Diagnosis: Uneasy Reader

A new understanding of dyslexia may allow for earlier, more effective interventions.

By Carrie Arnold, published on September 3, 2012 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

 Book with scrambled letters off the pages

Dyslexia's formal name is developmental reading disorder, but that might soon change. Psychologists report in Current Biology that the common learning disability—which affects up to one in ten adults—appears to be a problem with visual attention that is not specific to reading at all. Dyslexic children find it hard to filter out unnecessary cues, whether they are trying to read a book or decipher a picture.

University of Padua psychologist Andrea Facoetti and colleagues followed a group of children from age 4 (pre-reading) to 7, testing not only their reading abilities, but also how well they could name colors, remember a list of objects, and complete a Where's Waldo-like visual attention test. The children who had the most trouble with the Waldo task at age 4, Facoetti found, were the ones diagnosed with dyslexia at age 7.

Reading is a complex behavior, notes psychologist Theodore Wasserman of Lynn University in Florida, and a dyslexia diagnosis indicates a broad range of visual-spatial attention problems that make it challenging. Instead of targeting only reading-specific tasks, dyslexia treatment might better serve children by honing their abilities to identify and pay attention to the relevant parts of a text or an illustration, Facoetti suggests. Addressing the root problems that are interfering with reading may be a more effective intervention than traditional phonics training, and identifying symptoms early could help preschoolers improve their visual attention skills before they start falling behind.