More Educational Myths

Educational Myths: Dyslexia

We’ve already talked about two educational myths that are widely accepted as truth: the belief that grade retention increases academic achievement, and the belief that homework has a positive effect on academic achievement for elementary school children. This time our discussion topic is dyslexia — a diagnosis that is widely misunderstood by parents, teachers, and the community at large.

“Dyslexia” is a fancy name for a learning disability in reading — the word means “impaired reading”. Psychologists and educators use the term for a reading disorder that is brain-based — a reading problem that is neurological, and that is not caused by low intelligence, a difficult home environment, or inadequate instruction. The International Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia as:

A specific learning disability that is neurological 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.

This definition means that dyslexia is:

* Based on how an individual’s brain functions. Dyslexia is a functional problem, not a structural problem. The brain structure is normal — the glitch is in the wiring. Fluent readers use a part of the brain for reading that dyslexic readers do not use. This means that reading remains a slow, laborious process for children and adults with dyslexia.

*A problem in the language system, not the visual system. It is a weakness in the phonological processing system — understanding the sound-based reading “code”. A dyslexic reader has difficult segmenting words into their component sounds. The ability to comprehend what is read is not affected!

*Not related to a child’s level of intelligence.

*Not related to the quality of classroom instruction a child has received. A child who reads poorly because of incompetent instruction or poor attendance may have delayed reading skills, but he would not be diagnosed with dyslexia.

Most people believe that dyslexia means that children “see words backwards”, or that letter and number reversals are a sign of dyslexia. This is a myth, based on theories that were popular decades ago. Current research, based on brain-imaging studies, has shown that dyslexia has absolutely nothing to do with seeing backwards or reading backwards or reversing letters. In fact, dyslexia is not a visual processing problem at all! It is a language processing problem.

Many people also believe that children with dyslexia are not smart, when in fact dyslexia occurs at every level of intelligence. Many children and adults with dyslexia are gifted, highly accomplished, creative people. Another myth is that boys are much more likely to be dyslexic than girls, when the incidence is actually evenly distributed between the sexes. It is true that boys are much more likely to be referred for evaluation at school — probably because of their behavior in the classroom — so boys are more likely to receive special education services. More recently, schools that have instituted good Response to Intervention (RtI) programs are identifying more girls through universal screening and progress-monitoring data.

Because dyslexia is a language-based problem, effective interventions are also language-based. Dyslexic readers must be systematically, directly, and explicitly taught about the sounds of language and how those sounds go together to make words. They require intensive, direct instruction in how to “crack the code” of reading. There are several excellent, research-based reading programs that directly teach phonemic awareness and phonics, and teach children how to apply these phonological skills to reading and spelling. These include Reading Mastery, SRA Early Intervention, Language!, and SRA Corrective Reading. Programs that focus solely on phonology and word recognition are usually from the Orton-Gillingham tradition — Wilson Reading, for example.

Because dyslexia is not a visually-based problem, many of the interventions used in times past have proved to be ineffective in helping dyslexic students. These interventions include eye training exercises, tinted lenses, and colored overlays.

Early identification is important, because it is much more difficult to fix reading problems after the primary grades. Early signs that a young child may be dyslexic include delayed language, difficulty learning and appreciating nursery rhymes, mispronouncing words, and difficulty learning letter names. If your child shows any of these symptoms, monitor him closely as he enters school. Signs that a kindergartener may be dyslexic include the inability to associate letters with their sounds, reading errors that are not phonetic, inability to recognize or sound-out simple one-syllable words, and a lack of understanding that words come apart — the word “goldfish” is made up of the words “gold” and “fish”. Dyslexia runs in families, so if there is a history of reading problems in the family, extra vigilance is necessary.

My favorite resources on this topic include:

Overcoming Dyslexia: A new and complete science-based program for reading problems at any level, by Dr. Sally Shaywitz. Dr. Shaywitz covers it all in a very readable, understandable way: The nature of reading and dyslexia, signs of dyslexia at different ages, how the brain works in dyslexic and fluent readers, and effective reading interventions.

The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity (also Dr. Shaywitz):

Children of the Code: a social education project:

The International Dyslexia Association:

LD Online:

Journey into Dyslexia — a documentary:

Our very own education specialist Alice Wellborn is now a regular contributor at and we are thrilled to share her wise words with all of you. Alice is a school psychologist and the author of the amazingly helpful book No More Parents Left Behind. You can ask Alice your questions and Get the book at:

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