Dyslexia (dis-LEK-see-uh) is a type of learning disability. A child with a learning disability has trouble processing words or numbers. There are several kinds of learning disabilities — dyslexia is the term used when people have trouble learning to read, even though they're smart enough and want to learn.
What Causes Dyslexia?
Dyslexia is not a disease. It's a condition someone is born with, and it often runs in families. People with dyslexia are not stupid or lazy. Most have average or above-average intelligence, and they work very hard to overcome their reading problems.
Research has shown that dyslexia happens because of a difference in the way the brain processes information. Pictures of the brain show that when people with dyslexia read, they use different parts of the brain than people without dyslexia. These pictures also show that the brains of people with dyslexia don't work efficiently during reading. So that's why reading seems like such slow, hard work.
What Happens in Dyslexia?
Most kids begin learning to read by learning how speech sounds make up words (phonemic awareness) and then connecting those sounds to alphabet letters (phonics). Then they learn how to blend those sounds into words and, eventually, they can recognize words they've seen many times before.
Reading is a little like riding a bike: it requires doing many things at once with precise timing. With practice, typical readers gradually learn to read words automatically so they can focus their mental energy on comprehending and remembering what they've read.
Kids with dyslexia, though, have trouble with phonemic awareness and phonics. So reading doesn't become automatic and stays slow and labored. When a child struggles with these beginning steps in reading, comprehension is bound to suffer and frustration is likely to follow.
A common assumption about dyslexia is that letters or words appear reversed — that "was" appears like "saw." This type of problem can be a part of dyslexia, but reversals are very common among kids up until first or second grade, not just kids with dyslexia. The major problem for kids with dyslexia is in phonemic awareness, phonics, and rapid word recognition.
What Are the Signs of Dyslexia?
In preschool and elementary school kids, some signs of dyslexia can include problems with:
learning to talk
pronouncing longer words
learning the alphabet sequence, days of the week, colors, shapes, and numbers
learning letter names and sounds
learning to read and write his or her name
learning to identify syllables (cow–boy in cowboy) and speech sounds (phonemes: b-a-t in bat) in words
sounding out simple words
reading and spelling words with the correct letter sequence ("top" rather than "pot")
handwriting and fine-motor coordination
Older kids, teenagers, and adults might have these same signs of dyslexia and probably also will:
read and spell far below grade level
avoid reading and writing
work slowly on reading and writing assignments and tests
struggle with learning a foreign language
How Is Dyslexia Diagnosed?
When dyslexia is diagnosed, it is usually discovered during elementary school. In some cases, it doesn't become apparent until a child is older and is expected to read and comprehend longer and more complex material. Continuing problems with advanced reading and spelling may be signs that a bright teenager has dyslexia.
Dyslexia can only be formally diagnosed through a comprehensive evaluation by a reading specialist or psychologist, either at school or in the community. Pediatricians often know the signs of dyslexia and can guide families to proper help.
Delaying help for kids with dyslexia can create a bigger reading problem and a drop in self-esteem. So it's important to recognize symptoms early in elementary school and begin specialized reading instruction right away.
How Is Dyslexia Managed?
Fortunately, with the proper assistance and help, most kids with dyslexia are able to learn to read and develop strategies that allow them to stay in the regular classroom.
They usually work with a specially trained teacher, tutor, or reading specialist to learn how to read, spell, and manage the condition. Your child's teacher, psychologist, or pediatrician may recommend an academic therapist — also called an education therapist or an academic language therapist — who is trained to work with kids with dyslexia.
In the United States, federal laws entitle kids with reading and other language-based learning differences — collectively known as "specific learning disabilities" — to special help in public schools, such as specialized instruction, extra time for tests or homework, or help with taking notes. States vary in how these laws are implemented. Parents should discuss these laws and accommodations with school staff.
What Else Should I Know?
Kids with dyslexia may feel that they're not as smart as their peers because it's hard to keep up. As they move through elementary school, problems can get worse as reading becomes more important to learning. As a result, kids may lose interest in school.
Kids who have difficulty often avoid reading because it's hard or stressful. So they miss out on valuable reading practice and fall farther behind their classmates.
It's important to support your child's efforts by encouraging and assisting in reading at home. Also try to give your child opportunities to build confidence and have success in other areas, such as sports, hobbies, music, art, and drama. Artists, athletes, scientists, entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, and statesmen all have been able to achieve great things despite trouble with reading.
If you think your child might have dyslexia, talk with your doctor, your child's teacher, or a reading specialist. The sooner a reading problem is found, the sooner your child can get the proper help.
Medically reviewed by: Cynthia M. Zettler-Greeley, PhD