By Tracy Paskiewicz, Ph.D.Do you know a Jordan? Jordan is one of the brightest children in his second grade classroom. He has an extensive vocabulary and knows many facts about science and hockey, his favorite sport. He can even tell you about the last several Stanley Cup playoff games, and who won each year. But when it comes to reading about hockey—or anything else—Jordan has a lot of trouble. It takes him a long time to read each word, and even longer to read full sentences. He often takes a guess about how to pronounce a word, and his guess is often wrong. Reading out loud is very stressful for Jordan. He gets embarrassed and may start to cry when his teacher calls on him to read.
Reading ability is often taken as a marker of one’s intelligence. Most people assume that if someone is smart, motivated, and properly instructed, she or he will learn to read. However, decades of research has shown that even some very smart people who do well at many things, have trouble learning to read. This difficulty with reading is called dyslexia.Contrary to popular belief, dyslexia is not a disorder of the visual system. Traditionally, letter and word reversals were thought to be typical of dyslexic reading. Eye training was often prescribed to overcome these alleged visual deficits. But, modern research has shown that children with dyslexia are not unusually prone to reversing letters or words and that the cognitive deficit responsible for the disorder is related to the language system. Specifically, dyslexia reflects a weakness in the processing of the distinctive linguistic units, called phonemes, that make up all spoken and written words. Current linguistic models of dyslexia now provide an explanation of why some very intelligent children have trouble learning to read and performing other language-based tasks. Deficits in the processing of phonemes can impair decoding, preventing word identification and recall.
Many individuals with dyslexia explain how tiring reading is for them, reflecting the enormous resources and energy they must expend on the task. In dyslexia, the brain takes longer to make phonological connections, and it does so in more steps. For example, the brain might have trouble matching the letters on the page with the sounds those letters and combinations of letters make. When someone has trouble with this initial, lower-level step, it makes all the other steps harder.Dyslexia is not rare; estimates suggest that between 5-10% of the population has some form of dyslexia. Sometimes several people in the same family have dyslexia. Older kids and adults can also have dyslexia. There is no cure for dyslexia, nor can you “grow out of it.” However, early identification and appropriate intervention can ameliorate its effects. Individuals with dyslexia often learn to accommodate, or learn to develop strategies, to overcome this disorder. Many people achieve academically and go on to higher education. Some people with dyslexia have special talents or skills, including creativity and problem-solving skills.
This article is based on content from Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, M.D.