5 Facts About Dyslexia You Haven’t Heard a Thousand Times Before

October was Dyslexia Awareness Month, and many educational providers shared helpful and relevant information on this common problem (including Edublox!). We take a look at a few lesser known facts about dyslexia to add to the wealth of knowledge available on the subject.

Hinshelwood named it ‘congenital word-blindness’

In 1907, James Hinshelwood, a Scottish ophthalmologist, was one of the first physicians to describe the clinical picture of developmental dyslexia. He named the condition ‘congenital word-blindness,’ and considered congenital word-blindness to be treatable through personal and systematic instruction that should be started sooner rather than later — “when the brain is most plastic, when it is most receptive of impressions and most capable of further development” (Hinshelwood, 1917, p. 97). Hinshelwood even had hope for people who suffered from acquired word-blindness, as he believed that reeducation would assist the corresponding center on the opposite side of the brain to take over the functions of the defected cerebral area, and detailed case studies of his patients who had done so.

Extreme viewpoints about dyslexia exist

Extreme viewpoints about dyslexia make it difficult for parents to know how to best help their child. On the one side there is the group who believes dyslexia is a condition that cannot be cured, but endured; on the other extreme there are those who say diagnoses of dyslexia are a complete waste of time.

The British Dyslexia Association (BDA) states that dyslexia “is likely to be present at birth and to be life-long in its effects” (Fern-Pollak & Masterson, 2016, p. 224). The association and many others like it recommend taking a dyslexia test — at a cost — and provide advice about how to cope with dyslexia and gain access to the special study allowances and benefits available to people who have been diagnosed with dyslexia.

Professor Julian Elliott, from Durham University in the United Kingdom and Professor Elena Grigorenko, from Yale University in the United States of America take the opposing view — that diagnoses of dyslexia add little value. In their book, The Dyslexia Debate (2014), they write: “Parents are being misled by claims that such dyslexia assessments are scientifically rigorous, and that a diagnosis will point to more effective forms of treatment.” Elliott raises concerns about the ever-increasing number of people who are being diagnosed with dyslexia. Dyslexia, according to Elliott, is a term which, “confuses, rather than clarifies, and should be discontinued.”

According to Miller (2015), the biggest cause of reading difficulty is unsystematic and unscientific teaching of reading. As a result, children are let down twice by the educational system: firstly, by not being properly taught and then pathologized with the “diagnosis” of dyslexia when they fail.

Letter reversals are usually caused by an inability to interpret left and right

Reversals of b and d is a common — but not the only — symptom of dyslexia. The problem is usually caused by a visual processing deficit, specifically an inability to interpret position in space.

Position in space is the ability to perceive an object’s position in space relative to oneself and the direction in which it is turned, for example up, down, in front, behind, between, left and right. With regards to discriminating between a b and a d the directions left and right are especially important.

The human body consists of two halves, a left side and a right side. The human brain also has two halves, which are connected by the corpus callosum. It is thus unavoidable that a person will interpret everything in terms of his own sidedness. However, a child who has not learned to interpret correctly in terms of his sidedness yet, who has not learnt to distinguish properly between left and right, will inevitably experience problems when he finds himself in a situation where he is expected to interpret sidedness. One such situation, where sidedness plays a particularly important role, is when a person is expected to distinguish between a b and a d. It is clear that the only difference between the two letters is the position of the straight line — it is either left or right.

Neuroplasticity offers new hope to people with dyslexia

Advancement in technology has made it possible for scientists to see inside the brain, resulting in the knowledge that the brain is ‘plastic’. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to develop new neurons and/or new synapses in response to stimulation and learning.

Findings of apparently environmentally driven plasticity, with positive correlations between gray matter and the time spent learning and practicing their specialization, have been reported in several groups including musicians, jugglers and bilinguals (Maguire, Woollett & Spiers, 2006). A study by Skeide and colleagues shows that, when adults learn to read for the first time, the changes that occur in their brain are not limited to the outer layer of the brain, the cortex, but extends to deep brain structures in the thalamus and the brainstem. This was observed in illiterate Indian women who learned how to read and write for six months (Skeide et al., 2017).

Current thinking is that dyslexia is a multiple cognitive deficit

The phonological deficit theory became the most well-developed and supported of the theories of dyslexia. It has been widely researched, both in the UK (York group) and in the US, resulting in a remarkable degree of consensus concerning the causal role of phonological skills in young children’s reading progress (Fawcett, 2001). Some researchers now claim that phonological factors may be less important than is commonly accepted (Byrne, 2011). Current thinking in the field is that multiple cognitive deficits are likely to interact to cause reading disability, and not only a lack of phonological awareness (Pennington, 2006; Peterson & Pennington, 2012; Van Bergen, van der Leij & de Jong, 2014).

Menghini and team (2010) compared 60 children with dyslexia to 65 age-matched normally reading children. The frequency of occurrence of children with dyslexia who exhibited a phonological deficit only was 18.3%, while most of the children (76.6%) showed other deficits in addition to a phonological deficit: 16.6% displayed executive deficits, 13.3% visual-spatial perception deficits, attention and executive deficits, 8.3% attention and perceptual deficits and 8.3% attention and executive deficits. A study by Moura, Simões and Pereira (2015) reveals significant processing speed, shifting, and verbal fluency deficits in a sample of 50 Portuguese dyslexic 8- to 12-year-olds compared to 50 typically developing children.

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Byrne, B. (2011). Evaluating the role of phonological factors in early literacy development: Insights from experimental and behavior-genetic studies. In S. A. Brady, D. Braze, & C. A. Fowler (Eds.), Explaining individual differences in reading: Theory and evidence (pp. 175-195). New York: Psychology Press.

Elliott, J. G., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2014). The dyslexia debate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fawcett, A. (2001). Dyslexia at school: A review of research for the DfES. Unpublished review for the Department for Education and Skills, the British Dyslexia Association and the Dyslexia Institute.

Fern-Pollak, L., & Masterson, J. (2016). Dyslexia and the English writing system. In V. Cook & D. Ryan (Eds.). The Routledge handbook of the English language (pp. 223-234). New York: Routledge.

Hinshelwood, J. (1917). Congenital word-blindness. London: Lewis.

Maguire, E. A., Woollett, K., & Spiers, H. J. (2006). London taxi drivers and bus drivers: A structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis London taxi drivers and bus drivers. Hippocampus, 16(12), 1091-1101.

Menghini, D., Finzi, A., Benassi, M., Bolzani, R., Facoetti, A., Giovagnoli, S., … Vicari, S. (2010). Different underlying neurocognitive deficits in developmental dyslexia: A comparative study. Neuropsychologia, 48(4): 863–72.

Miller, J. F. (2015). Do you read me? Learning difficulties, dyslexia, and the denial of meaning. London: Karnac Books.

Moura, O., Simões, M. R., & Pereira, M. (2015). Executive functioning in children with developmental dyslexia. The Clinical Neuropsychologist, 28(S1), 20-41. https://doi.org/10.1080/13854046.2014.964326

Pennington, B. F. (2006). From single to multiple deficit models of developmental disorders. Cognition, 101(2), 385-413.

Peterson, R. L., & Pennington, B. F. (2012). Developmental dyslexia. The Lancet, 379, 1997–2007.

Skeide, M. A., Kumar, M., Mishra, R. K., Tripathi, V .N., Guleria, A., Singh, J .P., … Huettig, F. (2017). Learning to read alters cortico-subcortical cross-talk in the visual system of illiterates. Science Advances, 3(5), e1602612. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1602612

Van Bergen, E., van der Leij, A., & de Jong, P. F. (2014). The intergenerational multiple deficit model and the case of dyslexia. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8(346), 1-13. https://https;//doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00346

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