by Rose Winterbourne, IFDDA.org
The phenomenon of dyslexia is often referred to as a “learning disability”. However, these exceptional individuals just have different sensory perceptions due to genetic dispositions (Galaburda, LoTurco, Ramus, Fitch, & Rosen, 2006). Their different sensory perceptions cause them to view and experience our world differently, what can lead to significant accomplishments in arts, sports, and science – just not in reading and writing. Many researchers of different disciplines have dealt with this topic, mainly on how to address the reading and spelling issues that dyslexics have and how to render assistance. The approaches to research in dyslexia are as diverse as the various methods of training. What is needed is a comprehensive approach to dyslexia training that addresses all elements that cause the affected individuals’ problems to deliver faster and longer-lasting improvements.
The different sensory perceptions of a dyslexic person cause his or her attention to diminish when confronted with symbols like letters. The results are errors while reading and writing. The logical consequence is that dyslexics require assistance in all three areas: improvement of sensory perceptions, as well as enhancement of the attention span while reading and spelling, and at last but not least practicing of reading and spelling. Training techniques for dyslexics and research about such, however, tend to focus on only one (or at most two) of the three mentioned areas. Multiple studies have already proven the benefits of sensory perception training (Bonacina, Cancer, Lanzi, Lorusso, & Antonietti, 2015; Flaugnacco et al., 2015; Fraga González et al., 2015; Gori & Facoetti, 2014; Habib et al., 2016; Ikeshita-Yamazoe & Miyao, 2016; Wang et al., 2014). Other research focused on the advantageous role of attention training (Franceschini et al., 2015; Heim, Pape-Neumann, Van Ermingen-Marbach, Brinkhaus, & Grande, 2015; Valdois et al., 2015), while other scientific inquiries concentrated on increased practicing of the basic academic skills of reading and spelling (Law & Cupples, 2015; McArthur et al., 2015).
Nevertheless, there is one approach to dyslexia training, which incorporates all three elements and, therefore, promises superior results: the so-called “AFS-Method” (A=attention, F=function/sensory perception, S=symptom). This method is open source and not a commercial program and has been practiced by dyslexia specialists for the past 20 years in over 50 countries worldwide in different languages with much success. Kopp-Duller and Pailer-Duller (2011) conducted a long-term qualitative study investigating the effectiveness of the AFS-Method, which showed that 85% of test subjects were able to improve their reading and spelling abilities. Other researchers have also reported on the uniqueness of the AFS-Method in contrast to other standard practices for rendering assistance to dyslexics (Ablinger, 2006; Halfarová & Cigánková, 2006; Karli, 2006; Levski, 2011; Mészáros, 2011, Szimmuck, 2014; Zachbauer, 2011). A central key point of training in the AFS-Method is the concept of teaching word using multiple senses called word formulations, which was confirmed as beneficial by Aylward and Berninger from the University of Washington (Schwarz; 2004).
Further research, specifically quantitative in nature, should be conducted on the distinctive AFS-training method to generate quantifiable and tangible results so the method gains more acceptance in the dyslexia community and thus more affected individuals would be able to benefit from it. If more educators knew how to support dyslexic children successfully, fewer children would struggle at school and ultimately would be able to remain in school longer and receive a better education as a result.
II. CAUSE OF DYSLEXIA
Dyslexia is a hereditary condition that causes different sensory perceptions (Galaburda et al., 2006). Dyslexic individuals see, hear, and experience the world differently than non-dyslexics. This can have an upside because dyslexics are often talented in areas like technology, art, music, and sports – just not in reading and writing. The different sensory perceptions cause the dyslexics’ attention to diminish when confronted with the abstract concept of letters. This lack of attention results in errors while reading, writing, and spelling and in turn in poor academic performance in language studies (Kopp-Duller, 2012).
Some research focuses on the aspect of auditory processes during reading, spelling, or writing: Bonacina et al. (2015) said that dyslexia stems from difficulties in auditory information processing, which results in impaired phonological awareness. Gori and Facoetti (2014) also agree that dyslexia is an auditory-phonological processing deficit while Franceschini et al. (2015) said that dyslexics exhibit weak linguistic-phonological processing. Other researchers put the emphasis on the visual aspect: Wang et al. (2014) concluded that dyslexic individuals have an issue with their visual perceptual processing.
The bottom line is that dyslexia is a multisensory integration deficit (Fraga González et al., 2015). Dyslexic children have a unique way of processing information which results in a unique behavior during the learning process (Kopp-Duller & Pailer-Duller, 2011). No manifestation of dyslexia is alike because not every dyslexic person’s sensory perceptions are affected in the same way. Some children exhibit difficulty in visual processing, others with auditory, and again others in spatial perception. This is the precise reason not every training program to better the effects to dyslexia works on any child. The training efforts always need to be individualized to reach faster improvements without frustrating the child in the process.
III. ELEMENTS OF DYSLEXIA TRAINING
The approaches to dyslexia training are as diverse as the approaches to research on dyslexia. Researchers from a spectrum of disciplines have made it their duty to explore this complex subject and ways how to deal with it. Neurologists focus on processes in the brain of dyslexics to better understand the problem this phenomenon causes during reading and spelling (Heim et al., 2015). Geneticists view the issue from a hereditary standpoint (Galaburda et al., 2006). Psychologists focus on diagnosing dyslexia using intelligence tests although these tests were not designed for this purpose (Habib et al., 2016). At last but not least, pedagogues discuss how to help affected children more effectively (Berninger et al., 2008).
The success of various training programs has been well documented in countless studies as demonstrated in the following subsections. Noticeably, training techniques tend to focus only on one aspect of the causation of dyslexia: training of attention, training of sensory perceptions, or training of symptoms, while the scientific evidence of the success of sensory perception training dominates. The question remains about what happens if dyslexia training is conducted using in individualized approach that covers all areas that cause the dyslexic child’s problems.
A. Training of Attention
The thoughts of a dyslexic person tend to wander, especially when they are confronted with the task of reading and writing. Dyslexic children reject these tasks because they cannot perform them well and would rather be doing something else. So they might act out and give the impression of being hyperactive. The wrong conclusion is often drawn from this behavior, that the child is hyperactive and, consequently, cannot read and write. However, the opposite is the case: The child cannot read and write which causes him or her misbehave. An important part of dyslexia training, therefore, is the focusing of attention. The goal of attention exercises is to give the affected individual the tools to focus his or her thoughts on the task at hand which automatically yields positive results in reading and spelling (Kopp-Duller, 2012).
Various training techniques can be used to bring forth the desired outcome of focusing a child’s attention. Franceschini et al. (2015) used action video games in their study to increase the attention span in children with dyslexia. Heim et al. (2015) showed that the training of visual attention improves reading abilities. Another study where the training of visual attention improved reading abilities was conducted by Valdois et al. (2015). Breteler, Arns, Peters, Giepmans, and Verhoeven (2010) used qEEG based neurofeedback training to increase the attention span, where the subject learned to self-regulate and thus improve brain activities, and subsequently were able to reduce reading and spelling deficits. Research by Kast, Baschera, Gross, Jäncke, and Meyer (2011) revealed that phonological awareness exercises increased the focusing of the test subjects on the task at hand.
B. Training of Sensory Perceptions
As already discussed, dyslexics exhibit deficits in sensory perceptions, so-called functions. Logic and practice dictate that only with functioning sensory perceptions a smooth learning process is possible. The training and, therefore, improvement of these sensory perceptions leads to automatically better performances in reading and spelling as the presented evidence from multiple studies will demonstrate. Training can focus on visual, auditory, or spatial sensory perceptions while it is vital to find out in which areas that child has difficulty before starting with the sensory perception training (Kopp-Duller & Pailer-Duller, 2011).
Fraga González et al. (2015) disclosed that training of letter-speech sound mapping lead to substantial reading gains in dyslexic test subjects. Ikeshita-Yamazoe & Miyao (2016) used a specifically for dyslexics designed visual training tool for learning symbols, where test subjects were able to give 83% correct responses after two months in post-tests compared to the traditional teaching method where no correct answers were given. The overall concept of perceptual learning lead to improvements in visual attention and reading in research by Gori and Facoetti (2014).
Furthermore, Balido-Dean, Kupczynski, and Fedynich (2011), Berninger et al. (2008), in addition to Kast et al. (2011) showed multi-sensory training using letters has positive effects on reading and spelling abilities of dyslexic children. But even sensory perception training without the use of symbols lead to improvement of reading and spelling skills in a study by Burger, Kastenhuber, and Loidl (2001).
A new approach to sensory perception training is the use of music. Training of basic musical rhythm perception skills had a positive impact on reading speed and accuracy in a study performed by Bonacina et al. (2015). Likewise, Flaugnacco et al. (2015) used music training to improve phonological awareness and reading skills in children with dyslexia. Habib et al. (2016) specifically used the concept of Cognitivo-musical training to yield improvements in auditory attention and reading.
C. Training of Symptoms
Another part of dyslexia training is the improvement of reading and writing skills and, therefore, the eradication of errors while reading and spelling. This is achieved through practicing these basic academic skills. In the end, even for dyslexic children, reading and spelling can only be learned through reading and spelling (Kopp-Duller, 2012). A lack of recent investigations in this area demonstrates that the scientific community of dyslexic research has reached the consensus that dyslexia needs to be addressed on the multi-sensory level. Nonetheless, Law and Cupples (2015) found that the increased practice of reading lead to improvement of real word reading for dyslexic children. Likewise, McArthur et al. (2015) showed that practicing of sight word and phonics reading lead to improvement in reading.
IV. A COMPREHENSIVE APPROACH
Kopp-Duller (1997), through her extensive experience in working with children that struggle in school, found that the classic method of increased practicing of reading and spelling did not bring forth the desired improvement when dealing with dyslexic children. The reason for this are the sensory perceptions that are not well developed in dyslexics. These need to be activated and formed to facilitate a smooth process of learning to read and write. An altered approach to helping children that struggle with reading and spelling due to dyslexia was needed that took into account all the things that cause dyslexic children to make mistakes when reading and spelling: inattention while reading and spelling, different sensory perceptions, and errors in reading and writing.
A. The AFS-Method
The result was the A(=attention)F(=functions)S(=method)-Method. This method is considered comprehensive or holistic because it offers training in all areas where dyslexic children struggle and where improvement measures should focus. The AFS-Method is also considered open because it only provides the framework for dyslexia training and allows the trainer to incorporate any program, tool, or resource that can help the child. Individuality is essential in dyslexia training since every child has his or her unique difficulties and, thus, the training needs to cater to these individual problems (Kopp-Duller, 2012).
The AFS-Method consists of three parts: Every training session should start with an attention exercise, so the child learns to focus his thoughts on the reading and spelling task. This is followed by exercises for sharpening of the sensory perceptions. Not every child has issues in the same perception areas. Therefore, it is critical that an assessment takes place before training starts to find out which sensory perceptions need work. At last but not least, dyslexic children also need to practice reading, spelling, and writing (Kopp-Duller & Pailer-Duller, 2011).
Kopp-Duller (1997) also came up with the concept of so-called word formulations to integrate into symptom training. The practicing of the core academic skills should also be conducted by activating the senses. Word formulations involve exercises that teach children about word picture (letters make up words, what do the letters look like, etc.), word sound (letters have sounds and these sounds together form a word, etc.), and word meaning (every word has one or multiple applications, how can the word be used in a sentence, etc.). Elizabeth Aylward and Virginia Berninger from the University of Washington, as reported by Schwarz (2004), found in their research that words are not just words but that they are stored in the human brain by using neural circuits to code words in three forms. They found that the most effective way to teach dyslexic children is by showing them explicitly how letters, sounds, and meaning are interrelated.
It is also worth mentioning that the AFS-Method is not a commercial program but is open source, unlike most training programs for dyslexia. The AFS-Method can be practiced by teachers, parents, other professionals alike. Practice has shown that greater success in training is achieved if children see a specialist once a week for a training session and additionally that 10-20 minutes daily at home with their parents (Kopp-Duller & Pailer-Duller, 2011).
B. Evaluation of the AFS-Method
Certified dyslexia trainers in over 50 countries worldwide have been practicing the AFS-Method for over 20 years now with much success (Kopp-Duller & Pailer-Duller, 2011). International academics have discussed this distinctive approach to dyslexia training in various publications and papers and highlighted its uniqueness compared to other standard practices in the teaching of dyslexics (Ablinger, 2006; Halfarová & Cigánková, 2006; Karli, 2006; Levski, 2011; Mészáros, 2011, Szimmuck, 2014; Zachbauer, 2011). The overall consensus is that a variety of training programs for dyslexia work, but this method might bring better results because of its comprehensiveness.
In 2008, Kopp-Duller and Pailer-Duller published a long-term qualitative study on the effectiveness of the AFS-Method. Data for the study was gathered between 2001 and 2006 and 3,370 dyslexic test subjects (71% boys, 29% girls) between the ages of 7 and 14 years (1st-4th grade: 61%, 5th-8th grade: 39%) participated. The results showed that after being instructed using the AFS-Method, all children were able to improve their reading and spelling skills while 85% of the participants showed significant gains in their reading and spelling capabilities. The improvements were not short term but occurred continuously over the two-year observation period. After two years of instruction, the dyslexic children had caught up with their non-dyslexic classmates and were able to fulfill the requirements at school. Parents also reported in a survey that conducted in the course of the study that their children seemed more motivated to do their school work.
V. SUGGESTED RESEARCH AND RESULTING BENEFITS
New programs to help dyslexic children emerge almost daily on the market of teaching aids. Most of them probably work and help dyslexic children in some cases. Scientific inquiries tend to focus on exactly such tools that have a narrow focus and only address one issue at a time, be it attention issues, individual sensory perceptions, or new ways on how to practice reading, spelling, and writing. Continuing research, however, should focus on training approaches that offer a holistic concept to tackle the problem as a whole and not investigate, what can help in a niche area of training for dyslexics.
A starting point for further research could be to conduct a quantitative study about the AFS-Method to generate quantifiable and tangible results. This might lead to a greater acceptance of this framework of dyslexia training among professionals and would promote the dissemination of dyslexia training techniques. The more educators practice this open source method, the more children would be able to benefit from it. Dyslexic children would be more motivated to stay in school if they had fewer failures because of inadequate teaching methods that do not cater to their needs and hence would be able to receive an adequate education. The implications for better qualifications when they enter the labor market goes without saying.
The scientific community agrees that dyslexia is a multi-sensory processing deficit that causes affected individuals to make errors while reading, spelling, and writing (Bonacina et al., 2015; Fraga González et al., 2015; Franceschini et al., 2015; Galaburda et al., 2006; Gori & Facoetti, 2014; Kopp-Duller, 2012; Kopp-Duller & Pailer-Duller, 2011; Wang et al., 2014). This is precisely why training approaches have to take into account that dyslexics have different sensory perceptions and what issues these different sensory perceptions cause: On the surface, only the symptoms are visible, namely the mistakes dyslexic children make while reading and writing. But the subject matter is more complex than that. The different sensory perceptions that dyslexic children exhibit cause them inattention when they encounter letters because the concept is too abstract for them to grasp using traditional teaching methods. This inattentiveness ultimately results in erroneous reading and writing.
Many different training approaches for dyslexia yield positive results as was extensively demonstrated in this paper. However, training tends to focus on only one area where the dyslexic student has difficulty. Some research centers on improving the attention span of dyslexic children to teach them to focus their thoughts better on the reading and spelling task (Breteler et al., 2010; Franceschini et al., 2015; Heim et al., 2015; Kast et al., 2011; Valdois et al., 2015). Other research focuses on sharpening the sensory perceptions to guarantee a smoother process of learning to read and write (Balido-Dean et al., 2011; Berninger et al., 2008; Bonacina et al., 2015; Burger et al., 2001; Flaugnacco et al., 2015; Fraga González et al., 2015; Gori & Facoetti, 2014; Habib et al., 2016; Ikeshita-Yamazoe & Miyao, 2016; Kast et al., 2011; Wang et al., 2014). The last camp of dyslexia research focuses on increased practicing of the basic academic skills of reading and spelling (Law & Cupples, 2015; McArthur et al., 2015), although the lack of evidence in this area is promising that the scientific community has realized that traditional teaching methods do not work for most dyslexics.
Because every manifestation of dyslexia is different, the logical implication must be that the procedure to improve symptoms of dyslexia needs to be adapted to match the dyslexics issues. The AFS-Method is the only training method that offers a solution to address all the areas the dyslexic child needs training in. Approaching the issue of dyslexia from a comprehensive angle seems more sensible in any case. The AFS-Method is considered not only holistic but also as open because it allows the trainer to incorporate any training program or tool in the individual areas of training: focusing of attention, sharpening of the sensory perceptions, and practicing of reading and spelling. But even the betterment of symptom is done by using a multi-sensory concept called word formulations (Kopp-Duller, 1997). Aylward and Berninger from the University of Washington agree that words need to be taught to dyslexic children by explaining to them word picture, word sound, and word meaning (Schwarz, 2004).
The AFS-Method has been practiced worldwide for over 20 years now, and international research agrees on the advantages of the AFS-Method (Ablinger, 2006; Halfarová & Cigánková, 2006; Karli, 2006; Levski, 2011; Mészáros, 2011, Szimmuck, 2014; Zachbauer, 2011). Kopp-Duller and Pailer-Duller (2008) investigated the benefits of the AFS-Method in a qualitative study. While observing 3,370 test subjects with a confirmed diagnosis of dyslexia between the ages of 7 and 14 years over a period of two years, they found that 85% of participants showed significant gains in their reading and spelling abilities, motivation was improved, and the students were able to fulfill the requirements at school.
A good amount of research has already been conducted on the topic of dyslexia, and hopefully, researchers will continue to do so in the future to find new ways on how to help dyslexic individuals more effectively. However, further research into the ways on how to improve reading and spelling abilities of dyslexic children should focus on a comprehensive approach to training like the AFS-Method. Addressing all areas where dyslexics need assistance delivers greater and longer lasting results as has already been found in qualitative research. But generating quantitative results about the success of the AFS-Method would prove to the education community a sophisticated way to help dyslexic students.
If scientific research can show ways on how to train dyslexic children in practice, educators, other professionals, and parents alike would be able to facilitate a training process that brings lasting improvements for affected children. The result would be more motivated students that are able to stay in school longer and received a better education. This would allow them to achieve ultimately greater things and hopefully, lead better lives.
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