By Nandini Chatterjee Singh & team
A sizeable number of Indian children suffer from dyslexia. It is a disorder in which otherwise normal children lack enough skills to read and spell and comprehend the written word. They read slowly or are unable to follow the chronological sequence of the words or a sentence, or its meaning. They have no problem in speaking or communicating verbally. It is estimated that nearly 10 per cent of India’s school-going children suffer from this disorder. That would take the count to about 35 million children.
It is possible for children to cope with dyslexia, and be able to read and comprehend. Reading is an acquired skill, children are not born with it. If the right kind of interventions are made at the right time, dyslexic children can improve their reading skill, even if it is a bit later than other normal children of the same age.
The key to right intervention is to be able to diagnose dyslexia at an early stage. Very often, a child’s inability to read or comprehend is taken to be a case of late development of speech rather than any disease. By the time it is diagnosed as dyslexia, it is often quite late to make any effective intervention. Ideally, the intervention should come between eight to ten years of age, when the child is in class III to class V.
Our group was working on understanding the brain activities that helps develop reading capability in human beings, when we turned our attention to dyslexia. We were trying to understand how written symbols of any language are mapped in our brains and how we comprehend these symbols and translate them into knowledge.
While working on this problem, we realised that the existing diagnosis for dyslexia in Indian children was based on whether they were able to read English language or not. English is not our mother tongue and, considering that Indian children study multiple languages, a low proficiency in English was often not seen as a disability. Also, unlike Indian languages, English is not phonetic. The inability of a child to easily pick up that language was not considered a symptom of a disease.
We realised that we needed to develop a diagnostic toolkit that was based on Indian native languages. That is what the children are more fluent in and speak most of the time. If a child has problem reading and understanding his native language, it points to a strong evidence for dyslexia. After some discussions with scholars, schools and state governments, we initially decided to develop diagnostic kits for three native languages — Hindi, Marathi and Kannada. English was used as a common language and its proficiency was also checked.
The toolkits comprise two sets of tests. One is a screening test that can be used by a class teacher and/or a language teacher to screen a child with dyslexia.The other set of tests are to be used by psychologists to diagnose dyslexia in children speaking Hindi, Marathi, Kannada and English.
The teachers of class I and II are supposed to carry out the first screening, by assessing normal reading capabilities of a child. Questions like whether a child is able to recognise rhyming words, or whether she is able to pick up the chronology of words or letters, are part of the screening toolkit. If the school teacher assesses that the child has much lower capabilities than normal, the child can be sent to a psychologist for further diagnosis and counselling. The second toolkit, to be used by psychologists, is more comprehensive and includes several tests.
The significance of this toolkit is that it is the first standardised and validated diagnostic test for dyslexia in India, and in Indian languages. It has been tested on nearly 5,000 children.
This diagnostic tool is likely to become an important weapon in the fight against dyslexia. The next step would be to examine the biological impulses in the brain of a normal person while reading, that are missing in a dyslexic person. Using this diagnostic tool on more children will help us collect the necessary data and make an analysis.