By Jonny Lupsha, Current Events Writer
Controversial Governor Gavin Newsom of California has written a children’s book on dyslexia. Governor Newsom said in a statement that he suffers from dyslexia, as well. It’s the most common specific learning disability.
After surviving recall from office, Governor Gavin Newsom of California has finished work on a new product that should be far less controversial than his political career. Ben and Emma’s Big Hit, a children’s book penned by Newsom, tells the story of a boy with dyslexia and how the disability affects his life. Newsom drew from personal experience with the book, as he himself suffers from it.
Dyslexia is the most common and best-known specific learning disability. In his video series The Learning Brain, Dr. Thad Polk, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan, explained that its symptoms aren’t actually caused by visual impairments.
Life with Dyslexia
There are two kinds of dyslexia. Developmental dyslexia, which is often noticed when children have trouble learning to read, occurs naturally. Acquired dyslexia is often the result of brain damage in adulthood. Since Dr. Polk spoke exclusively about developmental dyslexia, and because it’s so much more common, he referred to it as simply “dyslexia.”
“Dyslexia is characterized by a difficulty with recognizing or decoding written words, that cannot be attributed to poor vision, low intelligence, or lack of education,” Dr. Polk said. “Some dyslexics report feeling as if letters within words jump around when they’re trying to read.”
Dyslexia also comes with other symptoms. Children who have dyslexia struggle to sound out words or confuse two words with similar spelling. They may even feel sick or dizzy while trying to read. Although they are able to learn to read by adulthood, it’s a slow and difficult process.
However, dyslexia isn’t caused by a visual impairment or a problem of language comprehension, contrary to popular belief. Studies show that it’s a bit more complicated.
Phonology and Phonemes
“Evidence suggests that the underlying problem in dyslexia is usually in the processing of phonology,” Dr. Polk said. “Phonology refers to the basic, atomic sounds from which all words are composed. Those atomic sounds are called phonemes and they differ from language to language—there are a total of 44 phonemes in English, and every word in the language is made up of a subset of those sounds in a specific order.”
For example, the word “chop” is composed of three phonemes, which are the sounds “chu,” “aw,” and “pu.” Breaking down words into phonemes becomes less important in adulthood, but it’s an absolutely crucial skill when someone is learning to read. Why?
“When you’re first starting to read, written words are just unfamiliar strings of letters and you have to go through a sequence of steps to figure out what those letters correspond to,” Dr. Polk said. “A critical step in that process is breaking down the sound of the word into its component phonemes.”
When a child is learning to read, it’s believed that when an adult reads to them, the child is trying to match up the sounds they’re hearing with the letters they see on the page. Dyslexics have a phonological deficit that makes it difficult for them to identify the phonemes that make up each word. The skill they lack is known as “phonological awareness.”
“That is, they’re unaware of the phonological structure of the words they hear,” Dr. Polk said. “They can’t figure out that ‘bu’ is the first sound in ‘bat’ and that ‘aa’ is the first sound in ‘after.’ That lack of phonological awareness makes it very tough to sound out written words and figure out what they are.”
Ben and Emma’s Big Hit is due for release on December 7.