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Almost weekly, I hear stories from people who know an adult—often a family member—who has trouble reading or cannot read at all. Sometimes the person who’s talking with me speaks in hushed tones, because the nonreader is him or herself.
The hushed tone is a symptom of the fact that adults who can’t read feel embarrassed. They’ve been made to believe that not reading well means there’s something wrong with their intelligence. Often, that’s not true. In fact, people with trouble reading, sometimes called dyslexics, are frequently more intelligent than average. (I’ve read their numbers include successful people like Leonardo da Vinci, Tom Cruise, Cher, and even Charles Schwab! My father belonged among them and didn’t learn until late in life that he was seeing words backwards.) So why can’t they read? There are many possible answers.
Reading is not a natural human activity, as speech is. Some human cultures never develop reading/writing. Those of us who do read have forced our brains to adapt brain areas that originally served other purposes. The exact brain functions that have to operate for us to read differ from language to language. In English, for example, we connect certain letters (which are shapes) to certain sounds or groups of sounds. Then we read from the left to the right, picking out the pronunciation of each word and then the meaning in the line of words read in the correct order. (As you read that sentence, you were doing all that!)
Some languages are based on pictures, not letters, or may be read vertically, not side to side. Dyslexia is different or nonexistent in those languages. Someone who is dyslexic in the United States might never have suffered that diagnosis if he or she (it happens more frequently to male brains) had been born to a less sequential language—perhaps in Asia.
To read well, a person’s brain has to be able to connect the shapes being seen to sounds. A “b,” for example, needs to be attached to the “buh” sound by tiny connections in the brain. If the person didn’t hear well in childhood when she was learning to read (too many ear infections, perhaps, or too much background noise), her brain might have missed connecting certain sounds to the letters or letter combinations. Her trouble with reading is different from some. Maybe he’s having trouble putting the sounds together in the proper order or hearing them in order. A word like “please” might be confused with something like “easel.” The difficulty can come from the way in which that person’s brain is processing the information. The letters on the page may appear to move around or skip from one line to another as he tries to pronounce them.
The problems that can make reading difficult or impossible at this stage are numerous and individualized. Some sufferers invent their own ways of working around the difficulties and do just fine. Some have no clue what the problem is and give up. Many reading teachers have no specific training to be able to help with trouble at this level. They’re trained to teach main ideas and themes and characters. Many teachers, professors, or schools believe the problem is hopeless or not worth the time and attention fixing it would require. Traditionally, such students were herded into special education classes in the early grades. Most had no hope of advanced training or post-secondary education, regardless of their intelligence.
Aside from special schools dedicated to students who process information in less common ways, I have found a couple of resources that can help with problems that begin at this level. Some cities have Lindamood-Bell Learning System centers. The practitioners there are prepared to deliver a battery of measurements to pinpoint the problem for young or adult students. Fixing the issues will take time and is expensive, but it is not hopeless. Some public school teachers have a rudimentary training in the reading systems developed at Lindamood-Bell centers (available in the U.S., Australia, and the UK), but those who can make a difference with severe cases are not common. Posit Science (Brain HQ) offers software programs for sale that were designed to establish brain connections that were missed or to strengthen connections that have fallen into disrepair with advancing age. (These are not the only resources available—only the ones I know the best.)
In the past, students were not taught any of the specifics of reading after fourth grade. After that, they were simply given reading assignments and asked to respond to them. The Teacher Who Couldn’t Read is the true story of John Corcoran who found ways to work around the system. He was a high school teacher with a college degree before he confessed he had never been able to read. After receiving intensive help, he did eventually learn to read and is currently recognized as a highly successful businessman. (For more information search John Corcoran Foundation.) His story reminds us that we sometimes push aside people who need to work differently, and the result can be our loss as well as theirs.
In other articles, I hope to chat with you about other reading issues, but the ongoing message is reading problems are not hopeless. Even though the person with the issue may never read for pleasure, basic reading is open to most of us. Only a small minority lack the intellectual capacity. Some people who seem to lack the brain tools for reading can accomplish the same results if they have a chance to do the deed another way — perhaps by listening to a sound recording of the words. My father used to love to listen to my mother read novels to him in the evenings.
Finally, not reading should never mark someone as “less,” any more than being a poor athlete, mechanic, or poet does. In our differences lies our strength of creativity.
(An expert who can explain reading to novices like me is Marianne Wolff, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.)