Dyslexia and Reading Difficulties

What comes to mind when you think of the word DYSLEXIA? 

I recently asked a group of people this question and here are some of their responses:

“Difficulty with reading… letters appear out of order or backwards….issues with spelling and numerical order…transposing letters and numbers…more than 2 years behind in reading.” 

Current Definition of Dyslexia

When I was in college, I was taught that dyslexia was a result of visual processing issues, and those issues caused the reversals and the difficulty with reading.  The meaning and causes of dyslexia have changed in recent years.  So while some people with dyslexia do have these problems, they are not the most common characteristics of dyslexia.

Experts now believe that dyslexia has little to do with recognizing the visual form of words.  They have found that the brains of people with dyslexia are wired differently; they have difficulty with phonological awareness, or the ability to blend, segment, and analyze the sounds in words.

Causes of Reading Difficulties

Although the definition of dyslexia may be good to understand, the thing I think is most important to know is this – difficulty with reading can be caused by different issues.  Personally, I don’t usually care about the label as much as I do about what is causing the reading difficulty.  In our practice, we use our evaluation to uncover the cause of the problem.  Then, we use the information to determine what strategies will work best to help that student improve their reading.

In the last 20 years of evaluating students with reading difficulties, I have identified 3 causes of reading challenges, each requiring a different type of solution.

Inability to Process Sounds — The first cause is the inability to process the sounds in the words. (This would be considered dyslexia based on the current definition.) If you have difficulties in this area, it is almost impossible to understand and use phonics.  In these cases, we need to train the brain to process the sounds, and then we teach phonics.  The results are quite amazing when you treat what was causing the problem in the first place.

Visual Issues — Visual issues, also, can cause reading challenges.  These students often have issues with visual-spatial skills and visual efficiency, such as tracking.  They are the ones who have reversals issues, who mix up letters, and who can’t remember the word from one line to the next.  They often can decode words, but struggle with reading fluency.  While we still teach phonics to these students, we do many other activities to increase their visual skills first.

Double Whammy — Finally, the third cause is the one that Sally Shaywitz, author of Overcoming Dyslexia, calls a “double deficit.”  (I call it a “double whammy.”)  These students have both issues.  Unfortunately, it takes much longer to address their issues.  They don’t connect the sounds to the symbols.  We can teach them phonics until they are “blue in the face,” and yet they won’t naturally apply the rules.  These students will need a combination of strategies to learn to read.Student with Reading Difficulties

Finding the Best Solution

We see students who have been diagnosed with dyslexia all the time.  The recommendation by the diagnosing medical professional is almost always for a reading program that teaches systematic, explicit phonics.  While I think this is the best way to teach reading, some students need more to overcome their reading challenges.  I don’t believe in a “one-size-fits-all” approach.  Frankly, the continuous recommendation of this approach makes me sad and mad!  Our students deserve more.

All this to say, if your child is struggling with reading, you need to know what is causing the problem in the first place.  If someone tells you, for example, that your child doesn’t know her consonant blends – that is good information, but you want to ask, “What is causing that to happen? Where is the breakdown occurring in her brain?”  After all, once you know the problem, the solution is easy to determine.

If your child is struggling with reading, we would love to help you find the causes AND the solution.  Contact us to schedule an evaluation.


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