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Understanding dyslexia: What it is and isn’t

Dyslexia illustration - Understanding Dyslexia

People with dyslexia do not see words reversed or jumbled on a page. Their difficulty is with sounding out words as they read and spell.

Popular culture paints an image of how dyslexia affects learning that isn’t accurate. Understanding dyslexia can help parents recognize warning signs in their children early in their lives.

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is simply “difficulties with reading and spelling,” said Dr. Sarah Kortenkamp, a Marshfield Clinic neuropsychologist. However, when it comes to understanding dyslexia, misconceptions run amok.

“It’s not a visual processing problem. It’s not a problem where words appear backwards to the reader,” Kortenkamp said. “Most commonly, dyslexia is caused by phonics difficulties.”

Children with dyslexia might have difficulty differentiating between words like “was” and “saw,” not because they see those letters reversed on the page, but because they have difficulty sounding out the words. A child with dyslexia who is beginning to read has an especially difficult time because the child doesn’t have what Kortenkamp calls “sight-word memory” built up, where a reader knows a word from seeing it many times.

“It’s not a hearing problem at all. It seems to be a problem in how quickly these kids learn and associate letter sounds, called phonological awareness,” Kortenkamp said. “Most kids with enough exposure pick all that up. It becomes automatic. Kids with dyslexia need a lot more repetition.”

Dyslexia appears across all levels of intelligence. In fact, Kortenkamp has met highly educated individuals with dyslexia, including medical doctors, who were able to find ways to compensate for their difficulties.

Is there a known cause for dyslexia?

“Not really,” Kortenkamp said. “It definitely runs in families. There’s definitely a genetic component.”

In fact, most children with dyslexia have a parent or sibling with the condition, though no single gene or environmental factor has been pinpointed as the main cause. About 5-20 percent of the general population has dyslexia.

Warning signs

Kortenkamp said she would not diagnose a child with dyslexia until about midway through second grade. Many children struggle with letter sounds or confusing the letter “b” with “d” in kindergarten and first grade. However, if a child is having difficulty early and continues to struggle throughout second grade and beyond, it may be a sign of something more than normal growing pains, Kortenkamp said.

If a first-grade student spells “school” as “s-k-o-o-l,” Kortenkamp wouldn’t view that as a concern. The child is spelling the word how it sounds. However, if the child spelled “school” as “s-h-l-o-o-c,” with the correct letters but not at all how the word sounds, a problem could be present. Difficulty with rhyming also can be a warning sign.

What can be done?

Dyslexia is not curable, and no medication can treat it, but early intervention can help improve the long-term prognosis, Kortenkamp said. Young children absorb new information easier than older children and have more time to work through their struggles.

“Through memorization and hard work, children can compensate for dyslexia and catch up to some degree, but it’s always going to be a little bit of a challenge,” Kortenkamp said.

Parents can help their child by reading homework, such as book chapters, to them.

“Don’t make them slog through reading assignments word by word,” Kortenkamp said. “They can learn faster and better if they hear it rather than try to read through it.”

If you are concerned your child is showing signs of dyslexia, contact their primary care provider who can make a referral for a neuropsychological evaluation if needed.

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