What IS Dyslexia?

Joseph only read aloud when he absolutely had to. It was clear why- his reading did not sound fluent, and he struggled through many words- reading with a low rate of accuracy. But then, even after his choppy, labored reading, Joseph could comprehend what he read. He had developed advanced comprehension strategies to compensate for his dyslexia. 

I have worked with many children with dyslexia, and I have gotten many questions from parents who were concerned that their children might be dyslexic. This isn't really surprising, considering that as many as 5%-17% of people are dyslexic. Even though so many people have dyslexia, there are a lot of misconceptions. It's my hope that providing an overview of dyslexia will help parents understand more about this common learning disability. 

b? d? What dyslexia is NOT

There is a lot of confusion about dyslexia. Many people think that dyslexia is a problem with letter reversals, like mixing up b and d. Many children mix up b and d (they do look  a lot alike!) and it's not a reason to be concerned. Dyslexia is not about seeing words differently, it is about processing words differently. 

Dyslexia IS

Dyslexia involves a difficulty in reading and spelling words. This is the result of a problem with phonological processing- the part of the brain that is used to manipulate sounds. Dyslexia slows down reading, and makes reading and spelling less accurate and less fluent. Dyslexia occurs on a continuum from mild to severe, and can impede comprehension and learning in all subjects. 

Have you ever completely spaced out while reading? For me, it's Pinkalicious, one of my daughter's favorite books. It was a cute book the first five or so times, and now I just can't... thankfully the automatic part of my brain takes over, and I read without really thinking. Not my best parenting moment, but a good example of how it is possible for the brain to process and read words (albeit overly familiar words) automatically. With dyslexia, this doesn't happen so seamlessly. There are a few detours in brain processing before a word can be identified.

Children with dyslexia use their brains differently to read, and this process is less efficient. Functional MRI studies of the brain (fMRI) observe blood flow in the brain to track brain activity. These studies have shown that dyslexic readers use several parts of their brain to decode words, including more of the frontal lobe.  Take the word interesting for example. A typical reader can scan the word and quickly and automatically "decode" the word. A person with dyslexia might have trouble breaking the word into its parts (in-ter-es-ting) and assigning appropriate sounds to those parts to read a word. To compensate, the reader with dyslexia might try to remember what the word sounds like based on what it looks like, using a different part of the brain. This process takes longer and is less accurate. 

This TED-Ed video has some great visuals to explain dyslexia.

The MOST important thing to know about dyslexia

I knew a teacher once who told me "you can't change what's up here" and would point to his head. I am so glad that he is COMPLETELY wrong. There may not be a magic cure or pill for dyslexia, but there IS a way to change the way the brain works and improve reading outcomes. The same fMRI strides that identified the inefficient pattern of brain activity associated with dyslexia have shown that these patterns can change with intensive, evidence-based intervention. 

This means that children with dyslexia need to have specialized instruction, usually in a small group, taught by a teacher who has been specially trained to work with students with dyslexia. The actual instruction should be a carefully designed program based on dyslexia research. Ideally, the reading program will have research demonstrating its effectiveness. 

Early intervention is important. Intervention takes less time and is more effective when started with younger children. If you suspect your child has dyslexia, ask the school for help. The sooner the better! There are also lots of accommodations that schools can provide to support children with dyslexia. 

For further reading I recommend:
Dyslexia Help - U of MichicganInternational Dyslexia Association, and The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity

I would love to hear your questions about dyslexia, interventions, the identification process, or anything else. Leave a question in the comments or ask the teacher