Dyslexia: Q & A

What is dyslexia?

People with dyslexia have difficulty with reading and spelling, unrelated to overall intellectual ability.  Dyslexia refers specifically to difficulties with decoding words (or “sounding out”), spelling words, and accurately and quickly recognizing words. It cannot be due to hearing or vision problems or lack of appropriate instruction. 

Is dyslexia the same thing as a learning disability? Are there different types? 

Dyslexia is actually an alternative term for what the DSM-5 calls a Specific Learning Disorder with impairment in reading/writing (specifically: word recognition, decoding, and spelling).  Officially in the DSM-5, there aren’t different subtypes of dyslexia, but people can have trouble with different sub-skills of reading and writing, which are identified through a good evaluation.  It can be mild or severe, and people with milder dyslexia may compensate pretty well.  For example, someone may seem to read well enough, but their reading comprehension may be compromised because they spend so much energy figuring out the words. 

Do people with dyslexia see letters or words backwards?

Dyslexia is not actually about seeing letters or words backwards.  This is a very common myth but is simply not true!  Letter reversals are a normal part of the early learning process.  Children with dyslexia may continue to reverse letters longer than their peers (for example pesky b and d), but this is due to difficulty learning the sound-symbol correspondences, not because they see the letters differently.  As for whole-word reversals, that may happen sometimes, but it is related to difficulty sequencing the sounds in words, which is described below. 

Is dyslexia related to intelligence?

One other thing that dyslexia is NOT: it is not related to intellectual ability.  People with dyslexia can be very intelligent and can achieve extraordinary things, especially if they receive the proper help and accommodations.  

Is dyslexia common? 

Yes, it is quite common, affecting about 5-12% of the population

What are the risk factors?

Children with a family history of dyslexia are at increased risk.  The child of a parent with dyslexia is about 40-60% likely to also have a reading disability.  Other risk factors include speech and/or language difficulties during the preschool or school years.  By school age, children who have noticeable difficulty learning the letter names are at high risk for dyslexia. 

What causes dyslexia?

The root of dyslexia is neurobiological.  You might be surprised, but it is primarily due to differences in the way a person’s brain processes the sounds of speech, and how those sounds relate to the symbols used for writing.  Phonological processing has three components.  A person with dyslexia may have trouble with one, two, or all three.

  • Phonological awareness: the ability to consciously analyze and manipulate the sounds of spoken words. For example, to know that “snack” is made up of “s + n + a + ck” and also to know that you can change it to “snap” by changing just the last sound.  Phonological awareness is an auditory skill- you don’t need to use written letters to work on it.
  • Phonological working memory: keeping speech sounds in short-term memory.
  • Phonological retrieval: the ability to quickly retrieve the sounds associated with letters. This is sometimes called “rapid naming” because it is usually assessed by measuring the ability to rapidly name letters, numbers, or even objects.

How is dyslexia identified?

When parents and teachers are concerned, they often seek a professional opinion in the form of an assessment for their child.  Who can assess?  In Quebec, licensed professionals in psychology/neuropsychology or speech-language pathology can evaluate for dyslexia.  The evaluator will use a variety of standardized assessments with the child, speak with parents and teachers, and view samples of school work in order to make a conclusion about the child’s difficulties and give specific recommendations about how to help.   

What can be done to help someone with dyslexia?

The most important question!  There is no “cure” for dyslexia, meaning it will always be a part of a person’s life to some extent.  However, people with dyslexia can make incredible gains and learn to read and write well.  The two main strategies:

  • Target the specific difficulties. A good assessment will tell us exactly what skills need to be worked on.  This could mean working on sound-letter correspondences using a multi-sensory approach (more on this another day) and working on phonological awareness skills at the specific level appropriate for the child.  It should also involve practicing new skills while reading sentences and stories at the appropriate level, using decodable texts in the early stages.
  • Use appropriate accommodations. This means doing things differently to give access to written materials that are currently too hard for the child to read independently.  This could be special text-to-speech technology, or it could be the help of an adult or peer to read the material aloud.  There are also accommodations for writing, including word prediction and/or speech-to-text technology, or the help of an adult or peer to scribe the child’s ideas.

Why are you so interested in dyslexia?

It’s a little corny, but I just really want to help. I know there is a lot of opportunity to help, because reading difficulties are generally poorly understood.  I’ve met a lot of awesome kids who were pretty discouraged with reading and writing (and sometimes with life in general), having tried tutoring without great results.  This drives me to learn more about latest research in dyslexia, and to continue bringing knowledge and experience to those who need it.  Do you want to know more?  Feel free to contact me.  I’d love to chat!

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