Dyslexia: What Is and What Isn’t?


If you’ve heard the term dyslexia and aren’t sure what it means, you’re not alone. People tend to have a lot of questions about dyslexia. Is it a general term that covers many kinds of learning issues? How is it different from (or the same as) a specific learning disability? The answers here can help you develop a better understanding of dyslexia.

What exactly is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a brain-based condition. It causes difficulty with reading, spelling, writing and sometimes speaking. In people with dyslexia, the brain has trouble recognizing or processing certain types of information. This can include matching letter sounds and symbols (such as the letter b making the buh sound) and blending them together to make words.

Some people with dyslexia don’t have trouble sounding out or “decoding” words. But they may struggle to understand what they read. It can be very hard for people with dyslexia to read in a way that’s automatic, or seemingly without effort.

Like other types of learning and attention issues, dyslexia is a lifelong condition. Children don’t outgrow it.

Characteristics of dyslexia often include:

  • Difficulty associating sounds with letters and letters with sounds
  • Confusion when pronouncing words and phrases, such as saying “mawn lower” instead of “lawn mower”
  • Difficulty reading aloud with the proper tone and grouping words and phrases together appropriately
  • Difficulty “sounding out” unfamiliar words
  • Trouble writing or copying letters, numbers and symbols in the correct order
  • Trouble rhyming

Even though dyslexia doesn’t go away as kids get older, there are lots of accommodations and strategies that can help.

Is dyslexia a specific learning disability?

Some people refer to dyslexia as a language-based learning disability. Language-based learning disabilities are conditions that impact writing, reading, spelling and even math, as well as related problems with comprehension.

Dyslexia is the clinical term used for one kind of specific learning disability. “Specific learning disability” is one of the 13 disability categories listed in federal special education law. The term dyslexia isn’t currently called out separately on that list, but it is given as an example in the “specific learning disability” category.

Many states have added dyslexia to their list of conditions that qualify students for help and have passed dyslexia laws to regularize what their schools do. And the U.S. Department of Education has specifically advised states to use the term in IEPs, at meetings and in special education evaluations.

Why is dyslexia confused with other learning issues?

Dyslexia is thought to be the most common kind of learning and attention issues. The majority of kids with learning issues have features of dyslexia. This is probably why dyslexia gets confused with the following learning and attention issues.

Dyscalculia, sometimes called math dyslexia, causes problems for kids when it comes to reading, writing and understanding numbers. While kids with dyslexia struggle with letters and words, kids with dyscalculia often:

  • Read numbers incorrectly
  • Have trouble copying and writing math numbers and symbols
  • Have trouble with math concepts, such as counting, measuring and estimating
  • Struggle to master the “basics” (such as doing quick addition and subtraction in their head) that are key to working independently and efficiently

Dysgraphia makes it hard for kids to put words on paper and spell when writing. Similarly, kids with dyslexia can have trouble with spelling and writing. Children with dysgraphia, however, may also struggle with the mechanics of writing. For instance, they can have trouble gripping a pen or might fatigue easily when writing.

Kids with ADHD also may struggle with reading, comprehension and writing, just as kids with dyslexia do. As many as a third to a half of all kids with ADHD have co-occurring learning issues like dyslexia. It’s often hard to tease apart whether one or both of these issues is contributing to a child’s difficulties. The hallmarks of ADHD (but not dyslexia) are problems with behavior and learning that stem from inattention, impulsivity and over-activity.

Although dyslexia is common, it’s frequently confused with other learning and attention issues. Understanding the characteristics of dyslexia—and how it overlaps with or is distinct from other issues—will give you a better handle on the kinds of learning and attention issues that may be affecting your child.

Key Takeaways

  • Dyslexia is a type of specific learning disability.
  • Dyscalculia—sometimes referred to as math dyslexia—is not the same thing as dyslexia.
  • Understanding the difference between dyslexia and similar conditions can help you get the best help for your child.

Article by Erica Patino, Understood.org

Understood.org is a great website for information on learning and attention issues.  The website also features an online community for you to connect with other parents.  https://www.understood.org/en

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