What Is Dyslexia?

Definitions of dyslexia usually focus on a few core reading and spelling challenges that most people with dyslexia share. While these definitions can be helpful for making diagnoses, doing research, or creating policies for schools, they unfortunately leave out much of the information that can help people with dyslexia reach their full potential in school, work, and life.

These narrow definitions also imply that the only important differences between dyslexic and non-dyslexic brains are in the areas that control reading skills. But this is simply not true. A wealth of research has shown that dyslexic brains don’t just work differently for reading and spelling, but for all sorts of functions. These important functional differences have been found in areas including vision, hearing, motor function, language, memory, attention, and processing speed.

In addition to functional differences, dyslexic brains also show many structural differences to non-dyslexic brains. These differences can be seen both in the large-scale folding and in the small-scale organization of cell connections. At both levels, dyslexic brains are structured in ways that optimize the making of broader and more diffuse connections, which typically support “big-picture” thinking and innovation, at the expense of more local connections, which support “fine detail” processing and efficient expertise.

This pattern of connectivity likely accounts for the growing body of research demonstrating that dyslexic differences include strengths as well as challenges. In recent years, dyslexic individuals have been shown to be more skilled as a group than non-dyslexic ones in a number of important areas of thinking and skill development.

All of this information suggests that any adequate description of what it means to “be dyslexic” must include more than just a description of core reading and spelling challenges. It must also include a description of the much broader range of challenges and strengths that are often found in dyslexic individuals. Only this broader and more accurate picture of what it means to be dyslexic can equip dyslexic people to understand both their challenges and strengths. And this comprehensive understanding will do much more to equip them with the insights they need to find the success and fulfillment they seek in school, work, and life.

The sections below briefly describe this broader view of dyslexia. We’ll present first the challenges, and then the strengths, that have been shown to be common in dyslexic individuals. To find out where you can learn more about dyslexia, please visit our Resources section.

Dyslexia-Associated Challenges

Reading and Spelling: Dyslexia-related challenges with reading and spelling can show up at several different levels of reading skill:

  • At the sub-word level, dyslexic individuals often show difficulty identifying and manipulating the component sounds (phonemes) in words (phonological processing).

  • At the single-word level, dyslexic readers typically show difficulty developing speed and accuracy (i.e., fluency or automaticity) in tasks including:

    • sounding out new or unfamiliar words (decoding)

    • recognizing printed words by sight

    • spelling words (encoding)

  • At the sentence, passage or discourse level, dyslexic readers typically show lower speed and accuracy of reading (fluency) than their comparably bright and well-educated peers. Their reading comprehension may also be lower than comparably bright peers, especially in time-pressured situations such as standardized tests. However, many dyslexic students may read with average or even excellent comprehension. This is especially true of dyslexic students with strong general verbal abilities.

“Stealth Dyslexia”: Dyslexic readers are most easily identified when their performances on reading and spelling tasks fall significantly below population norms. Typical cutoff levels used in schools or diagnostic work are 1.5 to 2 standard deviations below the mean.

However, research has shown that when individuals show reading achievement at the single-word or comprehension level that falls significantly below their general verbal ability, they typically show the differences in the function of their brain-based reading circuitry identifiable on functional brain imaging that are characteristic of dyslexia. As a result, some students with strong verbal ability may actually experience dyslexia-related underperformance in reading and spelling even though their reading achievement tests fall within the average or even slightly above-average range. These students are sometimes referred to as having “stealth dyslexia” or “resilient dyslexia”.

Dyslexia-Associated Challenges Beyond Reading: Individuals with dyslexic processing often show:

  • challenges with lower working memory and processing speed, which contribute to challenges with organization, sequencing, orientation to time, and mental focus. In about one third of dyslexic individuals, these also contribute to the dual diagnosis of ADHD.

  • challenges with auditory/sound processing that can cause mishearing or difficulty discriminating sounds, or difficulty hearing in background noise

  • challenges with visual processing, particularly in visual attention, that can cause decreased stamina and accuracy for near work, especially in crowded visual fields, and worsened reading challenges with small, ornate, or closely spaced fonts

  • challenges with slower procedural learning, or mastering “how” skills, which involve multiple steps or rules (affects at least half of dyslexic individuals)

  • challenges with rote memorization of abstract or non-contextual information

  • challenges with writing (beyond spelling) that include problems with handwriting, punctuation and conventions, syntax, and higher level discourse construction

  • challenges with math, including difficulty with rote mastery of math facts and/or procedures, and a tendency to make “overload” or “silly” mistakes.

Dyslexia-Associated Strengths

Researchers have shown that as a group people with dyslexia show greater strengths than non-dyslexic people in important aspects of:

  • three-dimensional spatial reasoning

  • incidental learning and memory

  • pattern recognition

  • creativity

These strengths appear to be reflected in higher than expected incidences of dyslexic individuals in training programs in engineering, design, photography, art, and in careers like entrepreneurship, mechanics, construction.

To learn more about the strength patterns associated with dyslexia, please go to the section of the website labeled “Dyslexic Strengths”, where you’ll find a series of interactive quizzes that will help you identify some of your own strengths, as well as more information on the strengths associated with dyslexia.

Help Us Learn More About Dyslexia

One of our primary goals at Neurolearning SPC is to document and discover the strengths associated with dyslexia and other thinking and learning styles, so we can better help individuals reach their goals and dreams. It is essential in this process that we have non-dyslexic as well as dyslexic people of all ages taking not only the quizzes we develop on dyslexia-related strengths, but also the Dyslexia Screening Test App. So if you haven’t already taken these yourself, we’d be very grateful if you did!