A language-based learning disability

Over the years we have learned that dyslexia is a language-based learning disability. One of the popular beliefs that we need to dispel is that the primary indicator of dyslexia is reversing letters. We need to communicate to other professionals and parents that dyslexia is much more than that. Dyslexia is a difficulty interpreting the phonological components of our language.

The definition of dyslexia in the literature:

“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.”

(Lyon, Shaywitz, & Shaywitz, 2003, Annals of Dyslexia, p. 2)

Given that phonological skills underlie learning to read and spell, phonological awareness is one of the first areas to assess and subsequently target in the remediation of dyslexia. Dyslexics may have difficulty with tasks of analysis (e.g., elision, separating words into their component sounds, segmentation) and/or synthesis (e.g., blending).

In addition to the phonological awareness component of dyslexia, deficits can also be exhibited in rapid automatic naming. Difficulty with letter and word recall can contribute to one’s ability to quickly identify words and read fluently, thus affecting reading comprehension and writing.

Other areas to consider in which individuals with dyslexia may have difficulty include math, memory, organization and time management skills, study skills, self-esteem, and activities in everyday life.

Key to the definition of dyslexia is that the reading difficulty is "unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities." In the past, diagnosis required a demonstrated discrepancy between IQ and reading ability. Researchers have called for a change in this model of thinking and practice. Providing services based on this model tends to wait until the child has failed. Whereas, if we have a bright and clever child whose pre-literacy skills are suspect and “unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities,” we can provide intervention before failure happens. Not only does this enhance literacy skills, but it also mitigates the development of secondary characteristics such as poor self-esteem and concept of oneself as a learner.

We can identify the indicators of dyslexia even before children begin formal schooling. Smart and clever children who have difficulty learning to read, spell, and write may be dyslexic.

Our job is to help these individuals and their families understand that 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.

We need to communicate the many stories of successful adults (see our Dyslexia Success Stories) who initially struggled with reading. And, that with strategically designed remediation that includes direct instruction coupled with hard work, dyslexics can learn to read, spell, and write; go on to attend college; and lead productive, fulfilling, and even extraordinary lives. As professionals, we have been given a great opportunity to help these people shape their lives!

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