Understanding Dyslexia in Children


There are few things that create so much tension within a parent as a child who struggles with reading, spelling and writing. Whereas most children find it easy, or relatively easy, for one out of five children this experience is very different. For them learning to read, spell and write is so difficult that the word “dyslexia” is often used to refer to this severe struggle. The term was coined from the Greek words dys and lexis, meaning “poor with language”.

These children, who understand the spoken word and love to listen to stories, struggle to decipher the same words when they are written on a page. They read slowly and haltingly, and words that they read correctly in one sentence may be misread in a subsequent sentence. Reading aloud may be particularly painful. Eventually they grow frustrated and disappointed.

In the classroom, reading is king; it is essential for academic success. Teachers, witnessing the gap between good and poor readers widening, may wonder what they are doing wrong. Parents, knowing that reading problems have consequences all across development including into adult life, question themselves, feeling alternately guilty and angry.

How does one identify dyslexia?

Below are common symptoms and signs of dyslexia:

  • Reverses letters like b and d, or p and q, or reads words like no for on, rat for tar, won for now, saw for was.
  • Puts letters in the wrong order, reading felt as leftact as catreserve as reverseexpect as except.
  • Misreads little words, such as for andthe for afrom for forthen for therewere for with.
  • Loses orientation on a line or page while reading, missing lines or reading previously-read lines again.
  • Reads aloud hesitantly, word by word, monotonously.
  • Tries to sound the letters of the word, but is then unable to say the correct word. For example, sounds the letters ‘c-a-t’ but then says cold.
  • Mispronounces words, or puts stress on the wrong syllables.
  • Foreshortens words, for example ‘portion’ for proportion.
  • Omits prefixes, omits suffixes or adds suffixes.
  • Reads with poor comprehension.
  • Remembers little of what was read.
  • Cannot match the appropriate letter when given the sound.
  • Often ignores punctuation, omitting full stops or commas.


How many children have dyslexia?

According to the Orton Dyslexia Society at least one in every ten of otherwise able people has serious dyslexia problems. The Foundation of Children with Learning Disabilities states that learning-disabled children represent more than ten million of the total population of the US. Estimates of learning-disabled students being dyslexic vary between 70 and 80 percent.

Dyslexia aside, reading failure is a global problem. Dr. Reid Lyon states that approximately 20 to 30 percent of American children have difficulties learning to read. The Institute for Global Education and Service Learning asserts that the figure is even higher, that 40 percent of American children have difficulty reading or learning to read, and as many as three-quarters of students who are poor readers in third grade will remain poor readers in high school.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as The Nation’s Report Card, is a continuing, representative assessment of what American students know and can do in various subjects. In November 2011, the NAEP released the 2011 reading scores for fourth- and eighth-graders. The results: roughly two thirds of these students were not reading at grade level. Scoring at the basic and below basic levels, these students couldn’t interpret the meaning of a word as it is used in context, locate relevant information, make simple inferences, or use their understanding of the text to identify details that support a particular interpretation or conclusion.

The World Literacy Foundation reported that one in five members of the UK population are so poor at reading and writing that they struggle to read a medicine label or use a checkbook. According to research, this rate of illiteracy is costing the UK economy £81 billion a year in lost earnings and increased welfare spending.

The 2006 international Adult Literacy and Life Skills survey found that approximately 40 percent of employed and 60 percent of unemployed Australians have poor or very poor literacy and numeracy skills.

The PIRLS 2006 study compared the reading abilities of children in 40 countries. South Africa came last, after Morocco. On a scale of 0 to 1000, approximately 80 percent of learners in Grade 4 and 5 failed to reach the Low International Benchmark of 400, meaning that they had not mastered basic reading skills. This was in contrast to only 6 percent of children internationally who did not reach the Low International Benchmark. Only 2 percent of South African learners in Grade 5 reached the Advanced International Benchmark of 625, compared to 7 percent internationally.

What are the effects of dyslexia?

Persistent reading failure leads to anguish, embarrassment and frustration. “Already by the end of first grade, children having difficulty learning to read begin to feel less positive about themselves than when they started school,” says Dr. G. Reid Lyon, former researcher of the National Institute of Health (NIH) in the US. “As we follow children through elementary and middle school years, self-esteem and the motivation to learn to read decline even further.”

“School dropouts, teenage pregnancy, poor academic achievement, crime — all these are downstream consequences of not learning to read,” continues Lyon. More than three decades of study by the NIH found that of the 10 to 15 percent of children who will eventually drop out of school, more than 75 percent will report reading difficulties.

Research has proven that there is a close relationship between illiteracy and crime. According to the US Department of Education, 85 percent of all juvenile offenders have reading problems. In the adult population, 60 percent of prison inmates are functionally illiterate, meaning that they are unable to read or write well enough to deal with the everyday requirements of life.

Strong reading skills, on the other hand, have been linked to many personal, social and economic benefits. According to research published in Psychological Science, reading ability at the early age of seven may be linked to socio-economic status several decades later.

Following more than 17,000 people in England, Scotland, and Wales over a span of about 50 years (from birth in 1958 to present day), Stuart Ritchie and Timothy Bates of the University of Edinburgh found that participants’ reading and math ability at age seven were linked to their social class a full 35 years later. Participants who had higher reading and maths skills as children later had higher incomes, better housing, and better jobs in adulthood. The data suggest, for example, that achieving one reading level higher at age seven was associated with a £5,000 (roughly $7,750) increase in income at age 42.

“These findings imply that basic childhood skills, independent of how smart you are, how long you stay in school, or the social class you started off in, will be important throughout your life,” state Ritchie and Bates.

What causes dyslexia?

Most problems can only be solved if one knows what causes the problem. A disease such as scurvy claimed the lives of thousands of seamen during long sea voyages. The disease was cured fairly quickly once the cause was discovered, viz. a vitamin C deficiency. A viable point of departure would therefore be to ask the question, What is the cause of dyslexia?

According to popular belief dyslexia is a neurological disorder in the brain that causes information to be processed and interpreted differently, resulting in reading, spelling and writing difficulties. Historically, the dyslexia label has been assigned to learners who are bright, even verbally articulate, but who struggle with reading; in short, whose high IQs mismatch their low reading scores. When children are not as bright, their reading troubles have been chalked up to their general intellectual limitations.

Historically, people believed that dyslexia is “incurable”: “Dyslexia is like alcoholism … it can never be cured” (Clark, M., & Gosnell, M., “Dealing with dyslexia,” Newsweek, 22 March 1982, 55-56.)

The view that dyslexia is beyond repair is the result of an old belief that the brain cannot change, let alone improve. People were told that when there was something wrong with a person’s brain, it could not be fixed. Scientists firmly believed that each person was born with a certain number of brain cells and if any of them were injured, there was no way to reverse the damage. Problems like dyslexia, which are linked to the brain, were therefore regarded as beyond cure.

New technology sheds new light

Technological advances, for example fMRI-scans, had enabled scientists to see that the brain is plastic; the brain can change and it can improve and this is good news for your child. According to the latest research every child can be helped.

Named neuroplasticity, this new science has found that the brain can change, new brain cells are constantly being born and die, new connections can form and that the internal structure of the existing synapses can change. In 90 percent of people the left hemisphere controls the capacity to understand and generate language. Even if the left hemisphere of a person’s brain is severely injured the right side of the brain can take over some language functions. When a person becomes an expert in a specific domain, he will have growth in the areas of the brain that are involved in that particular skill.

An interesting study concluded that London taxi drivers have larger hippocampi than London bus drivers. The hippocampus is a brain structure that is involved in learning routes and spatial representations. The development in the size of the hippocampus correlated positively with the length of time being a taxi driver, suggesting that driving taxis in London develop the hippocampus.

In another study, 12 people in their early twenties were required to learn a classic three-ball juggling trick over a period of three months, until they could sustain a performance for at least one minute. Another 12, the control group, did not juggle. The jugglers showed a significant increase in gray matter in brain area V5, which is an area implicated in the processing of visual movement.

But what happens when a newly acquired skill like juggling is allowed to stagnate? The participants were asked to stop practicing their juggling skills for three months, and were then scanned again. The results? The gray matter in their V5 areas had reduced. This finding supports the idea that the brain needs to be exercised or stimulated, otherwise one will lose skills.

Another interesting finding is that plasticity can be observed in the brains of bilinguals. It seems that learning a second language is possible through functional changes in the brain. Those who learned a second language at a younger age were also more likely to have more advanced gray matter than those who learned their second language later.

New research on dyslexia

Technological advances brought new possibilities to dyslexia research. With fMRI-scans et cetera it has now been confirmed that — as was always suspected — there are indeed differences between the brains of dyslexic persons and good readers. The belief that these brain differences are limited to dyslexic persons (i.e. poor readers with average to above average IQ), however, were overturned.

Using brain imaging scans, neuroscientist John D. E. Gabrieli at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found that there was no difference between the way poor readers with or without dyslexia think while reading. Research results indicated 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.

Subsequent studies suggested that the cause-effect relationship is reversed, in other words, that 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.

Lead author Anthony Krafnick said 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.

To summarize

Let us now summarize the findings of neuroplasticity, and the research of Gabrieli and Krafnick: The brain of the dyslexic person — and all other poor readers — differ from the normal reader’s brain, but the brain difference might not be the cause of the reading problem. It might simply be the reading difficulty that causes the brain difference, and if a dyslexic learns to read well, his brain will change to resemble the brain of a normal reader. Even if, in exceptional cases, there are brain dysfunctions that contribute to the dyslexia problem, we now know that the brain can indeed recuperate.

The cause, as we now know, is probably not a flaw in the brain, so let’s start from the beginning…

The situation of a child with dyslexia cannot be understood unless we perceive that he is a human being. An important characteristic of man is that he does not know and cannot do anything he has not learned. This of course excludes natural body functions, such as breathing, as well as the reflexes, for example the involuntary closing of the eye when an object approaches it. Everything else, however, must be learned.

While there are many factors that may contribute to reading problems, one should not overlook the age-old — but ageless — principle that learning is a stratified process. This is a self-evident fact, yet its significance in teaching reading has apparently never been fully comprehended. Throughout the world in all educational systems it is commonly accepted that a child must start at the lower levels of education and then gradually progress to the higher levels. If human learning had not been a stratified process, if it had taken place on a single level, this would have been unnecessary. It would then not have been important to start a child in first grade. It would have been possible for the child to enter school at any level and to complete the school years in any order..

Another simple and practical example is the fact that one has to learn to count before it becomes possible to learn to add and subtract. Suppose one tried to teach a child, who had not yet learned to count, to add and subtract. This would be quite impossible, and no amount of effort would ever succeed in teaching the child to add and subtract. This shows that counting is a skill that must be mastered before it becomes possible to learn to do calculations.

This principle is also of great importance on the sports field. If we go to a soccer field to watch the coach at work, we shall soon find that he spends a lot of time drilling his players in basic skills, like heading, passing, dribbling, kicking, etc. The players who are most proficient at these basic skills usually turn out to be the best players in the actual game situation.

In the same way, there are also certain skills and knowledge that a child must acquire firstbefore it becomes possible for him to become a good reader.

Are you saying a lack of skills is to be blamed for dyslexia? What skills are you referring to?

Di dunia kini kita, tiap orang harus dapat membaca….

Unless one has first learned to speak Bahasa Indonesia, there is no way that one would be able to read the above Indonesian sentence.

This shows that language is at the very bottom of the reading ladder. Its role in reading can be compared to the role of running in the game of soccer, or ice-skating in the game of ice hockey. One cannot play soccer if one cannot run, and one cannot play ice hockey if one cannot skate. One cannot read a book in a language – and least of all write – unless one knows the particular language.

The second rung is cognitive skills

While language skills comprise the first rung of the reading ladder, cognitive skills comprise the second. There is a whole conglomeration of cognitive skills that are foundational to reading and spelling.

1.) Attention

Attention — or concentration — plays a critical role in learning. Focused attention is the behavioral and cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things, while sustained attention refers to the state in which attention must be maintained over time. Both are important foundational skills of reading.

Because attention is so important for reading, ADHD and dyslexia commonly co-occur. Approximately 25 percent of children who are diagnosed with ADHD, a learning difficulty known to affect concentration, are also dyslexic.

2.) Visual processing

Visual processing refers to the ability to make sense of information taken in through the eyes. This is different from problems involving sight or sharpness of vision. Difficulties with visual processing affect how visual information is interpreted or processed. A child with visual processing problems may have 20/20 vision but may have difficulties discriminating foreground from background, forms, size, and position in space. He may also be unable to synthesize and analyze.

• Foreground-background differentiation. The particular letter, or word, or sentence, that the reader is focused on is elevated to the level of foreground, whereas everything else within the field of vision of the reader (the rest of the page and the book, the desk on which the book is resting, the section of the floor and/or wall that is visible, etc.) is relegated to the background.

• Form discrimination. The most obvious classroom activity requiring the child to discriminate forms is that of reading. The learning of the letters of the alphabet, syllables, and words will undoubtedly be impeded if there is difficulty in perceiving the form of the letters, syllables, and words.

 Size discrimination. Capital letters, being used at the start of a sentence, sometimes look exactly the same as their lower case counterparts, and must therefore be discriminated mainly with regard to size. 

 Spatial relations refer to the position of objects in space. It also refers to the ability to accurately perceive objects in space with reference to other objects. A person with a spatial problem may find it difficult to distinguish letters like bdp, and q.

• Synthesis and analysis. The reader must be able to perceive individual parts as a whole. In other words, he must be able to synthesize. Although the ability to analyze, i.e. to perceive the whole in its individual parts, does play a role in reading, this ability is of the utmost importance in spelling.

The term visual dyslexia or dyseidetic dyslexia is often the used to describe a dyslexic with difficulties in visual processing.

3.) Auditory processing

Auditory dyslexia or dysphonetic dyslexia, on the other hand, is the used to describe a dyslexic with difficulties in auditory processing.

Auditory processing refers to the ability to make sense of information taken in through the ears. It is not the ability to hear, but the ability to interpret, organize, or analyze what’s heard.

Problems with auditory perception generally correspond to those in the visual area and are presented under the following components:

• Auditory foreground-background differentiation refers to the ability to select and attend to relevant auditory stimuli and ignore the irrelevant.

• Auditory discrimination refers to the ability to hear similarities and differences between sounds.

• Auditory blending (also called auditory synthesis) refers to the ability to perceive individual sounds as a whole. The child who has a deficit in auditory blending will be unable to blend the individual sounds in a word. He may know the individual phonemes but simply cannot put them together. He may, for example, sound the letters “c-a-t” but then say “cold.”

4.) Processing speed

Processing speed can be defined as how long it takes to get stuff done.

Dyslexia is linked to slow processing speed. Researcher Hermundur Sigmundsson and his colleagues at the Norwegian 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.

5.) Memory

Memory is the retention of information over time. Although the word memory may conjure up an image of a singular, “all-or-none” process, it is clear that there are actually many kinds of memory, each of which may, to some extent, be independent of the other.

 Visual memory involves the ability to store and retrieve previously experienced visual sensations and perceptions when the stimuli that originally evoked them are no longer present. That is, the person must be capable of making a vivid visual image in his mind of the stimulus, such as a word, and once that stimulus is removed, to be able to visualize or recall this image without help.

Skilled readers can recognize words at lightning fast speed when they read because the word has been placed in a sort of visual dictionary, say Georgetown University Medical Centre (GUMC) neuroscientists. The visual dictionary idea rebuts the theory that our brain “sounds out” words each time we see them.

GUMC researchers tested word recognition in 12 volunteers using fMRI scans. They were able to see that words that are different, but sound the same (like “hare” and “hair”) activate different neurons, akin to accessing different entries in a dictionary’s catalogue. 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’. This suggests that, once we know a word, we use the visual information of a word and not the sounds, lead author Laurie Glezer, Ph.D. explained.

• Auditory memory involves being able to take in information that is presented orally, to process that information, store it in one’s mind and then recall what one has heard.

A poor auditory short-term memory is often the cause of a child’s inability to learn to read using the phonics method, says Cyndi Ringoen, a neurodevelopmentalist. “Phonics is an auditory learning system, and it is imperative to have a sufficient auditory short-term memory in order to learn, utilize and understand reading using the phonics method,” she says

• Sequential memory requires items to be recalled in a specific order. In saying the days of the week, months of the year, a telephone number, the alphabet, and in counting, the order of the elements is of paramount importance.

Since every word consists of letters in a specific sequence, sequential memory is of great importance in the reading process. In order to read one has to perceive the letters in sequence, and also remember what word is represented by that sequence of letters. By simply changing the sequence of the letters in name, it can become mean or amen.

Many learners with reading difficulties have poor sequential memory. A study, published in the Journal of General Psychology, compared 33 dyslexic and 33 control eight- to 12-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.

• Iconic memory. If a line of print were flashed at you very rapidly, say, for one-tenth of a second, all the letters you can visualize for a brief moment after that presentation constitute your iconic memory. Your iconic memory, together with your ability to discriminate between foreground and background, determines your eye-span. Eye span is the number of letters of words you take in at a glance.

When a person reads his eyes do not move continuously along a line of text, but engage in a series of rapid movements (saccades) with intermittent short stops (fixations). The more often the eyes have to pause for fixations, the slower the reading speed will be.

Regressions occur when the eyes move towards the left to look again at words which have already been covered. A poor reader will be inclined to pause more often for fixations, and the duration of each fixation will also be longer than that of the typical reader. The poor reader is also inclined to more regressions that the normal reader.

Improving a person’s iconic memory will widen his eye span.

• Short-term memory refers to the capacity of a person to hold a small amount of information in mind in an active, readily available state for a short period of time.

• While most studies in the dyslexia field focus on short-term memory, i.e. the capacity for holding a small amount of information in mind in an active, readily available state for a short period of time, research has shown that dyslexics also 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.

• The term working memory was coined in the 1970s by two researchers named Baddeley and Hitch, referring to the ability to temporarily hold several facts or thoughts in memory while solving a problem or performing a task. You use this work space in your brain when mentally adding or subtracting two or more numbers.

A study, led by psychologist Merav Ahissar, tested 52 musicians of which 24 are dyslexic and 28 who are not dyslexic, and compared the performance of the two groups in a variety of auditory tests.

On most tests of auditory perception, the dyslexic musicians scored as well as their nondyslexic counterparts, and better than the general population. Where they performed much worse was 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 working memory tended to have the lowest reading accuracy. Those with better working memory tended to be more accurate.

An important and consistent finding is that working memory problems interfere with reading comprehension. Reading is a complex skill that requires the simultaneous activation of many different brain processes.

6.) Logical thinking

Logical thinking is the process in which one uses reasoning consistently to come to a conclusion. Problems or situations that involve logical thinking call for structure, for relationships between facts, and for chains of reasoning that “make sense.”

The relationship between logical thinking and reading comprehension is well established in the literature. It has been said that “there is no reading without reasoning,” and even that reading is reasoning.

To summarize

The brain is plastic, meaning it can change. Dyslexia might not be caused by a permanent disorder in the brain, but by the building blocks that precede reading and spelling, that have not been developed and mastered. These building blocks include language, attention, processing, memory and logical thinking.

Without application the acquisition of these building blocks will of course mean nothing. Therefore, a child still needs to be taught to read and spell, while mastering these cognitive constructs.

What can parents do to help their children?

If your child is having trouble learning to read, the best approach is to take immediate action. Ninety-five percent of poor readers can be brought up to grade level if they receive effective help early. The longer you wait to get help for a child with reading difficulties, the harder it will be for that child to catch up.

Reading consultant Susan Hall urges parents to trust their intuition. “I have listened to parent after parent tell me about feeling there was a problem earlier on, yet being persuaded to discount their intuition and wait to seek help for their child,” she says. “Later, when they learnt time is of the essence in developing reading skills, the parents regretted the lost months or years.”

How can Edublox help?

Edublox aims at developing and automatizing the above-mentioned cognitive skills that are foundational to reading, spelling and writing. While developing these cognitive skills are key to unlocking the door to success in reading, application is equally important.

Edublox’s Reading Tutor offers application in the form of reading, spelling and vocabulary exercises. Edublox’s Live Tutor offers four courses:

  1. Reading and spelling, which is based on the proven Orton Gillingham approach, but simultaneously develops the brain’s “visual dictionary“;
  2. Spelling and writing;
  3. Reading comprehension; and
  4. Numeracy.

Our live tutoring programs target a variety of learning disabilities including dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia, and are tailored to fit the needs of each individual student.

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