The term dyslexia is used to describe a serious reading difficulty. Over the years, the term has been given a variety of definitions, and for this reason, many teachers have resisted using the term at all. Instead, they have used such terms as “reading disability” or “learning disability” to describe conditions more correctly designated as dyslexia.
Although there is no universally recognized definition of dyslexia, the one presented by the World Federation of Neurology has won broad respect: “A disorder manifested by difficulty in learning to read despite conventional instruction, adequate intelligence, and sociocultural opportunity.”
According to the International Literacy Association, however, “… there is no empirical basis for the use of the term dyslexic to distinguish a group of children who are different from others experiencing difficulty in acquiring literacy.” Accordingly, dyslexia is simply another name for students on the lowest end of the reading continuum.
While a lot of uncertainty continues to surround dyslexia, here are some facts:
1.) James 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 it 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 re-education would assist the corresponding center on the opposite side of the brain to take over the functions of the defective cerebral area, and detailed case studies of his patients who had done so.
2.) The term “dyslexia” was coined from two Greek words
The term dyslexia was introduced in 1884 by the German ophthalmologist, Rudolf Berlin, in “Over dyslexie.” He coined it from the Greek words dys meaning ill or difficult and lexis meaning word, and detailed his observations of six patients with brain lesions who had full command over verbal communications but had lost the ability to read.
In the century to follow the narrow definition Berlin attached to the term dyslexia would broaden. Today the term refers to persons for whom reading is simply beyond their reach. Spelling and writing, due to their close relationship to reading, are usually included.
3.) Symptoms are many and varied
These may include:
- Difficulty blending individual sounds into words. Children with dyslexia may sound out the letters of the word, but then be unable to say the correct word. For example, they may sound the letters ‘c-a-t’ but then says cold;
- Letter reversals (confusing b and d);
- Putting letters in the wrong order (reading ‘felt’ as ‘left’);
- Elisions (reading ‘cat’ for ‘cart’);
- Reading very slowly and hesitantly;
- Reading with poor comprehension.
4.) Dyslexia is a common problem
According to a Yale study, 1 out of 5 people suffer from dyslexia, and 80 to 90 percent of children with learning disabilities are dyslexic.
5.) Dyslexia runs in families
DeFries and colleagues initiated a large family study of dyslexia. They recruited a sample of 133 children who were identified by teachers as having significant reading difficulty. The researchers tested them in the laboratory with an extensive battery to confirm their reading problems and related cognitive disabilities. A matched group of 125 children with no reading problems was also identified and tested, as well as the parents and siblings of both groups. The main result of the DeFries family study was clear: There was strong evidence for the familial transmission of dyslexia.
6.) Dyslexia, like hypertension, can vary in severity
The terms mild, moderate, and severe are commonly used to describe the degree:
- Most adults show some blips and would be levels 1 or 2.
- Levels 4 or 5 have difficulty in spelling and punctuation. If they maintain high levels of discipline, they can be successful.
- Levels 6 or 7 have difficulty with spelling and reading textbooks. They can sometimes finish college, but it takes tremendous effort.
- Levels 8 or 9 find academic learning almost impossible. It takes 2-3 times longer to finish assignments. They need constant help..
7.) People with dyslexia do not see letters and words backward
Reversals and mirror writing are 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.
8.) Students with dyslexia often have difficulties with spelling
Spelling proficiency is related to visual memory capacity, says Richard Gentry in his book Breaking the Code: The New Science of Beginning Reading and Writing.
9.) Many dyslexics have trouble with sequencing
Sequencing is the ability to perceive something in sequence and also remember the sequence.
A study, published in the Journal of General Psychology, compared 33 dyslexic and 33 control eight- to twelve-year-old children and found the dyslexic children to be inferior to controls on tasks involving visual sequential memory and auditory sequential memory. Another study, published in the Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology, compared 24 readers with auditory dyslexia and 21 with visual dyslexia to 90 control group participants and revealed auditory sequential memory impairments for both types of readers with dyslexia, and multiple strengths for good readers.
10.) Dyslexia is linked to slow processing speed
Processing speed can be defined as how long it takes to get stuff done.
University of Science and Technology in Trondheim gave two simulated driving tests to six dyslexic volunteers and 11 other people. They were shown road signs as they drove on simulated country and city roads at different speeds. The researchers found that dyslexics were 20 percent slower to react to traffic signs during the rural drive and 30 percent slower to react in the city than the non-dyslexic controls.
11.) Dyslexics often have deficits in auditory working memory
Weiss and colleagues (2014) tested dyslexic and non-dyslexic musicians on auditory processing and auditory memory. Dyslexic musicians scored as well as their nondyslexic counterparts in auditory processing tasks, and better than the general population, but performed much worse on tests of auditory working memory, including memory for rhythm, melody, and speech sounds. Moreover, these abilities were intercorrelated, and highly correlated with their reading accuracy, which means that the dyslexic musicians with the poorest auditory working memory tended to have the lowest reading accuracy.
12.) Many dyslexics suffer from poor long-term memory
A study, published in Dyslexia, compared performances of 60 dyslexic children to that of 65 age-matched normal readers on verbal, visual-spatial, and visual-object tasks. Results documented a generalized impairment of long-term memory capacities in dyslexic children and the results did not vary as a function of children’s age.
13.) There are two main types of dyslexia
Reading difficulties related to visual-processing weaknesses have been called surface dyslexia, visual dyslexia, and dyseidetic dyslexia, while reading delays associated with auditory-processing difficulties have been referred to as phonological dyslexia, auditory dyslexia, and dysphonetic dyslexia.
14.) Dyslexia is not tied to IQ
Using brain imaging scans, Tanaka and colleagues (2011) found that there was no difference between the way poor readers with or without dyslexia think while reading. Research results indicate that poor readers of all IQ levels showed significantly less brain activity in the six observed areas than typical readers. But there was no difference in the brains of the poor readers, regardless of their IQs.
15.) The dyslexic’s brain differs from the normal reader’s brain
In a meta-analysis of functional neuroimaging studies of dyslexia, Martin et al. (2016) list studies in which differences between groups with and without dyslexia were found in specific brain regions. The most consistent findings concerned the left occipitotemporal cortex, which includes the so-called visual word form area (VWFA), though to be critical for reading (shown in yellow). The left inferior parietal lobule came in a close second in the meta-analysis study by Martin and colleagues (shown in red). This part of the brain is said to be involved in word analysis, grapheme-to-phoneme conversion, and general phonological and semantic processing. Imaging also reveals compensatory overactivation in other parts of the reading system (shown in green). The compensatory neural systems allow a dyslexic person to read more accurately. However, the critical visual word-form area remains disrupted and difficulties with rapid, fluent, automatic reading persist. The dyslexic continues to read slowly (Shaywitz, 2005).
16.) Brain differences might be a consequence and not the cause
These brain differences are often viewed as the cause of dyslexia. New studies suggest that the cause-effect relationship is reversed, in other words, these brain differences are not the cause of reading difficulties, but the result.
In one study, published online in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers analyzed the brains of children with dyslexia and compared them with two other groups of children: an age-matched group without dyslexia and a group of younger children who had the same reading level as the children with dyslexia. Although the children with dyslexia had less gray matter than age-matched children without dyslexia, they had the same amount of gray matter as the younger children at the same reading level. Krafnick et al. (2014) say this suggests that the anatomical differences reported in left-hemisphere language-processing regions of the brain appear to be a consequence of reading experience as opposed to a cause of dyslexia.
17.) Current thinking is that dyslexia is caused by multiple cognitive deficits
The phonological deficit theory became the most well-developed and supported of the theories of dyslexia. This theory postulates that dyslexics have a specific impairment in the representation, storage and/or retrieval of speech sounds. 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 et al., 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 et al. (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.
18.) Contrary to popular belief, Albert Einstein was probably not dyslexic
It is often said that Einstein only started talking at the age of four, which is then described as a “sign” that he was dyslexic. According to Einstein’s biographers, however, this is not true. When he was two-and-a-half years old, Einstein was introduced to his newborn sister. Expecting a toy, he asked, rather disappointedly, “Where are the wheels?”
Einstein entered school at the age of six, and against popular belief did very well. When he was seven his mother wrote, “Yesterday Albert received his grades, he was again number one, his report card was brilliant.” At the age of twelve Einstein was reading physics books. At 13, after reading the Critique of Pure Reason and the work of other philosophers, Einstein adopted Kant as his favorite author. About this time he also read Darwin.
19.) 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 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 et al., 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.
20.) Start intervention early to prevent academic and emotional problems
Poor reading skills cast a dark shadow. There is extensive evidence suggesting that learning to read is directly linked to a young child’s self-concept and mental well-being, and that children with hampered reading skills fare poorly academically. As the poor achiever’s hope for a fulfilling and productive life starts to diminish, they start to contribute significantly to the overall numbers of school dropouts, single parents, juvenile delinquents, and imprisoned adults. As many as 75% of those incarcerated in the United States have not graduated from high school, and 70% are functionally illiterate and read below a fourth-grade level. In addition, underemployed and unemployed adults constitute a significant percentage of children who once failed to acquire functional levels of literacy.
21.) Accommodations are not the same thing as instruction
Once a child has a dyslexia diagnosis, they may be eligible for accommodations, such as extended times on tests. While accommodations might improve grades, they are not a replacement for intervention. Accommodations will not teach a child to read or spell.
22.) Reading out loud for 20 minutes per day will not improve a child’s reading
Reading out loud will not help a child sound out unknown words.
23.) Your child can make it!
A few wrong turns don’t dictate a child’s life. People with dyslexia are succeeding all the time in just about any and every profession you can think of.
Authored by Susan du Plessis (B.A. Hons Psychology; B.D.) who has 30+ years’ experience in the LD field.
Page last reviewed: May 21, 2021.
Next review due: May 21, 2023.
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