Learning Disability vs. Dyslexia

I recently came across an article in the local paper talking about how parents are frustrated with how the school boards support….or don’t…children who are struggling to learn to read. They suggest that this easiest way to address this is to use the term dyslexia. I disagree for 2 reasons. One, dyslexia is not a diagnostic term and two, it refers to a very specific deficit in phonological processing, the way in which the brain processes the speech sounds of our language. However, that is not the only reason that children struggle with learning to read. There are many children that can process speech sounds just fine but may have difficulties with orthographic processing (visual processing of word construction), working memory, language comprehension, and even lack of appropriate instruction. By using the term dyslexia, we leave out a vast majority of children who need assistance.

Of all the skills humans have, reading is one of the more recent skills to develop, and our brains are not wired to learn to read in the same way as it is for speech. There seems to be some assumption that kids will just pick it up magically but this is not so. To understand how to support children with reading you need to know how it develops in the brain and what can go wrong. It is important to note here that reading problems happen in the brain and not the eyes, so optometrists cannot diagnose dyslexia or provide training to fix the problem (American Academy of Ophthalmology)

Reading Problems that are not Dyslexia

Learning to read starts with speech. We begin to understand the sounds of our language aurally before we ever start looking at letters and words. Early on, being able to say letter names and sounds, identify first sounds, last sounds, rhyming, and breaking words into syllables as examples, are important first steps to learning to read. Things that can get in the way and may not eventually be related to a reading disability is slower to develop language skills or articulation difficulties. If these problems are not addressed early on, reading is likely to be more difficult.

Once we connect a printed word to it’s sounds, we then transfer that word into a part of our brain that processes orthographic information. Orthographic processing is the ability to visually recognize and remember written words and parts of words, including the ability to immediately recognize letter sequences and patterns and to spell phonetically irregular words. This is extremely important for learning to read English. Good readers don’t sound out every word but can look at a word and know what it is and understand what it means. That’s why those quizzes on the internet where only the first and last letter are correct with the letters in between scrambled can be read anyway. Some children have great difficulty with this. A child with this type of difficulty may be noted to correctly decode a word on one page and then not remember it on the next page.

Some children have no difficulty identifying speech sounds however, their processing speed and/or working memory may be impaired. These children can’t sound out words because it takes so long to identify the sounds that they forget when attempting to blend. So this may be noted as the child saying the sounds C-A-T and then excitedly saying CAR. Additionally, some of these children learn to decode but their comprehension of what they read is poor because they forget what was said at the beginning of the sentence by the time they get to the end. This is often a problem for children who have attention problems or have been diagnosed with ADHD, especially if they are not medicated.

Then What's Next

Learning to read doesn’t come naturally for most children but that doesn’t mean that they have a learning disability. In addition, just because someone struggles to read doesn’t mean that they have dyslexia. The term Learning Disability better catches all children because it requires not only the academic underachievement in reading and/or writing but also the specific processing deficit that relates to it (phonological processing, orthographic processing, working memory, etc). Call Full Potential and see how we can help your child with reading.

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