Dyslexia–What Is It?

Dyslexia–What Is It?

If your child is struggling with reading, you have probably wondered if he or she has dyslexia. Like many others, you might be thinking of dyslexia as “seeing things backwards.” That is a common misperception. In reality, dyslexia may have less to do with how you see letters than with how you hear sounds.

The word dyslexia simply means limited reading ability. This can have several causes. Under Frequently Asked Questions on the International Dyslexia Association website they state:

“Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability. Dyslexia refers to a cluster of symptoms, which result in people having difficulties with specific language skills, particularly reading.”  https://dyslexiaida.org/frequently-asked-questions-2/

Learning to read involves many of the same skills as does learning to talk. Weakness in any of those skills  can cause a person to have difficulty with reading. I will describe three such skills that I believe to be particularly important in learning to read.

Phonemic awareness

Phonemic awareness is the awareness of the individual phonemes (speech sounds) as building blocks that make up words. It also includes the awareness of how the language allows phonemes to combine into syllables. As an example, the /ng/ sound can occur at the end of a syllable but never at the beginning. The /f/ can blend with /r/ at the beginning of a syllable as in “fry;” however, /s/ can never go before /r/ in that same way in English.

The written language of English is based on the sound structure of the spoken language. Like other western languages, it uses letters to represent the individual phonemes. When a child does not  understand how the words are made up of sounds, the letters on a page will not make sense.

Low Phonemic Awareness Can Lead to Dyslexia

The young child only gradually learns the system of phonemes and syllable structures. When starting school, your child might not yet be aware of all of the phonemes. Some children are not aware of the /th/ sounds or /ng/ until learning to read. (See my article Learning the Speech Sounds). In the normal learning process, the skills of speaking and reading/writing mutually reinforce each other. On the other hand, a certain level of phonemic awareness is essential for the child to be successful when learning to read.

Some children have much more than average difficulty perceiving the individual sounds/phonemes within the word. It is as though they perceive the word as one whole “blob” of sound.

When a six-year-old child has difficulty with simple rhyming, it is a sign of weak phonemic awareness. Any kind of word games that involve manipulating the sounds in a word will also be difficult for that child. Children with these difficulties also tend to mispronounce words in ways that do not follow a consistent pattern. These children tend to have significant difficulty learning to sound out words (decoding) and to spell (encoding).

Difficulties with phonemic awareness can contribute to long term reading problems. Without a solid foundation in phonetic decoding, the reader easily confuses words that look similar. This leads to misreading words, which will in turn interfere with reading comprehension.


Reading and writing like speaking are sequential tasks. When you say a word, you are articulating a sequence of sounds. Sequences of syllables make up the longer words. Likewise, sequences of words make up sentences according to grammar rules. The child initially learns these by listening, imitating and experimenting with the language. The language sequencing skills the child thus learns through speaking forms the foundation for learning to read and write.

Auditory Sequencing

It is quite common for young children to reverse sounds within words, especially words of more than two syllables. We have all heard children say “aminals” for animals or “pasghetti” for spaghetti. Such reversals are common. Occasionally they will persist into early school years merely as a matter of habit. This should be no reason for concern, unless it applies to a large number of words and persists longer than expected.

Some children have more than average difficulty perceiving the proper sequence of the phonemes within a word. They tend to make many more phoneme reversals than the average child. These phoneme reversals might then persist well into the school years. This would be an indication of difficulties with auditory sequencing along with phonemic awareness.

The letter sequence of a written word is based on the sound sequence in that word. It is easy to see then that auditory sequencing difficulties will lead to letter reversals in reading and writing.

Visual Sequencing

When we think of dyslexia as “seeing things backward,” we base it on the reversals that we observe in reading and writing. This can include reversal of letters in words as well as words in sentences. It also includes reversal of written letter images, so that for example c, f, or s come to look like their mirror images.

Parents often become concerned when they notice their child frequently confusing b and d in both reading and writing. It is important to realize that this is quite common in the early stages of learning to read. Your child might continue to confuse b and d for the first two and even three years. This is not in and of itself indication of a lasting reading problem.

Motor Sequencing

In both reading and writing the auditory and visual aspects of the task are closely integrated. It may not be possible to separate the two. When it comes to writing, a motor element is obviously added into the mix. But, reading involves such an element as well, as the child learns to read from left to right. Many of the children I see tend to move their eyes all over the page. They frequently loose track of where they are. A common strategy is then to have the child move a finger along the line.

As i work with children on reading skills, I frequently observe sequencing issues that cannot be clearly identified as specifically auditory or visual. Rather, it seems that the issue is the mental task of perceiving and reproducing elements in a specified sequence. It matters little whether those elements are primarily auditory, visual, or motor.

If the sequence of letters in a word is altered, it can change it to a different word. The word dog might become “god,” top turn into “pot,” spin into “pins,” etc. When sounds or syllables in words, or words in sentences are scrambled or skipped, the language will not make sense. Comprehension eludes the reader..

Word Retrieval

Several of my articles on this site address word retrieval difficulties. Therefore, there is no need to further describe what they are. (See my articles What Are Word Retrieval Difficulties and Impacts of Word Retrieval Difficulties.) Let’s just look more closely at how such difficulties might specifically affect reading.

To the proficient reader, the word on the page immediately triggers the auditory image of the word as well as its meaning. This rapid retrieval is an essential process in reading. Without it, there is no fluency, and comprehension suffers.

The young child, who is just learning to read, has to first sound out the words. This requires the child to be able to quickly recall the sound each letter makes. After repeated exposure to the same visual image of the word, sounding it out soon becomes unnecessary. Now the child has to be able to retrieve all the different words from their visual images. This needs to be done fast enough for the language to flow.

The “Little” Words

Have you ever wondered why your child tends to misread the common, short, seemingly simple words, but has no difficulty with a word like “elephant?” There are two reasons for this. The common, short words have fewer visual cues making it harder for the reader to quickly tell them apart. These short words also tend to be what I like to call “structure words” (see Learning Words). They are words that carry no specific, concrete meaning. This gives the child less to “hang it up on,” fewer memory cues.

The structure words don’t provide the key meaning of the text. They are, nevertheless important for the flow of the language. When you misread them, it breaks up that flow and distorts the meaning of the sentence. The result is that comprehension suffers.

Is It Dyslexia?

With true dyslexia, the difficulties are severe enough to persist beyond the initial stages of learning to read.  Many of the children I see struggle from Kindergarten through first grade but then take off. Others continue to struggle.

We might assume that the children who took off didn’t have dyslexia. But, would they have continued to struggle without the therapy? The strategies I use teach phonemic awareness in a very systematic way. It also provides retrieval support in a way that helps the child gain confidence. When a child is left to struggle through the initial learning process, bad habits often develop. This might then cause the problem to persist much longer.

A Neurological Basis

Experts consider dyslexia to have a neurological basis. In most cases, that simply means it is part of the child’s inborn neurological make-up. We all have individual strengths and weaknesses in how our brains function.  This accounts for various talents as well as learning challenges, which we inherit through our parents. Most children with true dyslexia have some family history of dyslexia.

I have come to believe that in dyslexia there is significant weakness in at least two of the three skills I have described. If I see considerable weakness in all three skills, I feel reasonably certain the child has dyslexia. A family history of dyslexia would further support that diagnosis.

It’s important for parents to realize that the symptoms of dyslexia can be largely overcome through appropriate strategies. That is especially true if your child learns such strategies early in the process of learning to read.

For more information about dyslexia, visit the website dyslexiaida.org

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