Dyslexia is a diagnosis that is widely misunderstood by parents, teachers, and the community at large. What does it mean? What are the signs? Are there effective interventions?
Let’s start by addressing some myths. Most people have heard that a dyslexic person “reads backwards” or “sees letters and words backwards”. This is an outdated hypothesis that is not true. Letter reversals and sequencing errors have nothing to do with dyslexia!
Many years ago, researchers believed that dyslexia was a visual perceptual problem – that it was based in how a person saw letters and words. Now we know for sure, through brain imaging studies, that dyslexia is a problem in the language system of the brain, not the visual system.
Dyslexia is the result of a significant weakness in the phonological processing system, or how a person’s brain understands and can use the sound-based reading “code”. A dyslexic reader has difficulty cracking that code.
Here are some important facts about dyslexia:
Dyslexia is based in how a person’s brain functions. 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.
Dyslexia is not related to a person’s level of intelligence. Many children and adults with dyslexia are gifted, highly accomplished, creative people.
Dyslexia is not caused by problems in reading instruction. A child who reads poorly because of incompetent instruction, frequent school changes, or poor attendance may have delayed reading skills, but he would not be diagnosed with dyslexia.
Boys are not more likely to be dyslexic than girls. Boys are more likely to be referred for evaluation because they are more likely to misbehave when frustrated!
Dyslexia is not a category of disability in federal special education law. Children who are dyslexic are often placed in the program for Specific Learning Disabilities.
Dyslexia is a language-based problem, so 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.
Early identification is important, because it is much more difficult to make progress with reading problems after the primary grades. Early signs that a young child may be dyslexic include delayed language development, 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 about how words come apart (for example, 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 book: 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.