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What is Dyslexia? How to Help

Updated: Apr 11, 2022

By the Joy of Learning

Reading….How do we learn to do it? You may have heard the saying, "Reading is rocket science." This is not an exaggeration. The human brain did not evolve knowing how to read, and how our brains learn to break the alphabetic code is a complex process. In order to read, the brain must link letters to sounds and remember a series of rules about how the language works. Then, the sounds need to be blended together in the right order to form words, sentences, and paragraphs. At each step, reading needs to be automatic and fluent enough that the reader can focus on meaning and elicit comprehension, which is the ultimate goal of reading.

While Dyslexia occurs equally in people of all languages, English can be particularly difficult to learn because of the influences from other languages, the ways pronunciations and spellings have shifted over time, and other factors. Luckily, 86% of words in the English language are decodable, which means they can be read using consistent, learnable patterns.

What is Dyslexia?

The International Dyslexia Association provides this formal definition:

“Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”

[Adopted by the International Dyslexia Association Board of Directors, Nov. 12, 2002. This Definition is also used by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development]

Dr. Sally Shaywitz is a highly regarded expert on dyslexia. She describes dyslexia in easy to understand terms. According to Shaywitz, “People with dyslexia have trouble matching the letters they see on the page with the sounds those letters and combinations of letters make. And when they have trouble with that step, all the other steps are harder.

Dyslexic children and adults struggle to read fluently, spell words correctly and learn a second language, among other challenges. But these difficulties have no connection to their overall intelligence. In fact, dyslexia is an unexpected difficulty in reading in an individual who has the intelligence to be a much better reader. While people with dyslexia are slow readers, they often, paradoxically, are very fast and creative thinkers with strong reasoning abilities.”

Dyslexia is also very common, affecting 20 percent of the population and representing 80-90 percent of all those with learning disabilities. Scientific research shows differences in brain connectivity between dyslexic and typical reading children, providing a neurological basis for why reading fluently is a struggle for those with dyslexia.

Dyslexia can’t be “cured” – it is lifelong. But with the right support, dyslexic individuals can become highly successful students and adults.”

(This section is taken from the most scientifically valid and clinically accurate information available. A full and enriched discussion of the symptoms of dyslexia at different ages is discussed in the new 2nd Edition of Overcoming Dyslexia by Dr. Sally Shaywitz available at Amazon.)

The following videos are helpful for understanding Dyslexia. The first is from a reading expert, Dr. Gillis. The second is from Nessy. Nessy reading provides online skill reinforcement as well as a variety of other resources. An upcoming post will dig into apps, games and tools to help the dyslexic learner.

Want to break a few myths? The Dyslexia Center of Utah provides some interesting statistics that debunk common misunderstandings associated with dyslexia. Here’s what they found:

  • 70-80% of people with poor reading skills are likely dyslexic.

  • One in five students, or 15-20% of the population, has a language based learning disability. Dyslexia is the most common of the language based learning disabilities.

  • Nearly the same percentage of males and females have dyslexia.

  • Nearly the same percentage of people from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds have dyslexia.

  • 80% of children with an IEP have reading difficulty and 85% of those are Dyslexic.

  • 30% of children with Dyslexia also have at least a mild form of AD/HD.

Brain Structures and Remediation

We know dyslexia is complex. Much research has uncovered the structural differences within the brains of dyslexic learners. Brain imaging illustrates how dyslexic brains work differently. The good news is, although there is no cure for dyslexia, with proper remediation, the dyslexic can be successful. A comprehensive article on the dyslexic brain can be found here. Current Dyslexic Brain Research

How to Help Kids With Dyslexia

How can we help these students? Dr. Matthew Cruger, director of the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute states that fortunately, there are evidence-based supports to help children with dyslexia improve their reading skills.

A program appropriate to a child with dyslexia might include these features, says Dr. Cruger:

  • Multi-sensory instruction in decoding skills

  • Repetition and review of skills

  • Intensity of intervention—that is, more than being pulled out of class once a week for extra help

  • Small group or individual instruction

  • Teaching phonological skills

  • Drilling sight words

  • Teaching comprehension strategies, to help kids derive meaning from what they’re reading

Dr. Cruger adds that an important part of supporting kids with dyslexia is finding ways to decrease their discomfort about reading, and to make learning to read enjoyable, not humiliating. That means minimizing the amount of time you spend correcting the child, and maximizing encouragement of even small gains.

Students benefit from a strong rapport with a skilled practitioner. The practitioner will know and understand how to provide just the right amount of challenge to keep the learner engaged and feeling successful.

Reading programs that have been shown to be effective for kids with dyslexia include the Orton-Gillingham Approach, The Wilson Method, and The Lindamood-Bell Program.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts, What is Orton-Gillingham?, and Apps Games and Other Tools to Work on Reading at Home. In the meantime, to dig deeper into ways to help support a child with dyslexia and read Matt Cruger’s full article, visit Matt Cruger Article . The IDA Dyslexia Handbook is another excellent resource.

“It is more common than you can imagine. You are not alone. And while you will have this the rest of your life, you can dart between the raindrops to get where you want to go and it will not hold you back.” -Steven Spielberg, award winning director

The Joy of Learning provides engaging, 1-on-1, evidence based instruction in reading, writing, and math, for students with diverse learning styles, taught by highly qualified learning specialists. We teach in person in the Boulder, Denver, and SF Bay area, and virtually at any location. Interested to Learn More? Book a Free Consultation Here.

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