Stealth Dyslexia: How Some Dyslexic Students Escape Detection

Recently, The New Yorker magazine published an interview with Fumiko Hoeft, one of the world’s top researchers. Hoeft (pronounced HAYfft) is a psychiatrist and brain scientist at the University of California San Francisco. In the 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 unlike typical dyslexics, 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 definitely yes!

Students with stealth dyslexia often underperform their potential in the classroom. Yet they rarely receive the help they need. So parents and teachers really do need to know about this.

“Stealth dyslexia” is a term we coined in 2005. At the time, we noted that these students typically “avoid the radar of detection” just like stealth airplanes. 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.

For some time after we first described stealth dyslexia, people debated whether these individuals should really be thought of as dyslexic at all. 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 indeed show the classic features of dyslexia. This confirmed they really are dyslexic.

She also found that when they read, they show heightened activity in parts of the brain that help with executive function and self-control. Their comprehension appears to be strong because they compensate for their decoding problems by using their attention and problem-solving skills in especially active ways.

Even with these superior thinking skills, students with stealth dyslexia often struggle in school. The following skills are particularly challenging:

  • Reading new (and especially long) words
  • Reading out loud
  • Silent reading speed and accuracy
  • Spelling
  • Writing (both mechanics and the speed and quantity of output)

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

  • Reading short passages (where they can’t use 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 (where they can’t use their background knowledge to guess the words they can’t sound out)
  • Reading passages that contain many unfamiliar words or new terms (especially in the natural or social sciences, or 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 work load becomes very heavy or complex. That’s when they can no longer keep up just by increasing their effort. 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, as Hoeft showed in her research, 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

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

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