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updated: 6/3/2013 6:30 AM

Early treatment helps dyslexic children succeed in school

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Q. My first-grader was just diagnosed with dyslexia. Can you tell me more about it? Will my daughter outgrow it, or will she always struggle with it?

A. Dyslexia is a learning disability caused by a problem in the way the brain processes information. But we are only beginning to understand what the problem is.

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Dyslexia makes it difficult to:

• identify words

• recognize the sounds that make up words

• understand and remember what is read

• translate printed words into spoken words

• spell

• organize or sequence thoughts

• rhyme words

• learn the alphabet and numbers during preschool and kindergarten.

A person with dyslexia tends to reverse or misread letters or words. He or she might confuse the letter "b" for "d," or read the number "6" as "9." The word "was" may be read as "saw." Or the order of words in a sentence may get switched around. Because of these difficulties, a person with dyslexia usually reads slowly and hesitantly.

Many young children reverse letters and numbers or misread words as a normal part of learning to read. Children with dyslexia, however, continue to do so after their peers have stopped, usually by first or second grade. It is really important to recognize dyslexia early, before the third grade. Treatments started early are more effective.

Dyslexia is not a vision problem; the eyes do not see words incorrectly. It is also not a problem of intelligence; many people with dyslexia have average or above-average intelligence. Many are extremely successful in life. Many are exceptionally articulate when speaking, but have trouble writing.

Children and adults with dyslexia have no trouble understanding things that are spoken. They are just as curious and imaginative as others. They can understand new concepts as easily, so long as the concepts are described by the spoken word and visual information. They can figure out puzzles as well as others -- so long as the puzzles don't involve written words.

Dyslexia is a lifelong condition that cannot be cured. But children with this disorder can learn ways to succeed in school.

Several techniques and strategies can help. Many are based on the observation that although people with dyslexia have trouble understanding words they read, they usually can understand words that are read aloud by another person. As a result, listening to books on tape rather than reading them, and taping lectures rather than writing notes, can be effective strategies. Computer software that checks spelling and grammar is another useful tool.

With support, most children with dyslexia adjust to their learning disability. And with early and appropriate treatment, many people with dyslexia go on to succeed in school and in their careers.

• Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. Send questions to AskDoctorK.com.

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