Dyslexia is a controversial term most often used to describe learners who fail to learn to read quickly, easily, or well, despite exposure to instruction. Historically, dyslexia was understood to be a permanent cognitive deficit, sometimes described as brain damage, minimal brain dysfunction, or congenital word blindness. Currently dyslexia is seen as a specific learning disability, a label that allows students to receive special education services. Parents and teachers sometimes employ the term casually when a student struggles with reading. Intriguing emerging research is demonstrating, however, that most children with reading delays are not brain damaged nor do they have ineradicable reading disabilities. Instead, compelling meta-analytic reading research studies are showing that most young learners with normal intelligence and motivation can learn to read given enough of the right kind of beginning reading instruction, specifically, systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics. Dyslexia, therefore, in most cases, is properly viewed not as an immutable, pathological brain disorder, but as a reading delay that can be overcome with appropriate instruction. Depending on the expert, the study, and the assessment tools utilized, the estimated incidence of dyslexia ranges from 1% to 20% in the general population and from 40% to 70% of adults in the prison population. Adolescents  and  adults  with  persistent difficulty in reading seem to have extreme processing problems and are the most resistant to treatment.

Specific Skill Deficits And Instructional Needs

Delayed readers commonly demonstrate core problems with both phonemic awareness (auditory discrimination of the individual sounds in spoken words) and phonics (sound/symbol correspondences). Typically, a poor reader will hear a spoken word, such as cat, as a single sound and will lack the awareness that it is, in fact, composed of three individual sounds (or phonemes): /k/ /a/ /t/. Unfortunately, when learners lack phonemic awareness skills (including sound segmentation, rhyming, oral blending, and other skills), they are unlikely to benefit from formal reading instruction. Teachers in prekindergarten, kindergarten, and grades 1 and 2, and teachers of children with reading delays, should teach phonemic awareness through word play, sound-tapping activities, syllable analysis games, rhyming activities, and the use of alliterative stories, poems, chants, and songs. Students with dyslexia generally require additional practice to master phonemic awareness skills. Behavioral and genetic studies suggest that the tendency to have phonological deficits is heritable.

In addition to deficits in phonemic awareness, dyslexics typically demonstrate catastrophically inadequate knowledge of phonics. Instead of sounding out words, dyslexics memorize words as a whole and guess at meanings from pictures or contextual clues. The most effective method of reading instruction, especially for children with dyslexia, is direct instruction in phonics, not implicit, or discovery methods. Primary grade teachers and reading specialists are advised to provide explicit, sequential, multisensory, fun phonics instruction based on assessment of student needs. Dictation activities, responsive student vocalization, related readings in decodable text, and an encouraging setting are recommended. Phonics experts suggest that phonics instruction be tailored and delivered to homogeneous, not heterogeneous, achievement groups in order to match instructional content to the needs of the learners. Phonemic awareness and phonics lessons are not to constitute the totality of a literacy program, of course. These vital foci are to be integrated with rich exposure to shared literature to develop student motivation, writing practice, and lessons to develop fluency, vocabulary growth, and reading comprehension.

Early Intervention And Tutoring

Learners with dyslexia are most likely to acquire crucial reading skills if they are identified by the beginning of first grade and receive carefully tailored, sequential instruction, especially small group instruction, individualized instruction, or tutoring in phonemic awareness and phonics. Most school district contracts require classroom teachers to provide appropriate reading instruction for all members of their classes. In practice, though, lagging readers often do not receive individualized instruction from their regular classroom teachers. Some schools require a child failing at reading to repeat a grade. If that strategy fails, the child might be referred for special education. Regrettably, few regular education teachers have the time, training, or resources to provide special lessons for students who lag significantly behind their classmates. Many dyslexics are promoted each year, experiencing frustration and failure as they attempt to follow along with reading instruction, which is increasingly beyond their achievement level. Some elementary schools departmentalize during reading time to enable teachers to meet more efficiently the needs of diverse levels of learners. Intervention services can be provided by recruiting and training members of the community: retired people, high school or university volunteers, paraprofessionals, student teachers, cross-age tutors, parents, or other relatives. Properly selected computer software programs can also provide effective practice in developing phonemic awareness, phonics, and other beginning reading skills. All readers, but especially older delayed readers, need high-interest decodable text in order to practice their emerging reading skills. If students with dyslexia do not encounter targeted, systematic phonemic awareness and phonics instruction in the early years, they tend to fall farther behind academically and often require special education services. They can experience lifelong deficits in achievement and self-esteem.

Brain Research And Dyslexia

Exciting new brain studies using noninvasive functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) allow reading researchers to measure and record the levels of blood oxygenation in the areas of active brain tissue during the process of reading. Dyslexics have been shown to demonstrate a neural signature or pattern of brain activity in the front of the brain, with some inefficient compensatory activation in other areas, while nonimpaired readers show activation patterns mainly in the back of the left side of the brain, in the temporoparietal cortex, where the brain analyzes phonological information and processes words for instant recognition. In addition, the latest fMRI studies demonstrate how phonemic awareness and phonics instruction create new neural pathways and actual modifications in dyslexics’ brain functioning, while the lack of appropriate instruction seems to cause a deficiency of localized brain functioning and poor reading skill attainment. We now know that students with dyslexia can develop left-side neural networks following effective reading intervention. This line of research shows clearly that targeted instruction works, that the brains of young children with dyslexia can essentially be rewired to function like those of good readers. The fMRI studies indicate that reading problems occur equally among girls and boys, even though boys are more likely to be identified in school, possibly because they are more likely to exhibit behavior that conflicts with social norms.

The Letter Reversal Myth

It is a common misconception that students with dyslexia actually see letters reversed. Studies show that poor readers and inexperienced writers commonly make reversals in their writing, but there is no evidence that the alphabet letters appear visually reversed to these students. Writing reversals and naming errors seem to be artifacts of poor learning. Dyslexics simply have not developed the necessary neurobiological pathways needed to make sense of printed language when they struggle to transform the written code into the oral code.


Discussion about dyslexia can inspire sharp debate in the reading world. Some maintain that dyslexia is an essentially meaningless term with unfortunate pathological connotations that portray the ordinary poor reader as “disabled.” Some scholars grumble that ineffective sight word and whole language reading methodologies are to blame for the large numbers of students with reading problems. They claim that plummeting reading scores and soaring dyslexia statistics are the result of decades of wrong-headed teacher education practices handed down from the ivory towers. Legislators and policy wonks increasingly avoid use of the D-word. Instead, they favor phraseology such as “students at risk of reading failure” and assert that most dyslexia is preventable and that students with reading difficulty simply need more focused, increasingly prepackaged, teacher-proof, scripted instruction.

Many experienced classroom teachers, reading specialists, and resource teachers view dyslexia as a learning disorder that properly entitles students to extra instructional time and expert professional remediation. They decry one-size-fits-all legislation and point to a tradition of individualized service in special education. They recommend fair eligibility guidelines, attention to individual assessments, and carefully targeted needs-based teaching. These clinicians point out that few classroom teachers beyond the primary grades have the resources or time to go back and provide intervention for students with dyslexia. With or without the label, students with reading difficulties will continue to need the best services of well-prepared, caring, knowledgeable reading professionals, parents, and policy makers.


  1. Adams, (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  2. Blevins, W. (1998). Phonics from A to New York: Scholastic Professional Books.
  3. International Dyslexia Association, http://www.interdys.org
  4. Lyon, R. (1995). Toward a definition of dyslexia. Annals ofDyslexia, 45, 3–27.
  5. National Institute of Child Health and Human Dev (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Retrieved from http://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/nrp/smallbook.htm
  6. Partnership for (n.d.). Put reading first: The research building blocks for teaching children to read, kindergarten through grade 3. Retrieved from http://www.nifl.gov/partnershipforreading/publications/reading_first1.html
  7. Shaywitz, S. (1996, November). Dyslexia. Scientific American,98–104.
  8. Shaywitz, (2003). Overcoming dyslexia: A new and complete science-based program for reading problems at any level. New York: Knopf.