[Editor’s Note: This is the first in a four-part series on dyslexia, its origins, manifestations, and interventions.]
Most people think that dyslexia is simply reversing letters or numbers; it is much more than that. Dyslexia is primarily associated with difficulty reading; leading some doctors, specialists, and educators to refer to it as a “reading disorder” or a “reading disability.” But it can also affect writing, spelling and even speaking. More specifically and accurately, dyslexia is a neurological condition that affects the way the brain processes both written and spoken language. Most dyslexics have average to above average intelligence, but they lack phonemic awareness, the recognition of the small, individual sounds that form words.
Some common, early signs of the disorder are:
- Difficulty rhyming
- Difficulty learning to tie shoes
- Difficulty recognizing the letters of the alphabet
- Difficulty matching letters to sounds, such as not knowing what sounds “b” or “h” make
- Difficulty blending sounds into words, such as connecting C-H-A-T to the word “chat”
- Difficulty pronouncing words correctly, such as saying “mawn lower” instead of “lawn mower” or “bisghetti” for “spaghetti”
- Difficulty learning new words
- Difficulty learning common word sequences
- Has a smaller vocabulary than other kids the same age
Dyslexia is a lifelong condition, so the younger a child is when he/she receives help, the better the outcome will be. However, according to the Connecticut Longitudinal Study, few children are properly identified as being dyslexic, and less than one-third of the children reading below their age, ability, or grade level receive appropriate services for their specific reading difficulty. The struggles these children undergo frequently lead to frustration and low self-esteem, and the stress of dealing with schoolwork can make them lose the motivation to keep trying.
And it is very important to catch and work with the problems while the child is still young. Early in elementary school, students are expected to read a passage of text and answer questions about it. This is what’s known as “reading comprehension,” and it’s essential for building a strong foundation for success in school. Students with dyslexia often have reading comprehension problems because they need to develop several underlying skills, such as:
- Connecting letters to sounds: Also known as “phonics,” each letter of the alphabet is associated with a certain sound or sounds. Once the child can make these connections, he’ll be able to “sound out” new, unfamiliar words.
- Decoding text: The process of sounding out words is known as “decoding.” Once your child can decode individual words, he can start to make sense of entire sentences.
- Recognizing “sight” words: The ability to read a familiar word at a glance without having to sound it out is called “word recognition.” The more words kids can recognize by sight, the faster they’ll be able to read. Average readers can recognize a word by sight after sounding it out a dozen or so times. Students with dyslexia may need to see it 40 times.
- Reading fluently: Fluent readers can recognize most words by sight and quickly sound out words that are unfamiliar. They also can read smoothly and at a good rate. Fluency is essential for good reading comprehension.
- Understanding the text: Strong readers can remember what they’ve just read. They can summarize it and recall specific details later. Readers with dyslexia can get bogged down sounding out individual words, which interrupts the flow of information and makes it harder to understand and relate the new material to what they already know.
If your child has been having trouble reading, it’s a good idea to find out what’s going on and get her some extra help. That’s because kids who start out struggling with reading rarely catch up on their own.
As to what causes dyslexia, there may be a number of factors, including:
Genes and heredity: Dyslexia often runs in families, with about 40 percent of siblings of dyslexic children having the same reading issues. And as many as 49 percent of parents of kids with dyslexia may have it too. Scientists have also found several genes associated with reading and language processing issues.
Brain activity: In order to read, our brains have to translate the symbols we see on the page into sounds, which then have to be combined into words that have meaning. In a normal individual, the areas of the brain responsible for language skills work in a known and predictable way. But in a dyslexic child, those areas don’t work together in the same way, and the child ends up using different areas of the brain to compensate.
How is dyslexia diagnosed, and what can be done at the school level to help those with the disorder? Come back next week for part 2 of this article, which will address those issues.
 Shaywitz, Sally E., Fletcher, Jack M., Holahan, John M., et al. (March 26, 2008). Persistence of Dyslexia: The Connecticut Longitudinal Study at Adolescence. Pediatrics 1999;104;1351-1359 DOI: 10.1542/peds.104.6.1351. Retrieved from: Billerica Library: http://billerica.wickedlocal.com/article/20151024/NEWS/151027477
 Handler, Sheryl, and Walter Fierson. “Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia, and Vision.” Pediatrics 127.3 (2011): E818-856. American Academy of Pediatrics. Web. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/127/3/e818.full?sid=bd9574fb-4575-4d35-a46e-a63394e68331
 Shaywitz, Sally, and Bennett Shaywitz. “The Neurobiology of Reading and Dyslexia.” Focus on Basics 5.A (2001). NCSALL.net. National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy. Web. http://www.ncsall.net/index.html@id=278.html