Have you ever wondered how a business owner and dyslexia specialist spends her day?
Of course, you haven’t! You are busy. You’ve got bills to pay and laundry to do and dinner to make. Oh dear, did you forget to pick up milk?
Let me give you a quick glimpse into a piece of my day before I give you the low down on just what the heck dyslexia is and answer your most important question: Could my child have it?
Some days are glamorous when I get to share a presentation with parents or teachers, but most days I’m in the trenches.
I chose to be in the trenches because I’m needed there.
It’s almost noon, and I’ve spent the better part of the last 2 hours answering questions in our multiple dyslexia Facebook groups – links to those on our home page.
I have been discussing the difference between screening and full evaluations for dyslexia and who can make a diagnosis. Is dyslexia a medical diagnosis or not? That will be an entirely different blog post.
I’ve explained why, when using the Barton System, Susan Barton asks that the student NOT read any books until completing the end of level 4.
I have had a very enlightened discussion with a fellow teacher about Orton-Gillingham versus Structured Word Inquiry.
Dyslexia and the discussions that surround it are multifaceted. Parents need to know the basics. Teachers need to know the basics. Once the basics are known the questions become more in depth.
In this blog post, we are still at the very tip of the iceberg: we are still hanging out in the area of very basic, general information.
Yet just because the information is basic, this does not mean that it is known by everyone.
So let’s talk about the very basic concept of what is dyslexia?
What is Dyslexia?
The best way I can start is by sharing the International Dyslexia Association’s definition of dyslexia:
Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede the growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.
Now, let’s start to unpack that!
Dyslexia is a Learning Disability
Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neuro-biological in origin.
Dyslexia is a learning disability. Many do not like that term–disability. I admit that I chafe at it as well. The reason why many of us struggle with this is that we have the notion that the term disability is synonymous with a lower cognitive ability.
The truth is, it is not for a person with dyslexia. A person with dyslexia, or, who fits the dyslexia profile, has an average to above average IQ. My own daughter had an IQ of 103 when tested in 6th grade. This hardly fits the mental image of someone with a learning disability.
Many like to call it a learning difference. That is fine, and, in my opinion, preferable. People with dyslexia are very intelligent. They struggle in the area of reading and all things related to print, as well as memorization.
When a person is diagnosed with dyslexia it is actually written as a specific learning disorder with impairment in reading. That is what the DSM-V code reads. The exact code is 315.00.
Dyslexia has a neurobiological origin as well. If a parent has dyslexia then dyslexia will appear in 50% of that parent’s offspring. If both parents have dyslexia then it will appear in 100% of their offspring.
Dyslexia is a genetic disorder. In my case, I have 4 children and 2 of them are dyslexic. That means one of their parents carries the genes, which researchers are now working to identify.
Teachers, this is very important for you. If a parent comes to you and tells you that they have dyslexia and they think their child may as well, PLEASE listen to them. I am really begging here. This is your proof without the data that you have a student with dyslexia. Please move forward with a full evaluation.
Poor Fluency, Spelling, and Decoding
“[Dyslexia] is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities.”
Word recognition for people with dyslexia is NOT automatic. This is because they are not using a portion of their brain that is responsible for automatic word recognition.
There is a lot of very cool brain sciences with dyslexia. But for our discussion, we are going to keep this very general. Dyslexics do not use the word form area of the brain when reading. We know this from Functional MRI studies.
There aren’t many warning signs that are consistent for nearly all people with dyslexia, but poor spelling would be the closest to a universal thread that I have personally seen in my 4 plus years of working exclusively with dyslexics.
Please DO NOT look at spelling tests alone for evidence of poor spelling. While it can definitely show up here, many parents and their children spend LONG, TORTUROUS hours studying and practicing for those Friday spelling tests.
We just talked about spelling tests last week. If you missed that post, click here: Let Spelling Tests Die A Proper Death
Look instead at your student’s compositions. Look at the compositions that are in their original and unedited form. Do you see a word that is spelled wrong? Perhaps it is even spelled wrong several times in several ways. This is a big red flag. Pay close attention to this as it is a big tip-off for dyslexia.
Decoding for people with dyslexia is often choppy and slow. They are guessing at words based on shape or the first letter and all this guessing makes reading take them twice as long as their peers.
Trust me when I tell you, they know it is taking them twice as long. They aren’t lazy. They aren’t stupid. They aren’t unmotivated. They are working twice as hard as your neurotypical students.
You might be astonished to know that in 2019, teachers are still telling parents that their child is lazy and unmotivated. They tell parents that the child should just try harder.
Teachers, please stop this madness. Even if you aren’t saying such things, I guarantee that someone you work with is. Be bold. Stand up for our kids.
Dyslexia in Intelligent and Well-Educated People
“These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction.”
So, what this part is basically saying is that a person with dyslexia is more than cognitively capable of reading. In addition, they have received adequate instruction to be able to read well.
The difficulty in their ability to read is at the phonological level.
What do we mean by phonological level or phonological deficit or phonological processing?
Phonological processing is the pattern of sounds and their meaning. Phonemes are the smallest pieces of language. They are all the letter sounds such as /p/, /c/, /d/, /s/, /ch/, /ah/, /ee/, etc.
A person with dyslexia has difficulty identifying individual sounds in a word. They may hear a /t/ and think it is a /d/. Once symbols are introduced, they may struggle to put the right sound with the correct symbol. This is all phonological processing.
In addition, people with dyslexia struggle to segment words into their individual sounds such as /f/ – /r/ – /o/ – /g/. That word has 4 individual sounds. A student should be able to break that word apart into those 4 sounds.
Blending is also a struggle for people with dyslexia. For example, I might ask a student to blend /b/ /u/ /n/ /ch/. They might add an /r/ sound after the /b/.
Segmentation and blending are two of the seven phonemic awareness skills. People with dyslexia must be explicitly taught phonemic awareness. They cannot learn it through listening and speaking like the other 80% of the population.
Secondary Consequences of Dyslexia
“Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede the growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”
Let’s talk for a quick minute about comprehension. People with dyslexia have challenges with comprehension as they move through school because they are having major issues with decoding. These decoding issues are impacting comprehension.
Here is the comprehension litmus test. Ready?
Read a passage out loud to the child or adult. If the person can give you an oral summary of the passage, they DO NOT have a comprehension problem.
I will take a deeper dive into comprehension versus decoding issues at a later date. Most people with dyslexia will eventually struggle with comprehension due to their phonological processing and decoding issues.
Now, here is an awesome piece for parents and teachers. The last line of the definition says this issue with comprehension can impede the growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.
This doesn’t have to happen. It can easily be avoided.
Parents, you can provide your child with all the background knowledge that your heart desires. This comes from giving your child experiences.
Take them to the park.
Take them to the water.
Take them to the zoo and the aquarium.
Take them to a parade.
Take your child ANYWHERE to give them experiences.
This will give them a place to hang all those words when they are able to start reading. This is within your control. You get to give them this.
Vocabulary is developed when parents and teachers read TO children. Read to your child often. Read every day. Read at their interest level.
If your child is 8 and wants to know about ancient Egypt, read the Golden Goblet. Historical fiction is fabulous for taking the child to places and times that couldn’t possibly visit themselves.
Here’s an article I wrote a while back about vocabulary building: How to Build An Astounding Vocabulary in Your Child
Thanks for reading along as we unpacked the definition of dyslexia.
Dyslexia shouldn’t be a scary or frightening diagnosis. People with dyslexia just don’t fit into the box called “school”. Start believing that is not a bad thing because it really isn’t.
Teachers who are great out-of-the-box thinkers can help a child develop real-world skills based on the student’s strengths and not their weaknesses.