posed by dyslexia.

What to Do? Where to Go?

Regular schools in Alabama don’t specifically test for dyslexia, so where do you go if you are a parent and you think your kid has a problem? Well, one option is the Scottish Rite – a Masonic organization that devotes itself to philanthropic pursuits, with a particular focus on dyslexia.

There are Scottish Rite Foundation of Alabama Learning Centers in most major Alabama cities, including Birmingham, Mobile, Montgomery, and – of course – Huntsville. Starting around 2000, the Scottish Rite Foundation decided to offer free dyslexia testing to any child in the state of Alabama. All you have to do is to call them to set up a testing appointment. Unfortunately, due to large demand, at the time of this writing there is currently around a six-month waiting list. Alternatively, you can opt for a fee-based test, which may have a waiting list of only a couple of weeks. This latter option will typically cost from around $400 to $450 (and up) for a basic battery of dyslexia tests.

Assuming your child takes such a test and the diagnosis is dyslexia, where do you go and what are your options? Well, first of all, regular schools don’t automatically grant accommodations and special services based on the results from Scottish Rite or fee-based tests – they have to run their own. Furthermore, they don’t test specifically for dyslexia; rather, they test to determine if there is a "learning disability," which is defined as a 16-point or greater discrepancy between a IQ test scores and achievement test scores. So if a kid has an IQ of 100 (which is average) and an achievement score of 84, then that kid will be classed as having a learning disability. (To be fair, this is an extremely simplified version of how eligibility for special education services is established, but it is basically correct.)

Another issue is that since upwards of 20% of students struggle with reading problems, and at least 10% are truly dyslexic, schools and teachers may not be able to adequately serve all students who need help. In the case of a kid who is only mildly dyslexic, then accommodations and school-level remediation are often sufficient. By comparison, for kids with moderate to severe dyslexia, the problem becomes exponentially more difficult to remediate – in this case specialist teachers and facilities are required. Unfortunately, such facilities are few and far between. There are private schools that target autism, behavioral issues, ADHD, kids with Aspberger’s syndrome, and so forth, but there are relatively few establishments that specialize in dyslexia.

Thus, many folks are surprised to discover that Huntsville, Alabama, boasts one of the premier schools for dyslexia in the country. (I had no idea myself until a friend who has severe dyslexia and who is involved with the school told me about it and invited me to visit.) Founded in 2002, and named after a tranquil village in Northern England, Greengate School has a mission to educate and support bright children who have specific learning differences in reading, spelling, or writing so that they may realize their full potential.

The head of Greengate School (and former head of the Montessori School of Huntsville) is Marcia Ramsey. An educator with 30+ years teaching experience, Marcia is an acknowledged specialist in the Orton-Gillingham teaching approach. Marcia is also president of the state branch of the International Dyslexia Association, and Greengate School actually handles all calls to the state branch and queries from all over Alabama.

I was fortunate enough to visit Greengate School just a few days ago as I pen these words, and the overwhelming impression was that this was the home of a bunch of very happy kids. The student-teacher ratio at Greengate could hardly be better. At the time of this writing there are 22 students (Greengate accepts kids from Kindergarten through eighth grade) and 22 staff members, 18 of who are teaching staff. All the kids receive one-on-one intervention with regards to their dyslexia; in the case of group instruction in other subjects there are typically two to six kids per class.

The folks at Greengate provide a tremendous resource for kids, parents, and teachers. In addition to their main school program, they also offer a four week summer camp for area children who need reading support during the summer in order to have a stronger start to the new school year. There are now "Greengate Graduates" who have returned to regular high schools all over the city (indeed, all over North Alabama) who are succeeding because the skills they learned at Greengate have made them strong enough and confident enough that they are now equipped to manage on their own in a regular educational environment.

For more information on Greengate School and anything to do with dyslexia, please visit the Greengate website at www.GreengateSchool.org or call them at 256-551-4439.


About the Author

Clive "Max" Maxfield is president of TechBites Inc. (www.TechBites.com), the science and technology collaborative community. Max is the author and co-author of a number of books on Electronics, Computers, Mathematics, and 3D Graphics. In addition to being a hero, trendsetter, and leader of fashion, Max is widely regarded as being an expert in all aspects of computing and electronics (at least by his mother).