What is Dyslexia?

There are many definitions of dyslexia. A very simple one would be that dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty which makes it hard for some people to learn to read, write and spell correctly. The recent Report of the Task Force on Dyslexia (2001) suggests the following more scientific definition:

Dyslexia is manifested in a continuum of specific learning difficulties related to the acquisition of basic skills in reading, spelling and/or writing, such difficulties being unexplained in relation to an individual’s other abilities and educational experiences. Dyslexia can be described at the neurological, cognitive and behavioural levels. It is typically characterised by inefficient information processing, including difficulties in phonological processing, working memory, rapid naming and automaticity of basic skills. Difficulties in organisation, sequencing and motor skills may also be present. (p.31)

The report goes on to say that the learning difficulties arising from dyslexia:

  • Occur across the lifespan, and may manifest themselves in different ways at different ages.
  • May co-exist with difficulties in the area of numbers.
  • May be associated with early spoken language difficulties.
  • May be alleviated by appropriate intervention.
  • Increase or reduce in severity depending on environmental factors.
  • Occur in all socio-economic groups.
  • can co-exist with other learning difficulties such as Attention Deficit Disorder, and may or may not represent a primary difficulty.


A great deal of research has been done in recent years on the cause of dyslexia and it may be that a great deal more needs to be done before we have a definitive answer. We do know that developmental dyslexia is inherited, more common in males than females and that one is born with it. While no conclusive research has been carried out in Ireland to determine how prevalent it is, studies in other countries would suggest that 6% to 8% of the population are likely to be affected. It would seem that people with dyslexia share a cluster of genes, which may, it is believed, account for the variations in the nature and extent of specific learning difficulties.

Experts are not agreed, however, on the underlying causes of dyslexia. Professor John Stein, Oxford, believes that auditory and visual difficulties are caused by abnormal magnocellular development. Malfunction in the development of sensory nerves happens at the foetal stage and is said to cause eye convergence difficulties and inhibit steady eye fixation. Other theorists consider that a phonological deficit is the root cause of dyslexia. Evidence from brain imaging suggests that people with dyslexia do not activate the left hemisphere (the language side) in the brain as much when reading as non-dyslexic readers, and that there is less engagement of the areas of the brain which match letters with sounds. Yet another view is that the role of the part of the brain which controls balance (the cerebellum) is crucial and that differences in this area make it difficult for children with dyslexia to acquire automaticity in tasks and may further inhibit the development of language dexterity and motor skills.

Experts do agree that dyslexia describes differences in the way in which the brain processes information, and while there may be differences in the way in which the brain works, this does not imply any abnormality, disease or defect.

All Children Learn Differently

Whatever the origins of the difficulty, the truth is that children and adults with dyslexia learn differently. If this difference is not accommodated within the school system, the child may have difficulty in learning to read, write, spell and handle numbers. Some difficulties will be mild and a child may cope without extra support. Others are severe and the child will require specific help and tuition.

Indicators of Dyslexia

A problem learning to read and/or spell should alert parents and teachers that a Specific Learning Disability may be present. This applies particularly when a child’s progress seems at odds with his or her general level of ability.

A child with dyslexia may:

  • Have experienced early speech and language problems.
  • Confuse directions like left and right.
  • Have difficulty remembering common sequences such as the days of the week, tables and the alphabet.
  • Have poor pencil control and awkward handwriting.
  • Mix up the sound of words and order of numbers.
  • Be unable to pair speech sounds with letters and vice versa.
  • Confuse letters and words that look somewhat alike (e.g. b/d, p/q, m/w, n/u, was/saw, cat/act, from/form).
  • Have difficulty copying words and numbers from a book or blackboard.
  • Have specific difficulties in arithmetic, such as place value.
  • Have problems recalling the names of words or objects
  • Older children (second-level) may have problems in getting their thoughts on paper and so may not do as well in written exams as expected. They may find second or third language learning difficult. Spelling problems may persist and even reading aloud may still be difficult or embarrassing.

Telling Your Child About Dyslexia

There is an old saying – “It’s no disgrace to be poor, but it’s mighty inconvenient.”
The same could be said of dyslexia. It is nothing to be ashamed of, but it does complicate life. While there is no doubt that many people with dyslexia have special gifts, and some of the common traits of dyslexia can be very useful, nevertheless in a world where literacy is important, dyslexia is a definite inconvenience. There is no denying that – but it is not the end of the world either. It is very important for your child that you find a balance when dealing with the subject.

If a diagnosis of dyslexia has been made and your child needs to have extra tuition, within or outside of school, this will need to be explained to the child very carefully. Again, the more information you have the easier this will be. When explaining in dyslexia to your child, you have to translate the results of the assessment into plain language. You also want the child to know that dyslexia is nothing to be ashamed of, that help is available, and that there is no reason why the child should not achieve to his or her potential.

  • If you child is diagnosed as having SLD/dyslexia, then tell your child this. There is no reason to hide it.
  • Explain that dyslexia is a very common condition and several other people in the school and maybe even others in the class, or in the family have it. There are also many famous people with dyslexia.
  • You can tell the child that dyslexia is just a big word to explain why some people find it hard to learn to read, write and spell. Everyone is different.
  • We all have different strengths and weaknesses. Identify something the child does well, whether it is sport, music, art or hand work. It could be that the child is good with animals, generous, popular, funny, loving – whatever. Find some real strength which the child has. This is most important. Then say that the child does not find reading and spelling as easy as these other things, but that is how life is.
  • Explain that this is not the fault of the child, the parent or the school. It is something that happens – like having fair hair, freckles or blue eyes.
  • Let the child know that this explains why s/he is having difficulty at school.
  • Tell him/her that this means s/he will have to work very hard, maybe harder than others in the class to succeed, but that it can be done, with proper help and support.
  • be prepared to discuss the problem with your child more than once. Do not assume that s/he will take it all in the first time. You may need to return to the subject many times over the coming years.