School policies, however, have not kept up with the research, despite a major push from the federal government. The 1975 law resulted in mounting numbers of children labeled "learning disabled" and therefore requiring special services in the schools. Alarmed, Congress turned to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and demanded answers. That agency launched a major research program in 1985.
Berninger received her first grant from the institute-to study writing problems-in 1989. Now, thanks to another institute grant, she is the principal investigator of a UW research center, launched in 1995 and focusing on specific reading disorder, or dyslexia. Kyle and Alex are among dozens of children who are participating in studies at the center, one of five learning disabilities centers supported by the federal agency.
Researchers have made great strides learning about various disorders since 1985. The condition stems from processing problems in the brain, these researchers have found, and there are specific ways of diagnosing the disorders. For example, in dyslexia, there are three "markers" that children may show:
* Difficulty breaking down words into their component sounds. The child may not be able to tell how many syllables are in a given word or how many smaller sounds are in a syllable.
* Difficulty understanding that two letters can be combined into a single sound (such as "sh" or "ng"). A child with dyslexia may try to sound out a written word letter by letter and not recognize the result.
* Difficulty naming familiar written symbols rapidly and automatically. Faced with cards containing familiar symbols such as letters or colors, a child with dyslexia will often hesitate or stumble when trying to come up with their names.
A child who struggles with learning to recognize written words and has any one of these markers is considered dyslexic; Kyle and Alex have all three. Using a series of tests authored by Berninger, school psychologists could have uncovered their problems in first grade in as little as 15 or 20 minutes.Given the obvious advantages of early diagnosis and intervention, why don't school use tests like these instead of relying only on the IQ-achievement gap? Part of the problem is lack of knowledge, Berninger says. Researchers and educators often don't move in the same circles, so cutting-edge techniques may not make it into the schools. In an effort to bridge that gap, she's just written a book, Process Assessment of the Learner: Guides for Intervention, that was published by PsychCorp in October and is intended for teachers and school psychologists (The publisher's toll-free number is 1-800-211-8378.).
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