Disentangling Dyslexia: Separating Fact from Myth
What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a brain-based learning difference that causes difficulty reading or comprehending written texts. Dyslexia is an informal term for what your school psychologist or speech therapist might call specific (or developmental) learning disorder with impairment in reading (Protopapas, 2019). Dyslexia is considered a specific learning disorder because it affects only a narrow range of skills, usually those involving the processing of speech sounds by the brain (phonological processing), the identification of individual speech sounds in words (phonemic awareness), and understanding the relationships between speech sounds and printed letters and words (decoding). Experts estimate that between 5% and 17% of students have dyslexia, making it the most common specific learning disorder (Shaywitz & Shaywitz, 2003).
Isn’t dyslexia a genetic problem that affects mostly boys?
Dyslexia has complex causes, and it can affect children from any ethnic or linguistic background -- regardless of gender or family history. Findings from Yale’s Connecticut Longitudinal Study (Shaywitz et al., 1999), whose researchers followed a large group of Connecticut school children from kindergarten through adulthood, reveal that dyslexia affects boys and girls roughly equally. Dyslexia does indeed tend to run in families, but environmental factors also contribute to dyslexia, and many students who are diagnosed as dyslexic do not have a family history of the disorder (Ibid.). Researchers working on the Connecticut Longitudinal Study (Ibid.) found that some of the dyslexic students that they studied had reading difficulties primarily arising from inherent differences in patterns of brain activation, whereas others had difficulties that appeared to arise primarily from environmental influences, such as a lack of evidence-based, high-quality reading instruction. In both groups, however, a combination of factors appeared to contribute uniquely to each child’s dyslexia (Ibid.).
Aren't children with dyslexia just slow or unmotivated?
No, not at all! Children with dyslexia are not slow, unmotivated, or generally poor learners. As previously mentioned, a defining feature of a specific learning disorder -- like dyslexia -- is that it affects a relatively narrow range of skills, meaning that most children with dyslexia have average or above-average abilities in other areas. What’s more, a student cannot be diagnosed with dyslexia if her or his difficulty reading is better explained by other factors, such as language-learner status, intellectual disability, or lack of educational opportunities -- that is to say that dyslexia produces difficulty in reading that is unexpected given a child's overall circumstances. That doesn't mean that children with dyslexia are less intelligent or motivated than their typically developing peers. It simply means they require additional support to achieve their full academic potential.
Research tells us that the brains of children with dyslexia simply process some information differently than the brains of typically developing children. Specifically, children with dyslexia tend to show less activation in the language centers of the brain and greater activation in the front part of the brain, which is usually responsible for planning and regulating complex behavior (Shaywitz & Shaywitz, 2003). Findings like these suggest that the brains of people with dyslexia have to devote more conscious effort to the task of reading than do the brains of children who do not have dyslexia – meaning that they often work much harder than their typically developing peers!
Can my child with LD enjoy improved achievement?
The answer to this question is an emphatic yes! Research has demonstrated again and again that intensive, evidence-based instruction that is carefully tailored to the needs of the child can affect extraordinary improvements in achievement, especially when provided early in a child's education (Torgesen, 2005). Furthermore, brain imaging research has revealed that following intensive, evidence-based intervention, the brains of children with learning disabilities can begin to process information in a way that is more consistent with typical development -- the quality of instruction not only affects achievement but also the brain itself (Richards et al., 2006). That said, even with high-quality, evidence-based intervention, many children with dyslexia will require academic accommodations, as well as access to assistive technologies, in order to maximize their achievement (Shaywitz, Morris & Shaywitz, 2008) – so academic accommodations should be considered as part of a dyslexic student’s overall educational program.
What are some signs that my child might have dyslexia?
Learning, like any developmental process, rarely follows a completely smooth trajectory. There are often brief plateaus and even short-lived regressions along the way. That said, the general direction of your child's development should be onward and upward. If you suspect your child may have dyslexia, please consider reaching out to a qualified professional, such as a school psychologist, speech therapist, or pediatrician. Many of the features of dyslexia overlap with those of other learning and developmental disorders, and many children with dyslexia have co-morbid, or co-occurring, difficulties or disorders, so children who show signs of dyslexia (or any other learning disorder) should always be evaluated by a competent professional.
Below are some of the warning signs that could indicate the presence of dyslexia. These include some delays that are common among dyslexic children even before they reach primary school age.
Among young children (pre-school and kindergarten):
- Delayed speech or articulation relative to peers
- Difficulty acquiring or recalling vocabulary or difficulty expressing ideas
- Difficulty with rhyming or difficulty discriminating words with similar sounds
- Difficulty learning songs or nursery rhymes
- Difficulty learning the alphabet or numerals
Among primary school children (grades 1 through 5):
- Any of the above
- Delays learning the correspondences between letters and sounds
- Difficulty identifying, distinguishing, or manipulating the sounds within words
- Difficulty learning common spelling patterns or reading common irregularly-spelled words (e.g., said, been)
- Slow and laborious reading
- Difficulty understanding or recalling what was read
- An unwillingness to read aloud
- Frequent inversals, reversals, or transpositions of letters, letter sequences, numbers, or number sequences
Among middle and secondary school children (grades 6 through 12):
- Any of the above
- Poor reading speed, accuracy, or comprehension
- Poor written expression or difficulty writing coherent texts
- Failure to acquire complex spelling patterns or ongoing spelling difficulties
- Lack of motivation to engage in academic activities
I suspect that my child has dyslexia, but my child’s school has urged a wait-and-see approach. What should I do?
Schools sometimes use a wait-and-see or, more often, a wait-to-fail approach before assessing a child for dyslexia, allowing a child to fall far behind before her or his problem can be identified and addressed. Other times, parents or teachers are afraid of seeking a diagnosis that might label a child. While these concerns are understandable, time is of the essence when it comes to dyslexia. Early identification is key to effectively treating dyslexia and maximizing future academic achievement (Shaywitz, Morris & Shaywitz, 2008). If you are concerned that your child might have dyslexia, and you have been unable to obtain help from your child’s school or school district, I would encourage you to talk to your child’s pediatrician to determine whether outside evaluation might be appropriate.
What are some characteristics of effective intervention for dyslexic students?
Every child with dyslexia is unique. Consequently, instruction and intervention provided to children with dyslexia should be carefully tailored to individual needs and abilities. Instruction should be tied to clear, developmentally-appropriate goals, and it should be systematic, incremental, and frequently assessed for efficacy. While no two individualized programs of education will be the same, there are some features that are common to high-quality instruction for students with dyslexia (Cf. Moats, 2019):
Content to be taught explicitly, systematically, and cumulatively
- It is intensely focused on the nuts and bolts of language production and analysis, especially the sounds of language and how they are represented in letters, syllables, and words.
- Phonemic awareness – or the ability to isolate, identify, and produce individual speech sounds.
- Phoneme-grapheme (sound-symbol) correspondences, or the patterns by which speech sounds are represented in print. This instruction should include both analysis (breaking down) and synthesis (putting together) of syllables and words.
- Morphology, or the way in which meaningful units of words (prefixes, roots, bases, and suffixes) are combined in written language. This instruction should include both analysis (breaking down) and synthesis (putting together) of words using morphological units (ie, prefixes, roots, bases, and suffixes).
- Syntax, or the way words and phrases are arranged to form well-crafted and meaningful sentences. This instruction should include both analysis (breaking down) and synthesis (putting together) of phrases and sentences.
- Semantics and comprehension or conveying and understanding the meaning of written and spoken language.
- It is direct, explicit, and tied to clearly articulated objectives.
- It is highly structured, systematic, and cumulative.
- Instruction is broken into small steps, and directions and prompts are provided frequently.
- Instruction is multi-sensory, tactile, and engaging; failed strategies are replaced with more effective strategies.
- Learning is frequently assessed, and plateaus or regressions in achievement are quickly addressed.
- There are frequent informal checks of understanding, and formative feedback is offered often.
- There frequent opportunities for guided and independent practice.
About our guest blogger, Dr Schneider
Dr Schneider is a full member of the American Psychological Association, the International Dyslexia Association, and the Phi Beta Kappa international honor society. She holds a PhD in Special Education (Disability & Psychoeducational Studies); an EdS in Language, Reading, and Culture (Educational Applied Linguistics); and an MA in Educational Psychology. Dr Schneider also holds a summa cum laude BA in English. All of her degrees were awarded by the University of Arizona, where she was named the College of Education’s Outstanding Graduate.
Dr Schneider’s work in the fields of special education and educational psychology appears in the Cambridge Handbook of Clinical Assessment and Diagnosis, the Journal of Reading Psychology, the International Dyslexia Association's Journal of Reading & Writing, the Sage Encyclopedia of Abnormal Clinical Psychology, the Wiley Encyclopedia of Clinical Psychology, Springer's Handbook of Intelligence, Brookes' Learning Disabilities and Challenging Behaviors, and Wiley's Woodcock-Johnson IV: Reports, Recommendations, and Strategies, among others.
Dr Schneider serves as instructional faculty at the University of Arizona and has served as an evaluator and research associate on multi-year, federally-funded projects in the areas of behavioral intervention and reading remediation. Dr Schneider has been invited to present her academic work and research at various international conferences, including the annual conferences of the International Dyslexia Association, the Council for Exceptional Children, the International Academy of Research in Learning Disabilities, and the Learning Disabilities Association.
Moats, L. (2019). Structured Literacy: Effective instruction for students with dyslexia and related reading difficulties. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 45(2), 9-10.
Richards, T. L., Aylward, E. H., Berninger, V. W., Field, K. M., Grimme, A. C., Richards, A. L., & Nagy, W. (2006). Individual fMRI activation in orthographic mapping and morpheme mapping after orthographic or morphological spelling treatment in child dyslexics. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 19(1), 56-86.
Protopapas, A. (2019). Evolving Concepts of Dyslexia and Their Implications for Research and Remediation. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2873.
Torgesen, J. K. (2005). Recent discoveries from research on remedial interventions for children with dyslexia. The science of reading, 521-537.
Shaywitz, S. E., Fletcher, J. M., Holahan, J. M., Shneider, A. E., Marchione, K. E., Stuebing, K. K., ... & Shaywitz, B. A. (1999). Persistence of dyslexia: The Connecticut longitudinal study at adolescence. Pediatrics, 104(6), 1351-1359.
Shaywitz, S. E., Morris, R., & Shaywitz, B. A. (2008). The education of dyslexic children from childhood to young adulthood. Annu. Rev. Psychol., 59, 451-475.
Shaywitz, S. E., & Shaywitz, B. A. (2003). Dyslexia (specific reading disability). Pediatrics in Review, 24(5), 147-153.
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