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Understanding Dyslexia

What Is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia (pronounced: dis-LEK-see-uh) is a type of learning disability. A person with a learning disability has trouble processing words or numbers. There are several kinds of learning disabilities — dyslexia is the term used when people have trouble learning to read, even though they are smart and are motivated to learn.

What Causes Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is not a disease. It's a condition a person is born with, and it often runs in families. People with dyslexia are not stupid or lazy. Most have average or above-average intelligence, and they work very hard to overcome their reading problems.

Dyslexia happens because of a difference in the way the brain processes information. Pictures of the brain show that when people with dyslexia read, they use different parts of the brain than people without dyslexia. These pictures also show that the brains of people with dyslexia don't work efficiently during reading. So that's why reading seems like such slow, hard work.

What Happens in Dyslexia?

Most people think that dyslexia causes people to reverse letters and numbers and see words backwards. But reversals happen as a normal part of development, and are seen in many kids until first or second grade.

The main problem in dyslexia is trouble recognizing phonemes (pronounced: FO-neems). These are the basic sounds of speech (the "b" sound in "bat" is a phoneme, for example). So it's a struggle to make the connection between the sound and the letter symbol for that sound, and to blend sounds into words.

This makes it hard to recognize short, familiar words or to sound out longer words. It takes a lot of time for a person with dyslexia to sound out a word. Because word reading takes more time and focus, the meaning of the word often is lost, and reading comprehension is poor.

It's not surprising that people with dyslexia have trouble spelling. They also might have trouble expressing themselves in writing and even speaking. Dyslexia is a language processing disorder, so it can affect all forms of language, spoken or written.

Some people have milder forms of dyslexia, so they may have less trouble in these other areas of spoken and written language. Some people work around their dyslexia, but it takes a lot of effort and extra work. Dyslexia isn't something that goes away on its own or that a person outgrows. Fortunately, with proper help, most people with dyslexia learn to read. They often find different ways to learn and use those strategies all their lives.

What's It Like to Have Dyslexia?

If you have dyslexia, you might have trouble reading even simple words you've seen many times. You probably will read slowly and feel that you have to work extra hard when reading. You might mix up the letters in a word — for example, reading the word "now" as "won" or "left" as "felt." Words may also blend together and spaces are lost.

You might have trouble remembering what you've read. You may remember more easily when the same information is read to you or you hear it. Word problems in math may be especially hard, even if you've mastered the basics of arithmetic. If you're doing a presentation in front of the class, you might have trouble finding the right words or names for various objects. Spelling and writing usually are very hard for people with dyslexia.

How Is Dyslexia Diagnosed?

People with dyslexia often find ways to work around their disability, so no one will know they're having trouble. This may save some embarrassment, but getting help could make school and reading easier. Most people are diagnosed as kids, but it's not unusual for teens or even adults to be diagnosed.

A teen's parents or teachers might suspect dyslexia if they notice many of these problems:

  • poor reading skills, despite having normal intelligence
  • poor spelling and writing skills
  • trouble finishing assignments and tests within time limits
  • difficulty remembering the right names for things
  • trouble memorizing written lists and phone numbers
  • problems with directions (telling right from left or up from down) or reading maps
  • trouble getting through foreign language classes

Having one of these problems doesn't mean a person has dyslexia. But someone who shows a few of these signs should be tested for the condition.

Dyslexia can only be formally diagnosed through a comprehensive evaluation by a reading specialist or psychologist, either at school or in the community.

Managing Dyslexia

Most students with dyslexia work with a specially trained teacher, tutor, or reading specialist to learn how to read, spell, and manage the condition. Some might work with an academic therapist — also called an education therapist or an academic language therapist — who is trained to work with students with dyslexia.

In the United States, federal laws entitle kids and teens with reading and other language-based learning differences — collectively known as "specific learning disabilities" — to special help in public schools, such as specialized instruction, extra time for tests or homework, or help with taking notes. States vary in how these laws are implemented. Ask your parent, teacher, or learning disability services coordinator how to get these services if you need them.

Emotional support is very important. People with dyslexia often get frustrated because no matter how hard they try, they can't seem to keep up with other students. They might feel that they're not as smart as their peers, and may cover up their problems by acting up in class or being the class clown. They may try to get other students to do their work for them. They may pretend that they don't care about their grades or that they think school is dumb.

Family and friends can help people with dyslexia by understanding that they aren't stupid or lazy, and that they are trying as hard as they can. It's important to recognize and appreciate each person's strengths, whether they're in sports, drama, art, creative problem solving, or something else.

People with dyslexia shouldn't feel limited in their academic or career choices. Most colleges make special accommodations for students with dyslexia, offering them trained tutors, learning aids, computer software, recorded reading assignments, and special arrangements for exams.

Reviewed by: Cynthia M. Zettler-Greeley, PhD
Date Reviewed: 05-05-2022

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