A Conversation with Sally Shaywitz, M.D., Author of Overcoming Dyslexia
The author of Overcoming Dyslexia offers interesting answers to questions parents often ask.
By Sally Shaywitz, M.D.
Q: What is dyslexia?
A: Dyslexia refers to a difficulty in learning to read in a person who has good intelligence, strong motivation, and who has received appropriate teaching. Logic says such a child or adult should have learned to read and yet he or she has not. And so dyslexia represents a paradox, particularly in our society where reading ability is often taken as a proxy for intelligence and it is assumed that if you are a good reader you are also highly intelligent and if you struggle to read you must not be so smart. Dyslexia violates that assumption because people who are dyslexic are both highly intelligent and struggle to read. It is exciting that scientists now understand exactly why otherwise smart children and adults can have trouble reading and know how to help them. There are now highly effective methods for diagnosing and treating children and adults with dyslexia at all levels and all ages.
Q: What are the most common misconceptions about people who are dyslexic?
A: Perhaps the most common myth about dyslexia is that people who are dyslexic see words backward ("dog" as "god" or "was" as "saw"). This assumption is wrong. Another myth is that children outgrow reading problems. They don't. This means that it is imperative that dyslexia be detected early and treated seriously. A third myth is that dyslexia affects only (or mostly) boys. In a study published in 1990 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, we demonstrated that dyslexia affects comparable numbers of boys and girls. A fourth myth holds that people who struggle to read are not very smart. On the contrary, some of the very brightest boys and girls struggle to read. Dyslexia occurs at all levels of intelligence, average, above average, and highly gifted. The writer John Irving and the financier Charles Schwab are both dyslexic and I have included their stories in Overcoming Dyslexia not only because they dispel myths about dyslexia but also because they provide wonderful examples of how boys and girls who struggle can become highly successful men and women. A fifth myth is that dyslexia only occurs in languages that use the alphabet and so it does not occur in countries like China and Japan whose languages are logographic (based on characters or pictures). Studies have shown that reading problems are as prevalent in these countries as they are in the United States and that struggling readers in China and Japan tend to make the same types of phonologic or sound-based errors as do their counterparts speaking English or other alphabetic languages.
Q: At what age can signs of dyslexia first be detected? What are the early warning signs?
A: Today, most children who struggle to read are not recognized until third grade, though some are identified earlier. Many more go undetected until much later. Some are not identified until they are adults. Scientists have discovered that almost all cases of dyslexia reflect a problem in getting to the basic sounds of words. Children who are dyslexic are unable to attend to the individual sounds (called phonemes) making up all words. For example, the word "bat" has three phonemes - b - aaaa - t. It is important for children to be able to detect the individual sounds making up a spoken word because that is how they go about solving the reading puzzle.
In Overcoming Dyslexia I review, step-by-step, how children learn to read and which signs tell a parent that a child is not on track for becoming a reader. The earliest clues can come from listening to a child's spoken language; a mild delay in learning to talk or a difficulty learning words that rhyme are often very early indicators of a possible reading problem. A little later, difficulty learning the names of the letters of the alphabet and then the sounds of the letters may be signs of an imminent reading difficulty. But once these vulnerabilities are identified there are now scientifically proven early reading programs that bring a child up to speed and allow her to catch up to and keep pace with her classmates.