Let’s Talk About Dyslexia
This challenging condition can make the simple act of reading a book an impossible undertaking. Learn more about the signs, symptoms, and treatments for dyslexia.
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? You and a friend are spending the afternoon at the beach reading. Your pal is flipping through pages at a remarkable rate as you slowly slog through a chapter. Spellcheck saves your life on a daily basis. Perhaps hourly. You have nightmares about being asked to read aloud in front of a crowd. If any of these give you that familiar anxious feeling in the pit of your stomach, you might have dyslexia. The good news: it’s never too late to improve the situation.
Our Pro Panel
We went to some of the nation’s top dyslexia experts to bring you the most scientific and up-to-date information possible.
Bruce Pennington, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychology
University of Denver
Joanne Pierson, Ph.D.
Founder and Partner of the Literacy, Language, and Learning Institute
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI
Maryanne Wolf, Ed.D.
Director of the UCLA Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, CA
Dyslexia has a high heritability factor of 40% to 60%, meaning it can run in families. It’s common for a person with dyslexia to have a parent or grandparent with the condition.
In the past, people thought dyslexia involved a visual decoding issue (i.e., just transposing letters in a word). However, we now know that it involves auditory-processing problems identifying the separate speech sounds within a word and/or learning how letters represent those sounds.
There isn’t–or at least not yet–a medical blood test or scan that can reveal whether a person has dyslexia. For now, educator assessments can identify children struggling to read in school, and a neuropsychological evaluation, which involves a series of tests, can pinpoint the problem in older students and adults.
Not at all—dyslexia does not mean you have a low IQ. While dyslexia may make reading more challenging than it is for others, it doesn’t mean you are any less smart or capable.
What Is Dyslexia?
What exactly is dyslexia? The most common learning disability out there, dyslexia is estimated to impact anywhere from 5% to 20% of the population. While you may think it’s only a concern for school-age kids, that’s not entirely true: There are plenty of adults dealing with undiagnosed dyslexia, often because there weren’t great diagnostic tools at the time.
Dyslexia is characterized by difficulties with automatic and accurate word recognition (the ability to see and quickly know a common word’s meaning and pronunciation) as well as poor spelling and decoding abilities. Reading is typically slow and laborious; letters may be omitted or transposed. The important thing to know is that dyslexia is never a person’s fault. It doesn’t mean someone is lazy—or that their parents did anything “wrong.” In fact, dyslexia is a neurological condition that stems from underlying differences in the brain. (More on that in a minute.)
In the media, you may see dyslexia portrayed as a person being unable to discern the difference between, say, the letters b and d. Research, however, shows that dyslexia is not so much about visual decoding as it is about auditory and phonological processing problems in which people have trouble identifying the separate speech sounds within a word or how letters represent those sounds. The most successful interventions train the brain to boost auditory and language processing accuracy and speed, which, in turn, enhances reading skills.
Before there can be intervention, though, there needs to be a diagnosis—and that means being able to recognize symptoms in yourself or your child that warrant a trip to the specialist’s office or contacting your child’s school and making a referral to have your child assessed by the school psychologist. Let’s take a closer look at some of the common red flags for dyslexia.
Dyslexia Signs and Symptoms
Despite what you might see in the movies or on TV, it’s not always easy to tell if someone is dealing with this type of learning disorder. If you’re wondering how to tell if you have dyslexia, check these common symptoms, listed in order of prevalence and diagnostic importance:
Reading (including reading aloud) slowly and with difficulty
Problems with spelling
Slow and labor-intensive writing
Avoiding activities that involve reading
Mispronouncing names or words, or problems retrieving words
Difficulty summarizing a story
Issues with memorizing information
Difficulty learning a foreign language
Here’s one thing that isn’t a symptom of dyslexia: a lower-than-average IQ. Dyslexia and your basic brain function aren’t correlated. Dyslexia just means, reading-wise, you need to be taught in a different way. So even though your test scores in school might be lower due to reading speed and comprehension issues, it doesn’t mean you are any “less smart” than your peers. In fact, many people with dyslexia are extremely smart and successful, including financial wizards Kevin O’Leary and Barbara Corcoran of Shark Tank, Oscar-winner Steven Spielberg (diagnosed on the cusp of age 60!), and professors around the globe, like MIT’s Catherine Drennan, Ph.D. Some people even refer to dyslexia as their superpower!
What Causes Dyslexia?
There isn’t just one factor or event that causes dyslexia. Let’s look at some of the diverse forces at play:
So your dad’s not much of a speller, huh? And your grandmother doesn’t like reading? That makes perfect sense, because dyslexia can have a genetic component. When a child is diagnosed with dyslexia, they often have a parent or grandparent who has the same learning issue. Studies put the heritability of the condition at 40% to 60%. (Here’s an interesting phenomenon: Many adults, after a lifetime of just thinking they were a “slow reader,” only realize they have dyslexia when their child is diagnosed with the learning disability.)
Studies have found that certain genetic mutations that cause a change in how brain circuitry is formed may increase the risk of this learning disability. A team at Yale University in New Haven, CT, identified DCDC2 as one of them and are studying precisely how this genetic alteration influences a person’s reading ability.
The brain of a person with dyslexia can look and function differently than that of a person who doesn’t have the learning disability. Researchers have found that the neurological connection between the thalamus and cortex in the brain is weak in those who have dyslexia. The thalamus distributes sound throughout the brain, while the cortex is the information-processing center of the brain. If the connectivity is weak, a person may have difficulty perceiving and processing auditory information, affecting the ability to learn and decode. In one study in The Journal of Neuroscience, men with dyslexia were found to have reduced white matter connectivity in a cortico-thalamic auditory pathway impacting their level of reading fluency.
What’s more, recent research involving brain scans has found a correlation between poor pre-reading skills in children and the size and organization of the area of the brain known as the arcuate fasciculus (try saying that four times, fast). This region connects Broca’s area (involved in speech production) and Wernicke’s area (critical to understanding both written and spoken language) When this area is underdeveloped, a child will likely struggle with reading skills.
Premature birth or low birth weight is also linked to dyslexia, as well as other learning disabilities (half of babies born weighing less than 3.5 pounds may develop some kind of learning disability). Plus, exposure during pregnancy to nicotine, drugs, or alcohol are believed to alter brain development in the fetus and increase the likelihood of developing dyslexia.
How Is Dyslexia Diagnosed?
In young, school-age children (think: kindergarten and first grade), educators are now on the lookout for students who struggle with decoding and phonics from the start. In-school evaluations, like the Predictive Assessment of Reading (PAR) or Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS), as well as Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing Second Edition (CTOPP-2), can catch problems early so intervention can kick in.
Dyslexia Test for Adults
For older students and adults, however, an important diagnostic tool is a psychoeducational assessment by a qualified specialist, typically a clinical psychologist or a school psychologist. They’ll have you perform a battery of tests similar to an IQ test, with puzzles, memory tests, and comprehension quizzes. In all cases, the evaluation will include fluency-based sections. When scored, strengths and weaknesses are revealed that may indicate signs of dyslexia.
How Is Dyslexia Treated in Kids?
For children, there are multiple tools available to help overcome dyslexia. The renowned Orton-Gillingham program or Barton Reading and Spelling System are multi-sensory approaches to teaching reading to children who are struggling, and is considered the gold-standard for dyslexics. It is used in schools that specialize in this kind of learning disability and has been successful in helping dyslexic kids keep up with their peers. Meanwhile, your child’s school will be able to set him up with a reading specialist for one-on-one or small group support. You can also find local qualified educators in your area that can work with your child to identify specific problem points and improve spelling and reading skills.
How Is Dyslexia Treated in Adults?
In adults, the situation is trickier since learning style has gelled, but support can be invaluable at any age since dyslexia can lead to underemployment, challenges on the job, and reduced self-confidence. With the right interventions, the effects of dyslexia can be eased or eliminated. Let’s look at the important steps anyone with dyslexia can take to get help:
Find a tutor who specializes in adult clients who can teach you to read with greater fluency through in-person work and at-home assignments. You can find one through this directory or other resource communities, like:
The International Dyslexia Association – A tremendous source of information, including a dyslexia assessment tests and lists of providers or referral services to get support
Decoding Dyslexia – A national network of state chapters, working to pass bills and change policies in order to make dyslexia services more available
The Dyslexia Foundation – A research-focused organization that hosts conferences and shares presentations on the latest research and news
While perhaps not as fun as Candy Crush, these programs can build reading fluency; they typically involve a mix of games and drills that build such skills as segmenting, blending, and overall reading. The experts we spoke to recommended Rally! and Word Builder programs; they may be geared to older students but can still help.
This might seem like a no brainer, but if you regularly avoid reading, make time to practice. The more you read, the easier it will become. Try setting aside 20 minutes before or after work (or during your commute if you use public transit) to complete a chapter in a book. Your brain is like a muscle—the more your exercise the part of it responsible for word recognition and fluency, the stronger it will get.
The bottom line: Dyslexia is a life-long challenge for many people, but one that can be successfully managed with the right tools. Find life hacks that work for you. If spoken instructions are easier to follow than written ones, record important information with your phone rather than taking notes by hand. Text-to-speech apps, like Speechify, are becoming increasingly popular. They can translate the written word, from emails, reports, or news articles, into audio.
It can no doubt be hard to reckon with a dyslexia diagnosis after struggling and compensating for years. But have hope: Understanding how your brain works and how you can optimize your reading skills can unlock greater satisfaction.
Dyslexia Basics: International Dyslexia Association. (n.d.) “Frequently Asked Questions.” https://dyslexiaida.org/frequently-asked-questions-2/
Dyslexia Overview: Cleveland Clinic. (2021.) “Dyslexia Overview.” https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/6005-dyslexia
Dyslexia Overview: Mayo Clinic. (2021.) “Dyslexia Overview.” https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dyslexia/symptoms-causes/syc-20353552
Dyslexia and IQ: National Institutes of Health. (2011.) “NIH-funded Study Finds Dyslexia Not Tied to IQ” https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/nih-funded-study-finds-dyslexia-not-tied-iq
Dyslexia and Premature Babies: Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology. (2015.) “Reading Abilities in School-Aged Preterm Children: A Review and Meta-analysis.” https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/dmcn.12652
Dyslexia and Genetics: Yale News. (2013.) “Is Dyslexia Genetic? Yale Study Unravels Genetics of Dyslexia and Language Impairment.” https://news.yale.edu/2013/06/12/yale-researchers-unravel-genetics-dyslexia-and-language-impairment
Dyslexia and Brain Structure: The Journal of Neuroscience. (2019.) “Reduced Structural Connectivity Between Left Auditory Thalamus and the Motion-Sensitive Planum Temporale in Developmental Dyslexia.” https://www.jneurosci.org/content/39/9/1720
Dyslexia and Brain Function: The Journal of Neuroscience. (2013.) “Tracking the Roots of Reading Ability: White Matter Volume and Integrity Correlate with Phonological Awareness in Prereading and Early-Reading Kindergarten Children” https://www.jneurosci.org/content/33/33/13251