Problem of Dyslexia

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In the late 1800’s, medical journals within educated, Victorian Scotland and England began cropping up that spoke of otherwise healthy, intelligent, well-educated children who could not read, nor demonstrate an ability to learn. No medical doctor could find anything wrong with them, and they were usually referred to opthamologists, who could similarly find nothing wrong with their eyes. The first “case study” of this, so to say, was recorded by Dr. W. Pringle Morgan of Sussex, England on November 7, 1896, regarding a 14-year-old male patient named Percy, who could not read written words or letters — though demonstrated no problem at all with numbers, and reported to liking arithmetic. Percy had no difficulty reading the number “7,” but could not read the written word, “seven.”

Percy’s condition became known as word-blindness. Today we call this condition dyslexia, from the Greek words “dys,” meaning difficulty, and “lexis,” referring to language or words. While the study of dyslexia is ongoing, massive strides have been made in the last decades in dyslexia research, bringing about a furthering understanding of the cause, the condition, and remediation of this disorder.

In the United States today, 1 in 5 students in school classrooms is dyslexic, and dyslexia has become the most common learning disability, with up to 80% of special education classrooms made up of dyslexic students. Research is showing that boys and girls seem to be affected by this disorder at similar rates, though the prevailing belief for a long time was that boys were affected more frequently (the reality of this is that boys are likely identified in schools more frequently and younger, due largely to social conditioning and expectations that classroom teachers have of boys and of girls, as well as male/female differences in exhibiting signs of ADD and ADHD, which often goes hand in hand with dyslexia.)

Dyslexia, it has been discovered, is not a problem of the eyes, nor does it in fact have anything to do with eyes.  This learning disability originates deep inside the language center of the brain, and largely revolves around phonemic awareness — that is, being able to identify small parts of speech. For example, “box” and “fox” are separate words with very different meanings, but are different from one another in print by only a single phoneme “f” and “b.” Non-dyslexic brains are easily able to recall and associate written letters into sounds, or phonemes, while dyslexic brains must learn to decode the same letters.

There are 44 different phonemes in the English language, and while non-dyslexic readers may remain blissfully unaware since phonemic awareness is a part of the neural pathways of their brain, dyslexic readers must painstakingly learn these phonemes, and work to process them into sound patterns. In her book Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level, Sally Shaywitz states that,

“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. (Lyon, Shaywitz, & Shaywitz, 2003, p. 2).

That is, dyslexia originates in the brain, specifically within word recognition, phoneme decoding, and spelling, though this disability is often unforeseen in students who appear highly intelligent, and masterful in many other ways within their education. These are, in a word, not students who are in any way cognitively deficient. In fact, this is the same fact that has often led dyslexic students to be overlooked, or to not receive the services they need — dyslexia also operates on a spectrum, and one can be more or less dyslexic, and often lesser dyslexic students of past decades (and even today) were viewed as, “not behind enough to get help by special services,” or “not behind enough to merit testing.”

This is not only traumatizing to children who must then go through the schooling with no intervention in reading, but serves to move education absolutely nowhere. Students who previously did receive help, and though times are changing, are still today more likely to receive this help, are students who are dyslexic in conjunction with another learning disability — most likely, one that is more externally evident, such as ADD/ADHD, executive functioning, or auditory processing. These diseases are close companions of dyslexia, and it is very common for these disabilities to run closely together, explaining the reason why such a high number (80%) of students in special education are identified as dyslexic.

Dyslexic brains specifically differ in the left hemisphere, which research has shown is significantly less developed than non-dyslexic brains. The left hemisphere includes the language center of the brain. However, dyslexic brains have strongly developed right hemispheres, which explains why so many dyslexic people are brilliant entrepreneurs, artists, and business owners. Steven Spielberg, brilliant filmmaker of our age, discovered only a few years ago that he is dyslexic, and he is only one example of the creative genius that is often housed in dyslexic brains.

Such books as The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain and The Gift of Dyslexia: Why Some of the Smartest People Can’t Read … And How They Can Learn by Ronald D. Davis with Eldon M. Braun exist simply because of this phenomenon: the dyslexic brain is oftentimes a powerhouse of creativity. However, differences within the brain’s learning center make connections between phonemes difficult to grasp, and neural pathways often show little to no receptivity to these language skills.

Other differences in dyslexic vs. non-dyslexic brains are also found in the Occipital Lobe (which helps make sense out of what we see); the Wernickes Area (which operates as a large storehouse for words and sounds, causing even common words to appear in print as if they have never been seen before); and Broca’s Area (which involves speech sounds, and often speaking words out loud). For this reason, auditory processing often goes along with dyslexia, and can be a precursor to reading difficulties. For example, words such as, “box,” “boxing,” and “boxed” can be difficult to separate. As a physical difference within the brain, it makes sense that dyslexia is genetically passed, and a child with a dyslexic parent may be at risk.

Early signs of dyslexia can emerge as early as preschool, but are often not assessed until early elementary school. Early warning signs include: difficulty with rhyming, blending, and linking letters with sounds; difficulty learning the alphabet; difficulty learning rules for spelling, vs. spelling what they hear; using a letter name to code a sound in writing (like “blow” instead of “elbow”); difficulty learning and reading sight words; heightened listening comprehension when compared to reading comprehension.

Dyslexic students, however, are often very capable compensators, and are often able to navigate their way through the education system, though with immense gaps, when they are not identified. Older students (middle and upper grades, and adults) exhibiting signs of dyslexia often: are reluctant readers; are slow word-by-word readers who often lose the context of the whole for focusing on each independent word; have difficulty with listed words or words not in their vocabulary; are poor spellers; are non-fluent writers; have a tendency in speech to mispronounce common words; weak vocabulary; are much higher at listening comprehension.

Evaluation and diagnosis of reading difficulties tests all of these areas, as well as looking at family history, and environmental factors. A diagnosis of dyslexia is made after testing, by a team of professionals often including classroom teachers, speech and language pathologists, and educational assessment therapists. Since dyslexia cannot be “proven” except for brain scans (which are not performed), student diagnosis is subject to improvement in dyslexia remediation. If a student progresses well, it is believed he or she has dyslexia; if a student does not progress, other reading difficulties may be assessed.

The main system of dyslexia intervention and remediation was developed in the early 1930’s by Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham, and is referred to as Orton-Gillingham. This model focuses on phonemic awareness, word blending and segmentation, spelling, vocabulary, speech, and every other category the student needs to progress in. Usually a one-on-one teacher to student model is used. In 1998, Susan Barton developed another method that is sourced from the Orton-Gillingham method, but is intended to be able to be learned and taught by non-professional educators, opening the field of dyslexia intervention to grow. Both methods are commonly used, and both have very high success rates.

Students who have dyslexia are more than capable of being part of mainstream classrooms, negating other learning disabilities that would require them to need more special services, and there are several tools they can use. Especially in this age of technology, dyslexic students have an ever-growing amount of sources at their fingertips. Dyslexic students typically prefer auditory or oral testing, and need more time with tests (if written).

They frequently benefit from voice-to-text software, and may benefit from using a C-Pen Reader (a divide about the size of a highlighter that they hook up to ear phones, and use to scan a page or worksheet – this device can be especially helpful in reading worksheets where single words might be found in isolation). Context around new vocabulary words is essential, as is following each student’s individual IEP. Similarly occurring to dyslexia are dysgraphia (difficulty with writing), and dyscalculia (difficulty with numbers), which may occur along with or indepently from dyslexia.

Dyslexia is not new, but the science behind dyslexia is constantly growing and expanding. This is a very exciting time to be aware of advances being made in the science of dyslexia, and a very important area to be aware of as an educator in a classroom setting. Dyslexic students benefit from informed educators, and educators have a lot to offer dyslexic students in their classrooms.

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Problem Of Dyslexia. (2019, Jul 16). Retrieved from

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