Thanking a Word that has Changed my Life

Thanking a Word that has Changed my Life

Words have started wars and ended wars, they can cause you to cry and to laugh, they inspire and frighten, they teach, and they console. Words allow human beings to communicate their knowledge, feelings, and desires. Some words communicate the big picture when only the big picture is necessary (mammal versus mouse). Words can also contain the precise measure of meaning necessary to communicate a particular concept. Too general or too specific, the intended audience is likely to miss the point. Then there are some words that mean different things in different situations (context matters).  When my granddaughter says, “bad” or “wicked,” I had better pause before assuming her meaning.

         The word dyslexia has changed my life!

 In 1992, on our way home from an Orton Dyslexia Society conference, Georgette and I shared a concern that the speakers we heard were each constructing or adopting a unique definition ofdyslexia to identify the student or subject most likely to support the findings and conclusions that they wished to promote.  As a result, I began to collect what would become well over 300 pages of correspondence on the subject.  Three years later, in an effort to develop consensus on a definition, I enlisted the help of my friend and mentor, Bill Ellis (Professional Director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities and past president of the Orton Dyslexia Society), and the interest and support of Reid Lyon, Louisa Moats, Susan Brady, and Gordon Sherman. In April 1995, Bill Ellis, Reid Lyon, Jack Fletcher, Sally Shaywitz, Bennett Shaywitz, Byron Rourke, and Bruce Pennington came together in a room at the Grand Hyatt in New York City. The evening before we met, Jack Fletcher wrote to me suggesting that we were at least 2 years away from a meaningful consensus (I have to admit that he had me worried). The next afternoon, in about 2 1/2 hours, Jack and Bennett Shaywitz led the way to a consensus definition that, two weeks later, was adopted by the scientists at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) (Lyon, 1995) and was used to guide research in reading disabilities until revised, as a result of such guided research, in 2003 (Lyon, Shaywitz, & Shaywitz, 2003).

I freely admit that the resulting definition reflected very little of the 3 years I had devoted to earning my way into that room. However, the fact that I had something to do with making that meeting possible is such a matter of pride that I will, for that reason alone, probably forever be locked out of the gates of heaven (as if there is only one reason).

Since 1995, the “D” word has been a word capable of communicating with a precise measure of meaning. Why then do so many educators and school districts refuse to use it? If I don’t pick up a hammer, maybe no one will ask me to drive a nail. If

I don’t use the “D” word, maybe no one will force me to apply practices informed by related research. The “D” word is a tool that makes teaching reading both easier and more effective.


The term specific learning disability (SLD) is simply a level on a classification hierarchy. Would you pen elephants and mice in the same cage or feed them the same diet because they are both mammals? If we group all children with a SLD in the same classroom without differentiating their needs, we do them all a disservice. There are different reasons for reading failure, some deficits attack social development, others math concepts, comprehension, the ability to generalize learned information, and on and on. Without the “D” word, there is no level on a hierarchy of classification that identifies the unique deficit to which it refers. Of course, individuals who are both SLD and dyslexic are not all the same any more than a mammal that happens to be a mouse is the same as all other mice. The point is, that any level on a classification hierarchy identifies that which those so classified have in common and does not identify how they differ. SLD is the zip code, dyslexia is the street; research is just beginning to distinguish one house from the next. If educators responsible for meeting the needs of children at risk for reading failure don’t take the time to read the address they will not improve outcomes for the children to whom they have dedicated their careers. The gift of reading cannot be delivered without knowing the student’s address.

The “D” word is, in the end, just a word. Yes, the word dyslexia is best understood, in the precisely measured sense, when used as an operational research definition. However, because of the research and the replicability of findings that a consensus definition has promoted, the “D” word now has meaning to educators, parents, therapists, and, perhaps most of all, to those of us who are grateful for the help that the “D” word has brought.

Source: Dickman, G.E., (2008). How do I Thank a Word that has changed my Life. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 34, 1 at p. 5

Lyon, G.R. (1995). Toward a definition of dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia45, 3–27.Lyon, G.R.,Shaywitz, S.E., & Shaywitz, B.A. (2003). A definition of dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia53, 1–14.