The Jigsaw Puzzle

The history of how schools deal with dyslexia has been a very boring story because for forty or more years, there was nothing to say. Dyslexia was actually identified by Samuel Orton as a separate phenomenon way back in 1925, but even today, eighty years later, almost nobody in the educational field has a clue as to what causes it, never mind what to do about it. Orton did his bit by realizing that there were bright people with an oddball reading problem that had nothing to do with intelligence, and he was right in that. But he was wrong in thinking that when someone with “strephosymbolia,” as he called it, misread was for saw it was because the right hemisphere was doing “mirror reading” or reversing the letters. He was wrong about that, but it stuck, and to this day, people will tell you that dyslectics reverse letters when they read. (More of that later.)

But he did something else that turned out to be very important. He insisted that treatment required a good dose of phonics. This was in a time when the country had gone berserk over that educational disaster called “Whole Language” which effectively produced several generations of normal kids who were, nevertheless, poor readers. Phonics was a dirty word in “Whole Language” teaching, but Orton realized that a dyslectic reader had to have it, so he and his friend, Anna Gillingham, devised an excellent phonics program that is still used in special education classes today and has spawned a world-wide institute called the International Dyslexia Association.

In the meantime, with the predictable swing of the pendulum that characterizes educational theories, Whole Language disappeared, phonics came back in fashion, and miraculously American children began to learn to read again. But the dyslectic ones didn’t. Suddenly they stuck out of the crowd, and it became clear that phonics, although vital, was not enough, because there were all those dyslectic kids-- still there -- and still not reading.

Fast forward through 50 years of nothing to say, to the post-war boom in technological innovation, but don’t look for the new research in neurology to be directed at the plight of the hapless dyslectics. Hints about what might account for the reading problem came dribbling in in dribs and drabs of disconnected pieces of information, from every field you can think of except reading research. Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, one piece of information would turn out to fit another little piece. But virtually nobody gathered it all up and morphed it into effective teaching techniques. For instance, isolated bits of technical information drifted in from:

• research on epilepsy
• timing of interhemispheric transfer across the corpus callosum
• research by a psychiatrist using high speed photography on athletes (!)
• anomalous double regressions in dyslectic eye motions
• research on magno and parvo cells in the visual and auditory systems
• realization of the plasticity of the brain
• depression
• ADD and ADHD
• studies on stroke victims

The trouble was that scientists in one field didn’t connect bits of their information to the results from other fields so they didn’t see a pattern that had anything to do with correcting dyslexia.

The first real breakthrough came from work on epilepsy, done by Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Sperry in the 60’s, in which they sectioned the corpus callosum that connects the two hemispheres. Cutting the communication between sides was done to prevent the transfer of an electrical storm in one hemisphere to the opposite hemisphere, where it would cause a seizure. The surgery not only controlled the epilepsy, it produced people whose left and right halves of the brain were out of communication with each other. With the two isolated, the doctors could find out what each side could do without interference from the other.

When this information was published in Scientific American, I was teaching six dyslectic junior high school boys.The linguistic specialties of the left hemisphere turned out to be phonics, phonemic awareness, syntax, grammar, and letter sequencing. These were exactly the things my boys couldn’t do, so I sensibly concluded that they weren’t using their left hemispheres. It also cleared up the mistaken notion that dyslectics see things backwards. What is going on is that their reading was being done largely by the right hemisphere, which is cheerfully unconcerned whether the letter order it sees matches the sounds it makes. One of my students, when I dictated DOWN, wrote OWDN and looked at me, puzzled, as if to say, “You got a problem with that?” His right side saw the shapes of the letters, concluded they were all there and didn’t care that the sound order didn’t match the letter order. In fact, it didn’t even know what sounds went with which shapes.

Serendipitously, a researcher named Doreen Kimura happened to be experimenting with a dichotic procedure using stereo earphones to send different auditory signals simultaneously to the two hemispheres. So I began hopefully sending music to the boys’ right hemispheres and a phonics exercise to the left simultaneously to see whether I could isolate and train that unused language area. The results at the end of the year were so astonishing that my supervisor accused me of fudging the scores! Fortunately for me, not everybody was so suspicious. Still, I suspect that The Journal of Learning Disabilities did startle a lot of people when they published an account of the program in 1977.

The dichotic procedure was twofold. It enabled me to both train the left hemisphere and at the same time, by-pass the CC. With the dichotic procedure, each ear sent a signal directly to the opposite hemisphere and there it stayed. So I reasoned that if the kids could not read when they were using the CC and could read if it were by-passed, it looked very much like a big part of the problem.

A couple of years later another piece of the puzzle turned up that again implicated the CC. A psychiatrist in Boston had been experimenting with high-speed photography of athletes. As a side line, he began taking high-speed movies of dyslectic and autistic children and discovered one of the most important clues to the problem of dyslexia up to that time. It seems that dyslectic children are out of sync with themselves right down the midline of the body. When they blink, one eyelid starts down a few milliseconds before the other. When they smile, one corner of the mouth starts up the same number of milliseconds before the other. When they turn toward a click, one side begins to turn the same number of milliseconds before the other. It all happens so fast that it takes high-speed photography to catch it. But apparently the brain is getting the primary signal and then later, a secondary, weaker one comes across that slow corpus callosum. Because the delay is the same for each modality—visual, auditory, or kinesthetic,-- one conclusion that can be drawn is that the secondary signal coming across the CC is late. The psychiatrist’s theory was confirmed much later when some of the first brain scans indicated that the CC was, indeed, a slow transmitter of information.

Certain double regressions in the eye movements of dyslectics that the psychiatrist-photographer also found became confirmed later wth a device called an Ober Visagraph, which both recorded and graphed these double regressions. Instead of making smooth saccadic motions while the student is reading, the dyslectic’s eyes flick back twice to the previous word(s) before going on. The difference between smooth normal reading and the back and forth motions of the dyslectic’s eyes is so dramatic that it is almost a definitive diagnosis of the problem. Again a weaker, late signal is the culprit.

One of the top British specialists in visual dyslexia found another possible source of slow information transfer. In the visual system there are two kinds of cells, parvo and magno. The larger the cell, the faster it works, and the magnos are faster than the parvos. But in dyslexia, the magnos are not as large as they should be, implying that they will transmit more slowly than they should.

So here’s how things stood. Slow interhemispheric transfer of visual and auditory information was sending out-of-sinc input to a specific language area in the left hemisphere called the angular gyrus. This was partly due to a badly shaped and/or slow corpus callosum. By-passing the faulty CC, and instead sending one, clear auditory signal to the angular gyrus improved reading so dramatically that in one or two years of training, kids could be brought up to grade-level reading. This was the first breakthrough since Sam Orton insisted on teaching phonics to dyslectics. And it explained why even the best phonics was not enough. The phonics lesson had to be delivered to the correct area of the brain for processing. And it needed to be delivered up to speed, which meant by-passing the CC.

Now fast forward again to the last ten or fifteen years, when two things happened. One was the invention of a brain scan called an fMRI. Plain old MRI’s had been around for awhile, but they merely took a picture. The fMRI was more like a movie camera. It could take pictures of what was going on in the brain while a person was thinking. FMRI’s have become the most exciting tool available to neurologists in years, and they are using them to investigate everything they can think of -- even dyslexia! FMRI’s from around the world have now shown conclusively that that left angular gyrus is not used when a dyslectic person reads, whereas it lights up like a Christmas tree when a normal one does. Finally at least one big piece of the puzzle is firmly in place.

Now two questions remained. Can you increase use of the left angular gyrus, and if so, how do you do it? The answer to the first question is yes, it is possible to increase activity in one hemisphere in isolation from the other, just as Dora Kimura did fifty years before. This has been accomplished during research on both strokes and on depression. The neurologist’s techniques are to numb one hemisphere with magnetic pulses while they test or train the other. Numbing half of a student’s brain (even unintentionally) is not an approved technique for public school teachers, but we can mechanically accompish much the same thing by sending the right hemisphere some nice Mozart to listen to while the other side gets its phonics lesson. For the first time, these studies proved conclusively that you can give private lessons to one hemisphere, and our success in teaching reading hinted that we were doing just that.

So far, so good.

But reading involves vision as well as hearing. Can you send input only to the left hemisphere through the eyeballs as well as the ears?  That turns out to be not only easy, but cheap. The  retina at the back of each eyeball has two halves, the inside one close to the nose-- the nasal one, and the outside one toward the temple, the temporal one. Each inner, or nasal, retina conveniently ships its signal directly to the opposite hemisphere without going through the CC. How handy.  All you have to do is make sure that when your student is reading words, the words are getting shipped only to the left hemisphere, which means he must be using only the right nasal retina to read.  So you simply keep the unwanted left nasal retina covered so it can’t see the words. This is accomplished with something called an I-Card, which you can actually make for yourself from a piece of cardboard. 

You fold in the edge of a short side about an inch, so the edge of the cardboard is bent in.  You hold it up so the fold is nestled against your face to the left side of your nose and the rest of it is sticking out across the way toward the words you are reading. That narrow folded strip blocks out the column of words from his left nasal retina, but doesn’t affect peripheral vision.   You close your right eye for a second to check that the left eye can’t see the words in the lesson. Next you close your left eye for a second and make sure that the far edge of the I-Card is lined up just to the left of a column of words as you read them out loud.

Now it is possible to end-run both timing problems and deliver your lessons to the left side of the brain in sync with each other. When a student comes in for his lesson, you give him the I-Card to hold  against his face for his phonics lesson and put him in the stereo earphone set up for his spelling lesson.  Thus encumbered, he gets from the RfS program the practice in phonics, phonemic awareness, syntax, grammar and letter sequencing that he so sorely needs. Delivered to the right address!

Now here’s a plus.   Stimulation of the left hemisphere by itself has been shown to reduce both depression and hyperactivity. And those psychiatrists who treat depression by stimulating the left hemisphere didn’t even realize they might be helping dyslexia at the same time. Since depression and hyperactivity are such common concomitants of dyslexia, the cheering and calming effects are a very nice extra.  

It is ironic that it took eighty years to close the gap between educators and the scientists who have solved the problem. Talk about slow transmission! Eighty years for a few millisecond difference.

One question is still unanswered, leaving us with a small part of our jigsaw puzzle unsolved. We know how to treat dyslexia now, but we still don’t know how to prevent it in the first place. The answer to that will probably come from genetic research in the future. Its makes sense that some gene controls the development of the corpus callosum and the size of the magno cells. But manipulating genes is far into the future. When that finally happens, dyslexia can be considered cured and relegated to the history books as something that once was a “handicap.”

Dorothy van den Honert
115 Mountain Drive, Pittsfield, Mass. 01201
tel: 413-442-2687
e-mail: info@dyslexia.org



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