Being able to read and write is essential. Check SP’s warning signs that your child needs help with such skills…

Junior can’t speak properly — does he need help?

Is your child having trouble pronouncing words other kids his age have no problem with? Is junior just sticking stubbornly to baby talk or could it be something more sinister? What if he has problems picking up nursery rhymes?

Luckily, you can approach the Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS) for help. For instance, Specialised Educational Services (SES), one of the outreach programmes under DAS, organises a Preschool Seminar. One of the 2016 seminar’s speakers, Dr Charles Haynes, a leading expert from the US in dyslexia and associated learning difficulties, tells SP how parents can tell if their child has the learning disorder…

1. What warning signs indicate a delay in learning to read and write?

In otherwise typically developing children, a few important very early warning signs in the preschool years are:
(a) A family history of specific reading difficulties in parents and/or siblings.
(b) Speech delays — obvious trouble pronouncing words compared to other children the same age.
(c) Problems with awareness of speech sounds; for example, showing some difficulty learning age-appropriate nursery rhymes.
(d) Low parent literacy levels and limited access to books or other reading materials in the home.
(e) Delays in learning vocabulary and problems in forming longer and more complex sentences.
Your child may have general literacy problems stemming from (d) and (e), but (a), (b) and (c) may indicate more.

2. Then what should I do, as a parent?

If parents see such signs, they should not ignore them. The best course of action is for their child to be screened by a qualified professional. The Dyslexia Association of Singapore is an excellent resource for high-quality professionals. In addition, readers can google the International Dyslexia Association's website for free fact sheets about early detection and assessment of dyslexia and related topics of interest.

3. What’s next if my child has been diagnosed with dyslexia?

If the screening indicates a possible problem, then the child may need an in-depth assessment of speech and language abilities (in English and in their home language, if at all possible), cognitive abilities, pre-reading skills, as well as reading and writing skills. A good evaluator will also make sure that the child’s hearing and vision is tested. In some cases, a child may benefit from also being evaluated by a neurologist or a psychologist.

Photo: INGimage

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4. Can we help our child overcome this disorder on our own?

Parents must understand that dyslexia or related language-learning disabilities are not a stigma and they should not blame themselves or their child! They may benefit from speaking with other parents in similar situations. Divorce rates are higher in parents of children with disabilities; parents experiencing unusual stress should seek counselling.

Concrete examples of direct support parents can provide their children with literacy difficulties are:
(a) Find your child’s areas of ability (for example: art, music, sports, hobbies, a favourite school subject) and make sure that he or she has opportunities to strengthen and celebrate these abilities!
(b) Provide a language- and literacy-rich environment in the home. If at all possible, read to the child daily with appropriate books for the child's comprehension level, or leave cartoon books out on a table for the child to read, put magnetic letters up on the refrigerator or on a magnetic board for the child to play with (children often enjoy this even more if parents interact with them!).
(c) Make trips opportunities for language learning: for example, when planning a day out at the zoo, talk about it before leaving and ask the child to predict what he or she will see; while at the zoo talk with the child about each experience — what do they see, which animals do they like, what are the animals eating? After returning, recap with the child what he experienced. These same strategies can be used for more practical or social trips, such as going to the grocery store or visiting a relative.

5. What are your personal favourite ways of encouraging literacy?

My wife and I loved reading to our five sons when they were in preschool and even in middle school and high school. They all enjoy books because of the positive associations they developed between the experience of being loved and the experience of book-reading.

Secondly, when driving on long trips we would play a game called, “I Am Thinking of an Animal”, in which one person would announce he had selected an animal. The other people in the car would then have to ask yes/no questions (Is it a vertebrate? Is it a mammal? Is it nocturnal? Does it live in trees?). After everyone had asked at least one question, they were allowed to ask a question and then guess the answer. While this last game does not appear to be related to literacy, it actually helped them to develop both logic and language skills that later supported their reading comprehension.

Thirdly, another game we played on trips was called, “I Went on a Picnic”. This was a memory game in which one of us would start “I went on a picnic and brought… a book (for instance). Then each of us would take a turn while adding an additional item (“a mat to sit on” “tuna fish sandwiches” or “cake”). For more difficulty, we added the requirement that the items had to be in alphabetical order: “I went on a picnic and I took an apple.” The second might follow up with: “I went on a picnic and I took an apple and a banana.” The third might then say: “I went on a picnic and I took an apple, a banana, and a carrot.” Once a person made a mistake, they would drop out. For younger children, if they made a mistake, we would give them a second chance and add a sound cue for the item they could not recall (“ap” for apple for example).

There are a lot of other enjoyable ways to support young children's literacy skills. The important point is that they should be joyful and not punitive. Children's early experiences with language and pre-literacy skills shape their attitudes towards their later literacy learning.

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6. Bilingualism: Does it affect a growing child’s brain if he is exposed to multiple languages?

I am a strong proponent of children and adults learning as many languages as they are able to. I am concerned by efforts in some quarters of my own country (USA) to emphasise English only and not support continued development of children’s home languages. The ability to speak more than one language is critical for maintaining ties with one’s family, as well as achieving success in an increasingly global marketplace.

Research indicates that multilingualism is associated with a number of positive changes in the brain, such as stronger executive functioning (self-regulation). More recently, it has been hypothesised that growing up bilingual enhances one's social judgment ability! These benefits appear to be caused by learners’ long-term experiences “code-switching” between languages and cultures. Only in extreme cases of language impairment, and in which children clearly suffer when required to learn more than one language, is it reasonable to consider limiting them monolingualism.

7. Is there a link between dyslexia and the ability to learn multiple languages?

There is no link between dyslexia and multilingualism. Dyslexia is a brain difference that causes an otherwise normal person to have difficulty reading and spelling words. In contrast, speaking multiple languages is the result of adapting to growing up in culture(s) in which more than one language is spoken. It is important not to confuse dyslexia and related language-learning disorders with a language difference. While a person who is multilingual can also have dyslexia, one does not cause the other. Being bi- or multilingual can complicate the diagnosis and treatment of dyslexia, but a high-quality assessment will examine the child’s abilities not just in the English language but, even more importantly, in the child’s home language.

Dr Charles Haynes, is a professor in the Department in Communication Sciences and Disorders, School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, Massachussetts General Hospital, Boston, United States of America. He will be a key speaker at the Dyslexia Association of Singapore’s Preschool Seminar on Saturday 19 March. For more information, check out the booking site.

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