What is dyslexia?

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Dyslexia is one of the most common reading and literacy learning difficulty and yet it presents so many questions, primarily what is Dyslexia?

We have attempted to answer the most common questions, and squash the myths, our specialists get asked on the regular about Dyslexia.

1. What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is difficulty with reading accurately and fluently and can also be accompanied by spelling difficulties. Over the last forty years there have been numerous definitions, but they all have common elements: neurobiological basis, difficulties in phonological applications to reading, and difficulties in fluent and accurate reading. The Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-5) used by Psychologists world-wide (American Psychological Association, 2013) defines dyslexia as follows:

“Dyslexia is an alternative term used to refer to a pattern of learning difficulties characterised by problems with accurate or fluent word recognition poor decoding, and poor spelling abilities. If Dyslexia is used to specify this particular of difficulties, it is important to also specify any additional difficulties that are present such as difficulties with reading comprehension or math reasoning”(APA, 2013).

2. My child struggles to read fluently and takes a long time to read even one sentence. Are they Dyslexic? 

Possibly. Difficulties in reading accurately and fluently are one of the indicators your child may have dyslexia. It is important to also consider whether your child also has difficulty in one or more of the following: (a) understanding what they have read, (b) mathematics, and (c) writing. Difficulties across more than one area of learning are best described as a specific learning disorder, even when the indicators of Dyslexia are also present.

3. My child is struggling to read. His father and uncle still struggle with reading. Could they be Dyslexic?

We commonly find that dyslexia can run in families, it is considered to be a risk factor. Current research is trying to identify more about the genes which might be linked to Dyslexia and whilst we do not have a definitive answer, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that one of the causes of Dyslexia is biological. There is no guarantee that your children will have Dyslexia, watch how clearly your child is speaking and using language prior to beginning school and seek help if you are concerned.

4. My child complains of sore eyes and unclear text when reading. Is this Dyslexia?

Visual concerns will impact reading and help should be sought from an Optometrist to support this, as these difficulties will also be impacting other areas of learning and life. Visual processing concerns are not Dyslexia.

5. If a child has trouble understanding what they read, do they have Dyslexia?

Possibly, careful observation and assessment in relation to the processes of, and around reading will seek to answer this question more fully. If reading accuracy (reading words correctly) and fluency (reading words quickly) are good and the difficulties only exist in relation to a child’s understanding of what they read, this is not Dyslexia. If however, there are difficulties in both these areas, a professional will use their judgement as to the appropriateness of the label and may describe this as Dyslexia with additional difficulties in reading comprehension. In its place they may use the more appropriate term specific learning disorder –with impairment in reading.

6. My child has difficulties with spelling and phonological awareness. Is this Dyslexia and if so, which professional should see him?

Possibly, an assessment of your child’s language and academic skills will help to identify your child’s needs. If your child’s phonological skills (clear speech production and blending sounds to say words) are significantly impaired we recommend a speech and language pathologist begin working with your child to develop these critical skills. As phonological skills begin to improve, an updated assessment of spelling should occur to review the next steps. A teacher experienced in teaching spelling using a multisensory approach is recommended once phonological skills are functional for your child and spelling errors are more related to the rules of written language.

7. My 6 year old is repeating kindergarten at school. He has been seeing a speech pathologist for 1 year to help him with his articulation. As the school says he is struggling to read should the speech pathologist concentrate on his reading instead of his sounds?

It is important for your child to continue to work with their speech pathologist to improve their articulation or phonological processing so they are able to blend sounds to read words when the time is right. Reading interventions are not recommended before clear speech is consistently established.

8. The School Counsellor at my child’s school recommended that we have my daughter tested to see if she has a diagnosis of Dyslexia. Who can test for Dyslexia?

An educational psychologist can provide the most comprehensive assessment of all aspects of your child’s learning in conjunction with input from audiologists, behavioural optometrists, occupational therapists, paediatricians, speech and language pathologists and teachers. It is important to rule out that there is nothing else that may explain your child’s difficulties in reading before a diagnosis is made. Dyslexia is now recognised as a formal category of a learning disorder in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-used by Psychologists world-wide (American Psychological Association, 2013).

9. Is there more than one test to assess if my child has Dyslexia and if so, which test is recognised by schools and other professionals?

A Dyslexia assessment needs to include an assessment of overall learning in the areas of reading accuracy and comprehension (including phonological awareness), spelling, writing, and mathematics. On the basis of these assessments, further testing should be carried out by a professional experienced in learning difficulties and disabilities to determine that there is no other identifiable cause of the learning difficulty (i.e., attention, vision, hearing, processing, intelligence, language disorder …). Unfortunately there is no single test which can investigate the complexity of a child’s learning needs.

10. What is the best way to help a dyslexic child?

After a correct diagnosis of Dyslexia, that is difficulty with reading accurately, fluently and spelling and not in other areas of learning or not explained by another factor, the most effective intervention is to work with a professional experienced in Dyslexia.

Dyslexia won’t go away on its own or get better over time; unfortunately it is the complete opposite of this. A program to help ‘treat’ or support Dyslexia should include direct and explicit instruction in phonological awareness (oral/speaking and aural/listening skills in producing, identifying and manipulating sounds), links to spelling in the form of synthetic phonics (common letter representations for the sounds we hear to encode or spell words) and guided oral reading (decoding strategies and reading practice). The most critical aspect of any of these programs is time, time for your child to learn the skills but more importantly time for these skills to become automatic, mastered, or fluent.

It is tempting to be swayed by promises of a “cure” for Dyslexia. There is no single program that will encompass everything everyone with Dyslexia will need. Children and adolescents with Dyslexia need clear and purposeful re-teaching of the sounds, blends, common and uncommon words, and time to apply this to reading interesting texts over a consistent and prolonged period of time. Learning Links helps children and adolescents with Dyslexia.

11. Can an Occupational Therapist, Speech Pathologist or Behavioural Optometrist diagnose and treat Dyslexia?

All allied health and educational professionals can contribute to the assessment of a child suspected as having Dyslexia. It is critical to rule out any vision, hearing and language difficulties prior to making any form of diagnosis. Learning Links recommends the starting point for an assessment to be with an Educational Psychologist with experience in the area of learning and schooling.

12. Does the diagnosis of Dyslexia cover all learning difficulties?

No, it is just one small subset of a global label of “specific learning disorders” and only describes some of the aspects of reading. Dyslexia is a label to describe those children whose primary learning difficulty or disability is in the area of reading accurately and fluently and spelling.

13. Can Dyslexia be called anything else?

Yes, the DSM-5 allows for the more global term Specific Learning Disorder with Impairment in Reading.

14. Can Dyslexia be cured?

For most adults who have experienced Dyslexia during childhood there remains a lingering difficulty with reading. This most often appears in the form of reading speed, that is, adults who have experienced Dyslexia during childhood will continue to read slower than their peers as adults. We can make a significant difference in improving the life outcomes for children with Dyslexia and increase their potential to achieve success, however for many adults there will remain a lingering remnant of Dyslexia.