What Educators Need to Know About Dyslexia

Written by Dr Daryl Greaves

The first piece of research on dyslexia was published in the British Medical Journal in 1896.  Since that time there has been an evolving understanding of the causes and interventions to help those who experience this issue.  Various causal theories have underpinned the types of interventions provided.  There have been motor perceptual programs, vision training programs, cranial manipulation and so on.


In the last 30 years, the use of magnetic resonance imaging of the brain has led to many advances in the understanding of the causes of dyslexia.  It has been clearly demonstrated that neural processes in the left temporoparietal region are different for those with dyslexia and those who learn to read and spell easily.  The cause of these different neural processes have been linked to a number of genes.  Dyslexia is an inherited condition affecting between four to eight percent of individuals, though some researchers claim it is higher.   

The left temporoparietal region has a central role in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed.  Some individuals with dyslexia have difficulties with all three while others have a difficulty with just one.  Thus, dyslexia can be a continuum from mild to severe.  The severity can be assessed by how well an individual has responded to a well-founded intervention with a basis of developing their phonological awareness knowledge.  Phonemic awareness allows individuals to hear the sound structure of words—separate to their meanings.  I have met students in secondary school who have had excellent instruction in phonological awareness. They have a good knowledge of letter sound relationships and can sound out non-words and succeed with non-word spelling, but struggle with reading English words and they are slow readers of text.   

Some students with dyslexia have poor recognition of letters, groups of letters (prefixes and suffixes) and whole words. These students can be diagnosed with orthographic dyslexia. The visual system is somewhat separate to the phonological system which is viewed as a major contributing factor to dyslexia.  

Given the genetic basis of dyslexia, and that some students will improve only slowly in spite having the most effective teaching approaches, these students are allowed reasonable adjustments, that is,  the curriculum has the same content or conceptual difficulty – just done differently.  Reasonable adjustments are intended to "level the playing field" in order to give the student a realistic chance to succeed in school and in examinations. Reasonable adjustments can be used in the teaching-learning processes, products from each lesson and the assessment method.  Some of these adjustments can include computer programs that will read text. There are other programs that will convert speech into text for writing. It is of interest to note that in Office 365 the “Editor” has proofing tools. It will identify spelling, grammar, and stylistic issues. The “Editor” pane explains the suggestions so the students can make choices to improve their  writing. There are similar programs that can be purchased.  In examinations students with dyslexia can be allowed extra working time, a reader and a scribe. 

There are associated conditions that occur with dyslexia.  There are about 30 to 40%  of students with dyslexia who also have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In my experience, many have the inattentive type rather than the hyperactive type.  Another associated condition is dyscalculia which affects the ability to acquire arithmetical skills. Learners with dyscalculia may have difficulty understanding simple number concepts, lack an intuitive grasp of numbers, and have problems learning number facts and procedures.  Quite a number of students have language processing issues. It has been shown that at preschool that students who have language processing issues and poor phonological awareness are most likely to be diagnosed with dyslexia in primary school where as fewer receive a diagnosis if they have only a phonological awareness issue. With regard to the use of coloured overlays, it has been found that the same percentage of good readers and those with dyslexia will benefit from changing the background colour of the print.  As Maryanne Wolf wrote, “The acquisition of reading is not biologically determined (like language or taste) . . . The ‘brain that reads’ is a manifestation of the brain’s plastic ability to form new circuits from older, genetically programmed circuits that underlie vision and language, cognition and emotion”.

I invite you to join me at the Special Needs Symposium being held at the National Education Summit Brisbane on Friday 31 May and Saturday 1 June 2019 where I will present a session: What Teachers and Parents Need to Know about Dyslexia

Margo MetcalfBrisBlog