What Is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is one of the most common — and well-known — learning disabilities. Learn the signs and symptoms, and how you can get an accurate diagnosis.

An angry child with ADHD reads a book about how to manage emotions.
An angry child with ADHD reads a book about how to manage emotions.

What is Dyslexia?

  • The term dyslexia refers to the specific learning disability associated with reading.
  • Contrary to popular belief, dyslexia is not simply reading letters or words backward — though some people with the condition will certainly struggle with this. In reality, dyslexia manifests in many different ways.

Some people may have difficulty with phonemic awareness; they can’t easily recognize and break down the sounds of letters, or segment words into syllables. A patient with dyslexia might report that he reads the word “doctor” as “do-ctor,” instead of “doc-tor,” for example. Rhyming and fast, effortless recognition of sight words (”the,” “and,” “it,” etc.) are also common problems that affect the rate, accuracy, fluency, and comprehension of text.

Retrieving already known words can be challenging for a person with dyslexia, and the rapid naming of letters, objects, colors, and pictures may be impaired, too. Learning the alphabet is often more difficult for children with the condition. Dyslexia can be confusing for outside observers, especially because symptoms often coexist with high verbal abilities.

[Self-Test: Could My Child Have Dyslexia?]

“We tend to expect good speakers to be good readers,” says Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D. “But this is not the case with dyslexics.” Other challenges include spelling, cursive writing, foreign languages, and any information that relies on rote memory (phone numbers, addresses, multiplication tables, etc.).

More than 90 percent of American adults have heard of dyslexia and recognize it as a real difficulty. It affects about 6 percent of the population, though some studies demonstrate that nearly 20 percent of Americans may have some symptoms. Its cause is not fully understood — though like other learning disabilities, it appears to be highly genetic.

Symptoms of Dyslexia

Although the severity and symptoms of dyslexia can vary from person to person, common markers include:

  • Struggles with phonemic awareness, or the ability to differentiate between and use individual sounds in words
  • Slow or distorted phonological processing, or differentiating between various phonemes (or “speech sounds”)
  • Reading or writing letters or words out of order
  • Reading slowly or painfully
  • Difficulty sounding out unknown words
  • Misuse or total disregard of punctuation
  • Difficulty mastering correct spelling or age-appropriate vocabulary
  • Difficulty recalling known words
  • Substitution of sight words for one another (replacing “the” with “he,” for example)

Dyslexia isn’t a childhood disorder, and symptoms will continue to manifest into adulthood. If someone with the condition flies under the radar throughout childhood, they may develop various coping mechanisms as they age to make their symptoms less noticeable and easier to manage.

[Screener: Dyslexia Symptoms in Adults]

Diagnosing Dyslexia

The longer dyslexia goes undiagnosed, the more it hinders reading development and self-esteem. Any struggling reader should be assessed for dyslexia as early as possible to mitigate this negative impact. Most experts recommend that children start interventions for dyslexia by third grade so they have the greatest chance to catch up in reading levels and comprehension — but even if this deadline is missed, treatment and accommodations can be helpful at any age.

There is no one test for dyslexia, and getting an accurate diagnosis usually involves working closely with the school, your pediatrician, and other professionals who specialize in dyslexia or learning disabilities in general. If you’re an adult, ask your primary care doctor for a referral to a learning disabilities specialist. For a child, however, the diagnostic process will most likely include the following steps:

Talk to your child’s doctor about your concerns. A pediatrician usually isn’t the best person to make a definitive dyslexia diagnosis, but she may be critical in ruling out other causes of your child’s reading problems. Ask her to look for vision or hearing issues that could be hindering your child’s ability to read, and to chart your child’s development to see if she’s on track in other key areas. Be sure to mention any relatives also diagnosed with dyslexia.

Tell the school. Communicate with your child’s teachers and school administrators about his struggles with reading — even if they already know. The best way to do this is to write a letter formally requesting an evaluation for special-education services. Once you grant permission, the school will start the evaluation process; it should be completed in no more than 60 days.

[How to Manage Dyslexia at Any Age]

Get a specialist involved. Your child’s school will likely use its own specialist to evaluate your child, but you may ask your pediatrician for a referral. (Note: If you choose to have your child evaluated privately, the school isn’t required to pay for it or to follow any recommendations that result from it.) The specialist — a psychologist or other learning professional — will test your child’s proficiency with reading, rhyming, spelling, and writing. She will also look for other potential confounding factors like ADHD or anxiety. During this process, you and your child’s teachers may be asked to fill out questionnaires on your child’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to reading. The results will help determine whether your child should be formally diagnosed with dyslexia.

Set up accommodations. Once your child receives a formal diagnosis, the school is required to hold a meeting to determine if he is eligible for services. Dyslexia is covered under the “Specific Learning Disability” section of IDEA, but remember: just having a disability doesn’t automatically qualify someone for an IEP. The school will need to decide whether accommodations and/or services are necessary for your child to succeed in school. Before you go to the IEP meeting, read the evaluation report so you can learn exactly where your child struggles, and be prepared to advocate fiercely on his behalf.

Treatment Options for Dyslexia

Regardless of whether the school sets up an IEP, you can consult a dyslexia expert to help your child receive the most appropriate and effective interventions at school. There are specific reading interventions for dyslexia — Orton-Gillingham, Wilson, and Lindamood-Bell, to name just a few. Guided reading is not an intervention for dyslexia. Make sure your child gets an intervention that has been empirically validated for students with dyslexia, not one designed to help struggling (non-dyslexic) readers.

Academic interventions might include teachers providing summaries, vocab lists, or additional materials ahead of time so the student has extra time to prepare. In fact, teachers may choose to provide different materials altogether — containing similar content but at a more appropriate reading level. Audio books or other alternate media can allow a child to read along and develop confidence in her skills, while still absorbing the material to the best of her ability.

Parents can help too, by encouraging your child to read in a low-pressure environment where he isn’t worried about getting a bad grade. Keep books around the house, and make sure your child sees other family members reading as much as possible — even if it’s just skimming the newspaper over breakfast.

Dyslexia is a protected disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, meaning that employers need to provide reasonable accommodations in the workplace for employees that require them. Someone who has trouble reading long reports, for instance, could request software that reads documents aloud. If it’s not necessary that you read everything word for word, it may be possible to have someone summarize lengthy documents for you. Thinking critically about what exactly is giving you trouble will allow you to request the most helpful accommodations for your specific symptoms.

Dyslexia At a Glance

Comorbidity with ADHD · An estimated 20-60% of children with ADHD also have one or more learning disabilities or language problems.
Suggestive Symptoms • Difficulty associating or recognizing sounds that go with letters
• Difficulty separating the sounds within words
• Difficulty sounding out words
• Delayed speech development
• Trouble rhyming
• Problems understanding and using words and grammar
• Poor spelling or reverses letters
• Short attention span
• Difficulty following directions
• Trouble distinguishing letters, numerals or sounds
Professional to See Evaluation should be conducted by a school psychologist or special education professional. School supports may be provided by special education professionals and/or your child’s classroom teacher.
Treatments & Medications ·  There is no medication to treat learning disabilities
·  Your child may qualify for an IEP to receive special-education services including math supports
Recommended Resources · LDAmerica.org
· NCLD.org
· LDOnline.org
· WrightsLaw.com
· The Misunderstood Child, Fourth Edition: Understanding and Coping with Your Child’s Learning Disabilities by Daniel Ansari, Ph.D.
· Facing Learning Disabilities in the Adult Years, by Joan Shapiro and Rebecca Rich
· Overcoming Dyslexia, by Sally Shaywitz, M.D.
· The Dyslexic Advantage, by Brock L. Eide, M.D., and Fernette F. Eide, M.D.
· The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan, by Ben Foss

Updated on January 14, 2019

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