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Myth: Dyslexics have an imbalance between the left and right hemisphere

Myth: Dyslexics have an imbalance between the left and right hemisphere

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Myth Busters

Rope-skipping, practising motor skills, ‘reading’ plastic letters with your fingers, or ‘flashing’ letters and words in the left or right visual field. These are all methods of treatment that are regularly offered to children suffering from dyslexia. But they don't help. “The idea behind them is that the left and right hemispheres of the brain in dyslexics are not balanced,” says Milene Bonte, Associate Professor at the Brain and Language department. “These exercises are supposed to restore the balance.” The idea spread throughout the Netherlands in the nineteen-eighties. “A theory was drawn up that assumed that children who learn to read, first do so with their right hemisphere and when reading becomes automatic, it shifts to the left hemisphere. There were supposed to be subtypes of dyslexia, in which the child reads primarily with the right or left hemisphere. At the time, it was an innovative thought, but we cannot see such a shift in the brain, the theory was never proven.”

Another theory is that in the case of dyslexics, something goes wrong in the way they visually process words. “A number of years ago, it was a trend to take fish oil capsules as a remedy. Today, you can buy special spectacles with tinted glasses.” They don't work either. “Dyslexia is a language disorder. When a child learns to read, he or she learns which sound goes with which letter. In dyslexics, this process is slower. It always takes years before reading becomes an automatic process. It is a dynamic and individual learning process, which is why there are great differences among children.”

The only thing that really helps is a lot of practice. “In our research, we work together with dyslexia institutes that provide systematic reading skills training. There you see that children make fewer mistakes as time passes. What often remains a problem, is the speed of reading.”

If children who are just starting to write, write the letters back to front, this doesn’t automatically mean that they have dyslexia. “This is because, when we learn to read, we build on existing brain systems, such as the one that recognises visual objects. At an early age, we learn that a cup continues to be a cup even if your turn it around. But this is not the case with letters. A backward ‘b’ is no longer a ‘b’, but a ‘d’. So we have to learn to suppress this mechanism, by experiencing that those letters sound different and that you pronounce them differently too.”

In her research, Bonte follows children who are learning to read. “We have them come back a few times for an MRI scan. Because, although we know that dyslexia has something to do with areas of the brain that processes spoken language, we don't know exactly what goes wrong and why one person has it and another doesn't. Genetic factors play a role, but there are children with a family risk – as we call it – who don't have dyslexia, just like there are children who don't have a family risk who do have it. That is why it is important to follow children over longer periods of time, so that we can see what happens during the learning process.”

The opposite of dyslexia also exists, by the way. “Some children pick up on the link between sound and letter very quickly. That is just as interesting. How is that possible? That is why we look at children at all reading levels.”

Mythbusters is a series in which academics shoot down popular myths on complex topics

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