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Dyslexia Decoded: Understanding the Spectrum of Challenges

Updated: Mar 25


What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia has a lot of definitions from many different sources and governing bodies. Below are the most common definitions you may come across: 


WA State OSPI - Adopted by the 65th WA State Legislature, 2018 Regular Session

"Dyslexia is a specific learning disorder that is neurological in origin and that is characterized by unexpected difficulties with accurate or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities that are not consistent with the person's intelligence, motivation, and sensory capabilities."


International Dyslexia Association (IDA)

"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."


Merriam Webster Dictionary Definition

A variable, often familial, learning disability involving difficulties in acquiring and processing language that is typically manifested by a lack of proficiency in reading, spelling, and writing

 



Even simply putting it under the general term “specific learning disability” is quite general and doesn’t accurately capture the specificity of dyslexia and its unique impacts compared to other learning disabilities. Dyslexia is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects language processing, particularly reading, spelling, and writing skills. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. It can also impact speech.


Sally Shaywitz, co-founder of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity and author of “Overcoming Dyslexia”, states that dyslexia is a learning disability and not a thinking disability. Dyslexia is not an intelligence issue, a developmental delay, an executive functioning or cognitive issue, or behavioral/motivation problem. Individuals with dyslexia often have average or above-average intelligence but struggle with specific aspects of literacy. More about the myths and misunderstandings of dyslexia can be found here


Specific Challenges

1. Reading Difficulties: Individuals with dyslexia may struggle with decoding words, which involves breaking down written words into their component syllables, word elements, phonemes, and recognizing them. They may have difficulty with phonological awareness, making it challenging to connect sounds with letters and manipulate sounds within words. For example, a person with dyslexia may struggle to read fluently, often pausing or hesitating while decoding words. They may skip words, substitute similar-looking words, or struggle with comprehension due to the effort expended on decoding.


2. Spelling Challenges: Dyslexia often manifests in poor spelling skills, as individuals may have difficulty remembering the correct sequence of letters in words. Spelling errors may be frequent and inconsistent, even for words that have been previously encountered. You may see your dyslexic student spelling words phonetically–even overly so. Sight words and words that do not follow an expected pattern (think, “who”, “why”, “sight”, “does”, etc.) are sometimes never mastered. 


3. Writing Skills: Expressing thoughts and ideas in writing can be challenging for individuals with dyslexia. They may have trouble organizing their thoughts, structuring sentences, and maintaining coherence in their writing. Often, so much effort is put into getting the right letters out that other areas, like organization and complexity, are sacrificed. Severe writing problems may also indicate dysgraphia, a comorbid condition. 


4. Working Memory: Dyslexia is associated with weaknesses in language-associated working memory, which can affect the ability to hold and manipulate information in the mind. For the dyslexic, decoding a word is very demanding on the working memory. They are struggling to remember the sound each letter makes while also trying to hold onto the previous sounds already decoded in the word. Then once they reach the end, they have to blend these sounds in the right order into a recognizable word. For someone without dyslexia, decoding a new word takes a second or two. For the dyslexic, it can take over a minute and they still may not get it right. This is part of why reading is so tiring for the dyslexic–it really taxes the brain. 


5.) Speech Difficulties: Dyslexia does not cause people to be physically unable to make the correct sounds for each letter–there’s nothing wrong with the tongue or muscles of the mouth. However, it does often make it harder to say exactly what they want to say. Dyslexic people will often refer to things vaguely, replacing the exact word with “stuff”, “thing”, “there”, because getting the right word takes extra effort. They know the word, as intelligence is not the problem, but grabbing it in their mind doesn’t always come easily.

 

Conclusion

Dyslexia is a spectrum of challenges that affect reading, spelling, writing, and other aspects of language processing and speaking. It is important to remember that not every student will struggle in the same way. I have one student that mixes the letter M and the letter P. I have others that never mix up the letters B and D (a classic confusion, even for young students without dyslexia). And still I have others that can segment syllables and others that cannot.  By understanding these specific, unique difficulties and their impact on daily life, we can better support individuals with dyslexia and help them develop strategies to overcome obstacles and succeed academically and personally. The only way to close the reading gap is with intensive intervention using an evidence based method. 


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