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Dyslexia: An overview

Learn what dyslexia is, what signs to look out for, and what you can do to help if your child is dyslexic.

By Jan Baumel, M.S.

You've heard the term "dyslexia" and wonder if it applies to your child who's struggling in school. How can you tell if she has this language-based learning disability?

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurological 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 growth of vocabulary and background knowledge. (Adopted by the IDA Board in November 2002 and by the National Institutes of Health in 2002.)

The Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA) defines dyslexia as a learning disability in the area of reading.

These organizations point out that the term dyslexia is defined in many different ways. While reading is the primary problem, some definitions of dyslexia also include difficulties with:

  • Writing
  • Spelling
  • Listening
  • Speaking
  • Math

A person with dyslexia is someone whose problem in reading is not the result of emotional problems, lack of motivation, poor teaching, mental retardation, or vision or hearing deficits. Dyslexia is a persistent, lifelong condition. There's no cure for it, but there are ways to approach learning and be successful.

Although kids with dyslexia have language processing and learning difficulties in common, the symptoms and severity can be quite different. Kids learn some academic skills at a level lower than others their same age and intellectual peers, but they can do other things quite well. They may be talented in the arts, skilled in technology, or adept with spatial relationships. These strengths and talents need to be encouraged and reinforced.

What should I look for?

Most kids have problems in school at one time or another. Ask yourself and the teacher if your child has shown these characteristics to a greater degree than normal over a period of time and in different environments, e.g., school, home, child care.

Ages 6-11

  • Has difficulty pronouncing words, may reverse or substitute parts of words
  • Has difficulty carrying out a sequence of directions
  • Doesn't hear fine differences in words; e.g., writes "pin" for "pen"
  • Has problems stating thoughts in an organized way
  • Confuses the order of letters in words
  • Doesn't recognize words previously learned
  • Spells a word several different ways; doesn't recognize the correct version
  • Has poor reading comprehension

Ages 12-Adult

  • Has difficulty remembering what he just read
  • Has difficulty concentrating when reading or writing
  • Is unable to tell important information from unimportant details
  • Spells poorly; misspelling is not phonetic
  • Has problems taking notes accurately
  • Has difficulty organizing and completing written projects

Jan Baumel, M.S., Licensed Educational Psychologist, spent 35 years in education as a teacher, school psychologist, and special education administrator before joining Schwab Learning. Today she is a consultant to local school districts and university field supervisor for student teachers.

Comments from readers

"My daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia when she was in 2nd grade. She has always attended public schools and received the help she needed. She is now a junior in high school. It has been very hard long road. She has learned to work hard and learned what works for her. I was very concerned when she entered high school but it could not have turned out better. She was just inducted into NHS. She has started taking college classes and is maintaining a gpa above 3.0. Everything does not come easy but with her support system she is able to make it. "
"If you suspect that your child has a dissability and your child attends a public school, the Public School system is mandated to adhere to various types of Federal Legistlation including, but not limited to the 'No Child Left Behind Law'. You should look into getting your child tested and have an IEP created (Individualized Education Program) for Special Ed Services. If you are having problems with your school district and are not getting cooperation from the school then you need to contact the Department of Education at your State Level. Each State has a Department of Education which oversees all of the Public Schools funded by the State - they are responsible for every aspect of the Education System. There is usually a representative that oversees a specific district. There is also a representative that just specializes in Special Education. You don't have to take the 'push back' from your public school. They will be imcompliance with law and they can loose thei! r jobs. I battled with my son's principal - and she lost her job for not managing my son's rights with his dissability. (It could have been worse for the school/district - I could have sued) I took my complaints to the State Department of Education and after my persistant communication with the State...she lost her job. My son is now in a very good school/district that is compliant with all Federal and State regulations to support his dissability and they are adhering to the EIP plan. Unfortunately, the States do not have the time and the funding to help your child through their life-time journey of learning to manage their dissability. You should also look into other programs where you live - such as Children's Hospital (excellent resources) private tutoring, hiring an Occupational Therapist (they do take private insurance) other software programs that are offered through companies such as Pearson Education, research as much as you can about the resources with-in y! our community, city, state, school district, etc. "
"I believe my son may have dyslexia, he is always so confused, and says he sees things everywhere like ghosts and mummies and all those weird imaginary creatures. Do you think there's something wrong with him? He's in 5th grade already - and he loves math but his english isn't that good. Can you please help me? I don't know what to do about him!!"
"'Want some additional information, answers to questions, or support? Please consider joining and posting them at the 'Learning and Attention Difficulties' group found here at GS to receive to receive practical suggestions from parents who have faced similar challenges:'"
"My son was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADD this past year. The underfunded public school district here in northern Illinois was less than helpful. They claimed his test scores were fine. I had him evaluated by a private psychologist who stated otherwise... At any rate I was able to force them to provide assistance for my child because of a federal law, the '504 plan' requires schools to assist a child with diagnosed learning disabilities. They played dumb until I brought it up, then suddenly they were cooperative."
"My daughter has a learning disabilities and dyslexia, and appriaxia"
"My 13 year old son, about to enter 8th grade, was evaluated last year by the school district psychologist. She told us he tested in the “acceptable� range and did not have any learning disability. Last week he was evaluated by a principal at a school for learning disabilities who was “appalled� at his low scores. I plan on taking all of the findings from both sources to an independent psychologist and have him re-evaluated. I am likely to believe someone who has nothing to gain by a positive or a negative outcome. My question is, supposing his evaluation shows he has some disability what should my plan of action be with the school district? The principal told me I'd have to hire a lawyer to get the school district to handle cost of private education. I'd love to hear from anyone who's been through this. Thank you for any advice you could give me."
"Hey,there!! I have two grand-daughers,both dyslexic, now attending a school for dyslexics in the Greenville, SC area. It appears there is no dyslexic school for grades 9-12 in that area. Can you or your readers provide any suggestions? Their mother is considering hiring a tutor (with other parents) to bridge this gap. There is also the problem of further education after the 12th grade. There are many parents who have been thru this--perhaps they would be kind enough to comment. Thank you. "
"my daughter has dyslexia shes in the 9th grade its been very hard trying to get her help ive learned to take the things she loves to help her learn she workes so much harder then the other kids shes turning 18 in 2 moths but thank god shes not a quitter some schools wont test for this learning problem shes just recently this year getting help from the school ive been fightting with the school since the second grade"