Dealing with Dyslexia

Dyslexia is something that I’ve heard about my entire adult life as a teacher. But my knowledge has been fairly superficial until now.

Recently I found out that several of my family members are dyslexic. Some are children, one is an adult. Seeing their struggles – at various stages of life – has triggered an interest in me to find out more about dyslexia.

One of the first statistics I came across is that dyslexia affects many children (as many as 1 in 5), so if my research can be helpful, I want to share.

What Is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a recent word but not a new concept. For centuries, people have described children who are bright and developmentally normal in every way but can’t learn to read. An older term for dyslexia was “word blindness” which is a pretty good way to sum it up.

A more modern way of describing dyslexia is “lack of phonemic awareness”, which basically means that the dyslexic child is unable to effectively connect letters (symbols) with their sounds.

Dyslexia as a whole is actually a complex set of issues that can include:

~ Difficulty recognizing letters and their sounds
~ Difficulty holding a pencil and forming letters (dysgraphia)
~ Difficulty with reading comprehension, i.e. determining the meaning of a sentence
~ Difficulty with spelling
~ Vision or eye tracking issues
~ Irlen Syndrome – sensitivity to black text on a white background

The World Federation of Neurology defines dyslexia as “a disorder manifested by difficulty in learning to read despite conventional instruction, adequate intelligence and sociocultural opportunity.” In other words, if a child has every opportunity to learn to read, and is smart enough to learn to read, and can’t, they are probably dyslexic.

Here is a helpful checklist of dyslexia symptoms:

~ Can read a word on one page, but not on the next page
~ Knows phonics, but can’t—or won’t—sound out an unknown word
~ Slow, inaccurate reading of words in isolation (when there is no story line or pictures)
~ When reading aloud, reads in a slow, choppy cadence and often ignores punctuation
~ Becomes visibly tired after reading for only a short time
~ Reading comprehension is low due to spending so much energy trying to figure out words
~ Listening comprehension is usually significantly higher than reading comprehension.
~ Directionality confusion shows up when reading and when writing (confusing b,d,p,q)
~ Misreads, omits, or adds small function words such as an, a, from, the, to, were, are, of
~ Omits or changes suffixes, saying need for needed, talks for talking, or late for lately
~ Frequent guessing of unknown words based on context or pictures
~ Substitutes similar-looking words, even if it changes the meaning of the sentence, such as sunrise for surprise or house for horse
~ When reading a story or a sentence, substitutes a word that means the same thing but doesn’t look at all similar, such as trip for journey, fast for speed, or cry for weep

In spite of these and other challenges, dyslexics are known as a creative group of people who often excel in science and the arts.

The Neurological Component

Studies have shown that the human brain is not actually wired to read. The brain is wired to learn to speak and understand spoken language. When we learn to read, we borrow those language areas and use them for reading. This is why speaking comes so naturally, without instruction, whereas reading is much more difficult.

The dyslexic child is using the visual cortex to try and read. They are primarily recognizing words based on the shape of the letters and the shape of the word, rather than the phonemic sounds the words represent. This approach works for beginning readers – and we enable this type of reading by giving children books with lots of repetition, rhyming, and pictures that provide visual clues to the text. They are often guessing the words they are “reading” but when they guess correctly, we don’t know that they are guessing and we think they are reading.

This is why dyslexia is not often detected until 3rd grade or higher. Until that point, visual reading has worked and the child seems to be “reading”. If there are struggles, it is blamed on the child’s immaturity or lack of focus. As the child gets older, words and books become longer and more complex, and often do not include pictures or other clues as to the content. Now the child is really struggling, and everyone is puzzled as to why.

Can this be corrected? Can the child learn to read using the auditory cortex rather than the visual cortex? There is research to show that with early intervention and specific instruction, the dyslexic child’s brain can be re-wired to process written language correctly. The child can begin to read using the auditory cortex, linking letters with their phonemic sounds and sounding out words phonetically. (See bottom of the post for resources).

Famous Dyslexics

There are many famous scientists, composers, and artists who were dyslexic.

A short list of famous dyslexics includes: Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Pablo Picasso, Beethoven, and Albert Einstein. That’s pretty good company.

These people weren’t brilliant in spite of being dyslexic; they were brilliant because they were dyslexic.

How could Leonardo da Vinci draw sketches for a submarine centuries before it was possible to build one? How was Albert Einstein able to develop his theory of relativity based on a vivid dream, while today’s scientists still struggle to understand it? How was Beethoven able to compose sublime melodies after becoming almost completely deaf?

Dyslexia enabled these men to think primarily in pictures, not words; to make lightning fast connections between seemingly unrelated ideas; and to think outside the box – really, for dyslexics, there is no box.

Many very successful people in today’s world have dyslexia, including Tom Cruise, Jay Leno, the actor Henry Winkler, and the playwright Wendy Wasserstein. If you read interviews with them, they will all report that they became successful because of their dyslexia – it motivated them to work harder than other people because they were told so many times that they would never amount to anything. They worked to prove their detractors wrong.

It is very helpful to talk to a child with dyslexia about famous, successful dyslexics. It helps them to feel that they are not alone, and that they can still achieve great things in spite of the challenge of dyslexia.

The Gender and Age Myth

Many people believe that only boys (or men) are dyslexic, but that is proving to not be the case. In centuries past, many women were never taught to read, so dyslexia never arose as a problem.

In today’s world, girls are often well-behaved in class, and as long as they do not call attention to themselves, it’s easier for them to slip by undiagnosed. Both boys and girls with dyslexia are good at coming up with coping mechanisms to get around their reading difficulties. Teachers and parents have to be vigilant in observing both boys and girls for signs of dyslexia.

Another myth is that dyslexia cannot be diagnosed until 2nd or 3rd grade, since frequently, it is not diagnosed until those grades.

However, ultra-observant teachers and parents can find signs of it sooner, as young as age 5, which include:

~ The inability to rhyme words or to hear rhyming sounds
~ A mild delay in learning to talk
~ Pauses when talking, such as “um” (more frequent than normal)
~ Difficulty breaking words into syllables
~ Family history of dyslexia

Early Intervention

Commonly, children with dyslexia do not receive intervention quickly enough. Because the inability to read is frustrating, resulting in a reluctance to read, teachers and parents may conclude that the child just “isn’t interested in reading”, “isn’t mature enough”, “isn’t focused enough”, etc. These excuses result in a “wait and see” approach which is devastating for the struggling child.

In order to make the dyslexia diagnosis as early as possible, it’s important for educators to know that lack of interest and lack of focus are generally symptoms of reading problems, not causes of reading problems.

As soon as dyslexia is suspected, intervention is necessary. The sooner intervention begins, the better. It’s better to take action and find out it’s not necessary than to take no action at all. The dyslexic child can sense that they are struggling and they need an advocate, someone to stand with them and help them through the tricky maze of sounds and letters.

Dyslexic children do not benefit from a “wait and see” approach. Time is of the essence. Dyslexia does not go away or get better with age. The younger children are when intervention begins, the greater the chance of success due to the pliability of the brain. When intervention is delayed, the child’s brain becomes less pliable and reading success becomes more difficult.

The dyslexic child knows there is a problem. There is no way to hide it from them or pretend it doesn’t exist. Usually, when they are told that they are dyslexic, they feel a huge sense of relief that their problem has a name. Their reluctance to read turns into a willingness to work once they know that there is help to be found.

What Can Be Done?

There are many resources available for children with dyslexia. In the public school system, parents or teachers can request testing to verify the dyslexia diagnosis, at which point the child will receive special services. Many schools have reading specialists who provide additional tutoring (beyond regular classroom work) for dyslexic children.

As well, most schools provide accommodations to child with reading difficulty, including having the teacher read test questions aloud, rather than the child reading them, extra time for tests and other work completed in class, and books and textbooks on CD or MP3 so the child can listen rather than read.

Many states have specific legislation covering the testing and treatment of dyslexia. Please Google “dyslexia legislation _______”, filling in the blank with your state or country to see what services are provided and/or mandated.

Parents can and should educate themselves, even if their child is receiving specific help in school. There are numerous books, websites, training programs, and clinics where helpful information and programs can be found.

Helpful Resources:

Easyread – This online program consists of over 200 lessons for the child to complete over a year or so. Using their unique “trainer text” (pictures that represent sounds, shown with the accompanying letters), children with reading issues are able to sound out words right away and see a dramatic improvement after 3-4 months.

My personal experience is that Easyread is the best method of activating the visual cortex and making progress in reading that is available today. It actually re-wires a child’s brain to read correctly.

Checklist of 37 Symptoms of Dyslexia – Helpful checklist to use when diagnosing dyslexia

The Logic of English – this is an Orton-Gillingham (multi-sensory) based reading and spelling curriculum by Denise Eide that can be done at home by a parent or at school by a teacher. It does not require training in order to use it. I attended a workshop by Denise Eide at a homeschooling conference and was very impressed by her curriculum as well as her insight into the English language.

Bright Solutions for Dyslexia – World-renowned dyslexia expert Susan Barton has her own version of the Orton-Gillingham Method (called the Barton Reading System) and her website is full of information, including videos, about dyslexia. The Barton Reading Method can be purchased to use at home or at school.

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24 Responses to “Dealing with Dyslexia”

  • Lillian said at October 12th, 2011 at 7:43 am :

    Great post! I find Why Our Children Can’t Read and What We Can Do About It: A Scientific Revolution in Reading by Dianne McGuinness one of the best resources on teaching reading. Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz is good at explaining the neuroscience of dyslexia, but it does not offer many practical solutions of overcoming reading problems.

  • Lori Bourne said at October 12th, 2011 at 8:11 am :

    Hi, Lillian! Thanks for the recommendation, I will check out the first book you mentioned! I have read the Shaywitz book and I agree with you.

  • Bruce Bourne said at October 12th, 2011 at 8:21 am :

    Wonderful post, and extremely detailed! You’re right on the money mentioning that kids feel a sense of relief once they know there’s an actual reason to their difficulties in reading. I’ve had conversations with my friends about dyslexia, referencing your points. I could visibly see light bulbs going off when they realized that dyslexia isn’t simply seeing letters backwards.

  • Lori Bourne said at October 12th, 2011 at 10:00 am :

    I’m embarrassed to say that I used to think that “dyslexia” pretty much meant reversing letters and numbers beyond when it’s considered normal. Now, of course, I know that letter and number reversals are just a symptom of dyslexia – an outward sign of “lack of phonemic awareness”. And of course, there are many more symptoms beside that one. I’m so glad to be learning!

  • Annicles said at October 12th, 2011 at 12:45 pm :

    My eldest has been diagnosed as having a processing disorder on the dyslexic spectrum. As with other disorders, the symptoms and signs vary from child to child. When she was tested we were concerned about her inability to concentrate for long, her difficulty in reading people’s faces, which was leading to problems with making and keeping friends and a problem with spelling despite a love of reading that should have cemented spelling patterns early.

    What we found was, at the age of 7 and 3/4’s she had a verbal reasoning age of 16 and 1/6 but the ability to concentrate of a 6 year old. Her ability to take in information at first hearing or reading was very low (bottom 10%) but her ability to understand after a small amount of re-reading or a second/third verbal repetition was in the top 0.1% of her age group. This disparity between different abilities is one of the most frustrating things about the condition.

    She has had a lot of help at school and we have put a lot in at home. The things that helped her the most were always multi-sensory programmes. For instance, touch-typing improved her spellings because she learnt letter clusters for diagraphs/trigraphs or spelling rules which she physically remembered when she had to write them down for a spelling test. She would silently “type” on the desk and then write them down in the book.

    Mind maps and other visuals have helped her to organise work better, particularly fact heavy subjects like science, geography and history. We found that a good Ed. Psych. is able to give so many resources and helpful ideas that it completely changed her life. Not to mention how happy she was to find there was a reason and some things we could do to help her.

  • Janet said at October 12th, 2011 at 12:59 pm :

    Thank you for sharing this information … I have been told that I have a form of dyslexia which has led to a reading phobia. Now that I have had the opportunity to learn more about dyslexia, I am letting go of my concerns in reading and taking the chance to learn many new things.

  • Lori Bourne said at October 12th, 2011 at 1:43 pm :

    Annicles, thank you for that helpful first-person account. I am so glad that your daughter was able to get the help she needs. It’s amazing how much skills can improve when the proper action is taken. I love how you said “Not to mention how happy she was to find there was a reason…” because that has been my experience also. Knowing the reason for a problem is half the battle right there.

    Janet, you bring up an important point, which is that many people make it to adulthood without the dyslexia diagnosis. They often find out they are dyslexic when they have a child who is, and realize that there is a “name” for what they have struggled with all their lives. So glad that you are taking chances and learning new things – we all need to do that!

  • David Morgan said at October 13th, 2011 at 9:46 am :

    I really agree with your emphasis on the distinction between causes and symptoms. We at Easyread have spent many years focusing on recognising the underlying cause from the symptoms we see. That can often lead to quite quick progress. We are happy to do an analysis of anyone’s reading difficulty with that approach. We also have a lot of background information on it that might be useful.

  • Lori Bourne said at October 13th, 2011 at 3:08 pm :

    Hi, David! Thanks for stopping by. Glad to know that your site has a lot of great information. I hope people take advantage of it!

  • Deirdre Sheridan said at October 14th, 2011 at 3:01 am :

    My eldest child was only diagnosed in her second year of secondary school (age 14). She was acting out, class clown etc. Classic indicators but she had passed through the primary system ok,average not exceptional but knew the name of every single child in the school. She started her education aged 2yrs 5months in a fantastic Montessori school where she learned to read through fun, games and practical equipment with no pressure. She attended for 3yrs before joining the mainstream school in another language, Irish-immersion style. What she learned in those first 3yrs has stood to er and helped her all her life… What kills me is I am a Montessori teacher and never saw she was struggling (good coping skills and avoidance strategies).She has just had her state exams and passed everything! I am so proud of all she has achieved to date, She has started an introductory college course where she tells me 8 of 17 have dyslexia. Pure coincidence!!

  • Lori Bourne said at October 14th, 2011 at 7:06 am :

    Hi, Deirdre! Thank you so much for sharing your story. It is amazing to me at how dyslexic children can cope so that no one knows they have a problem…it’s a testament to their intelligence and creativity, but definitely makes it harder to diagnose. I am so glad your daughter is doing well! That gives hope to many people!

  • Pam Jarvis said at October 14th, 2011 at 6:32 pm :


    I am a special education teacher in a public elementary school and also oversee the dyslexia program. Our district uses the Scottish Rite Luke Waites Center DVDs.

    Another theory is that children with dyslexia are figural learners, in that they see things in pictures. The part of the brain which recognizes symbolic representations is not as accessible to figural learners. We have successfully used a reading software program with pictures, and Locan which is a reading system in pictures that help children feel successful and get a basic reading vocabulary. Many times after using programs such as this for a couple of years, I find students are then read to start decoding and hearing sounds.

    Recently I attended a training for a program named SPELL. It is a diagnostic program which allows you to see where kids are making errors and then prescribes a course of study to explicitly give direct instruction in word study which includes phonemic awareness, orthographics, morphological level, semantic level and finally mental images of words.

    Love your products!

  • Lori Bourne said at October 14th, 2011 at 6:54 pm :

    Hi, Pam! Thanks so much for your input! Dyslexic children absolutely think in pictures, as I mention in the section on famous dyslexics. Being able to think in pictures enables them to learn many words by sight, but by avoiding learning words phonetically, they reach a point where they cannot make progress with reading anymore and that’s usually when their dyslexia is detected.

    The resources you mention sound great – I hope people check them out!

  • Ingrid Sherwood said at October 15th, 2011 at 1:35 pm :

    Concise and precise! Thank you for recognizing that Irlen Syndrome exists. I do not have dyslexia, but I do have Irlen Syndrome, which has hindered my reading all my life.

  • Lori Bourne said at October 15th, 2011 at 8:21 pm :

    Hi, Ingrid! So sorry that you’ve had to deal with that struggle. It must be extremely difficult. I think it’s one of those things that probably affects more people than we realize. Thank you so much for sharing!

  • Jeannie Buskirk said at October 16th, 2011 at 9:42 am :

    Thank you for the informative article. I have a student, 6 1/2, who is making excellent progress since starting vision therapy–another possibility for help.

  • Lori Bourne said at October 16th, 2011 at 9:56 am :

    Hi, Jeannie! Yes, vision is a very important component. So glad your student is making excellent progress! Thanks for stopping by!

  • Barbara Herbert said at October 24th, 2011 at 9:56 am :

    Thank you so much for this info. I’ve got a student who has been diagnosed with dyslexia and fits this description to the T. You’ve helped me to understand this child, especially when he can read a word on one page and not the next.

    Thank you so much,
    Barbara Herbert

  • Lori Bourne said at October 24th, 2011 at 2:43 pm :

    Hi, Barbara! So glad to help. I hope your student gets the help he needs!

  • Tehmina Rizvi said at March 7th, 2012 at 8:13 am :

    I am a mother of 3 children. My older son is in 2nd grade and struggling with studies. He’ll be not moving to next grade this year. I am unable to understand whether he has dyslexia or he’s behind his age. Because when he was in kindergarten he was at pre-k level , when in 1st grade he was at kinder level and now he’s in grade 2nd he’s at 1st grade level and recently we changed the house also and kids are going to different school. If I can get some advice about this I’d appreciate it, whether I take him for dyslexia testing or find some other ways to make him learn or leave him like this according to his pace. Thanks!

  • Lori Bourne said at March 7th, 2012 at 8:31 am :

    Hi! You should mention your concerns to his teacher and ask that he be tested. Don’t let him struggle without doing anything. He needs your intervention.

    The school will test him for all different kinds of learning disabilities so they should be able to find out what’s going on, no matter what kind of learning disability it is. Generally public schools don’t use the word “dyslexia”, they talk about “delayed reading”, but he will still get the right help he needs no matter what they call it.

  • Tehmina Rizvi said at March 7th, 2012 at 8:44 am :


  • Kylie said at November 28th, 2012 at 11:09 pm :

    My five year old son attends a small private Montessori school. We have a family history of dyslexia and he is showing many of the early signs. We have decided to get him evaluated but it will be many months before he is seen. Do you have any recommendations for activities that could be incorporated into a Montessori classroom that might help him?

  • Lori Bourne said at November 29th, 2012 at 4:12 am :

    Hi, Kylie! Good for you for being on the lookout for the signs of dyslexia.

    I recommend that you start him on Easyread, the computer program I mention in my post, or (if the cost if prohibitive), that you start doing an Orton-Gillingham based program with him like The Logic of English or The Barton Method.

    If you use any of those approaches, you should head off the dyslexia and he will probably not even need services from the school, since you are catching it at such a young age. All of these programs have been shown to re-wire the child’s brain to read correctly.