The difficult task of learning to read and write

Reading is one of the most important tools for adapting to the social and educational contexts. A failure in learning this will quickly generate a series of negative effects on the child, like a negative attitude, grade repetition, dropout and, ultimately, the association of learning with anguish and a feeling of incompetency with regard to a task.

Speaking is made of sounds; these sounds are called phonemes, and are classified in consonants, vowels, consonant clusters and diphthongs.

Learning to read and write requests that one have the cognitive resources that will help them associate in their mind the sound, or phoneme, with the corresponding graphic or visual symbol, called grapheme. This implies that the person can recognize the letters and groups of letters, so that they can understand what that word means.

However, this process that seems so trivial and that is carried out almost automatically, is the cause of much grief and difficulties for some children.

There is a group of difficulties in the development of language that are not sufficiently explained by impaired auditory perception or a faulty phono-articulatory apparatus, nor by intellectual retardation or other psycho-patological disorders and socio-emotional deprivation. These disorders are grouped under the name “specific developmental language disorder” (SDLD) and are subject to different clinical procedures, depending on the level to which the phonological, syntactical and lexical capacities are affected, with regard to comprehension and expression. These can, in turn, be associated with communication disorders (autism) or with a background of learning disorders, like dyslexia or dysorthographia.

The dyslexic-dysorthographic child is biologically different, because he has a special genetic component that formed his perception of the world before any formal learning did. According to recent studies, the origin of this is in the brain, so he is different from birth; therefore, when the time comes to teach him how to read, he has already interacted with his environment differently than the others. From the first words, his mother tongue has been perceived by his brain in a different way. From the first contacts with his visual environment, the image that he makes in his mind about the surrounding world and his perceptions about time and space are different, too.

The development of neuropsychology allowed us to discover that the brain of a child, as well as that of an adult, is organized in a modular way; that is to say, it consists of interconnected networks, each one commanding a different part of the intellectual process. The well-functioning of each of these networks can be damaged in at least two ways: either by suffering a lesion, an injury close to a cerebral area (like, for instance, a serious head trauma), or due to the fact that the respective area has developed incorrectly from the first moments of life in-womb, or from birth.

In both cases, the consequences are usually the same. When the damaged networks need to be used for an intricate activity like reading, the person faces specific reading difficulties, thus matching the general term of dyslexia. When dyslexia appears at an adult who has previously learnt how to read properly, it is called acquired dyslexia (or alexia). But when the condition is present before reaching the age appropriate for learning how to read, then it is the learning that will be perturbed, so then we talk about developmental dyslexia.


What happens in the brain of a dyslexic child?

The human brain consists in two hemispheres – right and left – that communicate with each other through a structure that acts as a bridge between them, called corpus callosum (the colossal commissure).

Each hemisphere specializes in several functions. The left hemisphere controls the language processes, while the right one handles processes concerning visual and spatial information.

The two cerebral hemispheres function differently; the left one processes the information sequentially, some data after the other, while the other one does this simultaneously – that is, a great amount of data at the same time.

In reading, the two types of strategies are combined in order to manage the information. However, when it comes to dyslexic children, the dysfunction or failure of the left hemisphere affects the information processing speed, which makes it difficult for the child to be able to process rapid changes of successive stimuli, both in the auditive and in the visual area.

A report written by Kaufman and Galaburda in 1989 thoroughly display the evidence of anatomical and functional abnormalities in dyslexia. There, the authors prove that in the brain of the dyslexic, there are specific abnormalities of the cerebral cortex, as well as different asymmetries in the parietal, temporal and frontal lobes, and an abnormal metabolism in the right cerebellum. (Figure 12)

Since dyslexia is primarily a learning problem, the characteristic personality will stand out in the classroom either by shyness and seclusion, or by a disruptive behaviour, talking, fighting, not working, as ways to achieve the acknowledgement that he or she cannot obtain through his school performance.


Exercises that can help you study

Breathing exercises

They can be done at night, before going to bed, while standing up and having relaxed muscles. You have to close your eyes, try to clear your mind, and inhale and exhale slowly, keeping the air inside your lungs for a few seconds. This exercise lasts about 5 minutes.

Relaxation exercises

Lie down on your bed or on a rug and close your eyes, taking deep breaths and releasing air slowly, trying to clear your mind. You need to tense and relax all your muscles, one by one, starting with your feet.

Stretch the tips of your toes, as if you were to stand on them, keeping this position for about 10 seconds, and then relax by putting them in their normal position.

Then, try to use your toes to point up, tensing your leg and keeping this position for about 10 seconds, and then relax again.

Now you move to the knees, flexing your legs, putting your calves and thighs together, making pressure (another 10 seconds), and then back to the normal position.

Next, work on the whole leg, stretching the most you can, holding it for 10 seconds, and then going back to your normal position.

Keep working your body up, tensing and relaxing the different muscles (belly, chest, back, arm, hand, neck, mouth, eyes, etc.).

To get more information, you can consult your counselor.

Only study when you are not tired

When you’re too tired, you are not very efficient, so continuing studying is a waste of time (the mind barely assimilates it).

The student has to respect sleeping times.

Sleeping hours (minimum 7, preferably 8) are “sacred”. You can’t sacrifice yourself thinking that you don’t need much sleep and that you can stay up and study more, because in the end, this will cost you.

The student starts getting tired, and intellectual performance is considerably reduced.

When you don’t have exams, you can use the weekends mostly to get some rest and do some leisure activities.

However, when you have exams, you need to find the strength to give up on these other more pleasurable activities, and focus on studies.

It’s only a few weekends a year, so this sacrifice is easy to make. You’ll soon get other Saturdays and Sundays to enjoy.

It’s good to do complementary activities (sports, languages, music or anything else), and not focus exclusively on studies.

This lets you disconnect and find other incentives, which helps your mind be “fresh” for when you have to work.

These activities should be complementary, so you have to do them with a certain level of relaxation, trying not to turn them into an obligation for the student.

These activities can be done both on weekends and during the week, as long as they’re not incompatible with the study plan. It’s just a matter of organization.

Lastly, we need to say that it’s good for the student to learn some relaxation exercises, something that can help him lose tension, especially during exams.

Breaks during study time

During study time (those 2 or 3 hours a day), you have to take regular breaks to clear your mind and get strength for the next “round”.

Each hour, you can take a brief 5-minute break.

There are students who don’t make these brief stops, thinking they’re using most of their time wisely, but they don’t get what they expect. Without noticing, they start getting tired, and their performance decreases.

We need to use these brief breaks to go out of the room and stretch our legs.

We can do something relaxing (walking around the house, peeking through the window, chatting with a sibling or classmate, watering the plants, etc.), or something that demands low mental effort.

We need to avoid doing something we especially like (for example, watching part of a game that’s on TV), because then it would be difficult to go back to work.

The student has to be really strict about his breaks, not even going one minute over what was established.

If during the work session, you feel like you’re too tired, or you are not very efficient, it’s best to stop, even if you haven’t completed your study hours. If you feel fresher later, you can continue your work. But if you don’t, you can make up for the lost hours another day. You shouldn’t strain your mind.


Studying is like a race. It’s not about doing our best only for a couple of days, but rather about being able to keep a nice work rhythm for a long time.

It’s more like a marathon than a test of speed.

This demands a perfect health, and breaks play a really important aspect in this.

The student needs to plan his activities in a way that it leaves him time to study, but also has time to rest and enjoy.

It’s important to be able to disconnect oneself from the work, to have some incentives.

There are many hours in a day, and you can do a lot of things, it’s just a matter of organization. You would be surprised with what you can do in a day if you know how to make the best of time, if you avoid absurd waste of time.

Considering that, in most classes (school, college, except in some careers like engineering, architecture, medicine, etc.), dedicating around 2 to 3 hours of study a day is enough, there are still many hours left to do other activities.

First step of studying: Understand the lesson

We shouldn’t start memorizing without having previously understood the lesson.

We don’t have things in order, we don’t have the material ready, we don’t verify that our notes are complete; we don’t know what subjects the teacher thinks are more important, we don’t have the supplies we need at hand.

We study in the wrong place, with noise, somewhere where it’s impossible to focus.

For example, we study in the living room, trying to watch a football game at the same time.

It’s better to stop and watch the game and then make up for it another time, doing the work we didn’t do.

Lack of motivation also produces a waste of time.

Studying demands effort, and we don’t always want to do it. But, since we need to do it if we want to pass our tests, then it’s worth working hard for it.

It helps to be convinced about the importance of studying, and to know the future benefit it will bring us.

Studying with apathy demands double the time than when you’re motivated.