On October 14, 2003, SchwabLearning.org hosted an online chat with Sally Shaywitz, M.D. Participants had the opportunity to ask this nationally-known expert questions about dyslexia and reading problems.

List of Questions Asked of Dr. Shaywitz:

  1. What do you recommend when parents have received doubtful, questionable, or borderline diagnoses of their children and want to know how they can be sure that their child does or does not have dyslexia?
  2. Are there any proven programs that have been shown to help the short-term memory problems can be part of dyslexia?
  3. How do we begin to make the changes in special education that are so desperately needed? It seems as though we just keep doing what does not work.
  4. Is there a place we can find out which programs have been approved by the National Reading Panel?
  5. Do you believe that dyslexics, like stroke patients, can be taught to re-route their brains to use the correct part for reading?
  6. Can all children with dyslexia learn to spell fairly well? How much should we teach them to rely on technology for spelling, such as spellcheck?
  7. Why is there reluctance among evaluators to think about kids as dyslexic?
  8. How does balanced literacy fit in with your recommendations for reading instruction in the first and second grade?
  9. Would you speak about the child who eventually does learn to read and who still doesn’t understand?
  10. As a mom, what encouragement would you give to parents so they can continue the work of helping children learn and be successful in life?

The following is the complete transcript from this event.

Dr. Shaywitz: I’m really excited and looking forward to joining all of you this evening. It’s really a pleasure to be here.

Moderator: We had a number of questions from parents who seem to have received doubtful, questionable, or borderline diagnoses of their children and want to know how they can be sure that their child does or does not have dyslexia. What do you recommend?

Dr. Shaywitz: That’s a very good and very common question. The good news is that, because we have learned so much from science and understand dyslexia at a very basic level, we can now translate that science into the earlier and more accurate identification of children and adults who are dyslexic. That’s why I wrote Overcoming Dyslexia and, in the book, on pages 122 through 127, I provide clues to help parents and teachers identify dyslexia earlier and more accurately. And I also provide a section called “Diagnosing Dyslexia” in the school age child, in the young at-risk child, and in bright young adults. From all that we have learned about dyslexia, we know how to ask the right questions about a child’s development, language, and learning; what to observe as he or she reads out loud; and what the appropriate tests are. These are all discussed in Overcoming Dyslexia .

Moderator: Short-term memory problems can be part of dyslexia. Are there any proven programs that have been shown to help?

Dr. Shaywitz: Right, short-term memory problems are part of dyslexia because both of these problems reflect the basic problem of getting to the sound structure of spoken words. What is very exciting is that effective, science-based intervention programs for dyslexia have been demonstrated to improve short-term memory. In addition, saying the material out loud, associating it with a humorous or outlandish visual image, and trying to remember the material by viewing it right before going to bed and having a good nights’ sleep can help retain the material to be remembered.


Moderator: How do we begin to make the changes in special education that are so desperately needed? It seems as though we just keep doing what does not work. I know it takes baby steps. What would they be?

Dr. Shaywitz: That’s a very, very important question and there are several parts to the answer. One is to make sure that all parents and educators are knowledgeable and informed about the new science of reading and what the scientific evidence tells us about which programs are most effective. Parents must go and ask their children’s school is there scientific evidence that the program is effective. Was the program or its methods reviewed by the National Reading Panel? I go into this in more detail on page 209-210 in Overcoming Dyslexia . The other important component to this response is that the new federal legislation – for example, the “Reading First” legislation that is part of the bi-partisan No Child Left Behind law – mandates that scientifically based reading programs be used to teach struggling readers. This will ensure that children who are struggling to read will be taught by the most effective, scientifically-based methods. This will go a long way to ensuring that virtually all our children will have an opportunity to become real readers. In summary, I think that it is imperative that parents become informed and speak up. Each one of us alone cannot bring about change, but if all of us work together towards a common goal and speak up and demand that our children be taught using proven methods, we can bring about positive change. We can do it; we must do it; and we will do it.

Moderator: Julie H. asks: Is there a place we can find out which programs have been approved by the National Reading Panel?

Dr. Shaywitz: I was a member of the National Reading Panel, and I discuss their findings in Overcoming Dyslexia. There’s also a website at http://www.nationalreadingpanel.org – or you can call the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and they will help you access the information.

Moderator: Linda asks: Dr. Shaywitz, do you believe that dyslexics, like stroke patients, can be taught to re-route their brains to use the correct part for reading?

Dr. Shaywitz: What we have now is direct scientific evidence that provision of scientifically-based effective reading programs used for intervention with struggling readers is associated with the development of the critical neural systems for reading. For background information, we and other researchers have used exciting new technology called “functional brain imaging” to identify the neural systems for reading in children and adults and, in particular, to identify the region called the “word form area” that is involved in skilled, fluent [silent] reading. We also know that, in children and adults who are dyslexic, there is a glitch or disruption in this region and that provision of evidence-based reading programs is associated with activation of this region in struggling readers. The good news is that the brain is very flexible and adaptable, and I view it as waiting and ready to be given effective reading programs to help develop these brain systems for reading. Teaching matters, and effective programs can bring about positive changes within the brain and better reading. That is why it is imperative that all children be given the opportunity to become readers through the provision of proven, scientifically-based reading programs.

Moderator: TexasMom asks: Can all children with dyslexia learn to spell fairly well? How much should we teach them to rely on technology for spelling, such as spellcheck?


Dr. Shaywitz: That’s a very, very good question, and I don’t think anyone has the answer to it. We do know that the provision of effective reading programs brings about improvements in spelling. We also know that spelling is even more difficult than reading. Particularly for children in the upper primary grades and above, it is extremely helpful to have spellcheckers and other technology to help find the correct spelling. I would not hesitate to allow children and adults to make use of spellcheckers. The problem is that sometimes the spelling is so off the mark that the spellchecker isn’t helpful, other times a homonym is spelled – so “sale” would be spelled instead of “sail.” Nevertheless, having a spellchecker is very helpful for a child or adult who is dyslexic.

Moderator: Leslie asks: Why is there reluctance among evaluators to think about kids as dyslexic?

Dr. Shaywitz: Leslie is absolutely correct. There is a real reluctance among evaluators and schools to identify children as dyslexic. My own feeling is that this reflects ignorance and lack of knowledge about dyslexia. My goal and my mission is to help to educate such evaluators and schools about all that has been learned about dyslexia so that they will acknowledge its reality, be able to accurately identify it in children, and recommend effective reading programs. In fact, in Overcoming Dyslexia I recommend that if parents are faced with an evaluator or educator who denies dyslexia exists, that parent bring a copy of Overcoming Dyslexia to that person and ask them to read it, and show them what an enormous amount of scientific information we have about all aspects of dyslexia. In fact, as a pediatrician, I can say that we now know more about the fundamental nature and underlying brain basis of dyslexia than we know about most other problems that affect the health and well-being of children. It is unacceptable to be told that dyslexia does not exist or is not a valid reason for provision of special reading interventions for a child.

Moderator: How does balanced literacy fit in with your recommendations for reading instruction in the first and second grade?

Dr. Shaywitz: It all depends on what is meant by balanced literacy. On the face of it, who can argue with balanced literacy? On the other hand, we have learned about the importance of reading instruction that consists of systematic, comprehensive, and explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. These are the five basic elements of effective reading instruction. The concern is that sometimes programs that are not consistent with scientifically-based reading research and are only fragmentary or incomplete (for example, lacking systematic and explicit instruction in phonics), are then euphemistically referred to as “balanced literacy” even though they are not as comprehensive or systematic or aligned with what the evidence tells us are the most effective, scientifically-based reading programs. So, if a parent is told that the program is to reflect balanced literacy, that parent should ask “Is this program consistent with the findings of the National Reading Panel, or the methods and programs that are noted in Overcoming Dyslexia ?”

Moderator: mailsac asks: Dr. Shaywitz, thank you for your book. It is most helpful and gives parents information. It isn’t written in educational talk. Would you speak about the child who eventually does learn to read and who still doesn’t understand? Is there still something missing that the programs mentioned, like Open Court and Language aren’t hitting yet?


Dr. Shaywitz: There can be a number of reasons why a child doesn’t understand what he or she reads. Often, a child may have learned to decode and read accurately, but is not yet reading fluently. It is important that a child not only read accurately but is able to read rapidly. Fluency is critical for comprehension. And the good news is that there are now effective methods to improve fluency, and these involve a method called “repeated oral reading with feedback and guidance.” I discuss specific methods and programs based on this in Overcoming Dyslexia . Fluency is perhaps the most overlooked component of reading, and lack of fluency is often responsible for comprehension difficulties. And fluency can be enhanced. In addition, helping to enrich a child’s vocabulary and knowledge of the world around him or her is important to help improve comprehension. In addition, children benefit greatly by being directly taught comprehension strategies which involve how to more actively read. Using such strategies, and I discuss these in Overcoming Dyslexia can significantly help to improve children’s understanding of what they read. All too often, children who are not yet fluent readers, or do not have the necessary vocabulary or comprehension strategies, are asked to read a chapter or a book, and they get into the habit of glossing over the words and not reading for meaning. Reading becomes an exercise rather than a pleasurable or an informative experience. That is why it is critically important to monitor a child’s reading fluency and comprehension as they progress throughout the school year. There is a great deal more that we need to learn about comprehension, but we know enough, as I’ve just discussed, to help most children understand what they read, and to enjoy it and learn from it.

Moderator: Along with questions, many here tonight wanted to thank you for the work you have done and continue to do to set the record straight. As a mom, what encouragement would you give to parents so they can continue the work of helping children learn and be successful in life?

Dr. Shaywitz: I think it is important to know and appreciate that dyslexia represents more than a weakness in reading. There are also many significant strengths that each child who is dyslexic possesses. In Overcoming Dyslexia I devote an entire chapter, called “Protecting and Nourishing Your Child’s Soul,” to this very issue. My strong belief is that an educated, informed parent is an empowered parent – one who is a champion for his or her child, and that there is no stronger advocate who can make a difference in that child’s life. I would really strongly advise the parents who are part of our virtual community this evening to feel their power, to exercise their power and not Listen to naysayers, to believe in their child, and to know that that child will succeed. Finally, to let that child’s strengths and not his weaknesses define him as a person. Every child has strengths, and those must be recognized and allowed to express themselves.

I want to close this chat with the same thought I shared with my readers in Overcoming Dyslexia .

“Success is waiting for your child, and now you know what to do to help him achieve it. You don’t have to rely on chance. You know how to identify a problem early, and how to get the right help to ensure that it is your child’s strengths and not the misperceptions of others that ultimately define him. You know what is possible and how to nourish it: children blossom with reward and praise and flourish because of high expectations. Above all, you must maintain your belief in your child, provide unconditional support for him, and hold true to a vision of his future. Rewards will be great. Today, each dyslexic child is free to develop his talents and to pursue his dreams – and to know he will succeed. Dyslexia can be overcome.”

I want to thank everyone who participated in this chat for their really thoughtful questions, and to really encourage everyone to know that we really understand dyslexia and to help in the effort to ensure that this knowledge is disseminated to all and that our children benefit.

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