A good way to understand dyslexia is to establish what it is not. It is not a sign of low intelligence or laziness. It is also not due to poor vision. Dyslexia is a common condition that affects the way the brain processes written and spoken language.
Dyslexia is primarily associated with trouble in reading. Some doctors, specialists and educators may refer to it as a ‘reading disorder’ or a ‘reading disability’. However, it can also affect writing, spelling and speaking.
Dyslexia is a neurological condition that does not allow a child to develop a ‘reading brain’. The exact cause for dyslexia is still not clear, however, anatomical and brain imagery studies depict differences in the way the brain of a person with dyslexia develops and functions. U.S. Government’s Public Law 94-142 on Learning Disabilities states that, “Specific Learning Disabilities means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, speak, read, spell or to do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual handicaps, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia and developmental aphasia. The term does not include children who have learning problems which are primarily the result of visual, hearing or motor handicaps, or mental retardation, emotional disturbance or environmental, cultural or economic disadvantages.” (Federal Register, 1977, p. 65083) The definition differentiates learners with impaired cognitive skills and learners with impaired learning skills. People with dyslexia are able to understand complex ideas. Their manner of grasping and comprehending information is unique and differential. People with dyslexia are often very creative. It is not clear whether such creativity comes from thinking outside the box or from having a brain that’s “wired” differently. Dyslexia is a life-long condition that, with timely and effective intervention, can be sufficiently managed to lead a fulfilling life.
The word ‘dyslexia’ is derived from the Latin word ‘dys’, which translates to ‘difficult’, and the Greek word ‘lexia’, which translates to ‘words’; it literally means, “difficulty with words”. The first known case of dyslexia was diagnosed in 1896 Sussex, England by P.W. Morgan, a general practitioner. Of his patient, a young of boy of 14 named Percy, he wrote in the British Medical Journal, “…has always been a bright and intelligent boy…quick at games, and in no way inferior to others of his age…His great difficulty has been and is now…his inability to learn to read…,” It was Morgan who questioned the relationship between reading and intelligence. A century later, medical practitioners and educators alike are working on the nuances that separate the idea of dyslexia being a disability as opposed to a difference.
Despite the long passage of time, it was only in the 1950s and 1960s that the western world began researching on dyslexia in depth. Important judgements made by the United States’ Supreme Court such as the Rowley Decision, Honig v. Doe and acts such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), No Child Left Behind and other policies established the rights of children with Special Education Needs (SENs) and recognized the requirement for accommodations. It was in this period that major developments in research occurred, centered around children with normal cognitive capacities and limited reading skills. It was thought that these children were imaginative, thought in pictures and had a lot of trouble with reading. In the 1980s, an understanding of LDs as language-based disturbances was developed. Since then, most western nations have enforced laws and policies to accommodate students with not only dyslexia, but also LDs.
With the coming in of the 21st century, researchers are now expanding into understanding the differences in LDs in various languages with a variety of phonetic basis, the association of language with neuro-capacities, and also focusing on the sex differences within dyslexia.
Source: MGIEP, Rehabilitation Council of India Report, Yale Institute of Dyslexia and Creativity
Dyslexia is a complex disorder that neuroscience is still working on fully comprehending. Haskins Laboratories, The Focus Foundation, National Brain Research Centre, The Yale Institute for Dyslexia and Creativity are some of the institutes dealing with the various aspects of dyslexia from the genetic mapping to comparative reading difficulties in diverse languages with different grammatical, phonetic structures and scripts. The following article ‘Genetics and Neuroscience in Dyslexia: Perspectives for Education and Remediation’ brings together the neuroscience, education and genetics aspects of dyslexia for a broader understanding of what the difference is and how the research present on it must work together to understand a dyslexic mind.
Researchers have yet to pinpoint what causes dyslexia. But they do know that genes and brain differences might influence a child’s chances of having dyslexia. Here are some of the possible causes of dyslexia:
Genes and heredity: Dyslexia often runs in families. So if a child has dyslexia, there’s a chance that the parent or a relative is also dyslexic or has some form of LDs. Siblings of children with dyslexia may also have the same reading issues.
Brain anatomy: Having dyslexia does not mean your child isn’t bright. In fact, many people with dyslexia have above-average intelligence quotient (IQ). But their brain may look different from the brain of people who do not have dyslexia. Consider, for example, the planum temporale. This area of the brain plays a role in understanding language. It is typically larger in the dominant hemisphere (the left side of the brain for right-handed people) than in the right hemisphere. But if your child has dyslexia, the planum temporale is probably about the same size on both the left and right sides of the brain.
Brain activity: To be able to read, our brains have to translate the symbols we see on the page into sounds. Then those sounds have to be combined into meaningful words. Typically, the areas of our brains responsible for language skills work in a predictable way. A dyslexic brain, however, struggles with re-structuring to successfully carry out language-based activities.
Delayed Development: Dyslexia may also be the result of delayed brain development in pre-mature babies
Sources: UNESCO MGIEP. www.understood.org
‘Reading is not natural,’ states Maryanne Wolf, a leading expert on the ‘Reading Brain’. Wolfe is the author of ‘Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain’. A layman understanding assumes that reading is a natural process and that everyone can learn to read and write if they are given sufficient instruction. However, we have no assigned gene for reading, i.e., no part of our brain is dedicated specifically to the purpose of ‘reading’ (like we have sections dedicated to memory, motor skills etc.). Reading is a complicated process that we teach our brain, i.e., no part of the brain is specifically dedicated to the task of reading but is the combination of processing auditory sounds, visual imagery and speaking through which we teach our brain to associate sounds with 2-dimensional words. Literacy is a four-step process,
Reading development à Reading literacy à Writing Literacy à Full Literacy
Learning Differences, dyslexia in particular, occurs in the first stage. However, it is possible to re-train the brain into learning how to read. The following is an article by Maryanne Wolfe titled ‘How the Reading Brain Resolves the Reading Wars’ for a more informative understanding of the ‘Reading Brain’ and what Wolfe calls ‘the Reading Circuit’.
For better understanding of the process of reading and the ultimate goal of ‘Deep Reading’, the following article ‘The Importance of Deep Reading’ by Maryanne Wolfe and Mirit Barzillai presents interesting insights on learning to read effectively, thoughtfully and critically. The goal of reading, as defined by Michael Proust is to ‘…go beyond the wisdom of the author…,’ to the readers’ thoughts.
Sources: UNESCO MGIEP, Maryanne Wolf
Since dyslexia affects some people more severely than others, symptoms also tend to vary. Some children with dyslexia have trouble with reading and spelling. Others may struggle to write or to tell left from right. There are also children who do not seem to struggle with early reading and writing. Later on, however, they have trouble with complex language skills, such as grammar, reading comprehension and more in-depth writing. Dyslexia can also make it difficult for people to express themselves clearly. It can be hard for them to structure their thoughts during conversation. Others struggle to understand what they are hearing in their environment. This is especially true when someone uses non-literal language such as jokes and sarcasm.
The signs you see may also look different at various ages. Some of the warning signs for dyslexia, such as a speech delay appear before a child reaches kindergarten. More often, though, dyslexia is identified in grade school. As schoolwork gets more demanding, trouble in processing language becomes more apparent.
Many children have one or two of these issues occassionally. But children with dyslexia have several of these issues, and they do not go away.
Warning Signs in Preschool or Kindergarten
- Delayed/ problematic speech
- Mispronounced words and persistent baby talk.
- Poor expressive language
- Poor rhyming skills
- Difficulty learning letters
- Struggles to match letters to sounds, such as not knowing what sounds b or h make
- Difficulty blending sounds into words, such as connecting C-H-A-T to the word chat
- Struggles with correct pronunciation, such as saying ‘pacific’ instead of ‘specific’
- Difficulty learning new words
- Presence of a smaller vocabulary than other kids the same age
- Trouble learning to count or say the days of the week and other common word sequences
- Poor letter-sound knowledge
- Poor phoneme awareness
- Poor word attack skills
- Idiosyncratic spelling
- Reversals in writing letters like b and d, m and w, p and q, reversals in the letter s, h, and r. Also number reversals in 3, 6, 9, 7 and 2.
- Problems copying
Early School years:
Warning Signs in Grade School or Middle School
- Slow reading
- Missing out or omitting parts in a word
- No automatic recognition of sight words such as: the, is, and, because, since, could etc.
- May have problems copying off the board as they frequently lose their place, resulting in illegible handwriting.
- Poor decoding skills esp. with new words
- Phonetic or non-phonetic spelling difficulties
- Confuses the order of letters, such as writing “left” instead of “felt”
- Trouble remembering facts and numbers
- Difficulty gripping a pencil
- Difficulty using proper grammar
- Trouble learning new skills and relies heavily on memorization
- Gets tripped up by word problems in math
- Trouble following a sequence of directions
Warning Signs in High School
- Poor reading fluency, struggles with reading out loud
- Difficulty repeating what is said to them and following a set of oral instructions
- Slow speed of writing
- Poor organization and expression in work
- Doesn’t read at the expected grade level
- Trouble understanding jokes or idioms
- Difficulty organizing and managing time
- Struggles to summarize a story
- Children often avoid doing things that they are struggling with as it causes them stress and they are unsure of how to express their trouble. For example, they may avoid reciting and reading out loud
- Sloppy hand-writings – alphabets and words are harder for children with dyslexia to understand. Thus, a lot of effort goes into the process of writing and it can be very tiresome. This may overlap with dysgraphia.
- ‘Day-dreaming’ - children with LD often have short attention spans as it takes longer for them to process what is being said to them or is written. It is also a sign of ADHD.
- Children with LD may also be very disorganized and messy about their things (like bag-packs, study table, toys) and about their thoughts. These are executive functioning difficulties.
Other difficulties include
Sources: UNESCO MGIEP, www.understood.org
Reading involves decoding symbols into sounds that ultimately form meaningful words. In languages that are phonetically consistent, this may mask dyslexia as it is easier to decode, unlike English which comes with a lot of phonological and historical baggage in terms of how it evolved to its present form. For example, the English vocabulary is constantly expanding, inculcating words and phrases from other languages. Shakespearean English is grammatically and contextually very different from English in its 21st century usage. The script itself is phonologically inconsistent. This is why detecting dyslexia in a complex language is easier than a phonologically consistent one such as Spanish and Hindi. This does not mean that there are any less/more percentages of dyslexics in a particular language. Dr. Kenneth Pugh of the Haskins Laboratories has been focusing on understanding the prevalence of dyslexia in varying scripts and conclusively proved that it is only because of reading-based assessment systems (and the absence of a biology-based assessment) that the prevalence of dyslexia in different languages seems to vary. However, it has been sufficiently proven that dyslexia is universally and uniformly present.
Present research concerning the screening, diagnosis, treatment, and other medical and educational research mostly concerns the English language. This leads to a massive gap in research and treatment for people whose native language is not English and are also not proficient in it. Lack of tools makes it difficult to diagnose the difference in non-native languages. However, several institutions across the globe are working on available research to develop diagnosis tools in a variety of socio-cultural settings.
There are several key-factors to keep in mind while diagnosing non-native English speakers. Certain questions need to be answered, assuming that the speaker has had sufficient instruction and opportunity to acquire a ‘Reading Brian’, such as:
- Is the difficulty because English is a second language?
- Is the native language of the speaker phonetically consistent? (This may aid in masking dyslexia in the native tongue)
- Are the native language of the speaker and English phonetically similar? (This will help determine if the difficulty is in English alone or in both languages)
- Does the native language of the speaker have a script or is it oral? (It is nearly impossible to detect dyslexia in a purely oral-based language)
- Are the learning-difficulties similar in both languages? If not, what are the ‘differences’ in the ‘difficulties’?
Dr. Nandini Singh, a leading expert in neuroscience at National Brain Research Centre who has been actively developing tools for assessment in Indian languages makes the following remarks on ‘cultural sensitivity’ in dyslexia assessment,
“…In lieu of these differences between writing systems, it is important that dyslexia assessments be developed such that, they assess cognitive processes necessary for reading across languages, like phonological awareness and vocabulary yet are designed to be specific/sensitive also to the features of specific writing system. This is of utmost importance especially since the cultural environments in which literacy and reading are acquired vary vastly around the globe. With increasing immigration, multilingualism is now a global phenomenon, resulting in an educational milieu where literacy is acquired in multiple languages, which belong to distinct writing systems. One such phenomenon is bi-literacy, which is the acquisition of literacy skills in two or more distinct languages. Populations in such milieu are required to learn to read a non-native language in addition to their native language. For instance in a number of South Asian countries, educational policies dictate learning English along with the native language in school. In most cases, the native language of the child rarely shares the writing system with English. In India for instance, all children learn to read Hindi and English, and in such situations it is crucial that the child be assessed in the native language in addition to English. In the absence of tests in different languages and writing systems, dyslexia assessment is often restricted to English leading to inappropriate and incorrect assessment of the child….”
For a more in-depth understanding of the nuances of multi-lingual dyslexics, the following articles are helpful
- The Myths and Truths of Dyslexia in Different Writing Systems by Fumiko Hoeft MD PhD, Peggy McCardle PhD MPH, and Kenneth Pugh PhD
It is a common belief that boys are more prone to dyslexia and other language-based disabilities than girls. Previously, this hypothesis relied on the numerical data on dyslexic boys and girls (there were generally twice as many boys). However, with the advancements in technology and the use of MRIs and CAT scans as well as other sets of tests, more studies have been released in the past 2-3 decades with increasingly contradictory evidence. While there is evidence arguing that the language-processing abilities in females is more sophisticated than in males, there are still several unanswered questions such as if this sophistication necessarily means that females are ‘less’ dyslexic or does it mean that their symptoms and treatments are different as compared to males? Neuroscience has a long way to go in understanding cognitive capacities of the brain. Neither position can be sufficiently established although research is expanding. The following article sums up the debate regarding sex differences in dyslexia.
Dyslexia is not an isolated condition. It is not unusual for dyslexics to be diagnosed with other cognitive or processing differences. Dyslexia may also get misdiagnosed for one of the following or vice-versa. Therefore, it is important to go for a detailed examination of the child to understand the degree of dyslexia they have, the differences associated with their dyslexia, and the particular nuances of their differences. Only after a detailed diagnosis can a child-specific treatment plan be put in place.
- ADHD and Dyslexia: According to United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), children with Dyslexia, more often than not, suffer from ADHD. Roughly one third of the children with ADHD have learning differences to a certain degree. In fact, some kids may get misdiagnosed with only ADHD that masks their mild/moderate dyslexic condition. This can also be because children act up and get frustrated to cover up for their difficulties in learning. This may lead a teacher or guardian to assume the child has ADHD. ADHD can make it difficult to stay focused during reading and other activities.
- Auditory Processing Disorder: It affects the child’s ability to sort through the sounds they hear. They may struggle to understand what they are hearing. Reading can also be tough for them. Children with auditory processing disorder often have trouble recognizing the difference between letters like b and d and sounding out new words.
- Visual Processing issues can make it hard to see the difference between letters or shapes. Kids with visual processing issues may complain of blurry vision or of letters “hopping around on the page.” They may try to compensate by squinting or closing one eye. They often reverse letters when writing and struggle to stay within the lines.
- Dysgraphia can affect childrens ability ‘to write and spell. It can also make it hard to organize their thoughts on paper. Many kids with dysgraphia also have dyslexia.
- Dyscalculia makes it hard to do math. Many kids have serious difficulties in both reading and math and may have dyscalculia in addition to dyslexia. Trouble learning to count is associated with both conditions. However, there are essential differences in dyscalculia and dyslexia in math. They are further explained in the Dyscalculia section.
- Executive functioning issues can affect children’s ability to organize and stay focused on a particular task. Kids with weak executive functioning skills may struggle with reading comprehension.
Source: UNESCO MGIEP, www.understood.org