Current research on dyslexia and the brain are very in-depth topics. Believe it or not, it is a subject that has been researched and studied for over a hundred years when it was first described.
W. Pringle Morgan (cited in Shaywitz, 1996), a doctor in Sussex, England, described the puzzling case of a boy in the British Medical Journal: “Percy … aged 14 … has always been a bright and intelligent boy, quick at games, and in no way inferior to others of his age. His great difficulty has been – and is now – his inability to read” (p. 98).
Almost every teacher in the United States has at least one student who could fit the same description written so many years ago. This situation leads many school personnel to wonder why their articulate, clearly bright student has so many problems with what appears to be a simple task – reading a text that everyone else seems to easily comprehend.
Having information about the likely explanation for and potential cause of the student’s difficulties often relieves teachers’ fears and uncertainties about how to teach the student and how to think about providing instruction that is relevant and effective. Current research on dyslexia and the brain provide the most up-to-date information available about the problems faced by over 2.8 million school-aged children.
When talking with teachers about their students who struggle with reading, we have encountered similar types of questions from teachers. They often wonder, What is dyslexia? What does brain research tell us about reading problems and what does this information mean for classroom instruction?
The purpose of this article is to explain the answers to these questions and provide foundational knowledge that will lead to a firmer understanding of the underlying characteristics of students with dyslexia. A greater understanding of the current brain research and how it relates to students with dyslexia is important in education and will help teachers understand and evaluate possible instructional interventions to help their students succeed in the classroom.
What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is an often-misunderstood, confusing term for reading problems. The word dyslexia is made up of two different parts: dys meaning not or difficult, and lexiameaning words, reading, or language. So quite literally, dyslexia means difficulty with words (Catts & Kamhi, 2005).
Despite the many confusions and misunderstandings, the term dyslexia is commonly used by medical personnel, researchers, and clinicians. One of the most common misunderstandings about this condition is that dyslexia is a problem of letter or word reversals (b/d, was/saw) or of letters, words, or sentences “dancing around” on the page (Rayner, Foorman, Perfetti, Pesetsky, & Seidenberg, 2001).
In fact, writing and reading letters and words backwards are common in the early stages of learning to read and write among average and dyslexic children alike, and the presence of reversals may or may not indicate an underlying reading problem. See Table 1 for explanations of this and other common misunderstandings.
One of the most complete definitions of dyslexia comes from over 20 years of research:
Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological 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. (Lyon, Shaywitz, & Shaywitz, 2003, p. 2)
Dyslexia is a specific learning disability in reading that often affects spelling as well. In fact, reading disability is the most widely known and most carefully studied of the learning disabilities, affecting 80% of all those designated as learning disabled. Because of this, we will use the terms dyslexia and reading disabilities (RD) interchangeably in this article to describe the students of interest.