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Health Talk 

Kandace Power Graves discusses dyslexia with Denise Nagim, director of Jefferson Speech & Language Center.

Q: You're involved in a push to educate the public, particularly teachers and parents, about dyslexia. What exactly is dyslexia?

A: Dyslexia is a language-based disorder characterized by a difficulty hearing the sounds that make up words. When you have difficulty doing that, you have difficulty linking sounds together to blend words for reading. It's a processing thing; it's not a disease. It's a different kind of mind that is gifted and productive.

Q: Is it genetic?

A: There is a genetic base. It's on the No. 6 chromosome, I believe. (Researchers) are finding that their brains are different.

Q: What do you hope to achieve with your education efforts?

A: Our main goal is to increase literacy in the state, and particularly in New Orleans public schools. The teachers are the bottom line. You can start with a language program in kindergarten and go up to eighth grade.

Q: How does dyslexia affect those who have it?

A: No. 1 is it affects their ability to read fluently. What happens is that it spills over into other areas of learning, like math and social studies. Because you're not reading fluently, you decode words slowly and by the end of the sentence, you lose comprehension of it. It's a slow processing speed. Some kids learn to manage their reading issues, but you'll see (the effects) in writing; they're thinking about forming all the letters instead of concentrating on all the information. It will come out in sequencing of thoughts; they say 'Where you were?' instead of 'Where were you?' When they to go proof and edit, they read it correctly. In other people it might affect just the math area and not the reading area.

Q: Do we have teaching solutions that effectively help these children learn?

A: That's the big issue. There are specific programs based on the research that the National Institutes of Health put out about what the students need. There are programs that teachers can be trained to use so that in the classroom ... there can be structured, systematic, multi-sensory learning.

Q: Where are these programs available locally?

Some of the private school teachers are educated in how to recognize it in the classroom and how to work with it. St. George's Episcopal School works with it directly by having a specifically trained learning assistant who works just on the reading, writing and math, within an accelerated curriculum. Ecole Classique has a school-within-a-school approach. Holy Rosary Academy on Esplanade ... is designed as a multi-sensory school, an alternative for students who need a different approach to reading, writing and math. The multi-sensory approach is: you see it, you feel it, you touch it, you talk about it.

Q:I've read that as many as 20 percent of Americans have dyslexia but many don't realize it until they're older. Where do we begin to look?

A: We look at their difficulty in learning to read at early ages. (Research by the) National Institute of Child Health and Human Development shows that in many low-income urban school districts the percentage of kids in the fourth grade who can't read at level approaches 70 percent. While failure to learn to read adequately is much [higher] among poor children, in fact, 32 percent of the fourth grade students across the nation reading below basic levels were from homes where parents had graduated from college. Out of the 10-to-15 percent of children who eventually drop out of school, 75 percent report difficulties in learning to read. That difficulty can crush the excitement and love for learning.

Q: Who are some famous achievers who have suffered from dyslexia?

A: Albert Einstein could not read and write. Tom Cruise, Charles Schwab. Winston Churchill, it is said, did not learn to read and write until he was between 8 and 10 years old. These people learned to overcome it.

Q: How?

A: Some probably had some systematic structured and multi-sensory instruction to help them through: special tutors, language learning specialists.

Q: What can people do for themselves?

A: You can do books on tape. You can get them from the Library of Congress through Recordings for the Blind and Disabled (800-221-4792). That allows the student to read, listen and visually look at the page. For kids with milder problems ... learn specific strategies to help the individual. It could be actively reading or making maps, books on tape, extending time when taking exams and standardized tests, get a copy of a classmate's or professor's notes. All that falls under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That allows any student that presents significant difficulty in reading to have accommodations.

Q: Is the goal to have a dyslexia program in every school or to give parents information to find what they need on their own?

A: A great goal would be to train teachers who are working with these kinds of kids in multi-sensory learning or training all teachers to understand the needs of the students. The kids need to be in the regular classroom -- and they are at Newman, Brother Martin and most of the private schools. The other big goal is to get into the public school system and educate the teachers to use the curriculums that are proven to help. The umbrella goal is to increase literacy among students in America.

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