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What it is and what it isn't

By Scott L. Crouse (

Dyslexia is probably the most common LD term which the general public hears. Unfortunately, there is often a great deal of confusion and misinformation surrounding this term.

The word 'dyslexia' simply means difficulty understanding written words. In essence, it just means 'reading difficulty'. And specifically, it means a learning disorder which affects reading. The confusion comes when we start dealing with the term 'dyslexia' as it relates to 'special education services'.

There are very strict criteria (which can differ quite a bit from State to State) which determine if a student has a learning disability as it is defined by special education rules. When a student's reading difficulty is severe enough to meet this criteria, special education services are indicated. On the other hand, 'dyslexia' has no clearly defined criteria. A student with any degree of reading difficulty may be considered 'dyslexic' according to some educational specialists. This frequently occurs when a student receives an educational evaluation outside of the public school system.

So, being labeled as 'dyslexic' may or may not indicate the need for special education services. It should be noted that many students with learning disabilities experience reading difficulty and probably could be considered 'dyslexic'. However, the term is seldom used within public schools because of the lack of any strict or measurable criteria.

Underlying causes of dyslexia:

  • Sequencing Problems - When we hear or read stories about dyslexia it is usually described as being caused by a problem with visual or perceptual processing. However, research on brain functioning has not found much evidence to support the notion of a visual basis for most reading difficulties. In fact, what often appears to be a perceptual problem (reading words backwards, skipping words, etc.) usually seems to be directly related to sequential/rational information processing. In other words, when students experience difficulty sequencing and organizing detailed information, they often have difficulty with the sequence of letters and words as they read. This results in slow/choppy reading, skipping of words or lines, and difficulty staying focused on the material. Sometimes the reading comprehension of such a student is surprisingly good in spite of the difficulty sounding out specific words. This is because their 'conceptual' processing skills are often quite strong enabling them to get the 'deeper meaning' in spite of missing the details. When reading difficulties are caused by sequencing problems, writing and math are often also affected.
  • Auditory Processing Weakness - Other students experience reading difficulty because of a general auditory or language processing weakness. As they read and sound out words (even silently) their brain is not able to quickly understand the meaning. This results in slow reading and difficulty with comprehension. Auditory processing weakness is sometimes referred to as a verbal or language-based learning disability and often affects written language as well as reading.
  • Visual Processing Weakness - Although most reading disabled or 'dyslexic' students do not have visual or perceptual processing problems, some students with a visual processing weakness will experience difficulty with reading speed and comprehension simply because they aren't able to fully process the visual information on the page. Again, this is probably the least likely cause of a reading problem. In general, visual processing difficulties impact math and spelling much more than reading.
Reading strategies for 'dyslexic' students:
  1. Read summary or review questions first. This helps establish 'the big picture' and underlying meaning of the material. Then, when the passage is read the details will make more sense.
  2. Look at pictures if they are available. This also helps get the general meaning across and uses the visual processing skills (which are often a relative strength).
  3. Skim through each paragraph looking for the 'topic sentence'. There is usually one sentence that will give the basic idea of the whole paragraph. Finding that sentence will help all the other pieces of the paragraph to 'fit' and make sense.
  4. When taking a test that requires reading, look at the questions first. Then you will know what information to really look for in the reading passage.
  5. Read out loud. This can sometimes help you keep focused and reinforce the auditory information.
For additional information about dyslexia and other terms related to learning disabilities, please visit my web site at:

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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