Untangling the Myths and Questions Associated with Dyslexia
Trends have the special ability to infiltrate and challenge existing ideas within our public institutions. Education, like most things, is not immune to the pervasiveness of trends. Today for example, if you find yourself standing in a circle of parents on a Friday afternoon in the school pickup line, chances are you will hear the word dyslexia bounce in and out of conversations like a lost shoe in a bouncy house. And before you have the chance to grab hold of it, you will notice that everyone has something to say about it. In this article, I will attempt to catch the shoe and get it back on the right foot. In other words, I will try to set straight some of the myths about dyslexia and shed some light on its origins.
What is dyslexia?
As a jumping-off point, let’s first define the word dyslexia. Like many words in the English language, the word dyslexia has its roots in Greek. More specifically, the word dyslexia comes from the Greek words for “impaired” and “word.” While there are many working definitions of the word dyslexia, I will reference the definition as it is written in the Essentials of Dyslexia and Assessment text by Nancy Mather and Barbara J. Wendling.
According to Mather and Wendling, “…dyslexia can most simply be defined as a neurological disorder that causes a marked impairment in the development of basic reading skills. More specifically dyslexia is manifested in deficiencies in word-level reading skills; it affects decoding (pronouncing printed words) and encoding (spelling words; Vellutino & Fletcher, 2007). Thus, dyslexia is a complex cognitive disorder of neurobiological origin that affects the development of literacy (Shastry, 2007; Vellutino & Fletcher, 2007).” Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get into it.
Common characteristics of dyslexia
It is safe to say that when most of us think about dyslexia, we think about letter reversals. So, are these the most common characteristics of dyslexia? The short answer is no, not really. According to Mather and Wendling, the most typical impairments associated with dyslexia are reading accuracy, reading rate, fluency, and spelling. If we break this down, a person with dyslexia will often understand text when it is read out loud but have trouble reading individual words. Moreover, people with dyslexia often have listening comprehension and verbal abilities that are higher than their reading and spelling skills. That’s not to say that people with dyslexia don’t also have trouble reversing letters such as “q” and “p” or “d” and b”. However, letter reversals and transpositions of letters are common up through 3rd grade or 7 years old. So, if your first grader cannot get theirs b’s and d’s straight there’s no need (yet) to run to your school psychologist with concerns about dyslexia!
Like other neurological disorders, dyslexia exists on a spectrum. There is such a thing as “deep dyslexia” in which people might experience more severe impairments such as semantic errors (e.g., the sofa is read as a couch), visual errors (e.g., step is read as steep), or derivational errors (e.g., continue is read as continuous). An important distinction here is that deep dyslexia is most often seen in folks with acquired dyslexia. That is dyslexia which is a result of a traumatic brain injury or a medical condition that impacts brain functioning.
Why won’t my child’s school use the word dyslexia?
This is an excellent question and a question with many different answers. If you are like me and have worked in public education in multiple states, you will have noticed the significant differences in how schools operate. Some states do not use the word, “dyslexia” while some states do. The dyslexia trend has led to widespread legislation across the nation to address the assessment, service delivery, and identification of students with dyslexia. According to Mather and Wendling, as of 2018, 42 states had specific statewide dyslexia laws. For example, in May of 2019, Governor Kemp of Georgia signed into law Senate Bill 48 that gives information for the identification and support of students with dyslexia in K – 3rd grade.
If you read through the fine print of SB48 you will find that Georgia discourages schools from using the word “dyslexia” to refer to a specific learning disability (SLD) in reading. Instead, dyslexia is subsumed under the general category of SLD. I asked a Georgia school psychologist what his clinical opinion was on the use of the word dyslexia in educational evaluations, “I generally don’t use the word dyslexia in my assessments…” he said. He went on to explain that “…Georgia regulations classify dyslexia under a Learning Disability. I don’t say the word, but I also don’t say it in writing.” This seems to be a common sentiment amongst school psychologists. Most of us know what dyslexia is, and we know how to assess for it, but we shy away from using the word in our evaluations due to statewide regulations or a lack of statewide regulations. This is the perfect segue into our next question.
Is there a difference between a learning disability and dyslexia?
First things first, a Specific Learning Disability (SLD) is a broad category that captures multiple types of disorders including dyslexia. So, long answer short, dyslexia is a type of learning disability. This fact is made evident by the interchangeable use of the words dyslexia and learning disability by clinicians.
However, there are some key differences worth noting. For individuals with dyslexia, intelligence does not predict reading ability. This means that individuals with average to superior intelligence can also have dyslexia. Even more interesting, is that, unlike other learning disabilities, individuals with intellectual impairments (i.e., intellectual disability or subaverage intellectual functioning) can also have dyslexia. Additionally, people with dyslexia often have strengths in areas not affected by the disorder such as math or science. Dyslexia is often identified when individuals excel in other areas of achievement such as math, science, oral language, listening comprehension, etc. and their reading levels are not commensurate with their other abilities.
Can dyslexia be identified in non-native English speakers?
Yes, yes, and yes! Dyslexia is a neurological disorder that impacts individuals across languages. Furthermore, the challenges individuals experience is often related to the complexity of the language they speak. For example, there are some characteristics of dyslexia that exist in some languages but not others. Moreover, there are some universal characteristics of dyslexia that occur across languages such as slower than average reading speed, less accurate detection/production of rhymes, inaccurate spelling, and poor verbal memory to name a few.
Unfortunately, there are no established procedures for assessing and identifying dyslexia in English language learners. Clinicians are often asked to use their own clinical judgment to assist in identifying dyslexia in English learners. However, in order to provide appropriate reading instruction to multilingual speakers it is essential we continue to assess and identify dyslexia.
Dyslexia is the most common learning disability and impacts over 5% of the population. Educational institutions play a huge role in both identifying and providing appropriate and systematic instruction to individuals with dyslexia. It is important for educators to remember that identifying individuals with dyslexia is only the first step. Educators also have an obligation to provide appropriate instruction. High-quality instruction is essential to preventing long-term reading problems and barriers to academic success in students. We cannot forget that individuals with dyslexia can thrive in the academic setting with the appropriate instruction and support.
Vellutino, F.R., & Fletcher, J.M. (2007). Developmental dyslexia. In M.J. Snowling & C. Hulme (Eds), The science of reading: A handbook (pp. 362-378). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Shastry, B.A. (2007). Developmental dyslexia: An Update. Journal of Human Genetics, 52, 104-109. doi: 10.1007/s10038-006-0088-z
Wendling, B. & Mather N. (2010). Essentials of dyslexia assessment and intervention, Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.