Dyslexia – What is it, Really

Dyslexia — What is It, Really?

G. Emerson Dickman, J.D.

  • What is a Learning Disability?
  • Matthew Effect
  • Cognitive Dissonance
  • Aptitude-Achievement Discrepancy
  • My Story
  • Remediate, Compensate, Accommodate, Promote
  • Dyslexia
  • Informed Instruction
  • Fear is our enemy

I’m not an advocate for children in special education because I’m dyslexic. That is the answer to the first question that people have when we first meet. They have been told I am dyslexic, and they find out I’m an advocate. My early interest involved persons with developmental disabilities. However, within the broad spectrum of reasons why some children learn differently, it is presently the field of learning disabilities that is the most dynamic, creative, and motivating.

Within the field of learning disabilities most of the effort of researchers and educators seems to be focused on issues related to the acquisition of literacy skills. How are literacy skills acquired? Why do some children have difficulty acquiring such skills? What can be done to help those who don’t easily acquire such skills. I guess I became interested in learning disabilities generally, and dyslexia specifically, because these are the same questions for which I needed answers in order to advocate successfully for a child who couldn’t seem to learn how to read. What I didn’t know is that the dedication, generosity, and selfless nature of those in the forefront of finding answers to these questions are as irresistible as quicksand. This is where everything is happening. I’ve been sucked in over my head, and I’m loving it!

For many years I declined to speak of my own dyslexia. Although, I don’t recall ever being ashamed or being in denial, I never thought my having dyslexia was a credential that should be exploited as if it made me a better advocate or that my anecdotes would provide the least bit of meaningful knowledge or insight to anyone else. How many presentations have we all suffered that were merely entertaining and didn’t bring us closer to the answers we were seeking? I didn’t feel that what I have to say about myself would be helpful to anyone else. Nevertheless, at some point I was convinced to take a shot. For my story to be relevant, the reader (or listener) must be able to distinguish his/her needs as a learner from my own in order to profit from my experiences. We are not the same; we are different people with certain similarities. Knowing what makes us different is as important and meaningful as knowing what makes us the same.

Four out of ten children have difficulty learning how to read. Almost half that number has so much difficulty that they need direct and explicit instruction by knowledgeable instructors using informed methods of instructions if they are ever to be efficient atbreaking the code.

In this day and age, literacy skills are required if we are to effectively provide for our family, our community, and ourselves. There was a time when reading was not necessary to be a successful provider.

  1. Two hundred years ago, if you could track an elk, shoot straight, and figure out how to get it back to camp you were a hero and community leader – reading didn’t matter.The Internet has recently made keyboarding skills a necessity for everyone wanting access to the “information highway.” It wasn’t to long ago when only secretaries needed to know how to type. The time will come again when reading will not be a required skill; but, for the foreseeable future, “reading is the foundation upon which all scholastic success depends.” R.E. v. Jersey City Bd. of Ed. OAL DKT NO. EDS 7018-97 (N.J. 10-30-97).What is a Learning Disability?
  2. Surprisingly, there remains significant disagreement among laymen regarding the concept of “learning disability.” In order for what I have to say to be meaningful to you, we must have a common understanding of what I mean when I use the term “learning disability.”

Sally Shaywitz, M.D., has referred to a learning disability as “a weakness in a sea of strengths.” In essence, each of us is expected to have skills and abilities that fall within a predictable range above and below our average potential, i.e., a normal distribution of skills and abilities. This range, slightly above and slightly below average, is the “sea strengths.” When one or more skills or abilities fall unexpectedly below this range the resulting profile defines the specific learning disability involved. It is the unexpectedness of the deficit that distinguishes a child with a learning disability from children with more global or pervasive developmental delays whose specific skills are not unexpectedly deficient.

Research conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human

Development (NICHD) at the National Institute of Health (NIH) indicates that 17 to 20 percent of children exhibit a significant reading disability. Of children that are reading disabled in the third grade, 74 percent remain disabled at the end of high school. The pervasive effect of deficient literacy is aptly described by Keith Stanovich’s “Matthew Effect” construct.

Matthew Effect:

Stanovich has coined the phrase “Matthew Effect” to describe the phenomenon that a single unmediated deficit can have a significant impact on the development of skills that are not deficient. The phrase comes from the Gospel according to Matthew where it is inferred that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

There have, in addition, been a number of empirical studies of the correlation between IQ and reading achievement. The results of these studies converge on the conclusion that IQ is only weakly and nonspecifically related to achievement in the early grades. To these findings, however, I must add a sobering afterward. Whereas IQ and general cognitive skills seem not to have much bearing on early reading achievement, early reading failures seem to result in a progressive diminution in IQ scores and general cognitive skills. In the words of Keith Stanovich, who has developed this argument with scholarship and force:

Slow reading acquisition has cognitive, behavioral, and motivational consequences that slow the development of other cognitive skills and inhibit performance on many academic tasks. In short, as reading develops, other cognitive processes linked to it track the level of reading skill. Knowledge bases that are in reciprocal relationships with reading are also inhibited from further development. The longer this developmental sequence is allowed to continue, the more generalized the deficits will become, seeping into more and more areas of cognition and behavior. Or to put it more simply — and sadly — in the words of a tearful nine-year-old, already falling frustratingly behind his peers in reading progress, “Reading affects everything you do.” (Adams, 1990, pp. 59-60).

Cognitive Dissonance:

The concept of unexpectedness helps explain an unfortunate and often experienced side effect of having a learning disability. Concomitant to unexpected weakness is unreasonable expectations and concomitant to unreasonable expectations is failure. Failure is a relative concept. Expecting an “A” and getting a “B” is as much a failure as expecting a “C” and getting a “D”. The messages we hear from our environment are: “If you would only try harder you could do it.” “You don’t care enough.” “You are lazy.” “You are unmotivated.” As we enter into adolescence the belief that we can do “it,” is being challenged buy an emerging understanding that we can’t do “it.” These incompatible beliefs eventually create an uncomfortable (downright painful) psychological state known as a cognitive dissonance. In order to resolve the dissonance between a belief in one’s competence and efficacy (“I’m smart“) with emerging beliefs of lack of competence and efficacy (“I’m stupid”), the adolescent will often add a variable to explain the failure without challenging self image. The variable most often introduced is effort. “If I don’t do my homework, if I don’t study for tests, if I don’t go to school, my failure is explained and I can remain smart.” Barry Lorinstein, a well-known neuropsychologist, refers to such a child as preferring to be seen as unwilling rather than unable. For those of us who have difficulty learning how to read we also struggle with the compounding impact of Matthew Effect, failure, and cognitive dissonance.

Aptitude-Achievement Discrepancy:

In order to qualify for special education services, Federal Regulations require that the pupil exhibit “a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability.” Thus, the criteria for eligibility are not the existence of a learning disability (a weakness in a sea of strengths) but a failure to achieve. In other words, a pupil with dyslexia can’t get special education assistance until and unless other children of similar intellectual potential are reading significantly better. This formula has been roundly criticized:

  • The formula for identifying children with learning disabilities under the Federal law (IDEA) is a “wait and fail model.” “The way we define kids as learning disabled is invalid and immoral.” Tom Hehir, Director, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), U.S. Department of Education. (The agency responsible for implementing, interpreting and enforcing the Federal Regulations).
    • Any such formula requires that the student cross a “threshold of severe failure.” Nancy Mather, University of Arizona, co-author of the materials accompanying the Woodcock Johnson Psychoeducational Battery Revised.
    • “The only thing such a formula prevents is prevention.” Jack Fletcher, University of Texas, a pre-eminent researcher and author in the field of learning disabilities.

This formula virtually guarantees failure, Matthew Effect and a struggle with cognitive dissonance. Administrative convenience is not a sufficient reason to continue the use of this invalid and archaic construct. If you wait until a cancer patient actually shows signs of illness, it is often to late. Early detection, early treatment is the goal of the medical doctor it must also be the goal of the educator.

My Story:

I am dyslexic. I was left back in the first grade because I couldn’t learn to read. The first day of my second try at first grade was a perfect example of the kind of insult that is often added to the “injury” of having a learning disability. I was a second grader in first grade; the other children were kindergartners in first grade. To make them feel comfortable, the teacher had all the desks placed in the middle of the room so we could all “skip around the class.” I wasn’t a kindergartner — I refused skip. Sensing my anguish, the teacher sent me back to kindergarten for the rest of the week to learn how to skip – so much for empathy.

This teacher also used the EIF approach to teaching reading — Embarrassment Is Fundamental. She was actually surprised that I had just as much trouble reading in front of the class as I had trying to read at my desk. As a result, until I was 40 years old, any kind of public speaking resulted in ordinate anxiety and panic. Teachers called me “lazy and unmotivated” to my face. I began hating school. They told my parents: “He needs a fire put under him.” or “Put a bomb under his butt.” I learned to hide in the back of the room, with a book in front of my face, and, if possible, behind Billy Norton, the biggest kid in class. I wanted to be invisible.

Then, in the eight grade, I met that “charismatic adult” about whom Robert Brooks often speaks. Mr. Tanenbaum taught science and he was “tough.” But his toughness included structured, hand-on, and visual experiences. He used graphs and charts while challenging my conceptual strengths. Reading and memory skills took a back seat. I got “A”s instead of “C”s and “D”s. Other kids, who always appeared quicker and smarter than me in school, were struggling to get “C”s.

The effect of this experience in science class was profound. I began to see myself in a whole new light. I started to face those fears that haunted me the most. I committed to running for a class office knowing that in a month, which is an eternity for an 8th grader, I would have to SPEAK IN PUBLIC! In 10th grade, I ran for Vice President. The varsity quarterback ran for President. Two weeks before the election he realized that a loss would be a significant blow to his campus status. Since I, would probably loose anyway, he proposed that we trade nominations. To his surprise, to my surprise, and to the surprise of some of my teachers (several of whom considered early retirement), I won.

College started badly. I didn’t know how to study. I went to a challenging school, and took 18.5 credits the first semester. I managed only 3 to 4 hours of sleep per night and still couldn’t make up for my labored reading, slow processing speed, and poor memory skills. I flunked out after the second semester.

In my second year at C.W. Post College of Long Island University, I gradually learned what I needed to know.

First and foremost: reading the teacher is often more important than reading the book. Go to every class, sit in front, watch the teacher (make eye contact), take notes, and review your notes immediately after class.

To counteract my failed freshman year, I took 56 credits in my senior year; almost double the average course load of 30 credits. Incidentally, my undergraduate degree is in engineering because it was the only degree that didn’t have a foreign language requirement. Also, I never did learn my times tables (7×9 is processed 7×3=21×3=63, etc.) and, as a consequence, I did not do well in math in public school. In college I was at home with the math concepts and abstract problem solving necessary to earn an engineering degree.

After college came a job, marriage, three years in the U. S. Army, children, and law school. Rutgers Law School used a Socratic method of instruction; understanding and being able to argue concepts was more important than remembering the name and date of a particular case.

Remediate, Compensate, Accommodate, Promote:

My personal profile of unexpected deficits includes problems with phonological processing, memory, and processing speed. I also have unexpectedly strong visual spatial skills. A plan to address weaknesses should be to remediate that which can be remediated, then to compensate for those problems that can’t be remediated, and lastly, accommodate those needs that can be neither compensated for nor remediated. The difference between these concepts is important. If you fill in a pothole it is remediated. If you learn to take yourself around the pothole, you are compensating for its existence. If you need help to get around it, you are asking for an accommodation. My profile involves a phonological processing deficit that can be effectively remediated, memory problems that can be reasonably compensated for by using digital recorders, taking notes and by finding a wife with a good memory and all of the skills that I lack. My processing speed deficits require that I have to request the patience of others (such as those who await this article). Of course, opportunities to promote unexpected skills should never be overlooked.


The learning disability profile known as dyslexia consists of:

  • Deficits in phonological processing.
  • Unexpected difficulties with single word decoding.
  • Conspicuous problems in reading, writing and spelling.
  • Difficulty attending to auditory stimulation as compared to visual and tactile stimulation.
  • Relative strengths in perceptual, visual spatial skills and math concepts (as compared to arithmetic calculation and language-based problem solving).

The following is the Research Definition of Dyslexia developed by the International Dyslexia Association and adopted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Dyslexia is one of several distinct learning disabilities. It is a specific language-based disorder of constitutional origin characterized by difficulties in single word decoding, usually reflecting insufficient phonological processing abilities. These difficulties in single word decoding are often unexpected in relation to age and other cognitive and academic abilities; they are not the result of generalized developmental delay or sensory impairment. Dyslexia is manifest by variable difficulty with different forms of language, often including, in addition to problems reading, a conspicuous problem with acquiring proficiency in writing and spelling.


Dyslexia is not diagnosed or defined as a visual problem or one that necessarily involves reversals, transpositions, and mirror writing. The task of the reader is to break the code, to map symbols to sounds. If a child can’t differentiate subtle differences in sound he or she cannot break the code.

The inability to break the symbol to sound code and read efficiently is, all too often, seen as a measure of intelligence. What if we were dealing with a color to sound code? Would intelligence be correlated to color blindness?

Informed Instruction:

Research for the last twenty years, and practice for the last fifty years, is converging on the elements that comprise informed, effective instruction for dyslexia. To wit: direct and explicit instruction that is structured, sequential, cumulative, phonics-based, and multisensory. The one aspect of such instruction that is most often discussed, most often overlooked, and most often misunderstood in themultisensory element, especially the use of tactile/kinesthetic input. Kinesthetic memory accounts for the fixed action patterns help us through the hundreds of movements repeated in the same order without apparent conscious thought in the shower every morning. One word written with a finger on the palm of the opposite hand will unlock the door to long term memory and permit the retrieval of not only the single word, but also the whole concept it was intended to represent. If you know this trick there is no good excuse to interrupt when another is speaking or to forget the “great idea” that came during a lonely ride in the car. The importance of reinforcing direct instruction with tactile/kinesthetic input should not be underestimated.

“We have gained enormous insight into factors that contribute to successful reading acquisition and explain failure.” (Bonita Blachman, Syracuse University.) “The knowledge children need to master in order to succeed at reading is well document, and the kinds of instruction methods that are effective have also been verified.” (Brady and Moats, 1997, Informed Instruction for Reading Success: Foundations for Teacher Preparation; A Position Paper of the International Dyslexia Association.)

Fear Is Our Enemy:

Self-advocacy is a two way street. It is more important that we do for ourselves than have others do for us.

  • Come to class prepared.
  • Sit in front.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Take notes as best you can.
  • Expand, summarize, or outline notes immediately after class.
  • Focus on concepts.
  • Highlight text.
  • Manage time.

If you are like me and have experienced embarrassment at the hands of insensitive teachers, be proactive – discuss your concerns with the teacher.

“I am a student with learning problems I have been afraid of being embarrassed by teachers all my life. If you will agree to call on me only when I raise my hand, I will be able to set aside this fear and concentrate on what you have to teach. If you do this for me, I will sit in front, take notes, and come to every class.”

We must all learn to sit in front!