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Understanding Dyslexia

By Dr. Jan Hasbrouck, Author and Educational Consultant

Defining Dyslexia

There are many different descriptions and definitions of dyslexia. Dr. David Kilpatrick, in an online posting to the SPELLTalk listserv (1/22/18), wrote that “Dyslexia refers to poor word-level reading despite adequate effort and opportunity. That’s it. Pretty simple.”

Our Current Understanding of Dyslexia

Since the end of the 19th century, researchers from around the world — working in the fields of medicine, including neuroanatomy, pediatrics, ophthalmology, and optometry; cognitive and educational psychology; developmental cognitive neuroscience; and audiology and speech pathology have attempted to describe and define dyslexia which occurs to varying degrees in readers who speak many, different languages.

  1. Dyslexia is a spectrum disorder, ranging from mild to severe, which varies the level of impact it has on students as they learn to read and write.
  2. Word reading difficulties are more common in some languages than others.
  3. We know what to do to help students at all levels and at any age become skillful and confident readers and writers.

Common Myths About Dyslexia

The growing convergence of findings from this large body of scientific research has helped to disprove several prevalent myths that developed around our understanding of dyslexia.

Unfortunately, despite research proving otherwise, many of these myths still persist today, especially within popular culture.

Until a few decades ago, researchers did not have tools like positron emission tomography (PET), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), magnetic source imaging (MSI), and magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) available to them. These technological innovations have empowered researchers to find concrete evidence that has transformed our understanding of dyslexia from theories and beliefs (often mistaken) to factual knowledge.

  • The most important early warning sign of dyslexia is writing letters backwards or upside down (b for d; p for q, etc.).
  • Students with dyslexia read words or text backwards (“was” for “saw”; “mad” for “dam”, etc.)
  • Dyslexia is caused by problems with vision (the eyes don’t track correctly or other vision problems).
  • People with dyslexia have lower intelligence or a low IQ score.
  • Children who are gifted or have high IQ scores cannot have dyslexia.
  • Children who have low IQ scores cannot have dyslexia.
  • Far more boys have dyslexia than girls.
  • Dyslexia cannot be identified before third grade.
  • Students with dyslexia are lazy; they just need to focus and try harder.
  • Children will outgrow dyslexia.

Some students with dyslexia do not reverse or transpose their letters, which may result in their dyslexia being overlooked.

If by third grade, students continue to have problems correctly identifying or writing letters, these difficulties could be a result of unidentified and unaddressed dyslexia. Additional assessments would have to be conducted. That process will be discussed in a second blog: Addressing Dyslexia.

Parent Activism and Advocacy

In the past decade, across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and likely other places as well, a growing number of parents of children with dyslexia have formed awareness and/or advocacy groups. Some of these parents may feel that their children and others with dyslexia are being ignored in schools or are being provided with outmoded, unscientific, and ineffective instruction or delayed intervention, while others are looking to inform policymakers and form better partnerships with educators to improve outcomes.

  • Recognizing that their young child had unexpected difficulties with reading.
  • Being met with an unsatisfactory response from school or district personnel and/or policymakers.
  • Exchanging information with other parents.
  • Tapping into the power and support of an advocacy group.
  1. A universal definition and understanding of “dyslexia” in the state education code.
  2. Mandatory teacher training on dyslexia, its warning signs, and appropriate intervention strategies.
  3. Mandatory early screening tests for dyslexia;
  4. Necessary dyslexia intervention programs, which can be accessed by both general and special education populations.
  5. Access to appropriate “assistive technologies” in public schools for students with dyslexia.


Over a century of research has proven that dyslexia is neurobiological in origin and is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. This learning disability typically results from a deficit in the phonological component of language.



Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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