Many parents and educators raise concerns about dyslexia, and some are pushing for state laws for students with dyslexia in schools.
But why do so many children have dyslexia? What is it exactly? What causes it?
LD Online states that a staggering 5 to 15 percent of Americans—14.5 to 43.5 million children and adults—have dyslexia, a learning disability that makes it difficult to read, write, and spell, no matter how hard the person tries or how intelligent he or she is.
The British Dyslexia Association claims the number of individuals with dyslexia in the UK; they call a lifelong condition, is around 10 percent.
The Dyslexia International Association states…perhaps as many as 15–20% of the population as a whole—have some of the symptoms of dyslexia, including slow or inaccurate reading, poor spelling, poor writing, or mixing up similar words.
That’s a lot of people who struggle to read, but why?
What is Dyslexia?
The International Dyslexia Association says they need to create a new definition. We now know that dyslexia is real; we know what it is and what to do about it. Is there a new mission for the definition or is it time for it to simply fade away?
Not so fast.
. . . a neurologically based learning disability manifested as severe difficulties in reading, spelling, and writing words and sometimes in arithmetic. Dyslexia is characterized by impairment in the ability to process sounds, that is, to make connections between written letters and their sounds; written work is often characterized by reversal errors.** (There’s more. See the link).
**It’s important to note that letter reversals are common when children learn to write.
The APA’s Reading Disability definition is shorter but difficult to distinguish from dyslexia.
. . . difficulty understanding the associations between letters and sounds. It is associated with neurological damage or impairment, typically in language processing and the brain’s visual reasoning areas.
University of Virginia Cognitive Psychologist Daniel Willingham lumps reading disabilities and dyslexia together from less problematic to more serious.
The severity of the problem runs on a continuum, so in that way it’s more like high blood pressure or obesity. And like those problems, the fact that there’s not an obvious cut-point at which you can say “you have the disease, but you don’t” doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take it seriously.
. . . there is at the moment no evidence to suggest that difficulty in learning to read words accurately and fluently is associated with anything having gone wrong in brain development. That is, dyslexia cannot be justifiably considered to be a “neurodevelopmental disorder” (much less a “neurological disorder”).
We must disentangle the two notions, as they are fully compatible: On the one hand, dyslexia is “biological” in the sense that it is brain structure and function that determines reading skill, including the highest and lowest levels of skill and all those in between. On the other hand, the low reading performance in dyslexia is not a symptom of some brain disorder, or even of disrupted neural development, but just the outcome of normal developmental trajectories that happen to be less efficient in acquiring and expressing written language skills, in the context of rampant, ubiquitous individual differences.
Some reading scholars don’t believe dyslexia is real. Richard Allington, professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee, came under fire in 2019, when Education Week reported that he is “reasonably sure” that dyslexia doesn’t exist. Allington expressed dissatisfaction for groups trying to create dyslexia state mandates.
It suggests erroneously that there is scientific certainty about dyslexia and how it should be addressed instructionally. In fact, the research evidence is equivocal and there is much room for debate about whether dyslexia is an identifiable condition, whether it can be reliably diagnosed, and whether there are instructional approaches that are uniquely effective in ameliorating it.
Dyslexia for the Rich and Reading Disabilities for the Poor?
British Educational Psychologist and Scholar Julian “Joe” Elliot couldn’t find any patterns with students said to have dyslexia. Their reading problems were different. He determined that anyone could have reading problems, arguing. . . there is essentially no difference between a person who struggles to read and write and a person with dyslexia – and no difference in how you should teach them.
Elliot worried that poor children didn’t get the dyslexia diagnosis or the help they needed to learn to read. Reading difficulties are real. I’ve seen thousands of kids with reading difficulties. You know what? Very few of the ones I saw in the inner cities, in the council estates, get diagnosed with dyslexia.
Elliot defends his position in The Reading Quarterly; It’s Time to Be Scientific About Dyslexia.
The idea of a brain dysfunction connected to reading isn’t new. German neurologist Adolph Kussmaul saw it as a neurological impairment called word blindness in 1878. The term dyslexia appeared in 1887. It’s Greek for difficulty with words. Other terms included congenital word blindness and visual processing deficiencies.
In 1925, American neurologist Dr. Samuel T. Orton saw dyslexia as a problem with the dominance of one side of the brain. He and educator psychologist Anna Gillingham came up with the Orton-Gillingham approach popular today, although there’s no research to support O-G.
Yale neuroscientist and pediatrician Sally Shaywitz used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to image children and adults’ brains as they tried to read. But there’s skepticism surrounding brain studies. Many believe fMRIs don’t tell much about dyslexia. Unfortunately, brain scans can’t be used yet to “prove” that a child has dyslexia.
What Causes Reading Problems?
So why do children have severe reading problems often combined with serious writing issues (dysgraphia)?
The following issues have been called causation factors, but they’re also disputed, leaving a gap in understanding exactly where dyslexia comes from.
- Premature birth. Children born prematurely might have reading and language difficulties. They might work slower than their peers developmentally.
- Problematic pregnancy. Exposure to nicotine, drugs, alcohol, or infection may cause reading problems.
- Genetics. Evidence shows that some children might inherit reading and language disabilities, or maybe not.
- Intellectual and developmental disabilities. Children born with serious disabilities may have language and reading problems.
- Lead exposure. Children with high levels of lead in their blood might have to overcome learning difficulties.
- Language deprivation. Children who face a void of language stimulation when they’re young may have reading difficulties.
It’s important to continue to raise questions about reading problems and to seek school programs that help children learn to read.
But we should also be asking why so many children present such problems when they show up to school.
No matter what causes reading problems in children or what the label, schools, and teachers must continue to provide students with the individual help they need. There is no one perfect reading program for all children. Schools need to provide rich reading environments and extra phonics for students who need it.
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