Tongue Tied:  Could the Need for Speech Therapy Indicate a Future Reading Problem?

I recently read a fascinating book, Overcoming Dyslexia, by Dr. Sally Shaywitz, the co- director of the Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention.  According to Dr. Shaywitz, dyslexia is very common, affecting 20 percent of the population and representing 80– 90 percent of all those with learning disabilities. Studies show, however, that dyslexic children and adults are often very intelligent and creative and with the right intervention can become successful students and pursue rewarding careers. After reading this book, I realized how important it is to make sure that speech therapists and parents stay in constant communication as young children with speech delays begin their journey towards reading.

Many people, including speech therapists, assume that dyslexia is defined as reversing letters in words.  Perhaps this myth is associated with Leonardo da Vinci’s handwritten documents that were often written in a reverse, mirror image. Regardless, it’s important to know that dyslexia is associated with a deficit in the phonological component of language.  Since speech pathologists work with children’s ability to sound out words, articulation and expression, it makes sense to keep them informed when one might suspect dyslexia or another language based disability.

Delayed speech is a sign of dyslexia but there are many others according to Dr. Shaywitz’s book.  Specifically during the pre-school and early elementary school years, they include: trouble learning common nursery rhymes such as “Jack and Jill,” difficulty remembering the names of letters in the alphabet, mispronouncing familiar words like cat, bat, rat and a family history of reading and/or spelling difficulties.   In addition, children may not understand that words come apart or complain about how hard reading is.   Often they tend to search for illustration clues to help them with a word and guess, often demonstrating reading errors that show no connection to the sounds of the letter on the page.  They also might mispronounce long, unfamiliar words when they speak or become a little tongue tied as they try to repeat unfamiliar words like “lotion” for “ocean” or “pacific” for “specific.” As dyslexic children get older or if they are exposed to one language at home, parents might find that they have difficulty learning a foreign language.  Poor spelling and messy handwriting are also signs of dyslexia.  Dyslexia children are often quite bright and creative and love building, solving puzzles and exhibit a great imagination and curiosity.   However, decoding words is a challenge.

This word-reading difficulty is often caused by a deficit in the phonological component of language. In other words, the student has difficulty understanding how sounds go together to create words. This makes it difficult for the student to decode or sound out letter and put them together to form words and to spell words.    They also might not develop phonological awareness skills, such as rhyming, segmenting and blending, as quickly as their peers.

Speech and language pathologists have extensive training and knowledge about phonological skills.   As we continue to learn more about dyslexia, I am hoping that educators, reading specialists and speech therapists can work more closely together as children begin their journey to become lifelong readers.  Even if a child is having difficulty with reading and not speech, a speech therapist can help those students improve their overall phonological systems and understand how sounds go together to make words.


For more information:  Overcoming Dyslexia (Sally Shaywitz, Vintage Books (Random House 2003).