Dyslexia is more than a reading problem

Developmental dyslexia is the most common learning disorder and affects somewhere between 5–10% of the population, with some estimates as high as 17%.

Dyslexia is a language-based learning disorder. Contrary to popular belief, the core indicator of dyslexia is not reversing letters; rather it is a difficulty interpreting the sound (phonological) components of our language. At this website, we want you to have a solid understanding of dyslexia, so we will have to get somewhat technical; however, if you are unsure about any term(s) please refer to our glossary. And, you can always contact us at dyslexiahelp@umich.edu with questions.

Phonological awareness skills refer to your ability to identify (or perceive) and manipulate (in your head, so to speak) the individual sound units that make up the words of our language. These skills underlie learning to read and spell; difficulty with it can cause reading and spelling problems. Some examples of phonological tasks that we give when testing for dyslexia 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.
  • Say 'sand' without saying /s/ —"and." Separating the individual sounds or syllables of a word from each other can be challenging for those with dyslexia.
  • How many sounds are in sleigh? This is a tricky one! There are only 3 sounds in sleigh—s, l, and long a, with that long a represented by 4 letters!

You may have found these easy, but for a young child, they can be very tricky. You can see why learning to read and spell can be so challenging; there is much more than letters on a page.

In addition to the phonological awareness 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 words contributes to our ability to quickly identify words when reading and to read fluently (or smoothly and effortlessly). Difficulties with RAN and fluent reading can affect reading comprehension, in part, because when it is difficult to read and we read slowly and laboriously, we forget what we have read. And so, we have to go back and re-read, adding another problem— a common complaint of those with dylsexia is that it takes longer to read than their non-dyslexic peers. Automaticity (being able to read efficiently) is very important to getting the message, regardless of what you are reading.

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 current 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 individuals 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 and spell, everything changes.

Dyslexia does not mean 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 people with dyslexia have strong skills in areas other than reading and spelling. 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 systematic and explicit instruction, these individuals can and do learn to read, spell, and write.

There are many stories on this website of successful adults who initially struggled with reading. With strategically designed remediation that includes systematic and explicit instruction, 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. You can too! Success starts here!

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