The term “dyslexia” has been around for 100 years, and there are records of individuals with reading-based disorders dating as far back as the 17th century.
There are still, however, numerous misconceptions about the neurological disorder. Here, we bust five common misconceptions about developmental dyslexia, backed by the latest research:
1. People with Dyslexia Can’t Read
I’ve had students with developmental dyslexia tell me, “I can’t read,” after reading an entire article about cooking, or rocket ships, or the internet. These students too have internalized strong myths about their struggles (or are commenting on their formal inability to read). Even after intensive intervention (the official term for “quality instruction”), reading for individuals with developmental dyslexia can remain effortful and slow, requiring multiple readings or the aids of assistive technology (thank goodness for audiobooks!). However, with the proper interventions (see Myth #5), these individuals can absolutely learn to read. Aside from intervention, many individuals with dyslexia learn to compensate, and even increase the activation around their inferior frontal gyri, which allows them to compensate via greater use of memory than “analytic word identification strategies.”
2. All Dyslexia Is the Same
Dyslexia is a heterogeneous disorder, meaning it manifests itself differently in each individual (behaviorally, and at a neurological level). This is one of the reasons there are multiple, competing theories about it. There are three neural systems involved in reading, or as it’s sometimes called: processing and integrating orthographic and phonological representations:
The inferior frontal gyrus (aka, Broca’s area) which is activated for articulation and word analysis.
The parieto-temporal region (specifically the posterior superior temporal gyrus and sulcus) which is responsible for word analysis and “audiovisual integration across a wide range of domains.”
The occipito-temporal region (specifically the fusiform gyrus), the “word form” area responsible for rapid, automatic, fluent reading.
A breakdown in any one of these areas may manifest itself as dyslexia. That being said, some trends do exist in dyslexia. Recent fMRI research has demonstrated that people with developmental dyslexia have reduced activation in all three of the essential brain regions involved in reading, but particularly in the two posterior systems, with the left occipito-temporal (LOT) region (also known as the “visual word-form area) being most impacted. The LOT is activated when reading words and naming the pictures of words.
Dyslexia therefore appears to be a difficulty with “cross-modal integration,” and this is one of the reasons why multi-sensory interventions can be successful.
3. People Only Have Dyslexia in English Because the Spelling Is so Inconsistent
Dyslexia does not discriminate by continent. Statistically, there are people in every country in the world who have dyslexia. There is a difference, however, between “deep” and “shallow” orthography. The “shallow” refers to languages that have a relatively close correspondence between sounds and letters. Italian, Spanish, and Hungarian are all examples with shallow orthography. (There are individuals with developmental dyslexia even in those cultures, although at about half the rate as in English.)
As for English being “so inconsistent,” teacher, psychologist, and author Dr. Louisa Moats disagrees. She points out that English is a “pattern-based writing system” that is “more complex than some languages... but is nevertheless a predictable, learnable system… Only 4% of English words are truly irregular and may have to be learned through whole word methods.”
4. People with Dyslexia Haven’t Been Taught Properly
By definition, someone can only be diagnosed with developmental dyslexia if they have received appropriate instruction. Without proper education, one can still be categorized as being “at-risk” or as having a “reading difficulty,” but that is different than the neurology of someone who has developmental dyslexia. Interventions for individuals with reading disorders may be similar to those received by individuals with dyslexia, but may not need to be as intensive or as multi-sensory.
5. Children with Dyslexia Just Need More Instruction Than Their Peers
Not exactly. Unlike spoken language (which is innate and requires no explicit instruction), reading needs to be taught. Some individuals appear to learn practically by osmosis. Individuals with dyslexia, however, require more explicit instruction, which is structured, hierarchical, and multi-sensory. Orton-Gillingham-based methodologies do just that. In fact, appropriate intervention can not only create behavioral changes (i.e. more fluent reading), but actually result in “increased activation in the neural systems for reading.” Appropriate intervention changes people’s brains!