What is Dyslexia?

‘Dyslexia’ comes from a Greek word and it means ‘difficulty with words’. Dyslexia affects reading, spelling, writing, memory and concentration, and sometimes maths, music, foreign languages and self-organisation. Some people call dyslexia ‘a specific learning difficulty’. Dyslexia tends to run in families. Dyslexia continues throughout life. 10% of the population is dyslexic, 4% being severely dyslexic. Dyslexia people may have creative, artistic, practical skills. They can develop strategies for their areas of difficulty.


Dyslexia is a kind of mind. Very often it is a gifted mind, but it is a mind that is physiologically different. This brain difference is not a defect, but it makes learning language excessively hard.

The manifestations of dyslexia are two-fold. On one hand a child with a dyslexic mind will have trouble from the very beginning learning to understand speech and make himself understood. Because his mind cannot easily recall words, the dyslexic child may have to describe what he wants–“Oh, you know, that thing we use to write with…” instead of “pencil.” The mind of a dyslexic child will often have trouble sequencing, so the words will get twisted — “basgetti, mellow, aminals” or spoken in the wrong order, “please up hurry!”

When a child enters school he may struggle with the positioning of letters that distinguishes a “p” from a “d” from a “b.” “Was” becomes “saw,” “pet” can be read as “bet.” Even in upper grades, the dyslexic mind may read “nuclear” as “unclear.” What makes dyslexia difficult to recognise is that many of its characteristics are a natural part of the maturing process of young children. It is when a child gets “stuck” in these stages and they last longer than normal, that parents and teachers need to recognise a potential difficulty.

On the other hand the dyslexic mind may have tremendous musical ability that allows a child to sing or play an instrument easily or at an early age. The child with a dyslexic mind may be able to build whole cities with tiny interlocking blocks and no directions, or solve three-dimensional puzzles without difficulty. Many of our most gifted athletes have dyslexic minds that can “see” the entire field of play and the relative position of all the players simultaneously.

Because it relies more on language skills than these other gifts, school very quickly becomes a nightmare of frustration for a dyslexic child. Because a dyslexic mind cannot learn whole words by sight, a dyslexic child has trouble learning to read by traditional methods. Organizing his desk or homework assignments or holding a pencil correctly will be hard work. The child sees his peers succeeding while he is failing. Because he is bright, he knows something is wrong. If parents and teachers fail to recognize and respond to his struggle, he becomes afraid. This fear can cause him to act out inappropriately.

Often the child appears to be lazy, not trying hard enough, or just slow. In fact, the dyslexic child’s mind is working harder to fill in the gaps between what he actually sees, hears and feels in the outer world, and how he thinks about these things in his head and puts them into words. The dyslexic mind needs more help in sorting, recognizing, and organizing the raw materials of language for reading and spelling. Some “red flag” behaviors that may indicate that a dyslexic mind is at work are:

  •  avoiding difficult tasks, especially if they involve reading, writing or spelling.
  •  spending an inordinate amount of time on tasks or not finishing assignments.
  •  propping his head up when writing.
  •  guessing when she doesn’t know a word.
  •  knowing a word one day but forgetting it the next.
  •  mixing cursive with manuscript letters.
  •  having a vocabulary which exceeds his reading ability.
  •  understanding math conceptually, but having difficulty reading and writing problems.
  •  having a wide spread between performance and verbal scores on standardized tests.
  •  acting inappropriately or demanding excessive attention.

The dyslexic mind is there for life; it cannot be “fixed” and will not be outgrown. It can, however, be taught with appropriate teaching methods, to compensate by using its strengths to overcome weaknesses. The most appropriate teaching approach for the dyslexic mind was pioneered by Doctor Samuel T. Orton and his associates and successors. It has proven to be both scientifically sound and practically effective. The essentials of this instructional approach include: using all the pathways to the brain—sight, sound, touch and movement; teaching the alphabetic-phonic system on which our language is based; using sounds of letters for both reading and spelling; explaining rules for dividing words into syllables and how different kinds of syllables affect vowel sounds; presenting information in a sequential manner that progresses from the simple to more complex; moving the student through the material step-by-step; and building on success.

Using all the elements of this proven approach to teaching reading, writing and spelling, Reading ASSIST trained tutors and teachers are successfully unlocking the written word for children with dyslexic minds. With its strengths and creative abilities, a dyslexic mind that can read is a very powerful gift for the child who has it and for society as well!

Originally taken from the Reading ASSIST Institute website