Dyslexia: What’s in a name?

Dollarphotoclub 56046419Dyslexia is one of the main ‘conditions’ in the Specific Learning Disabilities category, others being dyspraxia, dysphasia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia and ADHD, which in fact often co-exist. The word itself quite literally means: Dys – problem, lexia – read (can’t read).

Dyslexia itself is a life-long condition, usually inherited, which is generally considered to affect around 10 per cent of the population. It is unrelated to intelligence, language background or race. In fact learners are often first identified as dyslexic when they fail to make expected progress despite at least average intellectual ability and satisfactory educational experience.

One of the complicating factors as far as understanding dyslexia is concerned is a lack of consensus about the criteria for diagnosis, and it is one of those conditions that attract a number of theories, not all of which are research-based. There are also differences in how dyslexia is viewed in different countries.

However, there are generally accepted facts about the condition, and a number of useful definitions, which convey a broad understanding. The one below was approved by the British Dyslexia in 2007: “Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty that mainly affects the development of literacy and language related skills. It is likely to be present at birth and be lifelong in its effects. It is characterised by difficulties with phonological processing, rapid naming, working memory, processing speed, and the automatic development of skills that may not match up to an individual’s other cognitive abilities.

“It tends to be resistant to conventional teaching methods, but its effect can be mitigated by appropriately specific intervention including the application of information technology and supportive counselling.”

In New Zealand, one complicating factor is that dyslexia itself was only officially recognised in 2007.Pr ior to this, specialist assessment providers tended to avoid what they felt was a ‘contentious’ term and label children with the more umbrella term SLD (Specific Learning Disability). However, the Ministry of Education now provides resources and advice on dyslexia and its definition includes mention of ‘secondary characteristics’ which may be involved, including “difficulties with auditory and/or visual perception; planning and organising; short-term memory; motor skills or social interaction”.

What these definitions highlight, though, is that dyslexia is intrinsically complex. There is huge variability in both patterns of difficulties, and also in severity. Many learners with very mild signs of dyslexia are never formally diagnosed – and didn’t really need to be! Often a well-compensated and well-supported learner will make good progress academically, despite mild signs of dyslexia. However, at the other end of the spectrum, difficulties may be extremely severe and this can place a significant burden on a school’s resources.


Internationally, dyslexia is recognised as one of the key reasons for educational underachievement and it is well-documented that a significant proportion of prison populations are, in fact, dyslexic. Percentages quoted in a variety of international studies range from 48 per cent to 80 per cent. The Dyslexia Foundation in 2008 quoted New Zealand research which showed that 90 per cent of prison inmates are not functionally literate.

Interestingly, although there is currently no consensus about any differences between ethnic groups, there is strong evidence that English is a particularly challenging language for dyslexics, mainly because is orthographically more complex and irregular than most other languages.

So what, exactly, causes dyslexia? As stated before, it is recognised as being primarily an inherited condition, although there is also a condition known as ‘acquired dyslexia’, which is a similar pattern of difficulties caused by head injury or other brain trauma.

Dyslexia is, in essence, a neurological condition, and recent advances in brain imaging technology are adding significantly to our understanding. There are, in fact, three main deficit theories on the causes of dyslexia: the phonological deficit theory – relating to the particular difficulties with phonological awareness and development of phonic knowledge; the cerebellar deficit theory –relating to central processing difficulties, which cause problems with automaticity and information processing; the magnocellular deficit theory – relating to visual and auditory deficits.

All have varying amounts of scientific evidence behind them, although there is a particularly comprehensive body of evidence supporting the theory that phonological deficits are implicated in dyslexia. Phonological awareness is, of course, a crucial component in early literacy development.

In confirmation of the phonological deficit theory, there have been a number of fMRI (functional MRI) studies into differences in brain activation and they clearly show that dyslexics use different areas of the brain when reading.

A leading US researcher, Sally Shaywitz (Overcoming Dyslexia, 2005) explains that, in fluent readers, an area in the occipito-temporal area of the brain is responsible for the instant visual recognition of a word. This area is often referred to as the ‘word form’ area. This is the area of the brain that recognises a word in a fraction of a second, as opposed to having to laboriously decode it as an early learner may need to do. In other words, it is crucial for reading fluency.

In dyslexics, fMRI scanning has shown that this occipito-temporal area is initially not activated, but some fascinating follow-on studies have indicated that, with correct remediation, brain activation patterns in dyslexic learners can change to the pattern seen in non-dyslexic learners.

The evidence reinforces the need for a structured, multi-sensory approach to literacy, which incorporates plenty of reinforcement, but also specific development of the underpinning perceptual skills, such as phonological awareness, sequencing, visual perception and memory. In practice, with learners with moderate-severe difficulties, reinforcement is often best provided through software reinforcement and hands-on teaching games.

So what should we look for, when identifying learners who may be dyslexic? In the school system, there are a number of possible indicators. These include:

– Unexpected and persisting difficulty with reading or spelling

– Poor or erratic handwriting

– Difficulties with short-term memory, particularly with following verbal instructions

– Problems with organisation or planning

– Difficulties with sequences, particularly rote sequences or times tables

– Family history

– Poor concentration

– Inconsistency; good or poor days with no apparent reason

Conversely, however, there are often many strengths, particularly involved with ‘right hemisphere’ functions such as creativity or imagination. Dyslexics are often visual thinkers and frequently perceive things differently and think laterally.

Many have excellent spatial abilities, which can be a particular asset in fields such as design, art or computing. There are many successful dyslexics, such as Andy Warhol, George Patton, John Lennon, Nigel Kennedy, Richard Branson and even Albert Einstein. A common story with many of them is that they struggled through school, but achieved success when they got into fields that suited or nurtured their abilities.

Many teachers in the dyslexia field quite rightly regard dyslexia as a ‘learning difference’, rather than a disability and recognise the need to cater for people who think and learn in different ways. A key part of this is, of course, providing dyslexics with the opportunity to show their strengths, rather than confronting them only with aspects they struggle with.

An important principle in this field is the need to treat learners as individuals, not concentrating on choosing the correct ‘label’, but assessing their individual learning needs and providing them with the right opportunities and support. Currently, far too many people leave the school system regarding themselves as ‘failures’ because they weren’t able to overcome their literacy difficulties and, tragically, many never overcome this image of themselves and realise their potential.

Moody, K, University of Texas in conjunction with Texas Department of Criminal Justice (2000).Dyslexia in the Prison Population
Shaywitz, S, Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention, 2005. Overcoming Dyslexia.
Literature Review: An International Perspective on Dyslexia, Ministry of Education
Shaywitz, Mody & Shaywitz, 2006 Neural Mechanisms in Dyslexia,
Snowling, M (1997). Developmental dyslexia: an introduction and theoretical overview
Ros Lugg is a Director at The Learning Staircase
OCR Diploma in Specific Learning Disability
NZCER Registered ‘C’ Grade Tester.
She is an experienced assessor and dyslexia specialist. She designed the Steps software programme, now in 700+ New Zealand schools and some of the top specialist dyslexia schools in the UK.


Rosie Clarke

Rosie is the managing editor here at Multimedia Pty Ltd, working across School News New Zealand and School News Australia. She has spent 10+ years in B2B journalism, and has spent some time over the last couple of years teaching as a sessional academic. Feel free to contact her at any time with editorial or magazine content enquiries.
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