I want to write to help people understand Dyslexia. To define it, to conceptualize it, and to perhaps recognize it. I believe this type of writing will also help to reduce some of the stigma that can occur around the label Dyslexia.
I am composing a 2-part blog series around this. I think this may be some of the most important writing I will ever do. Tell your friends! And please watch for Part 2!
In Part 1, I will provide you with a definition of Dyslexia – what it is, and what it isn’t.
In Part 2, I will unpack the definition a bit, and shine a light on some of the problems that I encounter in practice when dealing with Dyslexia, and also draw some attention to where our education system is behind the times!
Without further ado, let’s dive in and explore a definition of Dyslexia.
Part 1: Defining Dyslexia
Many people mis-conceptualize dyslexia. They may think of it as some severe inability to read, where the letters and words appear backward or jump all over the page. They think that kids see the word “was” and read the word “saw”. And most people think, “that’s not MY kid”.
That’s not what dyslexia is. Not at its core. Dyslexia is difficulty with recognizing and spelling words – it’s a simple as that (more or less).
The word is derived from the Greek root “dys”, meaning “bad” or “difficult” and lexia means “reading”. In its original root, the term “dyslexia” simply referred to difficulty with reading. However, the term Dyslexia has evolved morphed, coloured by connotation, misperception, and misunderstanding.
Some people feel there is a stigma to dyslexia, and as such have moved away from using the diagnosis. In schools, you may hear the terms Dyslexia, Reading Disability, and Learning Disability used seemingly inter-changeably but without anyone REALLY knowing what they mean – they are generic terms.
Typically, Students are described as “poor readers” and “struggling readers”.
Remember, “dys” means “bad, difficult”.
poor = bad.
struggling = difficult.
Isn’t a “poor reader” or a “struggling reader” simply “dys” + “lexia”?
In fact, in 2014 Elena Grigorenko and Julian Elliott published a book titled The Dyslexia Debate, arguing that the term “dyslexia” had lost its meaning and referred to too many things; and proposed using the term “reading disability” instead (is the new term any less broad?).
The International Dyslexia Association strongly advocates for using the term Dyslexia, as it is a common unifier to bring together research and best instructional practices, and basically “get us all talking about the same thing”.
Further, proponents such as Maryanne Wolfe remind us that with the term Dyslexia comes the knowledge that the reading difficulty is biological: it is a direct result of the way the brain is built. Why is that important?
The message behind this line of thinking is priceless – it tells the child “it’s not your fault”.
I default to the definition of dyslexia provided by the International Dyslexia Association’s definition as revised and adopted in 2002:
“Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent reading 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”.
I think it is important to draw attention to the fact that Dyslexia is neurological in origin. This means that Dyslexia has a biological root and reflects a biological difference. Dyslexia occurs in the brain, and specifically in the way that the brain processes information.
For a child to read, they must visually process a word on a page when they look at it. Brain imaging research tells us that the next thing that happens is that the sound processing part of the brain activates. Sounds are processed in the speech centres of the brain – even thought we aren’t “speaking”, we need an intact sound system to read. This makes sense, as a child must be able to look at a letter or group of letters and “decode” or extract the sound that those letters represent.
Once the sounds are extracted, the brain orders the sounds and recognizes a word. This activates the language meaning processing part of the brain.
You can see the speech sound and language fundamental and foundational skills that are required here, and this is often where things get derailed. It is also why a comprehensive assessment by a Speech–Language Pathologist should be your FIRST STEP if your child is below grade level or behind in reading, spelling, or reading comprehension.
As part of this processing, the visual, sound, and meaning parts of the brain must all activate accurately and efficiently. However, they also must COMMUNICATE with each other.
This neural connectivity – the informational pathways of neurons must be complete, connected, and efficient. Information moves in a “feed forward” from older and deeper structures to the neocortex or “new brain”, where information is more consciously processed. Information is also sent back down from the cortex – for example, it may say “that doesn’t make sense, look again!” to the visual system.
In this way, the brain is continually passing information from the bottom-up as well as the top-down down to process, coordinate, and synthesize information. As such, we can see difficulties in children with Autism or ADHD who do not transmit information between brain areas well or do not coordinate pieces of information well. These children may demonstrate adequate skills at the sound and language meaning levels (they possess discrete skills) but then have difficulty in the performance or application of these skills.
There’s a lot that goes on in the brain, and every child’s brain is unique! That’s why careful assessment of foundational skills as well as interacting with a student during the process of reading, writing and spelling is necessary to learn how they learn – to discover their individual and unique Learning Profile that allows us to design an individualized, custom-tailored Instruction Learning Plan.
If your child is behind other children of the same age or not reading at expected grade level, a comprehensive assessment with a Speech–Language Pathologist is the most informative thing you can do to learn about your child.
If your child has ANY difficulty in expressing themselves – with speech sounds, finding the right words, forming sentences – it is never too early to get started!
Feeling unsure? I offer a free consultation for parents to ask their questions and discuss their concerns. In fact, you can book online without leaving our website! Click here or follow the link at the top of the page.