Defining dyslexia: A modern dilemma
Definitions of dyslexia vary widely. Learn how to cut through the confusion to get help for your child.
By Kristin Stanberry
In recent years, many famous and successful adults have gone public about their learning struggles, attributing a wide range of difficulties to dyslexia. The good news: This type of publicity raises public awareness of learning disabilities, which currently affect nearly 15 percent of Americans, according to the National Institute of Child and Human Development. The downside to widespread publicity: The media, medicine, science, educators, and the law describe and define dyslexia in many different ways, making it hard for parents to gain a clear understanding of what dyslexia really is. In this article, we'll explore the current state of confusion and offer some straight talk about 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:
With this definition in mind, let's explore the confusion that exists on this subject by looking at how various professions view the problem.
The medical and scientific models of dyslexia
The cause and effect of dyslexia are of concern and interest to doctors and research scientists. Interestingly, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV™), published by the American Psychiatric Association, makes no reference to dyslexia. It does, however, include conditions called "reading disorder," "expressive language disorder," and "disorder of written expression" — all of which might fall under the umbrella of dyslexia.
On the research side, however, many well-known neurologists and scientists who conduct brain research tend to use the term "dyslexia." For example, Drs. Bennett and Sally Shaywitz, co-directors of the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development's Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention, use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study brain activity during reading tasks. Their work has helped establish the neurological basis for the disorder they call dyslexia.
What educators say about dyslexia
Many educators don't use the term dyslexia. They talk instead about specific learning disabilities or language processing disorders because, they point out, dyslexia is a broad term which isn't very helpful in developing a targeted educational program to meet a child's individual needs. Teachers believe that by pinpointing exactly where the breakdown occurs in a child's language processing (e.g., word recognition/decoding), they can choose the most effective instruction and assistance for the child.