“Highly successful dyslexics nearly always say that their accomplishments and special ways of seeing come from their dyslexia – not in spite of their dyslexia as is often believed.” (West, 2008).

I frequently receive calls from parents or family members regarding a concern for someone dear struggling with dyslexia.  Reading does not come easy for all young children, and it is difficult to watch young readers lose confidence in their abilities as they struggle with words.  A basic understanding of dyslexia is necessary in order to understand the dyslexic learner.

Dyslexia is a misunderstood reading difference.  Due to popular misconceptions about dyslexia, many people believe dyslexia causes readers to see words or letters backwards–this is a myth.  So what is dyslexia?  My favorite definition of dyslexia, developed by the International Dyslexia Association in 2002, is long but accurate:

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurological 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.
(Adopted by the IDA Board of Directors, Nov. 12, 2002).

The first part of the definition – a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin – depicts the root of dyslexia.  It is neurological, and scientists have provided evidence of brain functioning differences between dyslexic and non-dyslexic readers.

The second part of the definition – difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition, and poor spelling and decoding abilities – reflects the primary characteristics of dyslexia.  Accuracy and fluency issues mean the readers may not read the actual word in the text—they substitute or guess words because decoding (sounding out words) is very difficult for them.  Reading words in isolation is difficult as well—this is because there is no contextual information to use to help them figure out the words.  In addition, the reader decodes very slowly.  The reader may stumble over words and oral reading often sounds troubled.  The video of “The Fonz” describing his oral reading issues reflects a common characteristic of a dyslexic student.

Because of the decoding issues, it is important that dyslexic readers are provided explicit and systematic phonics instruction.  Decoding and spelling are connected skills, and most dyslexic learners struggle with spelling as well.

The cause of dyslexia is phonological in origin.  In other words, the dyslexic individual lacks phonological awareness skills such as the ability to rhyme, blend, segment, and manipulate sounds, etc.  Did you ever play “Pig Latin” as a child? This game of manipulating phonemes is very difficult for an individual with dyslexia.

A portion of the definition above suggests dyslexia is often unexpected.  In other words, a bright child, learning rapidly and using high vocabulary, all of a sudden struggles when it comes to reading fluency.  The struggle is often very frustrating for the child, who may begin to suffer from self-esteem issues.

Other characteristics of dyslexia exist and can be found at various websites.  Visit the professional websites that provide research to back their facts/statements about dyslexia.  The websites below are some of my favorites.  As a parent and teacher of dyslexic children, I especially appreciate the websites/sources which focus on the strengths (not just the weaknesses) of the dyslexic learner.


“It is more common than you can imagine. You are not alone. And while you will have this the rest of your life, you can dart between the raindrops to get where you want to go and it will not hold you back.” (Steven Spielberg, 2015, Huffington Post).

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