Psychologists, cognitive scientists, and neuroscientists are unraveling the mysteries of dyslexia. But if you are a parent, teacher, or caregiver, it may be hard to read and comprehend the latest research. Here are five important frequently asked questions about dyslexia that cut through the jargon to bring you up to date.
5 Important Questions and Answers about Dyslexia
1. What is dyslexia? Dyslexia is a biologically-based condition that makes it difficult for beginning readers to learn to read. In laymen’s terms, the typical brain organization for reading and spelling does not function normally in dyslexic children even though they may be very smart. Dyslexia is brain-based but its cause has nothing to do with intelligence. Simply put, kids who are dyslexic have trouble learning to decode print and to spell. Dyslexia is not a comprehension disorder; however, if one can’t read words, one can’t comprehend. (This post does not address acquired dyslexia in literate persons who suffer brain injury.)
Dyslexics can learn to read—most probably by reorganizing brain circuitry and accessing different regions than the normal reading brain. Dyslexic readers are known to be slower in reading rate but no one seems to know why. I posit a simple theory for this condition in contrast to more complex general-processing-speed-deficit theories on which scientists disagree: Many dyslexics likely are slower in reading rate simply because they subvocalize, that is, they “say each word in their mind” rather than use a more direct route from seeing print to meaning. Even though most dyslexics who learn to read likely say words in their mind when they read, they can’t see words in their mind when they spell.
Indeed, lousy spelling is a tell-tale sign of dyslexia and it’s a good bet that if you are dyslexic you will struggle with English spelling. It’s often easy for dyslexics to spell the same word differently several times in the same paper and never detect the variations. It’s theorized that a “word form” area of the brain linking language to visual cues which is activated for both reading and spelling is dysfunctional in dyslexics. This area seems to access a function in normal proficient readers enabling them to see words in their mind’s eye or “visualize” spellings.
No two dyslexics are alike—or have exactly the same brain functioning—so expect variations in how this condition manifests itself.
2. How common is dyslexia? Nobody knows. I’ve seen estimates in the literature on dyslexia ranging from 1% to one-third of the population. Recent studies suggest that 1 in 5 people have neurologically-based processing difficulty for learning to read. Contrast that with the fact that 65% of American fourth graders read below proficiency levels.
Part of the difficulty in determining the incidence of dyslexia is that dyslexia manifests itself across a continuum: some cases are mild, others severe.
3. Does dyslexia run in families? Yes. It has a genetic origin. It’s biologically and neurologically based so familial occurrence is not surprising. Recent studies report that there are more dyslexic boys than girls. If you are dyslexic, it’s likely that half of your brothers and sisters are too. (Note: This post originally drew from research and reported that there were just as many girls as boys who are dyslexic. That research has now been debunked. More boys are dyslexic.)
4. Do dyslexics see words backwards? Probably not—though they may write words or letters backwards when they attempt to spell them. The science on this issue is muddled. Most recent studies associate dyslexia’s causal factors with early difficulties in letter-sound processing (phonological processing deficits) and not with a lack of visual abilities or dysfunction in visual processing. The visual anomalies with dyslexia may be a symptom, not a cause.
5. How can we help dyslexics?
- Intervene early. Dyslexia or reading problems are considered to be the most prevalent learning disability. They often are not diagnosed or treated until it’s too late for easy recovery.
- Teach writing. Begin teaching writing in preschool and kindergarten. Beginning writing and reading which are reciprocally connected in the brain are nearly one and the same. Early writing builds interest and stamina (both needed for literary), engages the brain in repeated thought about how letters and sounds reflect meaning, addresses multiple reading and reasoning skills, and helps activate both reading and spelling regions of the brain.
- Teach phonics.
- Teach spelling. Spelling ability is the locomotive that powers the reading brain. It’s crucial for how reading regions of the brain operate smoothly or cause a train-wreck. Principals should stop telling teachers not to teach spelling simply because spelling is not on high-stakes tests. Teaching spelling explicitly in grades K through 8 increases automaticity and fluency resulting in readers and writers who do better on high-stakes tests. (Dyslexics need special accommodations for spelling and more time for taking high-stakes tests.)
- Teach handwriting. Technology is great but it doesn’t engage the early reading brain in the same positive way as learning to move the pen across the page to use letters as pictures-of-sound to express thoughts. Brain scan studies show that early manuscript lessons help activate and coordinate reading circuitry.
- Embrace repetition. The brain feeds on repetition to make doing things such as reading automatic. Embrace repetition in the primary grades for reading aloud, for rhyming, for matching letters with sounds, for writing alphabet letters, for spelling, for sounding out words, for automatic reading of words on sight, for making meaning in print. Do it in balance and make it fun. Don’t expect perfection and correctness at the beginning.
- Don’t ever give up with dyslexics. Remember, dyslexics are in the process of reorganizing brain circuitry. They may need more time, accommodation, and compassion. Some dyslexics experience extraordinary literacy success in adulthood.
We don’t have all the answers about dyslexia. This clear set of answers is my synthesis of thirty years of research and is informed by my work with hundreds of dyslexics and my personal experience: I am dyslexic.
Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write–From Baby to Age 7. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.