Interview With Cinda Osterman

Reading into it: How dyslexia impacts the learning process

CHRISTINE MAXA Special to the Daily Sun
Oct 2, 2022

Through third grade, children are learning to read; after that, they’re reading to learn. But, if kids don’t learn how to read properly, they have trouble acquiring the information they need to progress. One of the main causes of a troubled reader is dyslexia. In Arizona, where 1 in 5 people have dyslexia, that would be about 325,000 students.

The Magical Brain

“Dyslexia really affects the way the brain processes written material,” explained Maggie Velazquez, Dyslexia and Literacy Intervention Specialist for Arizona’s Department of Education, “making it much more difficult to recognize, spell and decode words. Dyslexia is a learning disorder. It’s neurological in origin and it’s a result of a deficit in the phonological component of language.

“Dyslexia can be unrelated to other cognitive abilities,” Velazquez added, “so if you have dyslexia, it doesn’t mean that you’re low cognition, medium cognition or high cognition. You can be gifted and still have dyslexia. It could affect anyone.”

Albert Einstein had dyslexia, and so did Alexander Graham Bell, Agatha Christie and Kobe Bryant. Princess Beatrice Elizabeth Mary of York (King Charles III’s niece), diagnosed with dyslexia at 7, described the dyslexic brain as “magical” and one that processes things differently.

Working Overtime

Even though the brain has a region considered integral to reading — the visual word form area (VWFA) located in the left inferior occipitotemporal cortex — reading, like talking, does not happen naturally; it’s learned. A fully formed alphabet didn’t come on the scene until the 8th century BCE, and the first printing press wasn’t built until the 15th century. So reading is a relatively recent activity.

The VWFA, which acts as a general processing center, seems to link to other brain areas associated with language that, together, bundles the letters of words into visual units so we don’t have to scan each letter individually. Science leans toward linking an underactive VWFA with dyslexia.

Dyslexic youngsters might have trouble with simple nursery rhymes or rhyming skills. As they get older, those multisyllable words will trip them up. They’ll have a hard time remembering what they read. Dyslexics have problems decoding words, which means they read less. This, in turn, stifles vocabulary growth and background knowledge.

“The University of Washington found that people with dyslexia use almost five times the brain area as nondyslexics,” Velazquez said. “So, it’s very hard for them to perform simple literacy tasks. I think that’s heartbreaking because a lot of times people with dyslexia, before it’s realized they have the disorder, are deemed as being lazy or expected to try harder. But they’re already trying harder than their peers.

“The bigger travesty with people with dyslexia is because people struggle to read so badly they may not find the love for reading and all the learning that occurs from reading,” Velazquez added. “It’s heartbreaking.”

When it comes to dyslexia, the whole family suffers. Not only do parents have to work more with their child to keep them on par, they may have dyslexia as well.

“We do know that dyslexia is hereditary,” Velazquez said. “So families may struggle to help because they have dyslexia as well.”

But not everyone sees dyslexia as a disability. Some, like the princess, think it a gift.

Gift or Disability?

Cinda Osterman, M. Ed., Education Consultant/Davis Correction Facilitator and owner of Training Gifted Minds in Flagstaff, began her career working with dyslexics while doing fieldwork for her masters in education through Northern Arizona University.

“My undergrad and grad from NAU was in education with an emphasis on reading and math strategies,” Osterman said. “I was involved in a special program that we worked in the school systems in Flagstaff implementing reading strategies.”

Osterman lauded the methods used by her and the program director, Dr. Sandra Stone, but she noticed some children weren’t gaining ground on their reading and discussed with Stone the possibility of seeking training in the various methods for dyslexia. After looking into the Orton-Gillingham Approach, the Barton System and other methods, Osterman settled with the Davis Dyslexia Correction program.

“I chose Davis because he got to the issue with dyslexia — disorientation,” Osterman explained. “Also, it was treated as a gift, not a learning issue.”

The gift, the Davis method explains, comes from thinking in pictures. Left-brain-oriented people think primarily in words, and right-brained-oriented people in pictures. Since the right brain excels in creativity and can view figures in 3-D from different angles, trouble starts when words become 3-D and start to twist and turn. The Davis method teaches kids to control the disorientation.

Early Detection Key

Whatever the underlying brain differences behind dyslexia and the way it is treated, early detection and treatment is always best. Screening can help identify kids as early as pre-kindergarten. Generally, all schools in Arizona are required to assess reading skills three times a year. Starting this year the state of Arizona allocated more than $1.8 million to Arizona schools to add dyslexia screening.

“With Arizona’s legislation,” Velazquez said, “all students from kindergarten through first grade will be screened for the characteristics consistent with dyslexia. It’s important to know that the screener is not meant to diagnose. The screener’s solely for the purpose of trying to catch kids earlier and not waiting until they’re in third or fourth grade.”

Osterman and Velazquez have both witnessed the power of successful dyslexic intervention. Osterman, whose oldest client was 81 years old, has watched reading grade levels rise and goals get accomplished.

“With the strategies I learned through my education classes,” Osterman said, “I could get one to four grade increases in reading through the year. However, with Davis, I could get two to nine grade increases in reading at the end of the week.”

Velazquez, who taught kindergarten through second grade, has seen the power of early intervention with effective instruction.

“I want everyone to know there is hope,” Velazquez said. “And I hope anyone who is struggling with reading receives the proper intervention to become successful readers.”