What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Dyslexia?

This post was written by Noah Mackert, a special advisor to Democracy Prep Public Schools.

October is dyslexia awareness month, but you’d be forgiven for not knowing that. I only knew because I follow the International Dyslexia Association on Instagram. I have family members who identify as “dyslexic,” but as a medical or diagnostic term, “dyslexia” feels a bit antiquated. We don’t use it with students, and we don’t use it with parents. We don’t use it on IEPs because it was subsumed under the umbrella term “specific learning disability” in the most recent update of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-5. It’s a word that seems to have gone out of style with educators, if not with the public at large, or with those who struggle with that specific disability.

As an educator of students with special needs, I decided to read up on dyslexia. (For the purposes of this article, I’ll follow the lead of the International Dyslexia Association, which defines dyslexia as a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin […] 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).

The first thing I learned is that there is a large, vocal group of disability advocates who think “dyslexia” is a useful term that should be revived. (Their critiques of the DSM-5 revision committee are withering). I also learned just how much I don’t know about it.

Here are three of my big takeaways.

  1. We know a lot about dyslexia.

Scientists used to believe that dyslexia was a visual disorder. They saw the classic symptom of children mixing up b, d, and p, for example, as a problem of the eyes.

Now, they look to the brain. According to Dr. Sally Shaywitz, who has studied the disorder at Yale since the 1990s, dyslexia is a disorder specific to how the brain processes sounds and letters. When we read, we use two different neural mechanisms for decoding a word. One mechanism, located in the frontal and parietal lobes, analyses words based on the sounds of their parts. It is what we use to sound out words we don’t know. The second mechanism, located in the occipital lobe – the back – works much faster, decoding words all at once based on our familiarity with their form.

Unimpaired readers rely much more on the second mechanism. It allows them to read words so quickly – within 150 milliseconds – that they don’t even know it’s happening. That lets them think about things like what the word means, whether a character is acting strangely, and what the main idea of the paragraph might be.

Dyslexic readers, however, don’t have easy access to this mechanism. They have to rely on the slower analytical method. That’s why children with dyslexia can be taught to sound out any word they see, but they will rarely be able to read as quickly as an unimpaired reader.

As for the reason dyslexic readers often mix of b, d, and p? Some studies indicate that this is just something everyone does when they’re still learning phonics. Shaywitz speculates that people with dyslexia may continue doing it, though, because humans evolved an ability to understand an image whether it was reversed or not. So if you see a cow, you still know it’s a cow no matter which direction it’s facing. Unimpaired readers unlearn this ability when they learn to read. But dyslexic readers often do not.

Whatever the reason, it’s no longer considered a primary indicator of the disorder.

  1. It is extremely common.

According to Dr. Shaywitz, some form of dyslexia is behind nearly all learning disabilities – 80 to 90 % of them. Furthermore, her research leads her to conclude that nearly 1 in 5 people, whether diagnosed with LD or not, has some form of dyslexia. That’s 20% of students.

Other studies, which define dyslexia differently, conclude a prevalence of about 10%. Regardless, that is a lot of students. Teachers need to be experts about a disorder this common.

10% actually sounds about right to me. But my mind was truly blown by recent research indicating it’s just as common among girls as it is among boys; girls just don’t get referred for special services as often. I knew girls could be dyslexic, but I didn’t think it was 50/50.

  1. It cannot be cured, but it can be overcome.

Dyslexia can’t be cured; it’s not a disease. But certain kinds of teaching have been proven to help. The most important kind is phonics – teaching that improves a student’s ability to sound out words – taught explicitly in the right sequence.

Dyslexic students who learn phonics early can read as accurately as any other student. But they may never be as fast. For that reason, all schools should expect to create accommodations for their dyslexic students. The most important include extra time on exams, books on tape, and occasional opportunities to use other means than reading for learning content. It’s important to remember that dyslexic students are not impaired in their thinking; they deserve to be exposed to great literature and debate big ideas just like anyone else.

And in fact, some of the most successful people in the world are dyslexic: Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin Group; Steven Spielberg, director of Jaws, E.T., and Jurassic Park; and Whoopi Goldberg, star of Sister Act, The Color Purple, and Ghost. (Listen, I was born in 1981; these are the movies I know).

This is just the tip of the iceberg. If you want to learn more about dyslexia, this website is a great place to start, and if you only have time for one article, I recommend this one. The bottom line is that every one of our classes contains students who struggle to read, and they deserve teachers who can understand them, see their strengths, and teach like it’s going out of style.

Sources:

Sandman-Hurley, Kelli. (2016). Dyslexia Advocate! How to Advocate for a Child with Dyslexia within the Public Education System. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Shaywitz, Sally. (2005). Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level. Vintage Books.

Siegel, Linda S. (2006). “Perspectives on Dyslexia.” Paediatrics and Child Health. Nov; 11(9): 581-587. nhttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2528651/

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