Dyslexia (dis-LEX-ee-uh) is a learning disability that affects a person's ability to interpret written words and read, write, and spell properly. Dyslexia, which is not a form of intellectual disability, affects people of all levels of intelligence.
When Tommy opened his history book, this is the story he saw:
Wenthe Pilgrims la n bed ta Plymoutthey wer ein a mostbre cariouss itua tion.T heye ar saw lateandther e wasmuc h sicknes s a mon g the sett l ers.
When Jason opened his book to the same page, this is what he saw:
When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, they were in a most precarious situation. The year was late, and there was much sickness among the settlers.
For Jason and most of his classmates, reading about the early American settlers is easy and interesting. For Tommy and other students in the class with dyslexia, reading is difficult and frustrating because they do not see the words correctly.
Dyslexia is a language processing disorder that makes a person unable to recognize written words and numbers properly. It comes from the combination of two Greek words: dys, which means “impaired,” and lexis, which means “words.” Most people with dyslexia also have trouble with writing and spelling. In addition, some have difficulty with numbers. Dyslexia is sometimes referred to as specific reading disability.
When people with dyslexia look at or hear words, their eyes and ears work properly, but a part of their brain misinterprets the words and delivers a faulty message back to them. In many cases, dyslexia may be genetic * , because people with the disorder often have a family history of learning disabilities.
There are three forms of dyslexia. Primary dyslexia is caused by a genetic malfunction in the left side of the brain (cerebral cortex [suh-REE-brul KOR-teks]), which is the part of the brain that recognizes and interprets words. Primary dyslexia is usually hereditary, and patients often struggle with this type of dyslexia throughout their lives. Secondary dyslexia occurs during fetal development. This type of dyslexia often diminishes as a child ages. Traumatic dyslexia occurs after an injury that affects the part of a person's brain that reads and interprets words. This type of dyslexia is uncommon in school-age children.
Children with dyslexia usually grow into healthy adults with normal lives. Many people with dyslexia go to college and excel in their classes, sometimes by using special methods such as recording their lectures or taking oral exams instead of written ones. Adults with dyslexia can do well in many different kinds of jobs.
As of 2016, there was no cure for dyslexia. There is no drug that people with dyslexia can take to correct the problem. Scientists have studied the various parts of the brain to learn why information is interpreted incorrectly in some people. However, the brain is complex, and there are many mysteries about what causes dyslexia and other learning disabilities.
People with dyslexia are not unintelligent or lazy. In fact, most people with dyslexia have average or above-average intelligence and work very hard at learning how to read well. They simply have a part of their brain that does not translate messages correctly about written words.
Dyslexia affects more than 5 percent of school-age children. About four out of every five children with dyslexia are boys. The disorder affects all races equally and is the most common type of learning disability.
Dyslexia is not contagious, although there may be a genetic component that predisposes children to acquiring dyslexia.
Dyslexia usually is not diagnosed very early in a child's life because children are not expected to learn to read until about six years of age. However, when children with dyslexia start school, they may have a hard time keeping up with their classmates. Words and letters appear much differently to a person with dyslexia than to a person without it. Sometimes words look all jammed together, whereas at other times there seem to be spaces between words where they do not belong.
The biggest problem for people with dyslexia is that they do not recognize that words are made up of small units of sound, known as phonemes * . As a result, people with dyslexia struggle to connect the sounds that make up words. They may see p's where there are b's—for example, “pall” instead of “ball.”
Because the skill of reading goes along with the skill of writing, children with dyslexia often have a difficult time learning to write, spell, and even speak correctly. They may reverse letters or write letters upside-down. Letters that look similar may confuse such children when they try to write. For example, “doll” may become “boll.” Because the letters are shaped incorrectly, the children's handwriting may be hard to read. The ability to spell properly is also affected by dyslexia. Letters may not appear in the right order. For example, “purple” may become “pruple.” Some letters may be left out entirely, making the word “puple.”
When children have this kind of difficulty with reading, writing, and spelling, they can quickly fall behind in school and feel frustrated, even though they are intelligent. Not surprisingly, many adults with dyslexia say they hated reading when they were young. Fortunately, most teachers in the early 21st century are trained to recognize dyslexia and take action to help children who have this problem.
Sometimes children who have difficulty with reading or writing feel embarrassed or ashamed and try to hide it from their parents, teachers, and friends. Dyslexia may be suspected when a child shows difficulty with reading, keeping up in school, or following directions.
When a parent or teacher recognizes there is a problem, these children should be referred to their doctor for a thorough physical examination. Physicians can run various tests, including vision and hearing tests, to rule out other problems. Doctors can also do a neurological exam * to measure how well the different parts of the nervous system are working.
If dyslexia is suspected, the physician may enlist the help of a specialist in learning disabilities. The specialist can administer tests to figure out how the child's brain processes information. The child may take an intelligence quotient test *
When testing is completed, the specialist can determine whether the child has dyslexia by comparing his or her intelligence test results against the results of the reading and writing tests. Average or high scores on an intelligence test and low scores on reading and writing tests are typical of people with dyslexia.
The earlier children are diagnosed with dyslexia and the earlier their families and teachers are made aware of the diagnosis, the better the outcome. Children with dyslexia must learn to read in a different way from those who do not have the disorder. Many children who do not have their dyslexia diagnosed until later do poorly in school year after year as they try to learn to read the same way everyone else does. Eventually, after their dyslexia is diagnosed, they must go back and relearn how to read.
Whether it is a younger child with dyslexia who is first learning to read or an older child who is relearning, a special approach must be taken. In many cases, an individualized reading program is the first step of treatment. A reading specialist creates a plan that is designed solely for that child. The plan is based on many factors, such as the severity of the dyslexia and the child's strengths in other areas in school.
Many times, the reading plan for a student with dyslexia includes a multisensory approach, which means that instead of just using the sense of sight, the student also uses other senses, such as touch or hearing. In some cases, a student might feel clay or wooden models of letters while saying the letters aloud. In other cases, a student might learn letter sounds while looking at pictures or listening to letter sounds on a tape while looking at the letters. The use of computers is also beneficial to children with dyslexia. Students can also work on phonemes with reading specialists. Eventually students learn to create combinations of phonemes to form words, then from there move on to recognizing and reading words.
Students with dyslexia can be taught in different settings. Some are placed in special classrooms with other students who have reading disabilities, whereas others work one-on-one with a reading specialist at certain points during the school day.
Dyslexia cannot be prevented, but with early intervention, individuals with this learning disability can adapt and go on to be very successful in school and professional endeavors.
See also Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) • Learning Disabilities: Overview
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Winton, Alais. The Self-Help Guide for Teens with Dyslexia: Useful Stuff You May Not Learn at School. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2015.
Davis, Ronald D. “37 Common Characteristics of Dyslexia.” http://www.dyslexia.com/library/symptoms.htm (accessed November 9, 2015).
Massey, Wyatt. “New Typeface Simulates Reading with Dyslexia.” CNN, June 17, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/17/living/dyslexia-graphic-design-typeface-daniel-britton/ (accessed November 9, 2015).
International Dyslexia Association. 40 York Rd., 4th Fl., Baltimore, MD 21204. Telephone: 410-296-0232. Website: http://www.eida.org (accessed November 9, 2015).
Learning Disabilities Association of America. 4156 Library Rd., Pittsburgh, PA 15234. Phone: 412-341-1515. Website: http://ldaamerica.org (accessed November 9, 2015).
* genetic (juh-NEH-tik) refers to heredity and the ways in which genes control the development and maintenance of organisms.
* phonemes (FO-neemz) are the smallest units of spoken language, such as the “puh” sound at the start of the word pat.
* neurological exam is a test of how well various parts of the nervous system are functioning.
* intelligence quotient test is a test designed to estimate a person's intellectual potential. Also called an IQ test.