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Beyond dyslexia fonts: What parents can do to help kids who struggle with reading

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One in five people have dyslexia, and it affects people who use both languages based on alphabets (such as English) or logographics (such as Mandarin, Korean, etc.), making it a worldwide issue. Despite its prevalence, though, dyslexia is often misunderstood by the people who have it, by the parents of kids who have it and by the teachers who teach those kids.

Last year, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution that defined dyslexia “(1) as an unexpected difficulty in reading for an individual who has the intelligence to be a much better reader; and (2) due to a difficulty in getting to the individual sounds of spoken language, which affects the ability of an individual to speak, read, spell, and often, learn a language.”

Over the past eight years, two companies, Dyslexie and OpenDyslexic, have designed fonts intended to help dyslexics. They include letters with heavy weighted bottoms and tails of varying lengths. The font may also space the letters a bit wider than usual.

Both fonts were created to help deal with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. According to the Mayo Clinic, those include reading below grade level, problems processing and understanding what is heard, difficulty comprehending rapid instructions, difficulty hearing or seeing similarities and differences in letters and words, inability to sound out words and difficulty spelling.

Jeannette Washington, chief executive of Bearly Articulating, a company that trains dyslexia teachers, says that dyslexia fonts “are helpful because dyslexic learners have difficulties with orientation. Subsequently, left, right, upward and down slant can cause confusion. Dyslexia fonts make it easier for students to tell the difference between a p and a q, or a b and a d.”

There is disagreement among experts, however, over how helpful these fonts are.

Dyslexia diagnoses are not new. W. Pringle Morgan wrote in the British Medical Journal in 1896 about a boy who was quick in all other areas of learning but was unable to learn to read. A century ago, dyslexia was thought to be a problem caused by the eyes, so patients were prescribed eye exercises.

But Sally E. Shaywitz, co-founder of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, cites research that shows “that children with dyslexia are not unusually prone to reversing letters or words.” Instead, she points out, dyslexia is related to a child’s ability to process language, specifically the units that constitute words.

“Current linguistic models of reading and dyslexia now provide an explanation of why some very intelligent people have trouble learning to read and performing other language-related tasks,” she says.

And this may explain why the dyslexia font may not help. Or, as Shaywitz said, “It is trying to provide a quick answer to a complicated question.”

OpenDyslexic says, in the FAQ section of its website, that no scientific studies have been done on the dyslexic font’s effectiveness.

“We don’t know everything about how the brain works,” says Elizabeth Babbin, a reading specialist with “Dyslexia is not a simple problem to fix.”

So what can parents do to help children with dyslexia?

Shaywitz advises making sure your children are screened at a young age. There are tests teachers can administer in less than five minutes.

If your child is diagnosed with reading challenges or dyslexia, Babbin suggests parents work with school personnel to ensure his or her instruction is based on tested and proven models that will help with sounding out and decoding words (not just in reading class but in every subject). provides tips on how best to work with the school system.

Advocate for your child and ask for regular updates that include objective measures, such as increases in words read per minute.

“Don’t put any of this off,” Shaywitz said, citing a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics that found achievement gaps for dyslexic children are already noticeable in the first grade.

Make sure you understand and use all available resources. The International Dyslexia Association has branches in every state. The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity website has a section for parents, with everything from guides on talking to the school to the trailer for the documentary “Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia” and a list of summer programs that may benefit your child.

And check out Bookshare, a nonprofit library managed by Benetech that has more than 480,000 titles for students with print disabilities. Brad Turner, the vice president of Global Literacy at Benetech, said Bookshare’s job is to “get the right books to the right kids at the same time their peers get them.”

Jill L. Ferguson is the author of seven books and the founder of WomensWellnesswWekends.comFollow @JLFerg.

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