What Is Dyslexia?

Opened book lying on floor while boy sitting in the background
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Homeschooling with learning challenges such as dysgraphia and dyslexia can be challenging, but the one-on-one instruction and ability to avoid negative labels and self-esteem issues make it an attractive educational option for students who struggle.

Marianne Sunderland is a certified Orton-Gillingham dyslexia tutor and the mother of eight kids, seven of whom have dyslexia. As a veteran homeschooling parent, Marianne offers a unique perspective on parenting and educating kids who learn differently at her website, Homeschooling with Dyslexia.

I had an opportunity to talk with her about homeschooling a dyslexic student.

What were your early experiences with dyslexia?

My child was struggling with reading. Could he be dyslexic? Eighteen years ago, when I first learned that my oldest child was dyslexic, I had no idea that there were actually intelligent people who had this completely unexpected inability to read.

I had no clue what dyslexia was or how to help our bright, but struggling, son. There was a steep learning curve but our family eventually came to understand a ton about what it means to be dyslexic and have come to embrace dyslexia for its many strengths.

What are the signs of dyslexia?

Many people who are uneducated about dyslexia like I was all of those years ago think that it is an issue with the eyes. After all people with dyslexia see things backward, right? Dyslexia has a wide variety of signs, including some that may surprise you.

Let's look at some signs of dyslexia; then we’ll debunk some of the most popular myths.

Dyslexia looks different in every individual. Not all dyslexics will have all of these signs. A good rule of thumb is that if a person has 3 or more signs and a close relative with dyslexia (yes, dyslexia is genetic), it is likely that they are dyslexic.

Signs of dyslexia in the early years:

  • Trouble with concepts of time (before, after, yesterday, tomorrow)
  • Learning to talk later than other children their age
  • Difficulty learning the names of shapes and colors
  • Difficulty learning letter names and sounds
  • Reversal of syllables and phonemes (letter sounds) within a word
  • Inability to recognize or produce rhymes
  • Early stuttering
  • Delays with fine motor skills like tying shoes, coloring, and writing

Dyslexia in preschoolers is hard to diagnose because many of its symptoms are developmentally typical for all preschoolers. The more symptoms that are present, and the longer they persist, the more likely it is that your child may need some help. Dyslexia is marked by a combination of signs and a lack of progress over time.

Signs of dyslexia in the elementary years:

  • Does not enjoy reading but likes being read to
  • Slow, inaccurate reading
  • Use of context clues rather than sounding words out
  • Skips or misreads little words (at, to, of)
  • Poor spelling – very phonetic
  • Trouble telling time on a clock with hands
  • Inattentiveness, distractibility
  • Slow and messy handwriting – also called dysgraphia
  • Letter and number reversals after first grade
  • Trouble memorizing math facts
  • Hesitant speech; difficulty finding the right words to express self
  • Dreads going to school

Signs of dyslexia in adolescence or adult years include all of the above, plus:

  • Difficulty processing auditory information
  • Losing possessions; poor organizational skills
  • Slow reading; low comprehension
  • Difficulty remembering the names of people and places
  • Difficulty organizing ideas to write a paper
  • Difficulty reading music
  • Unable to master a foreign language
  • Inability to recall numbers in proper sequence
  • Lowered self-esteem due to past frustrations and failure
  • May drop out of high school

As you can see, dyslexia is far more than reversing letters, but what about that and all of those other so-called signs of dyslexia? Actually, those are myths that are not based on the vast amount of research that has been done on dyslexia.

What are the myths about dyslexia?

I’m glad you asked because the misunderstandings surrounding dyslexia have been the cause of a lot of difficulties for those who have it.

Dyslexia doesn’t exist. Dyslexia is one of the most researched and documented conditions that impact learning. Research has shown that dyslexia is genetically based and is clearly related to neurophysiological differences in brain function.

People with dyslexia just aren't very smart. Dyslexia is not related to intelligence. In fact, one of the tell-tale signs that a child may have dyslexia is the discrepancy between their intelligence (average to above-average) and their processing speeds and academic performance.

Children will outgrow dyslexia. Research shows that if a child is struggling with reading, writing, and spelling in mid-first grade, there is a 90% chance that the child will still be struggling in 8th grade and into adulthood. With early intervention, kids with dyslexia can avoid the embarrassment of falling behind their peers.

Dyslexia is caused by bad diet, bad parenting or watching too much TV. Dyslexia is genetically-based. Although bad diet, bad parenting, and watching too much TV aren’t good for any child and certainly won’t help the situation.

Dyslexia is a visual problem. Most kids reverse letters or numbers while they are learning. Continued reversals after two years of instruction are considered a sign of dyslexia. This, however, is not a vision issue. Dyslexia is a language processing disorder. The confusion lies within the brain and how it processes written material.

Dyslexics are lazy and need to work harder. Research has shown by the use of functional MRIs and brain mapping that slower readers use different parts of their brains when reading and working with language than average readers.

The irony is that many people with dyslexia are actually working harder than everyone else!

In what ways does dyslexia affect learning?

Interestingly, dyslexia can affect many different areas of education. Of course, reading is affected and spelling. However, people with dyslexia can also have difficulty with handwriting, math, organization, focus, and attention.

Is there a test for dyslexia?

There are several ways to assess a child for dyslexia. The most comprehensive assessment is full psychoeducational testing which includes a battery of standardized tests as well as some nonstandardized assessments specifically chosen by the licensed tester to evaluate the specific issues of each individual. This also includes IQ testing to compare your child’s potential to performance. A significant difference between these two areas is considered one of the hallmark signs of dyslexia.

What can parents do to help their kids with dyslexia?

The most important thing a parent can do to help their child with dyslexia is get educated about what it really is.

The second most important thing is not to wait. Get your child the help she needs by finding a dyslexia tutor trained in research-based teaching methods like the Orton-Gillingham method.

Lastly, believe in your child. They sincerely desire to read and spell well. Research on successful dyslexics has shown that the one factor that had the biggest impact on their success was the presence of one caring adult who believed in them.