Understanding Dyslexia

By Dr. Jan Hasbrouck, Author and Educational Consultant

McGraw Hill
Oct 28 · 9 min read
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Reading is the most fundamental of all academic skills. Being able to read well is necessary for success in every area — in school and life.

Unfortunately, for a significant number of our children, learning to read — and write and spell — is a daunting challenge.

While the process of learning to read seems so effortless and joyful for many children, for students with dyslexia, it can be complicated, mysterious, and even frightening. Dyslexia can make children feel deeply discouraged and even believe that something must be seriously wrong with them.

Parents become frustrated and confused: “Why is my bright and eager child suddenly struggling and hating school?” Teachers wonder what dyslexia really is, which of their students have it, and how it should be addressed in their classrooms.

This blog, adapted from Dr. Jan Hasbrouck’s 2019 book, Conquering Dyslexia, will attempt to address these concerns for parents and teachers by defining dyslexia, explaining how research has changed our understanding of this once mysterious learning disorder, and dispelling common misconceptions.

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.”

The following definition, adopted by the Board of Directors of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) in 2002 and recently validated by over 30 international researchers on dyslexia (Dickman, 2017) goes into a bit more detail:

“Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.” (From https://dyslexiaida.org/definition-of-dyslexia/ )

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.

As a result of this systematic, scientific research — especially the most recent studies conducted over the past 30 years — today, we can state that the processes of reading and dyslexia are no longer mysteries.

For one thing, we now understand how incredibly complex the process of learning to read is!

The human brain has simply not yet evolved to “naturally” or organically “reorganize” itself from a brain that can process and generate language to one that can translate print to match our understanding of spoken words (Dehaene, 2009; Wolf, 2007). Reading is not learned in the same way we learn to talk (Seidenberg, 2017).

These findings have allowed us to draw several firm conclusions about dyslexia and have transformed our understanding of how it should be addressed in the classroom.

We now know where and how dyslexia manifests itself in the brain and understand dyslexia involves unexpected struggles with reading and spelling words accurately and automatically despite adequate effort and instruction.

Although there is some disagreement among dyslexia researchers about the prevalence of dyslexia because of varying ways dyslexia is defined, the most common estimate is that dyslexia affects about 10–15% of the general population.

Readers with dyslexia have difficulty reading isolated, individual words presented in lists but may have less difficulty reading text because of the support provided by context and vocabulary knowledge. When a student’s difficulties reading words accurately and automatically are not adequately addressed with effective instruction and intensive intervention, many students with dyslexia go on to have difficulties reading and understanding text.

We also know that:

  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.

Perhaps the most important finding from this emerging scientific research is that we know what to do to help students at all levels and at any age become skillful and confident readers and writers (Archer & Hughes, 2011; Carnine et al., 2010; Dehaene, 2009; Fletcher et al., 2019; Kilpatrick, 2015; Seidenberg, 2009; Shaywitz, 2003), including those who have dyslexia, no matter where they fall on the spectrum.

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.

Many of us were told myths about dyslexia, some of which are listed below:

  • 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.

Every one of these beliefs about dyslexia has been disproven by research.

We now understand that “dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin” (IDA, 2002). It has no correlation with intelligence, either high or low (Elliott & Grigorenko, 2014; Shaywitz, 2003). While vision problems can undoubtedly create challenges for learning to read print, dyslexia is not caused by problems with eyesight or vision (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2009).

It is actually quite common for beginning readers to confuse letters that have a similar shape such as b/d/p/q; f/r; m/w; or n/u and to confuse words with similar letter patterns (was/saw; mad/dam, etc.). These confusions are not symptoms of dyslexia in young, beginning readers.

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.

In general, more boys than girls are referred for both academic and behavioral concerns in school. Still, research has verified that only slightly more boys than girls have the neurological markers of dyslexia (Fletcher et al., 2019). Students who are at-risk of reading difficulties due to dyslexia can be accurately identified as early as four years old, and continuing research may eventually allow us to detect dyslexia at a significantly earlier age (Gaab, 2019).

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often occurs in students identified as having specific learning disabilities, including dyslexia. Still, they are separate disorders and do not always co-occur with academic problems (Brown, 2013). And, many students with dyslexia also have dysgraphia, described by Berninger and Wolf (2009) as a “transcription disorder.” Students with dysgraphia have mild-to-severe problems with handwriting and/or spelling. Like ADHD, dysgraphia and dyslexia are separate but closely related disorders.

Students with dyslexia do not need to be encouraged to “just work harder.” Children with dyslexia use nearly five times the brain area as their neurotypical peers while performing a simple language task (University of Washington, 1999). Readers with dyslexia are already working very hard! And no one ever “outgrows” dyslexia. However, one of the most exciting outcomes of dyslexia research is the firm conclusion that with early identification and appropriate instruction, it is possible to “overcome” dyslexia (Shaywitz, 2003) or even “prevent” it (Fletcher, et al., 2019; Gaab, 2019).

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.

Lichtenstein (2019) found that every parent advocate shared similar experiences that included:

  • 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.

These activist parents formed networks of local, grass-roots organizations, including Decoding Dyslexia and #saydyslexia with the goal of raising dyslexia awareness, empowering families to support their children, and informing policymakers on best practices to identify, teach, and support students with dyslexia. These parent groups have also advocated for new state laws that require:

  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.

As of this writing, more than 40 states have laws, pilot programs, or bills ready to be signed to address dyslexia and the implementation of the science of reading in their schools. Legislation in the United States related to dyslexia can be tracked on Dyslegia.com.


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.

In recent years, increased advocacy from parents has raised awareness for dyslexia as scientists have disproved common myths about the learning disability that has no correlation to intelligence.

We know that dyslexia cannot be “cured.” However, with early intensive, explicit intervention combined with the proper social and emotional supports, students can “overcome” dyslexia and that with early detection, we can prevent students from ever struggling with it in the first place.

In part two of this blog — Addressing Dyslexia — we will explore how we can implement effective interventions that are proven to meet the needs of students struggling with dyslexia and how it impacts them both in and out of the class.

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Jan Hasbrouck, Ph.D., is a leading educational consultant, trainer, and researcher. Dr. Jan Hasbrouck worked as a reading specialist and coach for 15 years before becoming teaching at the University of Oregon and later at Texas A&M University. She served as the Executive Consultant to the Washington State Reading Initiative. Dr. Jan Hasbrouck works with educators across the United States as well as internationally, helping teachers, administrators, and specialists design and implement effective assessment and instructional programs targeted to help low-performing readers. Dr. Jan Hasbrouck earned her B.A. and M.A. from the University of Oregon, and her Ph.D. from Texas A&M University. Her research in areas of reading fluency, reading assessment, coaching and consultation, and second language learners has been published in numerous professional books and journals. She is the author and coauthor of several books, including training manuals and administrator guides for GHA to support professional development and help educators change practices in schools.

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McGraw Hill

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We apply the science of learning to create innovative educational solutions and content to improve outcomes from K-20 and beyond.

Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on learning science, 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.

McGraw Hill

Written by

We apply the science of learning to create innovative educational solutions and content to improve outcomes from K-20 and beyond.

Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on learning science, 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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