What Is Dyslexia? A Guide For Educators (Part 1)Oct 01, 2023
This post is dedicated to spreading the word about dyslexia.
There’s been a lot of progress made in this field since I was at university (and didn’t hear any mention of it) so hopefully this post will help bring more educators up to date with the latest information regarding dyslexia.
In this post I’ll be focusing on what it is, who can have it and the red flags educators should be looking out for.
In my next post, I’ll discuss how to get a student assessed for dyslexia, as well as suggesting accommodations you can make for any dyslexic students in your classroom.
To be honest, these posts on dyslexia are all the things I wish I’d known when I first started teaching.
What is dyslexia?
First, let’s start with a definition.
There are many technical and long-winded definitions of dyslexia, but the most user-friendly one I’ve come across is that dyslexia is ‘an unexpected difficulty learning to read despite intelligence, motivation, and education’ (Shaywitz and Shaywitz, 2020, p. 39).
I like this definition because it’s short, straightforward, clear and perfectly describes all the students I’ve worked with who’ve been literacy enigmas in the past. (You know the ones who’ve seemingly had all the right tools and ingredients at their disposal but, for some unknown reason, still struggled to learn to read?)
Now, let’s move on to what dyslexia actually is…
The research on what dyslexia is and what causes it has changed over the years, but it’s now widely believed that people with dyslexia experience issues as the phonologic level of their language system (Shaywitz and Shaywitz 2020; Dehaene, 2010).
The phonological model is the part of the language system responsible for processing phonemes, or speech sounds. This processing -and its impact on language- is best explained by Shaywitz and Shaywitz in their book, Overcoming Dyslexia:
“Before words can be identified, understood, stored in memory, or retrieved from it, they must first be broken down into phonemes by the neural machinery of the brain…
If I want to say the word bat, I will go into my internal dictionary or lexicon deep within my brain and first retrieve and then serially order the appropriate phonemes -b, aah, and t- and then I am ready to say the word bat.
In children with dyslexia, the phonemes are less well developed. Think of such a phoneme as a child’s carved letter block whose face is so worn that the letter is no longer prominent. As a consequence, such children, when speaking, may have a hard time selecting the appropriate phoneme and may instead retrieve a phoneme that is similar in sound…
While most of us can detect the underlying sounds or phonemes in a word, children who are dyslexic perceive a word as an amorphous blur, without an appreciation of its underlying segmental nature. They fail to appreciate the internal sound structure of words.”
(Shaywitz and Shaywitz, 2020).
The verdict: Dyslexia reflects a localised weakness at the phonologic module of a person’s language system. This is the part of the brain that’s responsible for putting sounds together to form words (blending) and pulling words apart to identify their internal sounds (segmenting).
Is dyslexia related to low intelligence?
No. Dyslexia is not related to low intelligence.
Leading dyslexia researcher Sally Shaywitz states that mental processes such as thinking, reasoning and understanding are not negatively impacted by dyslexia. She says that the paradox of dyslexia is ‘profound and persistent difficulties experienced by some very bright people in learning to read’ (2020).
Although there are some well-known and highly successful dyslexics (including: Jackie French, Leondardo DaVinci, Jamie Oliver, Richard Branson, Keira Knightly and Muhhamad Ali, it’s important to dispel the myth that ALL dyslexics are highly intelligent or gifted. This simply isn’t true. Dyslexics are not all gifted or all arty or all sciency or all anything else. Dyslexia presents in different ways for different people and we need to be careful not to make common generalisations such as ‘she’s really artistic so she’s probably dyslexic.’
The verdict: Dyslexia is not related to low intelligence.
Can girls be dyslexic?
It was once believed that dyslexia affected mainly males (with a suggested ratio as high as 5 males for every 1 female).
What do we know now?
More recent research has found no significant difference between the prevalence of dyslexia in males vs females (Shaywitz and Shaywitz, 2020). What this research also revealed was that earlier research on prevalence was skewed by the fact that teachers more readily identified symptoms of dyslexia in males than they did females (meaning more males were recommend for diagnosis).
One particularly worrying finding of Shaywitz and Shaywitz’s (2020) research was that females tended to be ‘more severely impaired in reading before they were identified for special education services’. This was often related to their ‘calmer’, less ‘rambunctious’ nature in the classroom when compared to their male counterparts. Hopefully -with more education for teachers- we can change this experience for our female students.
The verdict: Both males and females can be dyslexic.
When can dyslexia be diagnosed?
It was once believed that students couldn’t be diagnosed with dyslexia until they reached year 3 in primary school. This was based on the belief that teachers and parents should ‘wait and see’ if reading finally ‘clicked’ for the student, before going down the path of formal assessment.
The thinking back then was that year 3 was the apparent cutoff date for reading to ‘click’. It was also the time it would be most apparent that a student was falling behind their peers.
What do we know now?
We now know that clues that a child may have dyslexia can become apparent as early as the preschool years (and even before then). Some early clues can include:
- Mispronouncing words.
- Oral language deficits.
- Difficulty learning / remembering names of letters and/or numbers.
- Trouble learning nursery rhymes.
We also now know that the earlier a child is diagnosed and provided with appropriate intervention, the more positive their learning outcome will be.
Conversely, the longer a student has to wait to be diagnosed, the less effective their outcome. (Don’t lose hope though- interventions can still be effective right through to adulthood, it’s just that they’re often more effective when implemented earlier.)
Because we know the signs to look out for, and because we know that that earlier intervention is more effective, it’s no longer acceptable to wait until a child is in year 3 before seeking a diagnosis. In fact, schools should be striving to identify their potentially dyslexic students by the end of year 1. (Which is the reason so many educational institutions now implement a year 1 phonics screening test).
The verdict: Teachers should not delay their support for students demonstrating signs of dyslexia. The earlier a student is diagnosed, the better.
What are the red flags teachers should look out for?
Before I share some common red flags with you, I want to be clear that dyslexia does not present in the exact same way for every child. Students may have some or all of the symptoms presented on the following list.
As psychology researcher Mark Seidenberg suggests, ‘we should call it the dyslexia spectrum, which, like the autism spectrum, includes individuals whose patterns of strengths and deficits differ markedly, as do relevant conditions in the home, school and community’ (2017).
To get started, I recommend using the dyslexia definition I shared earlier as your first red flag for potential dyslexia:
Dyslexia is ‘an unexpected difficulty learning to read despite intelligence, motivation, and education’ (Shaywitz and Shaywitz, 2020, p. 39).
This means that when you have a student who should be picking up reading at the same rate as their peers (i.e. they don’t have a diagnosed intellectual disability, their absence rate isn’t through the roof, they’re doing all the work etc) but they still aren’t making progress, a red flag for dyslexia should go up for this child.
Other red flags include:
- Struggling with phonemic awareness tasks such as identifying initial sounds, blending sounds into words and/or segmenting words into sounds.
- Mixing up phonemes when pronouncing words (e.g. says ‘Glen Warren’ when talking about ‘Wattle Glen’).
- Frequent errors when pronouncing words (especially longer words).
- Struggling to learn letter/sound relationships.
- Struggling to blend phonemes when reading.
- Reading the first part of the word then guessing the remainder of the word.
- Avoiding reading and or/writing.
- Taking a long time to complete tasks that involve reading and/or writing.
- Difficulties with working memory (e.g. forgets steps in a series).
- Reading with lots of errors, substitutions, omissions, mispronunciations.
- A good level of understanding of texts read to them, but not of texts they read themselves.
- Difficulty reading non words (because they can’t use context to decipher the word).
- Slow or laboured reading.
Remember: It’s important to note that a student does not need to be exhibiting ALL of these symptoms to be diagnosed as dyslexic. This is a sampling of potential red flags to look out for.
To help busy teachers identify potential cases of dyslexia more efficiently, I recommend adding ‘spelling’ to Shaywitz and Shaywitz’s earlier definition:
Dyslexia is an unexpected difficulty learning to read (and spell) despite intelligence, motivation, and education.
(Adapted from Shaywitz and Shaywitz, 2020, p. 39).
The reason I’ve added spelling to this definition is because I believe it’s an effective ‘canary in the goldmine’ when it comes to identifying students experiencing issues at the phonologic level. Problems with identifying and retrieving sounds within words are key characteristic of dyslexia and a students’ spelling can be helpful in revealing these issues.
Spelling red flags include:
- Omission of key phonemes or large chunks of phonemes.
- Correct phonemes in the wrong places (as if the child knows the phoneme is in the word but represents it in the wrong part).
- Poor spelling overall.
- Messy handwriting.
Note: These spelling red flags can also be signs of dysgraphia. (See this post for more info on dysgraphia).
Common misconceptions that should be avoided
There are many misconceptions that exist about dyslexia and dyslexics. Unfortunately, there are also many ill-informed comments that accompany these misconceptions.
Some to look out for include:
- He’s not trying hard enough.
- She just needs to focus more.
- He needs to listen more in class.
- She’s just not paying attention.
- He mustn’t have dyslexia because he can still read.
- She’s just lazy.
Dyslexic students are most definitely not lazy! In fact, you could argue that quite the opposite is true- often their brains are working much harder than their peers’ because they’re coming up with multiple workarounds while reading -such as relying heavily on context clues- as well as constantly strategising ways to avoid being seen as less-intelligent in class.
This extra brain work is part of the reason reading can be exhausting for dyslexic students and part of the reason they often need more time to complete tasks.
I hope this introduction to dyslexia has been helpful for you.
In part 2 of this blog, I discuss assessments you can use to help identify students at risk, as well as talk about helpful accommodations you can make for these students in your classroom. (Click here to read part 2 of this blog).
If you found this post helpful, or if you have any other questions or comments about dyslexia, I’d love to hear them. Join in the conversation on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook Group.
- Dehaene, S. (2010) Reading in the brain: The new science of how we read. New York, NY: Viking.
- Seidenberg, M. (2017) Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it. New York, NY: Basic Books.
- Shaywitz, S.E. and Shaywitz, J. (2020) Overcoming Dyslexia. 2nd edn. London: Sheldon Press.
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