What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a disorder that is characterized by a difficulty processing words. Reading problems are one symptom of dyslexia. "Dys" means bad or difficult and "lexia" means word. The problem was first described in 1896 by Dr. W. Pringle Morgan in England. He wrote of a "bright and intelligent boy quick at games and in no way inferior to others of his age. His great difficulty has been - and is now - his inability to learn to read."

Dyslexia can occur in several members of a family. This suggests that there is a genetic component to the disorder. Dyslexia also varies in degree of severity, thus affecting some people much more than others.

Frustrating Phonemes

It is now known that the brains of dyslexics are "wired" differently than normal brains, and thus process language less efficiently. In particular, dyslexics have trouble with the units of language called phonemes. Phonemes are defined as the smallest units of sound used for language. For example, the spoken word "cat" is made up of three phonemes: kuh, aah, tuh. There are 44 phonemes in the English language. For most people, the process of breaking words into phonemes occurs automatically, without conscious thought. Just as we break down phonemes without thinking about it, we also merge them in our speech automatically: "cat" is one syllable, but made up of three distinct sounds. Between the ages of 4 to 6, most children are aware that phonemes make up words.

Trouble with Phonemes

Because dyslexics cannot decode words, they have trouble accessing the information they have stored pertaining to that word. They often confuse like-sounding words, such as "volcano" and "tornado." When shown a picture of a volcano, for example, a dyslexic might call it a "tornado," yet when asked to define what it does will correctly answer that it can erupt and spew hot lava. In other words, the dyslexic knows what the object is, but he or she cannot access the correct word for it.

"Compensated" Dyslexics

There is a term for dyslexics who find ways to overcome their learning disability: compensated dyslexics. A person with dyslexia can be very successful; dyslexia does not affect one's intelligence. Dyslexics often excel at problem solving, critical thinking, and vocabulary. They are usually adept at grasping "the big picture" of a concept. Dyslexics often excel at architecture, engineering, science, art and music.

Dyslexic Brains "Look" Different

Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a researcher at the Yale University of Medicine showed in 1998 that areas in the back of the brain that are usually activated when readers sounded out words are significantly less activated in dyslexics' brains. Moreover, areas in the front of the brain displayed more activity in dyslexics' brains than in the brains of normal readers. More recently, researchers at the University of Washington have shown that dyslexics' brains work up to five times harder than non-dyslexic brains. Girard Sagmiller, in his website called What is Dyslexia?, describes dyslexia "like running a 100-meter race. In your lane you have hurdles, but no one else does. You feel that it's unfair but you try running like the other competitors anyway."

These photographs are used with the permission
of Dr. Todd Richards, University of Washington.

What Can Be Done

According to Dr. Shaywitz, most children are not diagnosed with dyslexia until the third grade. If a diagnosis could be made earlier, students could be given extra help before they start to have difficulties in their schoolwork. This may mean that parents need to work with the school to make sure their child receives the help needed. Federal legislation in place since 1975 requires that special funding be available to provide learning disabled children equal opportunities in the educational system.

Research indicates that early training in phoneme awareness helps dyslexics read better. This specific type of language training focuses on the sound structure of words, not simply on overall reading skills. There are now software programs available that slow down or stretch out the sounds of words, helping children practice breaking words into phonemes.

Dyslexics may also have trouble with long or novel words. It is difficult for dyslexics to master rote memorization, as they need contextual clues to help them gain the meaning of words. Therefore, multiple choice exams are more challenging for dyslexics, and many schools offer other test formats for dyslexics, ones that fairly test knowledge while providing context for the questions and answers, such as essays or oral exams.

Dyslexics often say they feel tired because reading takes them longer than non-dyslexics. Many schools provide extended test times for dyslexics to allow for a fair assessment of what has been learned.

Quick Facts

  • Dyslexia is a common reading disorder that affects nearly 5-20% of school-aged children.
  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that more than $2 billion is spent each year on students who repeat a grade because of reading problems.
  • Dyslexia is a lifelong disorder that can be treated but not cured.
  • Dyslexia is not caused by brain damage, and dyslexics can learn to compensate for their weaknesses in language.
  • Fifty percent of adults in the US are unable to read at an 8th grade level (Illiterate America by Jonathon Kozol).
  • Dyslexics may have tremendous talent and can be successful people: scientists Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison and humorist Erma Bombeck had dyslexia; athletes Greg Louganis and Bruce Jenner, entertainers Tom Cruise and Cher have dyslexia.


  1. "Dyslexia and the New Science of Reading," by Barbara Kantrowitz and Anne Underwood, Newsweek, November 22, 1999, pp. 72-78.
  2. For definitions of dyslexia, see "What is Dyslexia?"
  3. "Clue to Dyslexia Found," by Curt Suplee, Washington Post, March 3, 1998.
  4. "Study Finds Distinctive Brain Patterns in People with Dyslexia," by Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, Education Week, March 11, 1998.
  5. "Dyslexia," Scientific American, November, 1996.

Organizations/Support Groups:

  1. International Dyslexia Association

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By Ellen Kuwana
Neuroscience for Kids Staff Writer