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Ask Susan: Surface Dyslexia; How to Help

Surface dyslexia

Hello Susan

My daughter Sofie has been diagnosed with surface dyslexia. She reverses b/d, p/q, the letters j and g, and reads words like ‘rat’ as ‘tar.’ She even reverses numbers.

When I first learned my daughter was struggling in school, I was heartbroken. I didn’t want to believe it. Learning that Sofie had dyslexia was devastating. There is nothing in the parenting manuals to prepare one for this.

We have tried a number of treatments but none have helped. I have heard about the Edublox system, and we are hoping it will also benefit our daughter.

We are desperate, especially since her IQ is in the superior range.


Dear Melany 

Dyslexia isn’t just an academic and individual problem; it’s also a family problem. Having a child with a learning disability impacts the entire family. Parents, brothers, sisters, and even grandparents become involved, must adjust, and are changed in the process.

The dream of a boy or girl who tops the 1st-grade reading groups and shines in the spelling bee is shattered and replaced by the recognition that maybe years of reading help lay ahead. Millions of families live this reality daily, but not without it taking a toll on every family member and changing them in some way. It’s tough and comes with scars, but fortunately, Edublox offers a light at the end of the tunnel.

What is surface dyslexia?

Before going any further, and for the benefit of other readers, I will first explain what surface dyslexia is. Surface dyslexia — also called dyseidetic dyslexia, orthographic dyslexia, and visual dyslexia — is a subtype of dyslexia that refers to children who struggle with reading because they can’t recognize words by sight.

Reading by sight is an important skill for a couple of reasons. One is that some words have tricky spellings. Words like one, said, whose and people can’t be sounded out — readers need to memorize them. The other reason has to do with reading fluency. To be able to read quickly and accurately, kids need to recognize many common words at a glance — without sounding them out.

Symptoms of surface dyslexia

The most common symptom of surface dyslexia is thus a very limited sight vocabulary; few words are instantly recognized from their whole configuration — they need to be sounded out laboriously, as though being seen for the first time. Children with surface dyslexia will also have difficulty learning irregular words that can’t be sounded out. Other reading and spelling patterns include confusion with letters that differ in orientation (b-d, p-q), or with words that can be dynamically reversed (was-saw).

Causes of surface dyslexia

It should be noted that two separate regions of the brain are involved in reading: one in sounding out words, and the other in seeing words as pictures — which is what sight reading is all about.

Neuroscientists at Georgetown University Medical Center (2016) concluded that skilled readers can recognize words at lightning-fast speed when they read because the words have been placed in a sort of visual dictionary. This part of the brain is known as the visual word form area and functions separately from an area that processes the sounds of written words.

Glezer and her coauthors tested word recognition in 27 volunteers in two different experiments using fMRI. They were able to see that words that were different, but sound the same, like ‘hare’ and ‘hair’ activate different neurons, akin to accessing different entries in a dictionary’s catalog. If the sounds of the word had influence in this part of the brain we would expect to see that they activate the same or similar neurons, but this was not the case — ‘hair’ and ‘hare’ looked just as different as ‘hair’ and ‘soup’. In addition, the researchers found a different distinct region that was sensitive to the sounds, where ‘hair’ and ‘hare’ did look the same. The researchers thus showed that the brain has regions that specialize in doing each of the components of reading: one region is doing the visual piece and the other is doing the sound piece. The part of the brain that does not work well then in the case of a child with surface dyslexia, is most likely the region that is doing the visual piece, which is called the visual word form area.

While auditory processing skills and auditory memory are foundational to learning phonics, visual perceptual skills (such as spatial relations and form discrimination), visual memory, visuospatial memory, and rapid recall are foundational to sight-reading. Rapid recall refers to the speed with which the names of symbols (letters, numbers, colors, or pictured objects) can be retrieved from long-term memory. This process is often termed rapid automatized naming (RAN), and people with dyslexia typically score poorer on RAN assessments than normal readers.

What causes reversals?

The inability to discriminate between a ‘b’ and a ‘d’, or to read words like ‘was’ as ‘saw’ is usually caused by a visual perceptual problem, specifically a problem with processing position in space.

Before one can read or learn anything, one has to become aware of it through one of the senses. Usually, one has to hear or see it. In other words, perception must take place. Subsequently, one has to interpret whatever one has seen or heard. In essence, then, perception means interpretation. Of course, lack of experience may cause a person to misinterpret what he has seen or heard. In other words, perception represents our apprehension of a present situation in terms of our past experiences, or, as stated by the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804): “We see things not as they are but as we are.”

The following situation will illustrate how perception correlates with previous experience:

Suppose a person parked his car and walked away from it while continuing to look back at it. As he went further and further away from his car, it would appear to him as if his car was gradually getting smaller and smaller. In such a situation none of us, however, would gasp in horror and cry out, “My car is shrinking!” Although the sensory perception is that the car is shrinking rapidly, we do not interpret that the car is changing size. Through past experiences, we have learned that objects do not grow or shrink as we walk toward or away from them. We have learned that their actual size remains constant, despite the illusion. Even when one is five blocks away from one’s car, and it seems no larger than one’s fingernail, one would interpret it as that it is still one’s car and that it hasn’t changed size. This learned perception is known as size constancy.

Pygmies, however, who used to live deep in the rain forests of tropical Africa, were not often exposed to wide vistas and distant horizons, and therefore did not have sufficient opportunities to learn size constancy. Colin Macmillan Turnbull, an anthropologist and author of The Forest People, wrote about one pygmy who, when removed from his usual environment, was convinced he was seeing a swarm of insects when he was actually looking at a herd of buffalo at a great distance. When driven toward the animals, he was frightened to see the insects “grow” into buffalo and was sure witchcraft had been responsible.

To summarize: in order to be able to interpret size constancy, one must have had enough exposure to wide vistas and distant horizons. In the same way, in order to be able to interpret position in space — the learned perception that makes it possible to distinguish a ‘b’ from a ‘d’ — one must have had enough exposure to relevant experiences. Relevant experiences include the ability to distinguish left and right and the ability to cross the midline.

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. Mindful of the wise words of Immanuel Kant that man does not see things as they are but as he is, it is inevitable that a person will interpret everything in terms of his own sidedness. A child or adult, who has not learned to interpret correctly in terms of his sidedness yet, who has not learned 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.

Memory aids don’t work

It is important to note that people who are confused about left and right cannot use mnemonics or memory aids while reading, as is often advised. Children, for example, are often advised to remember that “left” is the side on which they wear their watch. This never works to improve reading ability. It can be compared to learning a language. One cannot speak a foreign language if one only has a dictionary in that language. One has to learn to speak it. In the same way, one has to learn to interpret sidedness. As with all the other skills foundational to reading, the ability to distinguish between left and right must be drummed in so securely that the person can apply it during reading and writing without having to think of it at all.

How Edublox can help

The good news is that weaknesses in cognitive skills can be attacked head-on; it is possible to strengthen these mental skills through training and practice. Edublox’s Development Tutor aims at strengthening underlying cognitive skills such as visual processing skills, visual memory, visuospatial memory, and rapid recall. In addition, a child with surface dyslexia will also need application in the form of reading and spelling lessons. Edublox’s live tutoring program is based on the proven Orton Gillingham approach but simultaneously aims at developing the brain’s visual word form area, mentioned above. Watch this playlist of customer reviews and experience how Edublox training and tutoring help turn dyslexia around.



If live tutoring is impossible, I suggest you consider Edublox’s Reading Tutor program.

Melany, it is my sincere hope that I will be able to add Sofie’s success story in the near future.


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More about Susan

Susan is an educational specialist in the field of learning problems and dyslexia and has a B.A. Honors in Psychology and B.D. degree. Early in her professional career, Susan was instrumental in training over 3,000 teachers and tutors, providing them with the foundational and practical understanding to facilitate cognitive development amongst children who struggle to read and write. With over 30 years of research to her name, Susan conceptualized the Edublox teaching and learning methods that have helped thousands of children who were struggling academically to read, learn and achieve. In 2007, Susan opened the first Edublox reading and learning clinic and now there are 40 Edublox clinics internationally. Her proudest moments are when she sees a child who had severe learning difficulties come top of their class after one or two years at Edublox. Susan always takes time to collect the ‘hero’ stories of learners whose self-esteem is lifted as their marks improve.