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What is dyslexia?

Let’s start off with a little test-yourself time!

True or false:

  1. A characteristic of dyslexia is to see letters or words backwards.
  2. Dyslexia is a visual-perceptual difficulty.
  3. Dyslexia is a disability that is recognized by law in schools.

Have you answered? What did you think? What is dyslexia??

Over 80% of pre-service and in-service teachers surveyed* believe a characteristic of dyslexia is to see letters or words backwards and many people think dyslexia is a visual-perceptual difficulty. This is not true.

Instead, dyslexia is a language-based reading difficulty. The typical deficit of a student with dyslexia is in the phonological core of language. Students with dyslexia have deficits in phonemic awareness and phonics; they have a hard time connecting the print on the page to speech sounds in order to access the language underneath. Remember the Simple View post? Dyslexia is a difficulty with the “D,” or decoding, part of the equation.

Many students in the beginning stages of learning to connect print to speech commonly flip or reverse letters while these are becoming more solidified in memory. A chair is still a chair if we hold it upside-down. But if we hold a “b” upside-down, it becomes a “p.” This is something ALL brains need to learn during those beginning stages of learning to read because we recycle a part of our brain that was used to recognize things that can be flipped, like faces, and still recognized, to now learn letters. Letters can’t be turned or flipped like virtually every other object in space. Students at-risk for dyslexia sometimes seem to “get stuck” in the beginning stages of learning to read and might flip or reverse letters when writing much longer than their peers. This suggests a need for explicit instruction in phonics and handwriting, connecting speech to print… not a visual or perceptual issue.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to notice, distinguish, and manipulate the smallest sounds in our language that make a difference in a word’s meaning, like /k/, /ch/ or /ĕ/. When students read an unfamiliar word, one way is to recognize the sound each letter or group of letters makes, then blend those sounds together to pronounce the word as a synthesized whole. To synthesize those sounds together requires the phonemic awareness skill of blending. To spell unfamiliar words, the opposite happens. Students segment the sounds and assign a letter to each sound in the word.

Another, more complex level of phonemic awareness is substitution. To practice substitution, the student would need to segment the sounds in a word to isolate one sound, delete it, add in the new sound, and synthesize, or blend, them back together. It requires more proficiency with phonemes to substitute a sound because there are more steps involved than the skill of only segmenting phonemes, for example. So… let’s try it! Say the word “quick.” Now replace the sound /w/ with the sound /l/. What is the new word?** How would you respond to this substitution task?

Being able to think about these small sounds and manipulate them is more difficult for many students with dyslexia. However, in order to read and spell unfamiliar words, phonemic awareness is critical. Phonemic awareness is so critical to reading, it is an even stronger predictor of future reading achievement than IQ. And unremediated reading difficulties have been associated with increased anxiety, depression, suicidal behavior, and incarceration.

Now think about your own abilities. On a scale of 1-10, in comparison to others with 5 being average, how well can you sing? draw? play football? bake? play golf? do gymnastics? We’re all born with skills that come more easily to us than others, even after explicit instruction. Everything exists on a continuum, with the majority of people falling in the “average range.” I would have received special education services if our schools and society were built on singing. Except they aren’t.

Instead, we build our schools and our society around reading. Kids who are born with natural deficits in some of these phonological skills necessary for reading are at a major disadvantage. We say they are “struggling readers.” They think they aren’t smart (even though IQ is unrelated to dyslexia). They think they are failing at school. We make an arbitrary cut point to say this child has a reading disability and this child does not. Dyslexia is NOT a categorical difference. You’re either pregnant or your not—that’s a categorical difference. Dyslexia exists on a continuum, not in categories. But each state decides where that magical “cut point” lies to determine who is eligible to receive services through special education and who is not.

Studies suggest that early, intensive intervention in phonemic awareness, phonics, and reading connected text for students at-risk for dyslexia in K and 1st grade can dramatically reduce the amount of students who score below the 30th percentile down to only 3%-7% of students. Some of these studies are the ones that spurred the RTI/MTSS movement, the tiered systems of intervention being used across the United States, because of their promising results. Unfortunately, while many schools have adopted RTI/MTSS, they have left out the critical components of the interventions that dramatically reduced the amount of students with word-level reading difficulties (dyslexia).

Using early, intensive, explicit, systematic instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, and reading connected text for students at-risk of dyslexia can make a big difference in later reading outcomes. There are many more students struggling to learn to read words not because they have dyslexia, but because of the poor state of teacher preparation and training in reading and a lack of evidence-aligned curricula in schools. These students don’t have dyslexia; they have “dysteachia”.

The third True/False question at the beginning of this post addressed the legality of dyslexia as a disability in public schools. Dyslexia is a specific learning disability in word-level reading skills (in decoding and spelling words, not in comprehension). Looking at the origin of the word, we see that “dys” relates to impaired and “lexis” relates to words. If a student is identified in public schools with a specific learning disability in basic reading skills or reading fluency skills, we can say that student has dyslexia. It would be like using the term H2O or water. Whatever you call it doesn’t change the deficits the student has or the intervention the student needs [READ: Students should receive interventions targeted to their areas of need–most likely in phonemic awareness and phonics skills. Colored overlays, eye convergence therapy, balance training, or special fonts do NOT have an evidence-base behind them].

In the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (2004), when the federal government defines a specific learning disability, it states the term “dyslexia” by name. The DSM-5 defines the term “dyslexia” by name. In 2015, the federal government’s Department of Education wrote a “Dear Colleagues” letter telling states to “not prohibit the use of the terms dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia in evaluations, eligibility, and IEP documents.”

It’s estimated about a fourth of students receiving special education services are identified with dyslexia (a specific learning disability in basic reading skills or reading fluency skills). A fourth, guys! Kids are being identified with dyslexia every day in public schools—some schools just don’t realize they are identifying kids with it because they aren’t using the term.

So spread the word! Dyslexia is a langauge-based reading disability. Students at-risk for dyslexia (students who show deficits in phonemic awareness and phonics) need intensive, explicit, systematic interventions in their areas of need. Let’s get these kids the early, intensive interventions they deserve. Then we can prevent many from ever needing the label of dyslexia in the first place.

Check out these resources for further exploration:
UFLI Dyslexia Resource Hub
MTSU’s Dyslexia Center Resources
Dr. Nadine Gaab’s Dyslexia Myths page
Dr. Tim Shanahan’s post on the myth of special fonts for those with dyslexia

*See the studies from Wadlington and Wadlington (2005) as well as Washburn, Joshi, and Binks‐Cantrell (2011) to start.

**The answer is “click.”


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