Dyslexia doesn’t usually look how we think it will. Consider third-grader Judy, a dedicated student who finds herself in the middle of one of her most dreaded activities: a class read aloud.
As her knee bobs up and down—her body’s way of channeling the fear of being called on—she scans the pages before her to make sure she knows how to say all the words in each paragraph. Judy’s not paying attention to anything the other kids are reading aloud. She’s anxious and nervous, fiercely scouring the paragraphs ahead.
She spots the problems: paragraph five has four words she can’t pronounce, and paragraph three has two. Quickly she weighs her options. She can either volunteer to read paragraph three and deal with the two unknown words, or she can wait until later and perhaps not have to read at all. She thinks, “Maybe these words will be read by another student before I have to read. Then I’ll know how to say them.” She looks ahead, but no. Thinking again, she remembers science is later in the day and that really hard words come up in science.
Judy’s heart pounds and her hands sweat. The class arrives at paragraph three, so she quickly raises her hand and hopes no one beats her to it. She’s sure she’d rather do her time now. But she doesn’t pay attention to what she’s reading, only anticipates what will happen when she arrives at the first word she doesn’t know, “chaos.” Suddenly, it’s right there on the page. She tries to sound it out.
“/K/ /k/…No. /Ch/ /ch/ /ch/…”
“‘Chaos.’ That’s a hard one,” her teacher interrupts.
Judy’s relieved to hear that, especially because the word is so small. She comes to the second unknown word, “parachute.” She pauses, waiting, not even trying to sound it out and hoping her teacher will just give it to her.
“Judy, try sounding this one out,” her teacher says instead.
“/P/ /p/ /pa/ /pa/…” she stumbles, thinking, “What does a say? Does it sound like /u/ or /o/?” Her knee bobs faster, and she regrets volunteering.
“Parachute!” her teacher finally frees her. Judy reaches paragraph four and another volunteer takes over. Relief sets in. With no time to recover from her anxiety, she refocuses her attention and is able to get the gist of the story.
The building blocks of reading
For students with dyslexia, like Judy, learning to read is a tremendous effort blocked by many hurdles and barriers: inappropriate instruction, misunderstood needs, and detrimental assumptions. In the early 2000s, teaching reading was compared to rocket science, yet we expect children to read fluently by the third grade. As Maryanne Wolf, director for the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice, has stated, a large fundamental mistake is the assumption that reading is innate, that is, natural to human beings, and that it will simply emerge “whole cloth” when the child is ready. That idea is, luckily, starting wane.
Learning to read requires that students first understand letters and the connection of letters to sound, then the sequence of sounds needed to create words, and, finally, how words connect to create sentences, paragraphs, and texts. After all these foundational steps are mastered, children can read to comprehend. As we see in the story about Judy, her struggle to decode unknown words hinders her ability to focus on the information in the text and pulls her attention away from the purpose of reading: to understand. While most kids will likely get nervous about having to read out loud, and while many will struggle with difficult words, the challenge for children without dyslexia is much more manageable. And it won’t interfere so greatly with their ability to hold onto the thread of a text and read for comprehension. We want all students to have the ability to go deep in reading and make connections: text to text, text to self, and text to the world and to others.
It is tricky to understand what dyslexia is and isn’t. Let’s start by looking at the definition from the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) that is used by many: “Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”
Researchers have discovered one of the root causes of dyslexia lies within a component of language: the phonological module, or the part of language that requires the use and assembly of phonemes. Phonemes are a single unit of sound. For example, the word “cat” contains three phonemes: /c/ /a/ /t/. In speech, we hear “cat” as a whole. The process of assigning those individual units of sound to a letter, and then recording those sounds and letters, is a critical and difficult step for a student with dyslexia. As letter/sound symbol patterns, or orthography, get more complicated, a child with dyslexia struggles further.
Compounding the obstacles dyslexia presents a child are misunderstandings about exactly what it is, due, in part, to scientists’ evolving understanding of it. These misunderstandings often lead to incorrect assumptions and inappropriate instruction. Here are the four biggest myths about dyslexia, debunked.
Myth #1: Students with dyslexia read and write letters and numbers backward.
Fact: Backwards writing and reading and reversals of letters and words are all common in early stages of writing and reading among dyslexic and non-dyslexic students alike. Dyslexic students may have problems sequencing letters based on sound so they may try to write or read based on memory. Additionally, dyslexic students may have trouble remembering and quickly accessing words, letter names, and sounds but not necessarily copying them.
Myth #2: Reading and writing are indicators of intelligence, so if someone doesn’t read or write well, they are not very smart.
Fact: There is no relationship between intelligence and the struggle to read due to dyslexia. (As an example, consider Judy’s calculated decision-making during her class read-aloud exercise.)
Myth #3: Only school-aged children develop dyslexia.
Fact: People are born with dyslexia, so it’s not something that develops or that a child can be at risk of developing. Diagnosis typically occurs when students begin to struggle with learning to read, spell, and write in school, hence the common association with school-age children.
Myth #4: Dyslexia is rare.
Fact: Research has shown that dyslexia is common, affecting 20% of the population in the US and 80–90% of all Americans with a learning disability.
Probable signs of dyslexia
Even though the myths mentioned here still linger, we do know there are clear signs and characteristics of dyslexia that are based in research. According to the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, here are some of the possible indicators for dyslexia.
- Trouble recognizing rhyming patterns orally, such as “cat, bat, rat”
- Difficulty learning and remembering names of letters
- Struggles recognizing letters in their own name
- A family history of reading and/or spelling difficulties
Kindergarten, first, and second grade
- Struggles associating letters with sounds, such as b with /b/
- Difficulty sounding out decodable consonant-vowel-consonant words, such as “cat,” “hit,” and “mop”
- Trouble understanding that words can come apart into individual sounds, like c-a-t
- Obstacles breaking words verbally into syllables, such as base-ball
Third grade through high school
- Very slow acquisition of reading skills
- Struggles to decode unknown words; replacement of unknown words with something phonetically or semantically similar
- Dislike of reading and discomfort reading aloud
- Limited short-term memory
- Extreme difficulty learning a foreign language
- Poor spelling
- Struggles with writing
- Low self-esteem
Building a love of reading
While a student may struggle with reading, writing, and spelling, they have, as Maryanne Wolf would say, a beautiful brain. This is an important reminder about students with dyslexia. Throughout history we see reference to many well-known artists, mathematicians, and scientists, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein, who were known to struggle. Today nearly 35% of entrepreneurs are known to be dyslexic.
As educators, we know the value of understanding how students’ brains work to provide the right insight for instruction. Demystifying dyslexia is an important place to start. In the coming weeks and months, my colleagues and I will share more information on dyslexia and what educators can do to support their students. Stay tuned!
Hear more from Dr. Barker on the language we use to describe dyslexia and the value of dyslexia screening in her posts “Why students with dyslexia aren’t ‘at risk'” and “The case for K–3 screening and intervention for dyslexia.”