Dyslexia—The Least Known, Most Common Learning Disability

Richard Dowson

The following article describes dyslexia and suggests strategies for working with dyslexic students. The article is written in an informal and non-scientific style and is designed to provide teachers, school administrators and parents with basic information on a complex topic.

My motivation for writing the article came from a Grade 1 student who decided to quit school because "they didn't teach me how to read." As it turned out, dyslexia runs in the boy's family.

The student is now in Grade 4. Thanks to extra help, he has developed an interest in reading, he likes his teacher and enjoys visiting bookstores.

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is the most common learning disability and affects between 5 and 12 percent of all students. Dyslexia affects more students than Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. More males than females are afflicted and half of all special education students are dyslexic.

Without remedial efforts, dyslexic students often develop behavioural problems. Once the dyslexic child develops behavioural problems, he may be diagnosed as ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). The diagnosis is often based on the student acting out and, consequently, the dyslexia is overlooked.

Left without early remedial intervention, the dyslexic child may develop lifelong learning blocks and a fear of learning, which can limit an adult dyslexic's career development. Many adult dyslexics become closet learners—acquiring knowledge on their own and outside the formal learning process. Many adult dyslexics satisfy their need for knowledge by sopping up information from television and radio.

Dyslexia is a neuro-cognitive deficit. The dyslexic child is usually bright and capable with a normal or above-normal IQ level but has difficulty learning to read, write and spell at grade level.

Dyslexic students, like most Grade 1 students, are motivated to learn. Dyslexic children are articulate and contribute to classroom discussions but do not develop reading and writing skills at the same rate as their classmates.

Description of dyslexia

Dyslexia is not a disease and is not the result of a brain injury. Dyslexia can range from mild to severe. As mentioned, dyslexia affects more boys than girls. One study found that boys with dyslexia outnumbered girls five to one, while another study found boys outnumbered girls nine to one.

The dyslexic has a phonological deficit and struggles with phonetics. Some psychologists refer to dyslexia as a developmental disorder. The phonological deficit impairs a student's ability to subdivide words into phonetic components. Students have difficulty recognizing and comprehending written words. The deficit impairs the student's ability to master the reading process.

Dyslexia is associated with poor neurological communication between the left and right brain hemispheres. Informally speaking, neurological requests travel back and forth between the left and right hemisphere of the brain rather than going directly to the hemisphere that controls the required function. It's helpful to think of dyslexia as mixed dominance, which means no one brain hemisphere is dominant. For example, a dyslexic might have to decide what hand to use for a new activity, whereas for the nondyslexic, hand choice is automatic or natural. Dyslexic students are often, but not necessarily, left-handed, but no one hand is dominant for all activities.

Although dyslexia is common among left-handed children, right-handed children are also dyslexic. Dyslexics are not ambidextrous. Their right hand may be dominant for some activities and their left for others. They often decide to use a particular hand for a particular activity because it feels more comfortable.

Some dyslexics may lack sophisticated hand-eye coordination. Handedness and dominant eye or ear may be incongruent. For example, the dyslexic may write with his left hand while listening to the telephone with his left ear.

Allen D. Bragdon and David Gamon, in their book Brains That Work a Little Bit Differently: Recent Discoveries About Common Mental Diversities, describe dyslexia as a difficulty learning to read among otherwise intelligent and motivated children. Bragdon and Gamon write, "Dyslexia represents a specific disability within an ocean of competence." The dyslexic student is otherwise bright and capable.

In 1896, researchers Kerr and Morgan theorized that dyslexia was genetic or, as they noted, congenital in origin. The British researchers described the condition in their article "A Case of Congenital Word-Blindness," published in the British Medical Journal. The article expanded on the ideas of word-blindness and developmental alexia.

Word-blindness describes dyslexia well. For example, a dyslexic student might incorrectly copy a word from the blackboard without realizing his error. The error is caused by the student's lack of graphomotor coordination, a condition that results in scrambled words or sentences. Another example is omitting words when writing an essay but being unable to find the missing words. A teacher who is unfamiliar with dyslexia might assume that the student is inattentive or lazy when, in fact, he is actually blind to the difference between the two spellings.

What causes dyslexia?

Dyslexia is inherited; it is a condition that runs in families. According to Eric Jensen, researcher and author of Different Brains, Different Learners: How to Reach the Hard to Reach, the genetic markers for dyslexia are found on chromosomes 1, 2, 6 and 15. Tracey Petryshen, a University of Calgary medical school graduate, spent seven years searching for genetic markers for dyslexia. Her research discovered three different locations on the human chromosome linked to dyslexia and she confirmed that more than one gene is responsible for dyslexia. The results of Petryshen's research are significant. Current procedures for testing and identifying dyslexia often take two or three years. Consequently, students may not get the help they need until Grade 4.

Genetic screening is controversial and is a parental decision. Petryshen's research will eventually result in a genetic screening process for dyslexia. Families with a history of dyslexia are encouraged to have their children screened before they begin school.

Other than genetic research, there is no consensus on the cause of dyslexia. Research suggests that, because dyslexia is more common among males than females, the dyslexic's left hemisphere may have been overexposed to testosterone during fetal development. Another view holds that the left hemisphere develops slower. Other researchers suggest that dyslexia is caused by trauma during fetal development or childbirth. Researchers, using MRIs, have found abnormalities in the white matter of the dyslexic's brain.

Does practice make perfect?

The brain isn't a muscle and doesn't bulk up or get stronger with repetition. Although repetitive practice, such as one-on-one tutorial oral reading, cannot overcome dyslexia, it does make a significant difference.

Extra reading helps the child cope with the condition. Additional reading means the student is more comfortable and better acquainted with the reading process. Most important, success contributes to a positive self-image and builds positive self-esteem. Practice reduces learning barriers. A person never outgrows dyslexia.

What are the characteristics of dyslexia?

Learning disabilities are complex, and dyslexia is no exception. No single characteristic confirms dyslexia; it is a collection of characteristics. Identifying dyslexia is a search for patterns. Only a pattern of characteristics and outcomes in association with a student having difficulty learning to read, write and spell confirms the presence of dyslexia.

Some common characteristics of dyslexia

  • Child has difficulty seeing the difference between letters and other symbols.
  • Child has difficulty reading and identifying the phonetic structure of a word and guesses at how the word should sound
  • Child avoids reading and refuses to read orally in class
  • Child enjoys limited success on written academic tests
  • Child succeeds if tests are administered orally
  • Child gives up under the pressure of a timed test
  • Child believes he or she is stupid
  • Child continues to experience failure at school, which results in low self-esteem
  • Child displays a behaviour problem
  • Child creates elaborate strategies to hide his learning disability
  • Child is known by teachers and family to possess an average or above average intelligence but appears to be lazy, immature, careless or not making an effort in academic studies
  • Child shows a special talent for some or all of the following: art, design, drama, music, sports, mechanics, oral presentations, storytelling, persuasiveness, sales, business or driving
  • Child learns best through observation, demonstrations, diagrams, hands-on or experimentation
  • Child reverses letters (b for d or q for p)
  • Child makes quick and incorrect assumptions about a word's sound
  • Child has a family member or relative who is dyslexic
  • Child complains of dizziness when reading, but an eye examination reveals no problems
  • Child is observant and possesses excellent comprehension of maps or terrain
  • Child experiences poor reading comprehension, even after reading and rereading a passage
  • Child grasps arithmetic easily but has difficulty with written math problems
  • Child has difficulty copying words or sentences
  • Child's handwriting varies from legible to atrocious to unreadable
  • Child is a poor or inconsistent speller
  • Child has difficulty with tasks requiring fine motor skills
  • Child displays outstanding ability with visual images
  • Child's IQ testing shows a variance of 15 percent or more between verbal and spatial skills
  • Child obtains a zero on IQ tests with a time limit and extensive reading
  • Child omits words in sentences but reads the sentence with the missing word in place

Experiencing failure

Academic failure often results in the student believing he is incompetent. A dyslexic who is experiencing failure often internalizes the image of failure. As a result, positive self-esteem begins to erode in Grade 1 and disappears by Grade 4. Dyslexics begin to believe they are stupid and can develop lifelong learning blocks for certain subjects.

Failure in school can result in depression and a fear of school. The student dreads going to school. Who can blame him? Except for a chance to clown around with friends, school is a hostile place where the dyslexic does not experience academic success.

To cope with academic failure, the dyslexic may resort to behaviour that results in being removed from school. Worse still, the dyslexic may acquire the skill of learned helplessness and give up.

The dyslexic incorporates the negative image of academic failure within his personal definition. Dyslexics often think of their successes as shrewd maneuvering on their part.

Disruptive classroom behaviour often becomes pronounced. If the learning disability is not addressed by age 12, the dyslexic student may never acquire a positive self-image. One outcome of failure is for the dyslexic to drop out of school.

The inability to read, write or spell at grade level is a root cause of disruptive classroom behaviour. A reading disability in Grade 1 because of dyslexia may be diagnosed as ADD or ADHD by Grade 3. Disruptive or acting-out behaviour in the classroom is often the result of frustration from not being able to read like his classmates.

In severe cases of disruptive classroom behaviour, medication is prescribed. Again, medication addresses the symptom of disruptive behaviour but not the learning disability associated with dyslexia.

Because dyslexia is the most common learning disability, there may be more children diagnosed with dyslexia in a classroom than any other diagnosis, including ADD or ADHD. Remedial intervention, not medication, is the answer.

Dyslexia has a crushing effect on the struggling student. Difficulty learning to read, write and spell has a negative impact of monumental proportions on the dyslexic's self-esteem. According to Maslow (Hierarchy of Needs), a person progresses from basic needs to complex needs to self-actualization. Anecdotal references support that the ridicule associated with being dyslexic can destroy a child's self-image and self-esteem.

The dyslexic's Catch-22

The dyslexic student has average to above average intelligence and is quick to realize that other students are succeeding where he isn't. School is about reading and writing and spelling. Because the dyslexic knows he is not succeeding like his classmates, he presumes he is stupid. Paradoxically, the dyslexic student must exercise normal or above normal intellectual logic to presume he is stupid. The result is a hopeless dilemma—a Catch-22.

Early intervention—A key to success

Every functioning member of society must know how to read, write and spell. Unless the learning disability associated with dyslexia is addressed and remedial strategies are implemented, the dyslexic student will be lost to school and society.

Dyslexic children want to learn and progress at the same rate as their classmates. Dyslexic children are normal, intelligent and motivated to learn. Teachers who suspect that they have dyslexic students in their class should consider taking positive steps toward helping their students.

Taking action

  1. Set up an appointment with a consultant and have the child tested. Meet with the parents to explain the problem and determine if other relatives are dyslexic. Establish an intervention program. Start the heavylifting—tutorial reading and reading aloud at home. Parents must help their child at home; success increases with tutorial reading. Thirty minutes a day will make a difference.
  2. Ask parents to find out which relative has dyslexia and how that person dealt with the dyslexia.
  3. Share your meeting notes with the parents. Date the notes and tell the parents the notes will be placed in the student's school cumulative record. That way, if questions arise in later years, the parents can refer future teachers to the documents.
  4. Get central office support. Work with the school's administration to get the child coded so the principal can apply for extra funding. Five to 12 percent of the student population is affected by dyslexia, and there are probably two students in every class needing extra help.
  5. Call a second parent meeting and include the child. Tell the child that he or she is bright but has a different learning style and needs assistance to overcome the challenges associated with the learning style. Explain to the child that he or she will need extra help learning to read, write and spell. Create an environment of positive expectations. Don't allow the student to use dyslexia as an excuse for failure.
  6. Encourage the parents and the child to identify and pursue success in those areas where the child is gifted and talented, such as art, drama, photography, music or sports.
  7. Be positive. Reinforce success and build self-confidence in the student. Above all, check early for dyslexia. Low self-esteem stalls the student's progress and is the most destructive aspect of dyslexia.

Teaching strategies worth consideringTop of page

  1. Teaching must be structured, cumulative and sequential, and must be organized, systematic and based on positive expectations. If an aide or tutor is available, have them assist the student with oral reading. Determine the student's interests and encourage the student to read aloud at home from books supporting those areas of interest. Encourage the student to use the rhythm of music to help sense the tempo of reading.
  2. Repetitive reading familiarizes the student with the reading process. Practice does not train the mind to be strong and won't make the student non-dyslexic, but it will help the student improve and reduce barriers to learning.
  3. Dyslexics learn by doing and being shown. For workbook projects, take extra time to explain the instructions. Dyslexics are visual and multi-dimensional thinkers. They're creative, intuitive and learn best by doing. They have distinctive learning patterns and respond well to individual tutorial assistance.
  4. Bring interesting items to class and encourage students to do the same. Have students discuss their items and/or encourage them to talk about current events or hobbies that interest them. Build good storytellers. Connect the outside world with the classroom.
  5. Phonological analysis of words is a huge challenge for dyslexic children. The dyslexic tends to see whole words rather than their parts. The student needs to be trained to break the word down into its phonetic parts.
  6. Do not focus solely on the student's areas of weakness. Excessive time spent on a weakness sends a negative message. Work on activities in which the student will experience success.
  7. Teach the student to use a computer. Computers are tactile and visual, and allow the student to use a word processor. Word processing is a multi-sensory skill—an activity right up the dyslexic's alley. (The genius who invented word-processing must have had the dyslexic student in mind. Spelling and grammar can be checked and the printed document means that students with difficult-to-read handwriting can type their essays.)
  8. Allow more time for the student to complete tests. When appropriate or possible, administer the test orally. Let the student review the test and take it over. If he understands the question, he usually knows the answer.
  9. Dyslexia is more common in the English language than in any other language. Learning another language gives the student an opportunity to understand phonetics. Enroll the student in a French-as-a-second-language program. Learning French requires the student to break the French words into their phonetic components.
  10. The student should practice eye movement while reading by sliding one finger along under the words.
  11. Pay attention to students who complain about having difficulty hearing or are experiencing dizziness.
  12. Be aware that dyslexics may suffer from motion sickness while reading and that it may be worse some days than others. In severe cases, the advice of a medical doctor should be sought. Some cases of dyslexia have been treated with motion sickness medication.

Because dyslexia is not a disease, there is no cure. Dyslexics cannot be trained to be non-dyslexic. The condition exists for life. Success comes from practice. Success comes through exploiting the non-reading skills and gifts the dyslexic possesses.

Successful adult dyslexics

Successful dyslexics learn to compensate. They rely on their natural skills and build on these skills. They learn from observing, doing and being sensitive to how others respond to their behaviour. Many dyslexics are gifted and see the world in a unique way. They should be encouraged to share their altered world perspective with others.

Dyslexics can achieve success through the confidence, encouragement and positive expectations of teachers, friends and family.

Some successful dyslexics are George Burns, Cher, Winston Churchill, Tom Cruise, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Whoopi Goldberg, Jay Leno, Nelson Rockefeller, Jackie Stewart and Leonardo da Vinci.

Public education really works!


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Pula, Judith J. and David Nevin Reid. "I Am Not Stupid, I Am Dyslexic." The Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, Summer, 1994, pp. 33–37.

Wood, Chris. "Calgary researchers find dyslexia gene." Calgary Herald, September 22, 1999.

Richard Dowson is a retired drama and social studies teacher and secondary school principal. He lives in Edmonton.