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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 defined

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

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.

Kristin Stanberry is a writer and editor specializing in parenting, education, and consumer health/wellness issues. Her areas of expertise include learning disabilities and AD/HD, which she wrote about extensively for Schwab Learning and GreatSchools.


Comments from readers

"Have you ever wondered why (d)looks like (b) or (q) looks like (p) db qp fonts that are typical to vision like Y,O,M,I,and V don`t appear backwards to a person who has Strephosymbolia , let`s just call it what it is for a change ( Everything appears Backwards)it`s just that simple, the brain is just wired that way from birth due to genetics ,the greatest school learns to addapt to the students needs (like getting books published in mirror image format) teach the teachers how to read backwards and they will be of better help to those who do read in this format, learn to accept that it is a brain thing (we just don`t see things as in what is known as the norm ) paschar"
"My son, too, has struggles with processing of language, written expression and the like. The school states he does not qualify for an IEP because his symptoms are not severe enough...yet he falls through the crack. My suggestion is to look into the Barton Reading and Spelling System. It is wonderful and should help. You would be better off to actually find a tutor that is a certified Barton instructor. Good luck and keep up the fight!"
" My family moved to New Mexico 2 years ago. My son is 7 and in the 2nd grade. He has trouble with spelling, writing, copying from the board and reading. I have been told over and over that New Mexico does not recognize dyslexia as a learning disability. They say it is a medical condition and they do not test for it. Nor do they have any help for my son. He did not qualify for special education. So, he is failing 2nd grade. I don't know how to help him. His teachers tell me to make him read things over and over. It does not seem to help. I am furious with New Mexico schools for not caring about my son's education! Help?"