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What is dyslexia?

Hold on a moment.  I need to get on my soapbox.  Okay, now I'm ready.

Those who know me well know that I have a love/hate relationship with "dyslexia".  Of the wide-array of special education categories, I believe that nothing gets as much attention as the specific learning disability called "dyslexia".

If you were to ask me a question about "dyslexia" in real-life, then you can watch me use the term "dyslexia" in conversation surrounded by finger-made air-quotes ("dyslexia"). I have a hard time saying "dyslexia" in conversation without putting the quotes around the word.  For the remainder of this post, I'll attempt to refrain from doing so.

The largest problem I have with discussing the topic of dyslexia is that that the general public (and many educators) have a poor understanding what what dyslexia is (and is not).  I partially attribute this large misunderstanding to varying definitions of the term.  I challenge you to find two professional organizations that use the same definition of dyslexia.  Despite the variance, most modern definitions agree that dyslexia is neurological in nature, and is not a visual-perceptual problem.  Both of those elements are critical components of any dyslexia definition.

What dyslexia is not:

Let me get one thing clear:  dyslexia does not mean that a child always flips letters around while they're trying to read

Those errors are known professionally as "letter reversals" and are very common among all readers, even those readers who will later be great readers.  Letter reversals are part of the reading developmental continuum and are not a sign that your child has dyslexia.  The idea that dyslexia refers to children who "flip letters around" or "read words backwards" has been haunting the professional learning disability community for decades. 

I should also clearly state that dyslexia is not a vision processing disorder.  It should also not be treated with expensive vision therapy.  See the Policy Statement from he American Academy of Ophthalmology for more information.

I once heard a parent report to me that their daughter had been diagnosed with dyslexia from their medical doctor.  Apparently the doctor told this parent that dyslexia impacts much more than just her daughter's ability to read; it apparently turned her entire thinking process into "alphabet soup".  "Alphabet soup" was the technical term that this parent reported to me that the doctor used to describe symptoms of dyslexia.  (Editor's note: Wow, thanks doc.  That definition only compounds the problem.)

What dyslexia is:

In educational circles, dyslexia is synonymous with a reading disability.  While your child's IEP team cannot diagnose or identify dyslexia (by name), the team may identify your child with a reading disability.  A specific dyslexia diagnosis must generally come from your child's medical doctor or mental health provider.

In some research literature, the term "developmental reading disorder" (or DRD, for short) is used in place of dyslexia.  I often advocate for the use of this term because it does not carry with it the negative connotations that "dyslexia" often does.  I also prefer DRD because it places it emphasizes the developmental nature of the disability.  A child who demonstrates a neurological problem with reading often starts showing symptoms even with early literacy tasks.  It doesn't suddenly appear in fourth grade; the neurological basis of DRD is present at birth.

What to do now:

As I just explained above, in educational fields, a reading disability is formally called dyslexia.  If you're looking for information on the treatment of reading disabilities, you can search for information on any of the terms ("dyslexia", "developmental reading disorder", or "reading disability") I discussed above.  Your child's teacher should also be implementing classroom supports to assist in the development of specific reading skills.  I also have a page of interventions you may want to check out on this site.  If you believe your child may have a reading disability, I suggest you request help for your child.

For your reference, my favorite article on dyslexia is located here.

Bonus Information:

Since you now know that a reading disability is formally called dyslexia, I thought I'd also give you some more terminology for your vernacular.
  • Dyscalculia is a specific learning disability in mathematics.
  • Dysgraphia is a specific learning disability in writing.