What do Albert Einstein, Whoopi Goldberg, and Percy Jackson have in common?
A diagnosis (albeit retroactive or speculative) of dyslexia.
Fortunately, our understanding of the condition has progressed since the days of Einstein—and it’s also more accurate than it’s portrayed in The Olympians. (Percy’s challenges in that beloved series are said to result from his brain being “hard-wired” for ancient Greek, which is…not really a thing.)
So what do we know now? “You can screen early, and you can intervene just as early,” says Emily Lutrick, a preK–5 curriculum and dyslexia coordinator with almost 20 years of experience in education (and a guest on Science of Reading: The Podcast).
Let’s take a look at more of what we know about what dyslexia is (and is not), what students with these challenges struggle with, and the importance—and power—of early intervention.
What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a neurological condition that affects the way a person’s brain processes written and spoken language—and thus their ability to read, write, and spell. It shows up as difficulties in accurate and fluent word recognition, spelling, and decoding.
More precisely, people with dyslexia often experience challenges in phonological awareness. They may struggle to break down words into their component sounds and to recognize the relationships between letters and sounds. These difficulties can make reading and writing laborious, and can—understandably—bring down a student’s performance and confidence. It’s a lifelong condition that requires (and responds to) specific research-based interventions.
In the United States, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that about 15–20% of the population has symptoms indicating a risk of dyslexia or reading difficulty. The condition occurs across different cultures, languages, generations, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Common misconceptions about dyslexia
Dyslexia is not a result of laziness, poor teaching, or lack of effort (or of being a demi-god).
Let’s debunk some other misconceptions:
- Dyslexia is not a visual problem that causes readers to mix up letters like “b” and “d.” People with dyslexia struggle to match letters to sounds. (Confusing letters is actually common—lots of kids do it, and then move past it, as they learn to read.)
- We don’t have to wait for students to “fail” in order to identify signs of dyslexia. Some clues and signs may emerge even before students start school, such as a delay in learning tasks like tying shoes and telling time, or difficulties with self-expression; following directions; or learning the alphabet, rhymes, or times tables.
- Students with dyslexia do not just need more time to learn to read. Dyslexia is not something outgrown. Students who are at risk of developing dyslexia need consistent, high-quality, research-based instruction.
- People with dyslexia are slower / not as smart. On the contrary, people with dyslexia are able to think as quickly and creatively as others, and are just as intelligent.
- Students with dyslexia need to use different materials than everyone else. Students with dyslexia can actually succeed using the same texts and curricula as their peers!
- Students with dyslexia do have the potential to read at grade level when they have access to early intervention, targeted supports, and a flexible curriculum. In fact, a study at the University of Washington showed that only eight weeks of specialized instruction strengthened neural circuitry—and improved reading performance.
Types of dyslexia
Dyslexia is also not a one-size-fits-all condition. Some common types include:
- Phonological dyslexia: This type of dyslexia primarily affects a person’s ability to decode words and recognize the sounds associated with letters and letter combinations.
- Surface dyslexia: Students with surface dyslexia may struggle with irregular words that do not follow common phonetic rules but be able to read more regular words accurately.
- Rapid naming deficit: This type of dyslexia is characterized by difficulty in rapidly naming familiar objects, colors, or symbols.
- Double deficit dyslexia: Individuals with double deficit dyslexia exhibit both phonological and rapid naming deficits.
The importance of early intervention
Early intervention is key to helping students with dyslexia reach their full potential. Research has shown that identifying and addressing the condition in the earliest possible stages of education can significantly improve student reading and writing abilities—and so much more.
Early intervention generally focuses on building foundational skills such as phonemic awareness, phonics, decoding, and reading fluency. It might include specialized instruction, assistive technology, and modifications to classroom materials and assessments.
Intervention has an emotional and social impact, too. Dyslexia can bring down a student’s confidence and even keep them on the social sidelines. By identifying and addressing dyslexia early, teachers can provide their students with access to emotional support and opportunities to catch and keep up with their peers, which helps them remain part of the classroom community.
Screening for dyslexia
- Phonological Awareness Assessment: Assesses a student’s ability to recognize and manipulate sounds in words.
- Rapid Automatized Naming (RAN) Test: Evaluates how quickly a student can name.
And before all that, it’s important that teachers be the first eyes and ears. They may ask caregivers about any family history of reading difficulties, as the condition often has a genetic component. Lutrick watches for students who might be struggling to read fluently or think meta-cognitively about text. ”You know that they’ve got the ability but something is just blocking them,” she says.
One diagnostic tack she takes: Asking them to try to decode nonsense words. “For a child who is struggling and at risk of reading difficulty, every word may be a nonsense word,” she says. “Do they have the skills necessary to break it down? If not, I would like to try to help them fill those gaps as quickly as I can.” (mCLASS also includes a Nonsense Word Fluency assessment.)
And it’s possible to intervene even before that, as podcast host Susan Lambert notes: “If we are not already doing systematic and explicit phonics in kindergarten and first grade, there is a possibility that we wouldn’t identify those kids.”
Lutrick also points out that dyslexia can be disguised in many different ways. “Look at every student and see if there is something behind the mask,” she says. “We need to task ourselves to really look at every individual student as if each one of them is critically important, which we all believe, or we wouldn’t be in this profession.”
More to explore
- Science of Reading: The Podcast, Season 7, Episode 7: Debunking the “gift” of dyslexia in children with Dr. Tim Odegard
- Science of Reading: The Podcast, Season 1, Episode 6: The facts and myths of dyslexia with Emily Lutrick
- Dyslexia Fact vs. Fiction
- mCLASS® Dyslexia Toolkit