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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.

Comments from readers

"You have said '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.' Please give me just one example of this in Chinese to show you know what you are talking about. I speak in 4 languages including Mandarin and I teach 3 languages including Mandarin and I don't see any of my students having such a problem as you state."
"I am the parent of a 14 year old dyslexic boy. Last year we attempted to have him take the writing portion of the State test (in Connecticut) utilizing a voice activated software program. At that time the guidelines allowed only students with severe physical deformities that prohibit the ability to write or type a response could use this approach. I was happy to find out after recently speaking to the State Department of Education that the guidelines have been revised to include any student that demonstrates the need will be allowed to use the program. This was huge progress for us. Your comments brought to light the need to keep advocating for him as he approaches the time to be taking the SAT's. My son has such a great attitude about his dyslexia, regularly pointing out that it is no big deal. He recently started a blog to post his thoughts to hopefully help other kids that are struggling or are newly diagnosed."
"I read your book two years ago and needed to go out and buy it again, as I misplaced it. I am an educator and a person with dylexia that has overcome dyslexia but still has dysgraphia. MY son who also had dyslexia has taught me so much about dyslexia and I was able to support him. A child that may have been in skilled class--is now in regents plus. I really want to educate others about dyslexia yet I hit so many road blocks! I managed to get my Bachcelors in English and my Masters in Special Education. I passed all of the tests such as LAST, ATS-W, the video exam---but I was unable to pass the English Content Test because I do not have enough time to hand write the essay! I failed the test by 10 points one time and about 4 points the second time. I can write a dynamic essay if I have the appropriate tools such as a typewriter and they testing site won't give me a typewriter even though I provided proof, I was able to have extended time at New Paltz College and the use of a typewriter. I believe I may have passed the test this past Feb 21st since for the first time, I fianally had time to finish the essay. MY son also could not get accomodations to take the SAT test. I was amazed they declined to allow Tim to use a computer, especially since Timmy took typing in 7th grade as an accomodation. Timmy taught me tha! t he thought about shaping his letters and would loose his great thoughts before he could get this thoughts onto paper. Tim has a large vocabulary and an excellent speaker. When Tim learned to use a typewriter--he could write as quickly as he could speak--because he didn't have to think about how to shape the letters. Also the space bar allowed others to easily read his work. When he hand wrote his work he often would not leave any spaces between words. I hope to get politicians and any other willing person to allow dyslexia individuals to have the use of a typewriter. You wouldn't expect a person without a leg to walk without a wheelchair or some other accomondation. When I was trying to get the use of a computer they kept saying dyslexia is a Learning Disorder and not mechanincal. But for me it is a mechanical barrier. I still get nervous in a checkout line and other people are behind me--I freeze and my signature is horrible. Sincerely, Joanne Johnson Your book is an inspiration to all!!! I have been able to help students with dyslexia by offering to scribe for them and then they no longer feel pressure and they pick up the pen themselves! They also will verbally state their opinion--write their opinion--re-read their statement for accuracy--insert omit words & ideas. With practice they develop great habits that aid them in documenting their verbal statements accurately. "