What is dyslexia?

One of the best definitions of dyslexia comes from Sir Jim Rose in the 2009 report for the Government.  In his report on ‘Identifying and teaching children and young people with dyslexia and literacy difficulties', the following definition is used: 

  • Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling.
  • Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed.
  •  Dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities.
  • It is best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, and there are no clear cut-off points.
  • Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor co-ordination, mental calculation, concentration and personal organisation, but these are not, by themselves, markers of dyslexia.
  • A good indication of the severity and persistence of dyslexic difficulties can be gained by examining how the individual responds or has responded to well founded intervention.

    This definition of dyslexia helps us to remember that although children and adults with dyslexia may have noticeable difficulties with reading and spelling, they often have other problem areas as well, such as writing, co-ordination and organization.  In addition to these, there are some other often less noticeable problems which are considered to be the root cause of dyslexia.  These include:

    • Phonological awareness - how well the individual parts of a word are heard and the ability to manipulate the individual sounds which make up words;
    • Verbal memory - how good the person is at remembering what is heard;
    • Verbal processing speed - the speed at which items heard are able to be processed and responded to;
    • Visual memory – the ability to remember items or words seen.

    These are known as ‘underlying skills’, without these skills, reading and spelling can be impossible which is why tuition includes time spent on these skills along with reading, writing and spelling. 

    Not everyone with dyslexia will have the same type of problems.  Psychologists have found that there are two fairly distinct types of dyslexia although in fact a large proportion of dyslexics tend to have a mix of both types.
    Phonological dyslexia
    Phonological dyslexia can be identified by reading real words better than made-up or ‘non-words’.  This is because those with this type of dyslexia have problems hearing and manipulating the individual sounds of language.  They often find it difficult to break down a word into its various sounds so that long words with several syllables are particularly difficult for them.  There may also be a problem blending the sounds of a word together or even a problem relating the sound they hear to the letter they see.  A person with this type of dyslexia may not struggle too much once they have learnt the words because they can remember the visual image of the word and don’t have to sound it out each time they see it.  However, learning new words can be very difficult for anyone with this type of dyslexia owing to the problems of hearing and manipulating the sounds of a word.
    Surface dyslexia
    Surface dyslexia is more a of visual memory problem which is why it is sometimes known as ‘visual dyslexia’.  A person may be good at non-word reading but find reading irregular words (such as ‘yacht’) incredibly difficult.  This is because it is as if their mental dictionary of words that they recognise is either difficult to access or has very few words in it.  This means that people with surface dyslexia will keep trying to sound words out even though they should recognise them with ease.  The problem with sounding words out is that it is very slow and many words do not follow a regular spelling pattern making sounding out fairly fruitless.
    Do you have dyslexia?
    Although there are different types of dyslexia and not everyone has the same profile of difficulties, there are enough similarities for several lists of common characteristics to have been devised to help you decide if you or your child might have dyslexia.  These do not result in a diagnosis of dyslexia but may suggest that further testing is appropriate.  The British Dyslexia Association has one particularly suited for parents thinking about their children, whilst the list on the website Extraordinary People is aimed at young people and adults.
    A diagnosis of dyslexia does not mean that a person will struggle with literacy forever.  Some dyslexic children do very well despite never receiving any extra help.  Others will need support but they too can develop their skills enough to become competent readers, writers and spellers, they often even enjoy reading for pleasure.  Some children with dyslexia may go to college or university where they will receive support and understanding.  A good career is highly possible despite dyslexia.