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What Is Dyslexia?

What is DyslexiaIf your child has been diagnosed with dyslexia, or if you suspect that your child has dyslexia, you may be wondering, “What exactly is dyslexia?” Is it letter reversals? Is it reading difficulties? Let’s take a look at the definition…

A working definition of dyslexia

Dyslexia reveals itself differently in different people. One person may have problems with letter reversals, while another may not be able to read a single word on the page. One dyslexic may write time as tiem, while another can’t repeat back the word pneumonia or remember a good friend’s name. No two cases are exactly alike.

And to complicate matters, there is no universally accepted definition of dyslexia. But two leading authorities—the International Dyslexia Association and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)—use this working definition:

Dyslexia is 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.

A closer look at the definition

Reading technical definitions can be enough to make your head spin—especially if you are looking for answers now, not after you locate your dictionary and put the baby down for a nap! So to clarify the terms and save your sanity, let’s look at each part of the definition together.

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin.

In common terms, a specific learning disability (often abbreviated as SLD) is a severe learning problem caused by a disorder in cognitive (brain) processes. Just as you probably suspected, dyslexia is a neurological disorder. It is not the result of inadequate instruction, environmental or economic disadvantage, student laziness, or other disabilities.

In fact, researchers performed brain scans on hundreds of volunteers and, as a result, identified the specific parts of the brain that are involved in dyslexia. The scans show that very specific portions of a dyslexic’s brain simply don’t function properly. Sally Shaywitz, M.D. has written extensively about the neurological basis of dyslexia, so if you are interested in more information on the topic, you might want to pick up a copy of her book Overcoming Dyslexia.

[Dyslexia] is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities.

Without context clues to help them, dyslexics have a difficult time reading words in isolation. When faced with sentences and paragraphs, their reading is generally very choppy, rather than smooth. They may rely on faulty decoding (reading) techniques such as word shape or beginning and ending letters. And spelling is even more difficult for dyslexics than reading. 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. In other words, people who have dyslexia are perfectly intelligent in other ways. You already knew that. Your children may be able to build the most complex LEGO® world, or repeat everything that happened in the movie they saw yesterday, or paint a picture of the sunrise so realistic that it makes you want to cry.

Intelligence isn’t the problem. Reading and writing is.

Teaching methods that work for dyslexic students’ friends and cousins do not work for them. If you put dyslexic students in the same class as their peers, their peers will learn how to read and spell fluently, but the dyslexic students will not. So it’s not that they haven’t had a chance to read and spell—they just can’t learn through typical classroom instruction techniques.

Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.

This part of the definition is a no-brainer. Since the dyslexic person can’t read easily, he has a hard time with reading comprehension and doesn’t read nearly as much as the average person. Lack of reading can result in lack of vocabulary and other knowledge often gained through reading.

Phew!

You made it through the definition of dyslexia! For a list of dyslexia symptoms, download this Symptoms of Dyslexia checklist.

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