What is Dyslexia?

The Short Version!

Dyslexia is a Greek-based word, meaning “difficulty with words.”

Dyslexia is:

  • a specific learning disability, difficulty or difference; and
  • neurological in origin.

Dyslexia is characterized by:

  • difficulty with accurate and/or fluent word recognition; and
  • poor spelling and decoding abilities.

These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction (in other words, dyslexia is not related to intelligence or how good classroom teaching of language was).

Secondary consequences may include:

  • problems with reading comprehension;
  • reduced reading experience;
  • impeded growth of vocabulary and back ground knowledge; and
  • possibly lowered self-esteem and self-assessment of intelligence and ability.

All people with dyslexia share the above characteristics, yet dyslexia does appear on a continuum from mild to severe.

The Long Version!

Dyslexia is difficulty reading, also termed a ‘language-based learning disability.’ Dyslexia covers a cluster of symptoms and deals with the difficulty people have with specific language skills, in particular, reading. People with dyslexia usually experience other language-related difficulties with skills such as writing, spelling and pronunciation.

Dyslexia affects people throughout their lives, but its effect differs with their age and situation. It is called a learning disability because in education systems that rely heavily on text-based materials, it is a serious impediment to learning across the curriculum. Consequently, dyslexia affects people the most when they are in an educational environment, and can make it very difficult to succeed in that environment. As dyslexia is not related to intelligence, dyslexia can have a serious impact on children’s learning, and can give them the impression that they are ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’ because they can't understand things that their peers can by reading. This can cause major problems in these children’s lives for many years.

Because of the difficulties that dyslexics face in the education system, dyslexia in its more severe forms may qualify a student for special education, special services, or extra support services.

The ‘Official’ Definitions

“Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”

This is the definition adopted by the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), and several state education codes.

By contrast, the Orton-Gillingham Academy describes dyslexia as follows.

“The word dyslexia is derived from the Greek, dys, difficulty with, and lex (from legein, to speak), having to do with words. Words in their many forms are encountered in listening, speaking, reading, spelling, writing, in mathematics, and in organizing, understanding, and expressing thought. Based on information from neuroscientific and linguistic research, the definition can be summarized as difficulty in the use and processing of arbitrary linguistic/symbolic codes. This is an aspect of a language continuum which includes spoken language, written language, and language comprehension.

“Individuals with dyslexia are those who, despite traditional classroom teaching, have failed to master the basic elements of the language system of their culture. Since language is the necessary tool upon which subsequent academic learning is based, such persons often encounter difficulty in all educational endeavors.”

The critical difference is that the Orton-Gillingham Academy does not describe dyslexia as a disability, but as a difficulty. ‘Disability’ has the connotation of permanence, while a ‘difficulty’ is something that can be overcome. Having been used for around 80 years for helping dyslexics overcome their difficulty with words, the Orton-Gillingham Approach has been proved to work, not only in the US, but around the world.

What Causes Dyslexia?

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The exact causes of dyslexia are not completely clear, and may be compounded by other factors. Hearing and visual problems can make it difficult for a child to follow words on a page or hear sounds correctly, so these possibilities need to be considered and, if necessary, corrected. Appropriate vision and hearing therapies can make things a great deal easier for a child, whether dyslexic or not.

Anatomical and brain imaging studies indicate that the brains of dyslexics are wired a bit differently and operate a bit differently. It has been suggested that the difficulties that dyslexics have in connecting sounds and symbols (letters) may be because they are connecting too much in their brains and have difficulty getting these connections down to their basics.

Dyslexia is not connected with intelligence, and bright children usually find dyslexia incredibly frustrating. They would love to read, but it doesn't make sense to them. Fortunately, appropriate teaching methods can be used to help students overcome their dyslexia, and read and learn successfully. Once a student has learned the process of working with the language, they are usually more than capable of learning more by themselves.

An interesting observation has been than until humans invented written language, dyslexia did not exist. Many people with dyslexia find that they have a learning difference, rather than a disability. Once they can overcome the limitations that dyslexia has with their reading, the different wiring of their brains allows other talents to shine through.

How Widespread is Dyslexia?

The International Dyslexia Association indicates that about 13% to 14% of the school population in the US has a handicapping condition that qualifies them for special education. About half of those students are classified as having a learning disability. About 85% of those students have a primary learning disability in reading and language processing. That said, it seems that between 15% and 20% of the population as a whole have some of the symptoms of dyslexia, including slow or inaccurate reading, poor spelling, poor writing, or mixing up similar words. Not all of these people will qualify for special education, but there is a higher probability that they will find difficulty with many aspects of the standard academic curriculum and methods, and there is a high probability that they will benefit from systematic, explicit instruction in reading, writing and language.

Dyslexia occurs in people of all background and intellectual levels. As it is a neurological condition, if not corrected it will persist for a person’s whole life. As it is not connected to intelligence, people with dyslexia can be as bright as anyone else in the population. They are often capable or gifted in areas that are not dependent on written language, and when the dyslexia is treated, can shine in areas where written language is a critical part. In addition, dyslexia tends to run in families; parents with dyslexia are more likely to have children with dyslexia.

What are the Effects of Dyslexia?

How dyslexia affects different individuals depends upon the severity of the condition, other factors that may complicate the condition (e.g., vision issues), and the effectiveness of remediation or instruction. The key problems are with word recognition, reading fluency, writing and spelling. Some people with dyslexia manage to learn early reading and spelling tasks, especially with excellent instruction, but later run into serious problems when more complex language skills are required—reading textbooks, writing essays and mastering grammar. This is often because bright children can think their way through basic language work, but this can create a major cognitive load that cannot handle more complex work. For example, a child might attempt to memorize every word individually, without imposing the structure of language and decoding individual words, and be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the English language (this is from a real case).

People with dyslexia also sometimes have difficulties with spoken language, despite having good language instruction in school and good language models at home. They can find it difficult to express themselves clearly, and they can find it difficult to get the correct meaning of what other people are saying. These problems are difficult to recognize, but they can lead to major problems in schools, workplaces and social settings.

Beyond the classroom, dyslexia can have a major impact on the life of a person with it. Students with dyslexia often decide they are ‘dumb,’ ‘stupid’ and less capable that they really are. They have great difficulty comprehending why they cannot understand what their peers find so easy, and assume that the problem is lack of intelligence. Unkind peers can also reinforce this feeling. This adds far more stress to school situations than is normally experienced, so these students will often underperform compared to their true ability, become discouraged (“What’s the use in even trying?”) and drop out of school. These children often need extensive emotional support, in addition to intervention to help them deal with their dyslexia. However, helping the person overcome the difficulties of dyslexia can provide a major improvement in attitude and self-esteem.

How is Dyslexia Diagnosed?

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A formal diagnosis of dyslexia can only be performed by a clinic psychologist after extensive testing and examination of the person’s history. Other possible causes, such as vision and hearing problems, have to be tested and eliminated before dyslexia can be diagnosed. Since the release of the DSM-5, only clinical psychologists can diagnose dyslexia, so do not assume dyslexia is the problem without such a diagnosis.

Many school districts, once alerted to a student who is underperforming, will screen and test the student (at a basic level), and if there is a problem may provide intensive and individual remedial work. In many cases, this will allow a child with other issues to catch up, and children with mild dyslexia greatly benefit from intensive one-on-one tutoring. Structured and systematic language instruction can bring many students back to good levels of performance, without additional intervention. For these children, putting an emphasis on prevention and/or early intervention makes a lot of sense. There is no point in waiting months for a diagnosis when some good intervention can be undertaken during this time.

If this intervention doesn’t work, then a formal diagnosis may be required, along with specialist help. A comprehensive assessment takes time and involves a wide range of tests of reading, phonological and phonemic awareness, speed of processing, together with intellectual and psychological evaluations, are used to assess whether someone has dyslexia. 

How is Dyslexia Treated?

If a child is diagnosed with dyslexia, there are a range of interventions and accommodations which can implemented to make their time in school more productive. Extended time for testing and a range of other support services (e.g., reading software, audio books, dictation software, word processors, note takers) can make things much easier for the child, allowing them to focus on the material, not the labor of reading or writing it.

Because it is a neurological condition, dyslexia is a lifelong condition. However, once a person with dyslexia has learned how to read and write, they are able to continue to do this, working around the difficulties that dyslexia throws up. Many people who learn to read and write well despite their dyslexia go on to education and careers that are reading and writing intensive. Quite a few doctors, including specialists, are dyslexic, as are people in many other professions, but they have developed ways around their dyslexia. If intervention occurs early, the effects of dyslexia can be reduced dramatically, allowing education to proceed at the intellectual capability of the student, not their reading level.

For people with dyslexia, it is important to get intervention and support from people who are expert in this field. A multi-sensory, systematic, explicit, structured language approach has been shown to work most effectively over the past 80+ years. It is important that the approach is flexible, so that the particular problems that each student has can be addressed directly. One-on-one tutoring allows the student to move forward at their own pace, while the multi-sensory approach allows learning to take place through as many learning modalities as possible. Structured practice and immediate corrective feedback is also important.

For students, it is important that an external tutor and the school work together to develop accommodations and modifications that will help the student succeed. There are many things that can be done that create little additional work for the school, do not detract from the educational process, but make a big difference to the student’s learning and enthusiasm for education.

Can Dyslexia be Cured?

In a word, no. However, the condition is a difficulty that can be overcome.

As dyslexia is commonly caused by a different neural wiring, the problem is not that part of the brain is missing, more that the pathways to the parts that deal with language are connected in a different way. Therefore, if a person with a different wiring scheme can be taught to work with the wiring scheme they have and get equivalent results as a person with a ‘regular’ wiring scheme, they have overcome the ‘difficulty’ and are now able to operate at an equivalent level. Their dyslexia wasn’t cured, but the difficulty that is presented was overcome.

For example, one of Anne and Bill Hazelton’s sons is profoundly dyslexic. Despite being able to identify letters at age 3, he couldn’t get the hang of words. He failed reading in the early years of elementary school. After Orton-Gillingham intervention, he was able to read successfully, graduated from high school and is now a college student and a certified phlebotomist. He enjoys reading and is capable of achieving high comprehension results, but it does take more concentration for him than for other people, and it helps if he is not distracted while reading. He can write well and has good spelling ability. He really likes the audio versions of books, which is a great way for people with dyslexia to enjoy books. As a kinesthetic learner, the multi-sensory Orton-Gillingham Approach worked well with him.

Is Dyslexia a Learning Difference, a Learning Difficulty, or a Learning Disability?

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There is considerable discussion about these different approaches. A recent film, Dislecksia: The Movie, argued that dyslexia was a difference. While this is a great morale booster for people with dyslexia, showing them that they have far greater potential than they may realize and what can happen if they can access it, dyslexia is still a difficulty that they must overcome.

As far as getting through an education system that is heavily text-oriented and usually focused on dealing with students in batches, dyslexia can be a serious disability, on a par with many other handicaps. The effect it can have on a student’s education can be far more profound than a physical and obvious disability. As such, its classification as a disability allows people with dyslexia to get the help they need, and avoid many of the problems they don’t need, with the support of Federal law.

So call it whatever works best for your needs at the time. But realize that people with dyslexia who have succeeded have often had to battle very hard to overcome the difficulties that dyslexia presents them. And often in their story is one person who helped them win that battle by providing the exact tools they needed.

What are the Rights of a Person with Dyslexia?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 2004 (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) define the rights of students with dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities. These individuals are legally entitled to special services to help them overcome and accommodate their learning problems. Such services include education programs designed to meet the needs of these students. The Acts also protect people with dyslexia against unfair and illegal discrimination.