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In this episode of the LD Expert Podcast, Dr. Joan Smith explains the neuroscience behind the dyslexic brain.
In this week's episode, you'll learn:
- Why challenges associated with dyslexia do not have to be a life-long struggle
- Neuroplasticity: what it is, and how it works
- The neuroscience of learning
"We've always known that the brain could change, and the marvelous thing about neuroplasticity is that it's creating new connections with our neurons. That's what we do when we do therapy and when we work with people who have learning issues also. This gives us hope that change can always happen."
- Dr. Joan Smith
- "You Don’t Have to Be Dyslexic" by Dr. Joan Smith
- "Dyslexia Perplexia" by Dr. Joan Smith
- Take the Stone Out of the Shoe - Chapter 7: Recognizing Challenges with Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia, and Basic Academics
- Dyslexia Information and Resources
LD Expert Podcast - Episode #50
Wired Differently For Reading - Dr. Joan Smith
Jill Stowell: C-a-m-p, cap, no, pac? If you have a dyslexic reader, you may have watched them painstakingly say each sound in a word, only to leave sounds out or mix them up when they try to pronounce the word. Maybe your child says the word correctly, but a few lines later on the page, he has to go through the whole sounding out process again because he doesn’t recognize that it’s a word he just read.
Welcome to the LD Expert Podcast, your place for answers and solutions for dyslexia and learning differences.
Today, we’re talking about the dyslexic brain. Research tells us that dyslexic readers use different pathways for reading than skilled readers do. This is a wonderful discovery because it can guide us in more effective ways to help our dyslexic students become comfortable readers.
I’m your host, Jill Stowell, founder and executive director of Stowell Learning Centers and author of Take the Stone Out of the Shoe, A Must-Have Guide to Understanding, Supporting, and Correcting Dyslexia, Learning, and Attention Challenges.
I’m thrilled today to welcome my dear friend and colleague, Dr. Joan Smith to our conversation about reading and the brain. Joan has been a mentor to me in both business and clinically. She is a speech therapist, psychologist, therapeutic chef, educator, learning center owner, researcher, program developer, author, and extraordinary person.
Dr. Joan Smith: Thank you. Thank you. And you know, I hope everybody really paid attention about your book, because it is excellent, and it provides so many resources for knowing what to do. So, I hope they made note of that.
Jill Stowell: Well, thank you. It was really written for that purpose. To be a resource for parents and teachers. And I know you and I have been on that journey for such a long time, um, to to really do that.
You have contributed so much to the field of education and I love that all of your work is based on how the brain learns.
So, I was remembering, your first book, You Don’t Have to Be Dyslexic, came out in 1996. The title was pretty controversial because people believed (and, unfortunately still believe) that dyslexia is a permanent and pretty debilitating condition. So, my question to you is, uh, what were you thinking?! Can you talk a little bit about why challenges associated with dyslexia do not have to be a life-long struggle?
Dr. Joan Smith: You know, I think I based that on, about, at that point, probably 25 years of working with individuals who had reading disabilities and whether– at that point, um the schools didn't want to call it “dyslexia” so we, you know, just called it a learning disability, but it was really about that they couldn't read. And they all had the same characteristics that, either they couldn't identify the symbols and remember them, or they couldn't remember what it was they were reading, or there seemed to be an attention component quite often with that, too, that we needed to deal with. And so that's, you know, when we dealt with those, the reading issues went away and, you know… and you know we had a private school for many many years – I think 40 – and we worked primarily with youth who had learning disabilities. And we had 120 kids every year, and we basically resolved their reading problems. So, you know, it was just playing from experience and knowing what to address and where to go with them based on assessments.
Jill Stowell: And now, of course, the research has– the neuroplasticity research is out there to show that with that kind of intensive and targeted training, the brain really can retrain itself.
Dr. Joan Smith: You know what's really interesting to me, is that starting out as a speech path, we were told that if someone had a head injury, in six weeks that was all they were going to improve, okay? Then it got moved up to every, you know, three months of therapy and they, you know, this is where they'd be. Well, but all of us who are therapists never stopped at that point. We said, “Well, you know, hey, you know, let's keep going on this because you can improve and improve.” So the term “neuroplasticity” was very interesting um to me because, you know, we've always known that the brain could change. And the marvelous thing about the neuroplasticity is that it's basically creating new connections with our neurons. And that's what we do when we do therapy and work with people who have learning issues also. You don't have to have a head injury. You just need to need more connections, and you can function very very effectively no matter what the original issue was.
Jill Stowell: Right.
Dr. Joan Smith: That's what we're seeing. That was– and that's how we came into it.
Jill Stowell: Yeah.
Dr. Joan Smith: I’d really like to share with you a little bit more about neuroplasticity because, you know, it's very interesting that we're seeing so many changes now, and we're being recognized that you can actually have those changes be permanent.
The two types of neuroplasticity in our brains really are: a functional one, in which the brain is able to create connections in different areas of the brain to suffice and to work for what the– whatever it is the task or the sensory information that we're trying to process. But there's also one that's a structural plasticity. And what that is, is actually the brain is able to change its physical structure by – I think I would call it – increasing complexity of the connections with the neurons. And this has been, you know, something we needed to have explained because it gives us the – what I call hope – that change can always happen. And I think that's an important piece when we're working with individuals who have issues, but especially for parents who have great concerns about their youngsters.
Jill Stowell: Absolutely just knowing that this is not just, you know, a thing that we just have to live with, but it really can change.
Dr. Joan Smith: Absolutely. Yeah.
Jill Stowell: So, through the studies of Dr. Sally Shaywitz and other brain studies, we now have a much better idea of what has to occur for comfortable reading to take place. So what has to be activated in the brain for someone to become a good reader?
Dr. Joan Smith: Well, you know, there’s basically, I would call it three contact points that occur, and that are showing up from the research. The first one is that, when someone looks at a word and starts to read it and maybe is even a novice reader or a beginning reader, um, that goes to an area that's called the angular gyrus, which is really located on the– in between the left…on the left side, in the temporal-parietal area, so it would be right about in here, kind of above the ear and just slightly back.
Now what's– I need to say something before, because I'm saying “left,” alright. Um, one of the things that in research we keep needing to address, is that not everyone has a brain that's organized in the same way in terms of whether it's in the left hemisphere or the right hemisphere. And so, one thing we need to be aware of is when we're saying “left hemisphere,” that's probably 95 percent of the population. It's probably most of the people who are right-handed, and some of the people who are left-handed. So what I'm saying “left,” you know, please keep in mind that it could be on the other side, too.
Now once the information goes to that particular area, which is also often called Wernicke's Area, what that happens there is, that's where we make sense of something. If you were to have an injury to Wernicke's Area, you would have difficulty in understanding what people were saying to you. So, you see, this is an area that really gives us information from the words, and we can understand what they mean.
The second area is going– then what Shaywitz shows, is that the information goes to the Broca’s Area. Now, Broca’s Area is going to be right about here. It's kind of behind that left, you know, this– right on the left side up in front here, and it's a frontal lobe function. Now as speech therapists, we've all been working with that for many years because Broca’s Area is where we set up the articulation that then drives the muscles and all within the parietal lobe to actually say words.
What Shaywitz's research is showing is that dyslexic readers tend to really focus in that area, and that's what lights up when they're attempting to read. The area that good readers actually light up, is way in the back here, and it's in what's called the occipital-temporal lobe. Now this area is the area that, in good readers, they know what the word means, they, understand what it's being said, um, they can put it together with other words so that they get, you know, flow of content from what they're reading. And it also tends to hold the image of the word, so that we can spell it. And I think that's a really important function for all of those.
Jill Stowell: Wow. So, that area is so critical because that's where we remember what it looks like, we process, you know, what it sounds like, what it means, uh, just all of those pieces. And so, with the dyslexic reader, then, they're mainly focusing in Broca's area, and not activating that piece.
Dr. Joan Smith: Exactly. And, you see, what Broca's area is doing is, they're focusing on the quote “sounding it out.” And I know you've been around me too long, so you know that I have great concerns about telling kids “sound it out.” Because what we do every time we say that is, we drive them to Broca’s Area and not to the occipital-temporal lobe. And so, you know, whenever I'm working with people or in our– certainly in our clinic area, you know, that is not something we ever asked the student to do. And I think as we look at reading a little bit more in depth today, we can understand why we're so picky about that. Okay?
Jill Stowell: Yes, and this is– this is probably a really big question here but from a practical standpoint then, what do practitioners and teachers need to do to help activate a more effective pathway for reading? Because we do know our struggling readers… our dyslexic students… often just get stuck sounding out every single sound in every single word over and over.
Dr. Joan Smith: And, you know, when they're stuck there, you know, one of the things that we've been doing a lot of work with lately is on working on habit control because what, what happens to the reader who's– who has been taught to sound it out or to try and do phonemic analysis on words, is they develop a habit of automatically sending it to Broca’s Area. And when they do that, um, that's a real challenge because they get quote “stuck” there.
And, you know, I have– I have a little bit of a concern in regard to our interpretation of research. One of the things that I like to put out there is the fact that the research that, you know, is being reported is on people who already are diagnosed as having dyslexia. So what we're looking at is, what I call, the “after,” okay? In other words, this is what's happened – whatever happened to them – this is how they look after that happened, and it doesn't allow us to, you know, we don't have any way of being able to test that person before. And I'm highly suspicious that the people who come with a diagnosis of dyslexia actually have been, um, given very very intense phonic and phonetic training, And so they've already been forced in this and force-fed that brain to use Broca's area, and that's why it shows up with our dyslexic readers.
You know, how do we become a, um, I guess, a strong reader? There's so many wonderful ways of looking at that, um, and for just a minute, let's, let's return to, um, the neuroplasticity piece on that because several of the areas in neuroplasticity are really important for us to understand as we are building any kind of a reading system, okay? So they're kind of fun.
The– one of the things that, you know, comes with neuroplasticity is and one of the characteristics is an admonition to “use it or lose it.” And this is something that, um, Jane Healy spent a lot of time in complaining about when children are watching too much television because she said their language skills were not as strong as they used to be. And I'm quite certain that if she were writing anything today she would be talking about cell phones and… So, one of the things that, you know, happens to all of us in– especially in the beginning, is we need to be using all of these skills.
The second piece that's important is you have to improve on them. So yeah, okay yeah I use it, but if I'm not challenging myself or I'm not growing on it, then I don't gain anything. And the next thing is, repetition matters.
So let's, let's look at that just for a second in terms of how we're teaching in school today. Because I think it's impacting a great deal on reading, and I know it's impacting on spelling. I've had the pleasure of working with a school recently who does the inventive spelling again. And, you know, I think you and I may share the same feelings about this that, oh my gosh, every time they write it wrong they just recorded it in their brain, and that message is going to remain there. So when they try to write a word, they aren't sure which one is the right one and which one isn't the right one. And that becomes a challenge because the image of the word is staying there, probably hiding out around that occipital-temporal lobe. When we're having that type of, um, a program, what happens to us is we don't get the repetition and memory training.
I've been laughing because I said, you know, it really wasn't because you wrote one word a hundred times that you learned to spell. What you were doing was, you were training your memory. You were training those neurons to send the messages for holding the image, and, you know, I don't care what you were practicing on, you were still–you were training memory and that's what was beginning to build, not only your image for the spelling words, but also for your reading. And that's something we're missing a bit today.
In a couple of the other areas that are key with our neuroplasticity and understanding is: timing matters. So we need to do it multiple times. It's not something we can introduce once and then it's gone.
Another one is the intensity. You have to do it a lot. And, you know, very specific things are also important. And all of those, then, are what we've learned about from the recent research in the neuroplasticity, and it dovetails for us in terms of how we set up therapeutic programs for children and adults.
You know, I wanted to know a little bit about, um, how memory was affected a number of years ago. And we developed a test that's called The Learning Predictor, which is still in publication, and what it basically did was it gave us research information on how many digits, okay, so a digit is like a letter or a number. How many digits are being, um, you can hold at different levels and different ages, but also with different parts of your sensory system. Now for reading we're looking primarily at the see it and say it, okay, because that's, that's basically the function of reading. And when we talk about that, and we look at it, beginning readers – so youngsters between the ages of five and probably six and a half – um, are holding three to four digits. When we start thinking about the demands that we're putting on youngsters at this time to hold information for reading, we’re way way over our digit capacity. And–
Jill Stowell: We are.
Dr. Joan Smith: Yeah, yeah. Are you– Do you feel this too?
Jill Stowell: Yes. Mm-hmm.
Dr. Joan Smith: Yeah. What are– what do you see with that? Are you seeing that impact on on youngsters in terms of their delays in memory?
Jill Stowell: Yes, and, and just, you know, they're starting reading so early now that they don't really have the memory span for it, and so we see… I almost feel like we're creating some reading problems that wouldn't be there if they were just a little bit older when they started, but…
Dr. Joan Smith: I'm going to underscore that because you're right on. I think we're creating dyslexic and other reading issues by the way that we're attempting to teach children today. And, you know, when we begin to look at what they're being asked to do, I just love this data because it makes it like, oh yeah, I get it.
We're looking at someone who has a three to four digit recall. Okay, there's 26 letter symbols in the alphabet, just in the lower case, alright. Then we have 26 that are the uppercase, so those are the ones that are the capitals, right? And in all, we end up having almost 104 symbols if you begin then to add some cursive writing, and that has both the upper and lower case on cursive. 104 symbols for a two or a three to four digit recall for a kindergartner is asking them to do phenomenal memory work.
In addition to that, now, we're going to give them sounds to put with all of those symbols. That's interesting because there's 44 different sounds, plus there's two vowel sounds, two different sounds for each of the vowels, both the short and the long sounds. So we are asking students in a kindergarten program to hold this kind of information, and the majority of those youngsters do not have the memory capacity yet to do that. So I kind of think it's, like, unfair but, you know, and it's one of the reasons that when we develop reading programs we change them radically from what's being asked in that type of a system.
Um I don't know if you've looked at Common Core requirements for kindergarten recently, and I don't know if your listeners are…would– is that okay to share some of that? Okay. I– because I make– I made a copy of them, and, you know, this is– this is really phenomenal to me what we're asking youngsters to do.
The actual Common Core requirements for kindergarten, okay? First of all, they have to understand that words are separated by spaces in print. That's handy; that means you don't run the words together when you write them. You have to recognize and name all– and I love the word “all” – upper and lowercase letters of the alphabet. And they're just talking about the print form at that point. You have to recognize and produce rhyming words. You have to count, pronounce, blend, and segment syllables in spoken words. You have to isolate and pronounce the initial, the medial vowel, and the final sounds in CVC words.
Okay? You get the complexity that we're asking our youngsters to do who are five and six years old. They ask us to associate long and short sounds with the common spellings of five major vowels.
They just– asked– have to distinguish between similarly spelled words by identifying the sounds of letters that differ. Okay?
And just in case that's enough, then we go to the content piece that they work on which they're saying, with prompting and support, they have to retell familiar stories including the key details – we wouldn't want to not remember those. They have to identify characters, settings, and major events in a story. They're asked to name the author and the illustrator of a story, and define the role of each in telling the story. I don't know why we have to do that. Most of us still don't do that very well.
On one of the IQ tests, we ask who the author is from some very famous writing, and most of the adults I test haven't a clue.
And with prompting they have to be able to support, compare, and contrast the adventures and experiences of characters in familiar stories.
And that's what our kindergarten teachers are faced with trying to present today. And I think it's a really overwhelming, um, expectation that our youngsters are going to be able to gain that kind of information. And even more than that, that our teachers are put in the position of… required to do that, when in fact, they might need to spend almost that whole year just teaching the sounds and the symbols and some very simple connections of those. So I–I don't know if that's something you've come into, but I think it's really important to recognize what we're asking.
Jill Stowell: Yeah I–I do too. And–and obviously we are not going to be able to solve that problem, uh, the two of us, as much as we would like to, but–but, um, you know, I do think that that what used to be asked of a first grader, or even first going on to second, uh, is now being asked in kindergarten. And it seems like such a good idea. Oh, if we can just get our kids really reading and understanding all of these things earlier, then they'll be better readers. They'll be more ahead. And–and unfortunately, a lot of–a lot of the foundation for learning, is–is more, uh, physical and movement and–and playing with words. Yeah, rhyming with words and playing with them. Um, but–but not heavy duty academics at a really young age. And, uh, even though it seems like it would be a good idea, you know, that–that developmental play and, you know, that used to go on in kindergarten actually set a really good foundation for learning. So um, you know…
One of the one of the really important things that I want– that I always want parents to understand with this whole talk about neuroplasticity and the different areas… the path– the efficient pathway for reading that uses different areas in the brain and, is–is just knowing that–that now we do have a better picture of–of where we– what–what we need to address in order to help struggling readers become stronger readers, and that it really can happen.
You know I remember one of my very first profoundly dyslexic students. His name was Kris. And at 9-years-old, he was a completely shut down, not having anything to do with reading because he couldn’t recognize letters or words at all. But by, you know, retraining the reading pathways in the brain and then teaching him to read, he was able to move out of special education, and by middle school, he was out of special ed, he went into honors in high school. And, you know, the last time I saw his mom, he was going back to school for his second master’s degree. And his mom called him an education “junkie.” I’m sure you have hundreds of stories like that, because we really do know that the brain can be retrained to process information more effectively.
Dr. Joan Smith: You know, you know, Jill, I think it’s really really important that education is separated from research in some ways because we don’t–we can’t do an FMRI on a youngster who comes to us with a reading problem. Okay? And we need to know, you know, what can we do to help them what’s going on. And so we have to start with– we’re–we have our battery of, um, tools to identify what’s going on with that student. And they are really quite adequate. We can figure out what it is that that student’s missing in terms of their function, and um, really design exactly the types of programs that they need to change.
I think there’s two areas that constantly show up in our work. One of them is in memory, and the second one is in processing speed.
And I have to tell you, I’m actually spending even more time on the processing speed issue with our, um, clients at this point, than I am in reading–direct reading tasks, because if your processing speed is off just a little bit, it’s very difficult for you to sequence that information in your brain and hold it in order to recognize words.
So we’re doing many new exercises in which we just do repetition of, um, different activities where, for instance, one might be a student is looking at a series of words on a chart, and they go through, and as they’re–they read words, but they’re very simple. Could it–if they’re a beginning reader they may just be the letters, and may–we always start with just seven letters. And I think this is the key to, you know, actually building a young reader. Um, it gets us away from that 104 symbols because all we’re dealing with is five consonants and two vowels and teaching them to recognize those. What happens is we start putting that information into place, they’re holding it, they’ve now created a memory in their brain for holding information. We’ve got a pathway…it’s kind of like, you know, a–a hallway in to the main house, there, for reading.
And then what happens is, they’ve now got memory in place, we start working on speed. There’s several different things we’re doing with that. One is with Word Flash, and Susan Smith has been wonderful at, um, guiding us with a variety of activities on that. But that’s where a word is shown and the word may be here and you just go, look, gone. Very quick. So the brain has to go, “Whoa, that was quick. What did it say?” And they learn very quickly how to hold it. They’re right there starting…that’s the beginning step in processing speed change.
The other types of tasks we’re doing with that then, are lots of chanting activities to rhythm exercises. So, for instance, if we have a chart and it has, um, uh, a couple of words on it like, “in”, “at”, you know, “app”, and just a couple of them, and so we’ll look at–they look at the chart and at the same time as they’re looking at it, they’re doing a rhythm exercise. And at first, they’ll have to set the timing. So it might be like, “one…two…three…four…go: and ‘a’...‘it’...‘at’...‘app’.” And they’re reading the chart across as they’re doing it. Then we begin to speed that up just a little bit as they’re ready. It actually is changing their speed of response, and it’s been kind of really interesting because we can actually measure it on, for instance, the test of variables of attention. We can actually see changes in processing speed. We can also then document that in terms of, as we’re working with the student.
So all of these kinds of exercises change because of neuroplasticity, our brains, and our ability to hold information.
Jill Stowell: And-and even though, when you’re starting out, you’re using a…fewer letters and-and a smaller number of words, what it’s doing is it’s laying down the pathway so that then, when you introduce other things, uh, the pathway is there.
Dr. Joan Smith: Yeah. We had a really interesting experience over the years. We had a program we used in our school that we put together that was called “Easing Into Reading”, and it's been used for many, many years, I have to tell you how many. But the kids would start out, and we'd go through it, and they get about halfway through it in terms of introducing information, and–and they didn't need it anymore! They were reading, okay. So it was like they took off, on their own, but what was really happening was exactly what you just said: we built a pathway for memory and for holding information. And–and basically once you've done that, we had readers.
Jill Stowell: Right. Well, before we end our conversation today, I want you to tell us about your new book, “Dyslexia Perplexia.”
Dr. Joan Smith: Hahaha! Um, you know, it…I–I love to write–sometimes, you know, most of the time, and this one is really focused on looking, first of all, at the brain research, looking at what we know today, but also then taking that and putting that into the reality in education. So looking at it from our assessments and how we can take that information and make a difference for our students. And then, it also has it's–it's full of…I take good lessons from you, and it's filled with case studies. So it's fun to read, but it also gives a lot of the exercises and different kinds of information that we've learned over the years.
Jill Stowell: Well, I can’t–I can’t wait to read it! Thank you so much, Joan! It is always such fun for me to talk brains and learning with you. I think we could–we could do it all day, but, thank you for-for being here and sharing with us today.
Dr. Joan Smith: And thank you to all your listeners, too. Blessings. Thank you.
Jill Stowell: At Stowell Learning Centers, we help children and adults eliminate struggles associated with dyslexia and learning differences. We want to make this journey easier for you. Connect with us on social media and on our website, stowellcenter.com, for information and resources.
If you found this episode valuable, make sure to subscribe and turn on notifications so you don’t miss out on new episodes. The struggles associated with dyslexia and learning differences can be eliminated. So help us get the word out by leaving a 5-star review. Let’s change the narrative together.
- Episode 56: Executive Function, Procrastination, and Strategies – Natalie Borrell and Alison Grant
- Episode 55: How Processing Skills Impact Behavior and Attention – Jill Stowell
- Episode 54: Teen Anxiety – Jamie Roberts
- Episode 53: Anxiety, Attention, Behavior and Learning – Jill Stowell
- Episode 52: Stealth Dyslexia and the Trauma of Undiagnosed and Untreated Learning Challenges – Dr. John Danial
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