Dyslexia is a type of learning disability in which a child has difficulty learning to read and understand written language. Even kids with average or above-average intelligence, plenty of motivation, and ample opportunities to read can have dyslexia. Because kids with dyslexia have trouble making the basic connection between letters and their sounds, they often also have difficulty with spelling, writing, and speaking.
Estimates are that up to 20% of all people in the United States have a reading disability and that 85% of those people have dyslexia. It's not clear what causes dyslexia, which can vary widely in terms of severity, but some research shows that it is inherited.
With the proper instruction and assistance, a child with dyslexia can learn to read, thrive in school, and succeed in the workforce. But it's important for the child to be diagnosed as early as possible and to promptly get any needed support and assistance.
What Is Dyslexia?
A common assumption about dyslexia is that letters or words appear reversed; i.e., "was" appears like "saw." This type of problem can be a part of dyslexia, but reversals are very common among all children up until first grade, not just kids with dyslexia.
When most kids are learning to read, they use typical "decoding" skills: They learn to recognize letters on sight and learn the sound that each letter makes. Then they begin to figure out what the letters look and sound like when they are put together to form words. They then put that together with learning and remembering the words and their meanings and how they fit into a sentence.
A child with dyslexia typically has trouble making the connection between the sound and the letter that makes that sound and difficulty blending those sounds to form words. If it takes too long to sound out the word, then the child has a hard time reading through sentences and understanding them. A child with dyslexia may forget the word and its meaning in the larger context of the sentence or paragraph.
In some cases of dyslexia, a child struggles with distinguishing between certain sounds, such as "P" and "B," or has difficulty identifying the correct order of letters.
Research now shows that dyslexia occurs because of the way that the brain is formed and how it processes the information it receives. People with dyslexia process information in a different part of the brain than people without dyslexia do.
The specific reason why some people process information this way is unknown, though genetics may play a role.
Dyslexia is usually diagnosed during elementary school. In some cases, the dyslexia doesn't become apparent until the child is older and attempting to learn grammar and syntax and to read longer and more complex material.
Many children with dyslexia are not properly identified for several years. This creates a bigger reading problem and a drop in self-esteem. For these reasons, it is important to recognize dyslexia symptoms early in elementary school, and begin appropriate reading instruction right away.
In preschool and elementary school children, some signs of dyslexia include difficulty with:
- Learning to talk
- Pronouncing longer words
- Learning the alphabet, days of the weeks, colors, shapes, and numbers
- Learning to read and write his or her name
- Learning the connection between letters and sounds
- Decoding simple words
- Using "b" and "d" accurately
- Reading and spelling words with the correct letter sequence — for example, "top" versus "pot"
- Handwriting and fine-motor coordination
In older children, teenagers, and adults, these same signs of dyslexia may still be present. In addition, they probably will:
- Read and spell far below grade level
- Avoid reading and writing
- Work slowly on reading and writing assignments and tests
- Struggle with learning a foreign language
Dyslexia runs in families. If a parent has a history of reading struggles, each of his or her children has a strong chance of having a reading challenge as well. Children who struggle with learning to talk as preschoolers also are at higher risk for dyslexia. The presence of either or both of these factors should prompt close monitoring of a child's reading progress, and assessment as soon as a problem becomes evident.
Dyslexia can only be formally diagnosed through a comprehensive evaluation by a reading specialist or psychologist, either at school or in the community. Pediatricians often know the signs of dyslexia and can guide families to proper help. It is important to make sure that the person who evaluates your child has training and experience with dyslexia.
The Negative Effects of Dyslexia
A child with dyslexia who watches peers reading and making progress may feel "stupid" because it's difficult to keep up. As children move through elementary grades, problems in school can get worse as reading becomes more important to learning.
Kids who have difficulty often avoid reading because it's hard or stressful. As a result, they end up missing out on valuable reading practice and falling farther behind their peers. And the self-esteem of a child struggling in the classroom may take a beating.
Fortunately, with the proper assistance and help, most children with dyslexia are able to learn to read and develop strategies that allow them to stay in the regular classroom.
A child with dyslexia usually works with a specially-trained teacher, tutor, or reading specialist to learn how to read and spell, and strategies to deal with the condition. Your child's teacher, psychologist, or pediatrician may recommend an academic therapist — also called an education therapist or an academic language therapist — who is trained to work with children with dyslexia.
In the United States, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a child with dyslexia is legally entitled to special help in public schools to accommodate the dyslexia, such as extra time for tests or homework or help with taking notes.
Success Beyond Dyslexia
Even with appropriate intervention, a child with dyslexia may find school a struggle. It's important for you to support your child's efforts by encouraging and assisting in reading at home. Also try to give your child opportunities to build confidence and have success in other areas, such as sports, hobbies, art, and drama.
Dyslexia doesn't have to be an impediment to success. If your child has dyslexia, it doesn't mean that you or your child's teachers should lower your expectations for the child. Artists, athletes, scientists, and statesmen all have been able to achieve great things despite their trouble with reading.
If you suspect that your child may have dyslexia, talk with your child's doctor or teacher or a reading specialist. The sooner you address a reading problem, the sooner your child can get the help that he or she needs.
Updated and reviewed by: Laura Bailet PhD
Date reviewed: April 2006
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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