What is dyslexia?
A good way to understand dyslexia is to establish what it is not. It’s not a sign of low intelligence or laziness. It’s also not due to poor vision. It’s a common condition that affects the way the brain processes written and spoken language.
Dyslexia is primarily associated with trouble reading. Some doctors, specialists and educators may refer to it as a “reading disorder” or a “reading disability.” But it can also affect writing, spelling and even speaking.
People with dyslexia can still understand complex ideas. Sometimes they just need more time to work through the information. They may also need a different way to process the information, such as listening to an audiobook instead of reading it.
If your child has dyslexia, she won’t outgrow it. It’s a lifelong condition. But that doesn’t mean your child can’t be happy and successful. There are many effective teaching strategies and tools that can help your child. In fact, many people with dyslexia have successful careers in business, science and the arts.
There’s a long list of famous people with dyslexia. This list includes director Steven Spielberg, investor Charles Schwab and actress Whoopi Goldberg. It also includes quarterback Tim Tebow, and author Dav Pilkey, who created the popular Captain Underpants books.
People with dyslexia are often very creative. It’s unclear whether such creativity comes from thinking outside the box or from having a brain that’s “wired” a bit differently.
It’s important to keep in mind, however, that struggles with reading and other issues can lead to frustration and low self-esteem. The stress of dealing with schoolwork can make kids with dyslexia lose the motivation to keep trying.
There are lots of tools and strategies that can help. It might take some trial and error for you to figure out which work best for your child. But finding the right strategies and seeing improvement can boost your child’s confidence.
Essential Skills for Reading Comprehension
For kids with dyslexia, reading a single word can be a struggle. Dyslexia also makes it hard to understand and remember what they’ve read.
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: Kids have to learn that each letter of the alphabet is associated with a certain sound or sounds. (Teachers refer to this as “phonics.”) Once your child can make these connections, she’ll be able to “sound out” words.
- Decoding text: The process of sounding out words is known as “decoding.” Once your child can decode individual words, she 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 unfamiliar words. 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. Readers with dyslexia can get bogged down sounding out individual words. This 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.
Fortunately, researchers have been studying dyslexia for decades. They know which teaching methods and tools can help children with dyslexia succeed. If dyslexia is diagnosed by third grade, it’s easier to catch up. But it’s never too late.
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How common is dyslexia?
There’s no way to know the exact number of people with dyslexia. But we do know that features of dyslexia are very common.
More than 2 million students ages 3–21 have learning disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And the vast majority of them have trouble with reading. In fact, the term dyslexia is often used to mean disabilities with reading.
That figure doesn’t tell the whole story, however. It only covers students who are getting services under the special education law IDEA.
So it doesn’t count kids who are being served under other laws. Or kids who may not be identified with learning disabilities but who are getting help through a multi-tier system of supports (MTSS). Also missing are students who are struggling but getting no services or support.
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What causes dyslexia?
Researchers have yet to pinpoint what causes dyslexia. But they do know that genes and brain differences might influence a child’s chances of having dyslexia. Here are some of the possible causes of dyslexia:
- Genes and heredity: Dyslexia often runs in families. So if your child has dyslexia, there’s a chance you or another relative may have it too. About 40 percent of siblings of children with dyslexia may have the same reading issues. 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 anatomy: Having dyslexia doesn’t mean your child isn’t bright. In fact, many people with dyslexia have above-average intelligence. But their brain may look different from the brain of people who don’t have dyslexia. Consider, for example, the planum temporale. This area of the brain plays a role in understanding language. It’s typically larger in the dominant hemisphere (the left side of the brain for right-handed people) than in the right hemisphere. But if your child has dyslexia, the planum temporale is probably about the same size on both the left and right sides of the brain.
- Brain activity: To be able to read, our brains have to translate the symbols we see on the page into sounds. Then those sounds have to be combined into meaningful words. Typically the areas of our brains responsible for language skills work in a predictable way. But if your child has dyslexia, those areas don’t work together in the same way. Kids with reading issues end up using different areas of the brain to compensate.
As researchers zero in on what causes dyslexia, they’re also learning how the brain can change. This concept is known as “neuroplasticity.” Studies show brain activity in people with dyslexia changes after they receive proper tutoring.
What does this mean for your child? With the right help, your child can make real and lasting improvements in reading ability. Knowledge of how the brain “rewires” itself may also lead to even more effective help for dyslexia in the future.
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