This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 12 table of contents.

Dyslexia (Reading Disorder)

The most commonly diagnosed learning disorder in school settings is dyslexia. Dyslexia is a learning disorder involving reading ability. In fact, DSM-IV does not use the term dyslexia. It simply labels the syndrome "Reading Disorder."

What is dyslexia, and what is it called in DSM-IV?

A reading disorder may leave other intellectual abilities untouched. The dyslexic person may be smart in all the normal ways, except for this one problem: the dyslexic person has a hard time extracting meaning from the written word.

Several different types of dyslexia can be identified. About two-thirds of dyslexics are verbal dyslexics whose specific problem is sound of a written word and hearing it like a normal word. This problem slows them in reading and prevents them from extracting the meaning (a problem illustrated by a demonstration in Chapter 7).

What are two different types of dyslexia?

The remaining third of dyslexics are spatial dyslexics who have trouble discriminating the spatial relationships of letters in a word. These individuals tend to invert letters, turning them backwards. Their reading is also disrupted.

What happens when a typical dyslexic student tries to read a paragraph?

The common denominator in all forms of dyslexia is difficulty arriving at an accurate final meaning when reading. A dyslexic student typically does poorly on tests that require verbal comprehension. A dyslexic student may be able to read a paragraph out loud but cannot extract the meaning well enough to answer a simple question about it. Instead of grasping the exact meaning, he or she will notice a few of the main words and use these to formulate a guess at the meaning, usually missing the main point. Somewhere along the line, the process that allows a person to construct a novel but precise meaning from the written word is disrupted.

What sorts of compensations are possible?

There are ways to compensate for a reading disorder. For example, textbook chapters can be read onto tape, by the student or by a volunteer, and the student can study by listening instead of reading. One dyslexic girl went from D grades to B grades simply by having a graduate assistant read quizzes to her. An auditory learner, she could process the information if she heard it, but not if she read it. She told me she had survived high school by always discussing textbook material with friends so that she could hear it.

How can spatial dyslexia be detected with a simple test?

Spatial dyslexia can be diagnosed with a simple test. Dr. Martin F. Gardner of the Harvard Medical School found that spatial dyslexics have trouble tapping out a rhythm with their fingertips, given only verbal instruction. "Anyone can tap a finger on a table," he said, "but the spatial dyslexic is unable to tap a rhythmic pattern in response to verbal instruction, even though the instruction is perfectly well understood."

He said he had applied the test mainly to well-educated subjects who were often surprised by the results. Those who had had reading difficulties through much of their lives, including a doctoral candidate, could not correctly obey the tapping instructions. (Browne, 1988) For example, if someone told you, "Tap five times very quickly, then four times very slowly, then three times very quickly, then two times slowly," could you do it? A spatial dyslexic (one out of three dyslexics) has problems following such apparently clear verbal instructions.

What general problem does a spatial dyslexic seem to have?

Why would a person who has trouble reading also have trouble following instructions to tap fingers ? The common element in the two tasks is moving from a verbal instruction to an otherwise unrelated cognitive production. The spatial dyslexic evidently has problems using language to guide complex activity in a different part of the brain. He or she cannot use language to guide the tapping finger, and he or she cannot use language to guide the assembly of a novel meaning, which is what we mean by language comprehension. As suggested above, such people can guess at a meaning, but that is not enough to pass most college courses.

With hard work and the support of others, plus acts of compensation such as hiring people to help with reading and writing, dyslexics can do well in professional life. Many are found in positions of prominence.

For example, Dr. Richard Wyatt, director of adult psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health, has dyslexia and can barely read.

How does Richard Wyatt compensate for his dyslexia?

"I've developed compensation strategies," Dr. Wyatt said. "It's the same as compensating for being deaf or blind." As director of a research program, Dr. Wyatt survives by struggling over every paper he writes and by employing an editor to correct his spelling and writing.

Wyatt also feels that he thinks differently from other people.

"I think in a higgledypiggledy fashion," he said. He tends to come up with ideas that "may be off the wall-and usually they are," he said. "But occasionally, I bring in something good." (Kolata, 1987)

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Copyright © 2007-2011 Russ Dewey