Written by Angela Weeks, printed in March 2012 SPELD SA Newsletter

“Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty that is neurological in origin. It is characterised by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”

International Dyslexia Association, November 2002

Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent reading and spelling. Characteristic features are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed.

  • Phonological awareness refers to the ability to ‘tune into’ the sounds in spoken words.
  • Verbal memory is used to hold, process, understand and assimilate spoken language.
  • Verbal processing speed relates to the efficiency with which a person processes or retrieves semantic information from long-term memory and articulates it.

Dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities. It is best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, and there are no clear cut-off points.

A good indication of the severity and persistence of dyslexic difficulties can be gained by examining how the individual responds or has responded to well founded intervention.

What do we know about dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a life-time disorder that affects 3-10% of people. People are born with it and there is a genetic component – it runs in families. Dyslexia is not related to intellectual ability and its severity varies from person to person. It often co-exists with other learning, behaviour and emotional difficulties. For example, if a person has dyslexia, there is a 30% likelihood that they will also have attention problems.

The dyslexic brain

An MRI of  the active areas of a dyslexic brain vs a regular brain when reading. Source: Time Magazine, March 26th 2001
Source: TIME Magazine, March 26th 2001

Research shows differences in brain activity of dyslexic and non-dyslexic people when they are engaged in reading tasks. Dyslexic readers seem to have a neurological glitch that prevents them from easily activating the word analyser and automatic detector parts of their brain. They compensate by using areas in the right side of the brain that process visual images. The problem with this strategy is that there is limited space in the right hemisphere for memorising words. It also means that they can’t read words that they have not already learnt.

The impact of dyslexia

Because dyslexics have an inherent difficulty tuning into the sounds in words, recognising words does not become automatic. Reading is therefore slow and laboured. This lack of fluency is not commonly understood outside the research community.

Poor verbal memory is pervasive in its effects on an individual’s life. It inhibits reading, for example, because it affects the ability to hold and blend sequences of sounds to decode works. It affects day-to-day living, for example, because remembering a list of instructions or memorising a list of facts is so hard.

Slow verbal processing speed leads to inefficient recall of

  • the names for familiar words when speaking
  • the sounds associated with individual letters, letter pairs or “chunks” of words for decoding regular words
  • sight words when reading

Additional problems include:

Orthographic processing difficulties

Not being ‘tuned into’ the visual patterns in written words leads to difficulty reading and spelling words by analogy, difficulty remembering the ‘look’ of words, and reading and spelling problems.

Lack of automaticity in a skill

This means the individual has to concentrate on the task to do it. For example, if the formation of the letters in a word is not automatic, an individual cannot think about how to spell the word and write the word at the same time. If they cannot spell the words they want to write, they cannot focus on their ideas. Lack of automaticity in sub-skills leads to difficulty, for example, with reading, comprehension, written language and note-taking.

Difficulty multi-tasking

This causes organisation and time management issues.

Time taken to learn a new skill
  • Skills normally taking 100 hours to master take a dyslexic student 10 times longer.
  • A skill taking 400 hours to master would take a dyslexic student 20 times longer.
  • This results in a higher level of pressure/fatigue.
  • Consequently, a person with dyslexia may find themselves working constantly at the limits of their endurance.
Deciding priorities
  • In order to provide more time for practice
  • Something has to give
  • And that something should NOT be something the individual is good at or enjoys.
  • Remember, without sufficient practice, the gap will get wider.

How is dyslexia diagnosed?

There is no single test for dyslexia. The diagnostic process involves standardised assessment of an individual’s achievements in phonological awareness, reading and spelling, as well as their cognitive and processing abilities.


Dyslexics are often skilled problem solvers, coming at solutions from novel or surprising angles, making conceptual leaps, and thinking outside the box. They often talk about seeing things three-dimensionally. Some, because of their early struggles, are more persistent.

Other strengths include:

  • Oral language
  • Design and creativity
  • Computing
  • Grasping maths concepts
  • Organising other people
  • Making things
  • Working out how things work
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Drama and Music

With appropriate learning support, they can be whatever they choose: doctors, teachers, architects, designers, psychologists, trades people, actors, entertainers, millionaires...

In fact, dyslexics are overrepresented among the top artists, scientists and business executives.

Famous dyslexics include:

  • Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Computers
  • Walt Disney, American film producer
  • Thomas Edison, inventor
  • Pablo Picasso, Spanish painter
  • Richard Branson, entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin brand
  • John Lennon, singer and political activist
  • Steven Spielberg, film producer of 'Jaws', 'E.T.', 'Jurassic Park'

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