Stealth dyslexia: How some dyslexic students escape detection

Fumiko Hoeft is a psychiatrist and brain scientist at the University of California, San Francisco. She is also one of the world’s top researchers. In a New Yorker magazine article, she discussed research she’d done on individuals with an unusual-sounding condition: “stealth dyslexia.”

People with stealth dyslexia have problems sounding out (or ) words just like people with “classic” dyslexia. Yet their scores on tests of are typically above average, or even very strong.

What The New Yorker article doesn’t tell you is this: If people with stealth dyslexia can read with good comprehension, is it important to know about them? The answer is yes!

Students with stealth dyslexia often struggle in the classroom. Yet they rarely receive the help they need. So parents and teachers need to know about this.

“Stealth dyslexia” is a term we coined in 2005. Since these students score well on reading comprehension tests, most people think they can’t be dyslexic. Yet these students also show the most classic feature of dyslexia: They struggle with and decoding.

After we first described the term, people debated whether these people should really be thought of as dyslexic. Now we know the answer. As Hoeft told The New Yorker, she used fMRI scanners to study the brains of students with stealth dyslexia. She found that their brain wiring did show the classic features of dyslexia. This confirmed they really are dyslexic.

She also found that when they read, they showed more activity in parts of the brain that help with executive function and self-control. Their comprehension appeared to be strong. This was because they made up for their decoding problems by using problem-solving skills.

Even with these skills, students with stealth dyslexia often struggle in school. These skills can be challenging:

  • Reading new (and especially long) words

  • Reading out loud

  • Silent reading speed and accuracy

  • Spelling

  • Writing (both mechanics and speed and quantity)

Because of their problems with these basic skills, they often have a hard time with these more complex tasks:

  • Reading short passages. (They have a hard time using context to guess the words they can’t sound out. For example, questions and answers on multiple choice tests, or story problems in math.)

  • Reading passages on an unfamiliar topic. (They struggle to use their background knowledge to guess the words they can’t sound out.)

  • Reading passages with many unfamiliar words or new terms. (This is common in the natural or social sciences. Or in subjects dealing with foreign cultures or languages.)

  • Keeping up with lengthy reading or writing assignments.

For many students with stealth dyslexia, school challenges only become clear when the workload becomes very heavy or complex. That’s when they can no longer keep up just by working harder. Often this may not be until high school or college.

Many students with stealth dyslexia have problems with writing. But their reading challenges are missed, so they’re diagnosed with . Others are diagnosed with , because they make lots of “silly mistakes.” However, Hoeft showed in her research that they typically have strong focus and attention.

Because of these challenges, many students with stealth dyslexia require the same supports as other dyslexic students:

  • Instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics, where progress is based on decoding ability, not comprehension

  • Text-to-speech readers, especially for long reading assignments

  • A good keyboarding program to help with spelling and writing

  • Extra time on tests

  • Individualized expectations for writing

Students with stealth dyslexia often struggle in school. But they are typically strong thinkers and problem solvers. They often do very well as adults. So remember: When you see a bright student who understands most of what they read but who still struggles with oral reading, sounding out new long words, spelling, and often writing, think about stealth dyslexia.


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