Dyslexia is more than reading and spelling problems

Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability. Contrary to popular belief, the core problem in dyslexia is not reversing letters (although it can be an indicator). Rather, the difficulty lies in interpreting the sounds in words (referred to as the phonological sound component of language) and then matching those individual sounds to the letters and combinations of letters in order to read and spell.

To help you understand dyslexia, we have to get a bit technical. Phonological skills refer to one's ability to identify (or hear) and manipulate (in our head, so to speak) the individual sound units of our language that make up words. This skill underlies learning to read and spell. Some examples of phonological tasks are:

  • What rhymes with cat? "bat, mat, rat" An early sign of dyslexia is a child's difficulty in learning to rhyme. Many times these children do not want to play rhyming games as preschoolers or kindergarteners.
  • Say "sand" without saying /s/—"and." Dyslexics have trouble separating the individual sounds and syllables of a word from each other. Remember "pig latin?" Dyslexic children do not find it a fun game. Ixnay on the igpay atinlay!
  • How many sounds are in sleigh? There are only 3 sounds in sleigh—s, l, and long /a/ with that long /a/ represented by 4 letters, which makes this a tricky one when you  try to spell it.

You can begin to see why learning to read and spell can be so challenging.

In addition to the phonological (sound) component of dyslexia, people with dyslexia may also have difficulty with rapid letter and word recall, referred to as rapid automatic naming (RAN). Our ability to quickly recall and name words contributes to our ability to quickly identify words when reading and to read fluently (or smoothly and effortlessly). This can affect reading comprehension; in part, because when it is difficult to read, we forget what we have read. And so we have to go back and re-read, adding another problem for the dyslexic—it always takes longer to read than for the non-dyslexic peer. RAN also conributes to our ability to speak fluently. A dyslexic child may be "all over the map" when he tries to describe an event.

Individuals with dyslexia can also have difficulties with fine motor skills (and therefore writing may be difficult), math, memory, organizational skills, study skills, self-esteem, and activities in everyday life.

The definition of dyslexia in the literature: “Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by the 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.” (Lyon, Shaywitz, & Shaywitz, 2003, Annals of Dyslexia, p. 2)

Key to the definition of dyslexia is that the reading difficulty is "unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities." Smart and clever children who have difficulty learning to read, spell, and write may be dyslexic. As preschoolers, these children appear to be developing at the same rate as other children. Then they start school. When confronted with learning to read, everything changes.

Dyslexia does not mean that the child has low intelligence; in fact dyslexic individuals can be quite bright. Research has shown that the dyslexic individual's brain is wired differently—and that is not a bad thing! Many dyslexics have strong skills in areas other than reading. The striking mismatch between their capabilities in non-reading areas and their inability to learn to read at the same rate as their peers may be a flag. The good news is that with proper help, these individuals can and do learn to read, spell, and write.

There are many stories of successful adults who initially struggled with reading. With strategically-designed remediation that includes direct instruction, and with support and a positive attitude, dyslexics learn to read, spell, and write; go on to attend college; and lead productive, fulfilling, and even extraordinary lives.

For more information, download the International Dyslexia Association's "Dyslexia Basics" fact sheet