Dyslexia is a commonly referenced reading disorder. What exactly is it? How does it affect reading? What do we know about its causes? What can we do about it? Let's delve into the details of dyslexia and explain how very treatable it is.
The Big Picture: Dyslexia
Dyslexia is a language-disorder that specifically affects reading. These reading difficulties are often the only issue that someone with dyslexia has, however dyslexia may also exist as a part of a larger language disorder that also affects spoken language. It does NOT affect intelligence – in fact many brilliant and successful people have dyslexia, from scientists to high-tech CEOs to musicians to doctors. Dyslexia, when properly treated, should not hold someone back from becoming a successful reader or writer.
What does dyslexia look like?
Dyslexia can present in a variety of ways depending on the severity of the disorder. In younger children, early signs include difficulty with pre-literacy skills, or phonological awareness. This refers to the pre-cursor skills that professionals involved in teaching young children to read know are, based on research, key for reading success. These skills include rhyming, identifying letter names and the sounds associated with them, breaking up and putting together the sounds within words (a.k.a. segmenting and blending), and name writing. Early on, difficulty with mixing up pronouncing sounds in words may also be a warning sign of dyslexia, as is learning sequenced aspects of language such as the days of the week.
Later, dyslexia may affect children in how quickly they can read, how well they can sound out words, and how well they can memorize “sight words”, words such as “and”, “the”, and “are” that come up so frequently that reading them should be automatic. Reading comprehension is often difficult as well, as is spelling. Difficulty with hand-writing is also frequently a component of dyslexia – this can often be treated by an occupational therapist. Later on, persons with dyslexia may struggle with summarizing, and even understanding more figurative language, such as jokes, idioms, metaphors, etc.
Dyslexia and Language
Dyslexia, even if it exists in isolation and is the only area of difficulty for someone, does impact language as well, though. Teachers speak of a transition that occurs in school from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”. Much of our vocabulary building occurs through reading, and our knowledge and understanding of content is dependent upon our ability to read and comprehend a variety of texts. These texts become more and more complex as our understanding of and involvement in a subject matter develops.
Reading is also a key skill for social involvement – think of how much we all use texting and social media for communication. Additionally, much of our digestion of world news is also through the written word. Something as seemingly simple as getting your driver’s license is also dependent on reading – you have to pass a written test in order to ever get behind the wheel, which requires reading comprehension skills not only to take the test, but to study for it as well.
Treatment of Dyslexia
Here’s the great part though – dyslexia is, in the majority of cases, very treatable. By using rule-based reading programs, young children can be taught the phonological awareness skills that we discussed above. It just may take more explicit instruction and more drill than it might for a child without dyslexia. Often children with dyslexia benefit from multi-modal, multi-sensory presentation of information to support learning and comprehension of any material they have read, such as listening to books on tape or using visuals to support reading comprehension such as images or videos. It also is usually beneficial for children with dyslexia to receive accommodations in the classroom, particularly during testing, such as having extra time or reduced distractions, as reading may take more energy for them, and may take longer.
Often, following a stroke or other traumatic neurological event, adults may acquire dyslexia, meaning that it was not developmental (they were not born with it). This dyslexia is in many ways similar to that of developmental dyslexia – issues with letter-to-sound correspondences, rhyming, and other literacy skills may arise. Dyslexia can exist on its own, or along with agraphia, which refers to difficulty writing. Some people following stroke may in fact have dyslexia WITHOUT agraphia – meaning that they can still write but cannot read, even if they themselves wrote something out. This is not common, but following a stroke or neurologic event, a person’s reading and writing should always be evaluated for dyslexia and agraphia.
Regardless of your age, know that dyslexia is treatable. By teaching the explicit rules behind sounding out words, lots of practice, and including built in supports like extra time, anyone with dyslexia can succeed and excel.