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DYSLEXIA

Dyslexia is a common learning disability.

It makes reading accurately and fluently difficult. Between 5 and 15% of people are dyslexic – with some estimates put as high as 20% (International Dyslexia Association).  

It is not due to visual or intelligence issues.

Dyslexic people can see letters, but have trouble with a process called decoding. They are just as smart as their peers – there are several examples of brilliant and successful people with this disability.

It is a lifelong condition, but early intervention can help.

Early diagnosis, intervention and supportive educational strategies have been shown to help children with dyslexia thrive.

The Reading Process

Before exploring what dyslexia is, it’s helpful to learn about the reading process and how children learn to read. The process of reading involves our eyes and our brain – so there are multiple eye-related and mental processes at work when we sift through the pages of our favorite book.

When we read, there are several visual (eye-related) and cognitive (brain) processes working together:

  • Interpreting marks on a printed or digital surface as letters.
  • Knowing what each letter in a language sounds like or means.
  • Controlling eye movements across a surface with writing.
  • Blending these letter sounds into words.
  • Understanding how these sounds can be combined to make words.
  • Using words to form sentences.
  • Comprehending the text’s meaning (reading comprehension).
  • Comparing new ideas with what’s known (understanding context).
  • Remembering what they’ve read previously.

Defining Dyslexia

Dyslexia (pronounced: dis-LEK-see-uh) – or developmental dyslexia – is a learning disorder that impacts a child’s ability to read. It is therefore also known and categorized as a reading disability.

Depending on the source, a distinction is sometimes made between developmental dyslexia (a learning disorder) and acquired dyslexia, which describes problems with reading as a result of brain damage.

Children with dyslexia find it hard to decode print – despite being taught to read and having normal vision and intelligence. The process of decoding involves quickly matching letters to their sounds, and then making words from these.

They may find it difficult to:

  • Recognise printed words
  • Spell or write words
  • Sound out words they don’t know
  • Read quickly enough to keep up with their peers

As a learning disability, dyslexia can make it challenging for a child to succeed in school without phonics-based reading instruction or – in more severe cases – special education with tailored reading instruction.

Dyslexia can sometimes be broken down into subtypes, but there is no official list of categories for the disability. These subtypes may help to characterise the unique profile of a child’s reading challenges.

  • Phonological dyslexia, or difficulty sounding out words
  • Surface dyslexia, or difficulty remembering whole words by sight
  • Rapid naming deficit, or difficulty quickly naming letters or numbers
  • Double deficit dyslexia, or difficulty isolating sounds
  • Visual dyslexia, or unusual visual experiences when reading

Symptoms

Before a child starts school, it can be difficult to identify signs that indicate dyslexia. After a child enters school, teachers are generally more likely to notice these signs.

Most children grasp the basics of reading by kindergarten or first grade (in the UK, this would be KS1). Speak with your doctor if your child’s reading level is below what is expected for their age or if you notice any of the signs of dyslexia. This is important: when learning disabilities like dyslexia are undiagnosed and untreated, these challenges continue into adulthood. Early intervention and treatment can make a significant difference.

Preschool children

  • Late talking
  • Learning new words slowly
  • Problems forming words, like reversing sounds or confusing similar-sounding words
  • Problems expressing themselves using spoken language
  • Difficulty understanding or appreciation of rhyming words
  • Difficulty with, or little interest in, remembering or naming letters, numbers and colors

School-aged children

  • Reading below the expected level for their age
  • Reading slowly or making errors when reading aloud
  • Avoiding reading and writing whenever possible
  • 
Poor phonological awareness and word attack skills
  • Problems processing and understanding what is heard
  • 
Spelling that’s unpredictable and inconsistent
  • 
Putting letters and numbers the wrong way around (6 vs 9)
  • 
Confusing the order of letters in words
  • Struggling to learn or remember sequences
  • Visual disturbances when reading
  • Answering questions well orally, but inability to write answers
  • Slow writing speed
  • Poor handwriting
  • 
Problems copying written text
  • Taking longer than normal to complete work

Teens and adults

  • Difficulty reading, including reading aloud
  • Difficulty planning and writing
  • Avoiding reading and writing whenever possible
  • Poorly organised written work that lacks expression
  • Mispronouncing names or words
  • Trouble understanding abstract jokes or expressions
  • Poor spelling
  • 
Difficulty memorising and remembering
  • Difficulty telling a story
  • Trouble learning a foreign language
  • Struggling to meet deadlines

Causes

Clinical evidence shows that genes, the environment and brain development play a role in the emergence of dyslexia. Dyslexia is not the result of low intelligence or a lack of interest in learning.

With early diagnosis and intervention, symptoms of this disorder can be significantly mitigated or improved – and the brain (due to a process known as neuroplasticity) may also structurally change. Children who are supported in this way often go on to lead successful lives as adults.

Genetics

Studies have shown that dyslexia can be inherited. There are several possible genes, like DCDC2, that are known to play a role in brain development that have been identified as contributing reasons.

Environment

Environmental risk factors, including those associated with lower socioeconomic status, also influence a child’s risk for dyslexia.

Brain Development

There is also evidence that structural differences in the brain might account for the deficits in phonological processing, oral language skills and processing speed noted in dyslexia.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for dyslexia include:

  • Family history of dyslexia or other learning disabilities
  • Premature birth or low birth weight
  • Exposure during pregnancy to nicotine, drugs, alcohol or infection (altering brain development)
  • Differences in the various structures of the brain that enable reading

Complications

The impact of dyslexia varies according to the severity of the disability and the effectiveness of the interventions introduced. Having dyslexia can cause a number of additional problems.

Trouble learning in other classes. Reading is a necessary skill in learning other subjects. As a result, absorption and processing material in other subjects can be significantly impeded.

Social problems due to academic stress, difficulty expressing themselves or understanding what is being said. This, in turn, may lead to poor self-esteem, behavioral problems, anxiety, aggression and withdrawal from friends, parents and teachers.

Unrealised potential, because academic and social issues can have long-term educational, social and economic consequences later in life.

Comorbidities

Some children have other learning difficulties in addition to dyslexia. For example, children with dyslexia are at an increased risk of having attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD can make it difficult for a child to sustain their attention – which, in turn, can make dyslexia harder to address.

There is some clinical evidence that people with dyslexia are more likely to develop immunological conditions like hay-fever, asthma, eczema and other allergies.

Several symptoms can resemble dyslexia symptoms – but actually may be signs of another disorder. These include:

  • Dyscalculia: a learning disability in math
  • Dysgraphia: a specific set of writing challenges
  • ADHD: persistent inattention and hyperactivity
  • Executive functioning issues: any number of issues with cognitive function
  • Slow processing speed: slower pace in taking in, considering and responding to information
  • Auditory processing disorder: hearing issues where the ears and brain are not coordinated
  • Visual processing issues: issues with making sense of what is seen

Diagnosis

If you suspect that your child may have dyslexia, consult your pediatrician.

In addition, it may be helpful to meet with your child’s teacher for more information regarding any challenges at school. The only way to know if your child has dyslexia is through a full evaluation, which can be performed at school or privately.

A few types of professionals can assess children for dyslexia, including learning specialists, school psychologists, clinical psychologists and pediatric neuropsychologists.

School evaluations are free. Having a diagnosis – also referred to as an identification – can lead your child to accessing support services at school like a 504 plan or an Individualized Education Program (IEP), including specialised instruction in reading. Note that these are programs available in US schools – more information on other support programs around the world is forthcoming.

Schools may also have a team that meets regularly to discuss issues specific children may be facing. These teams may include: the principal; a classroom teacher; a school psychologist; a nurse; a speech therapist; or a reading specialist. These teams should involve the parent in their child’s educational trajectory.

Since there is no single test for dyslexia, diagnosing dyslexia will depend on a number of factors:

  • Your child’s development, educational and medical history
  • Family history, including conditions that run in the family
  • Quality of home life, or whether there are problems at home
  • Tests that assess reading or language abilities
  • Psychiatric or psychological testing for other issues
  • Vision, hearing and brain (neurological) tests

If you suspect that your child may have dyslexia, consult your pediatrician. In addition, it may be helpful to meet with your child’s teacher for more information regarding any challenges at school. The only way to know if your child has dyslexia is through a full evaluation, which can be performed at school or privately.

A few types of professionals can assess children for dyslexia, including learning specialists, school psychologists, clinical psychologists and pediatric neuropsychologists.

Treatment

There are no medications or medical treatments available for dyslexia, and no way to correct dyslexia’s underlying cause – partly because several factors may contribute to it. There are strategies, however, that can be used to significantly improve outcomes in individuals who have disabilities. These include tailored instruction, early intervention, school support services, counseling and diagnosis.

Schools are often equipped to provide specialized instruction for children with dyslexia. Consult your child’s teacher for more information. Other professionals who can help include: reading specialists, speech-language pathologists, child psychologists, child neuropsychologists and special education teachers.

There are specific teaching methods that are used to help children with dyslexia learn to read. This includes Orton-Gillingham (OG), a technique upon which many other approaches are based.

One example is MSLE, or multi-sensory structured language education, is also based on OG and is widely considered the best way to teach children with dyslexia how to read.

These approaches generally help a child use several senses to learn and more easily process written information.

These methods focus on helping children build phonological awareness. They might introduce new ways for remembering sounds – like associating how the mouth moves with the sound it produces.

They can also help with decoding, word recognition, spelling and reading fluency. They might use flash cards or tape classroom lessons to make it easier for children to follow their lessons.

In the United States, schools have a legal obligation to help children with disabilities. These children are entitled to a 504 plan, or a menu of special accommodations to assist them.

Children diagnosed with dyslexia may receive access to an Individualized Education Plan – or a program of specialized instruction tailored to their needs.

Psychological testing and on-going evaluation can help parents and teachers develop a highly-targeted approach for each child. Counseling can help a child manage the emotional difficulties they may face when struggling academically or managing social anxieties as a result of challenging interactions with their peers.

Support Your Child

While there is no single treatment for dyslexia available, parents can do their part in providing children with the academic and emotional support they need to succeed.

  • Address the problem early
  • Read aloud to your child
  • Become an advocate for your child at school
  • Encourage reading time
  • Set an example for reading
  • Provide emotional support and demonstrate empathy
  • Discover tips for teaching your child to learn sight words
  • Look out for yourself too. Seek out supportive communities of other parents like you for compassion and to exchange ideas and tips.
  • Explore ways to improve reading comprehension
  • Use activities to help your child connect letters to sounds
  • Discover software, apps and tools to help with reading
  • Find free audiobooks for your child
  • Teach your child to self-advocate in school
  • Nurture your child’s strengths