The Invisible Disability


Struggling Reader







Dyslexia - simple definition: A reading difficulty in a child or adult who otherwise has good intelligence, strong motivation, and adequate schooling.1

Dyslexia - complete definition: A specific learning disability* that is neurobiological* in origin. It is characterized 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*.2


Is Dyslexia Real?

Do you believe there is such a thing as dyslexia? Many educators in the United States don’t. Ignoring it won’t make it go away. Understanding dyslexia makes it possible for many more people to learn to read, but there has been confusion over the term for many years. In the past, some educators called every reading problem “dyslexia.” Others thought it only meant reversing letters, for example reading “b’s” as “d’s.” Neither of these views is correct, but both have discouraged people from giving dyslexia serious thought.

Some teachers know it exists, but they don’t think it really affects them— at least not enough to change what they’re doing. They think it’s too rare to be of concern. But what if dyslexia is common?  What if it accounts for many of our struggling readers? Any teacher of conscience would want to learn more about it—but what an “inconvenient truth!” If they acknowledge the existence of dyslexia, they would be required by law to provide accommodations for dyslexics in schools and in the workplace (through the Individual with Disabilities Education Act). It’s much easier to say there is no such thing—or that it’s too ambiguous to identify.

I think people are afraid that if dyslexia were fully acknowledged, the expense of testing for it with methods that actually diagnose dyslexia, and then providing services for the students identified as learning disabled would bankrupt our public school systems. This simply isn’t true. There are many ways to help these special students that can be handled by teachers in the regular classrooms. (See book, “Help, I Can’t Read!” for actual methods.)

Past methods used to identify dyslexia required looking for a discrepancy between a student’s “potential” (IQ) and what he or she was able to produce, but the tests used to determine the student’s level of intelligence required the ability to read. This has kept many students out of special education programs who would have benefited from the extra help. But if they had been identified, there would have been the additional cost of many more special education teachers! That wasn’t practical, or even possible under the prevailing conditions. The result has been an unacceptable number of struggling readers left stranded in our classrooms without access to the help they need to succeed. And we wonder why our reading scores aren’t improving very much!

Perhaps it’s time to take our heads out of the sand and seek the truth. We’re teachers, dedicated to educating our children to use their minds effectively. We must do the same. Ignoring the truth won’t solve anything. It’s now possible—through a practical, commonsense application of the RTI (Response to Intervention/Instruction) policy—to find a reasonable way to identify and give appropriate interventions to many of our struggling readers within the general education classroom, and not drive teachers crazy at the same time.

Dyslexia is real and has a definite scientific profile. Not every struggling reader is dyslexic, but a significant number are. The methods that are absolutely necessary for dyslexics are just as beneficial for other struggling readers.  If we, as educators, would diligently pursue the truth in this subject, it would change the academic landscape of the United States in a very positive way.

From the 1990’s to today, research shows there are ways to remediate dyslexia that are not difficult to implement. Not only would these methods be better for kids, they would be better for teachers, because our teaching would be more efficient, and in the long run, our job would be easier. Instead of resisting change, we should be embracing it.

Major research projects are being done at several well-respected universities. Listed alphabetically, they would include:

  • Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging
  • Florida State University’s Florida Reading Research Center
  • Georgetown University’s Center for the Study of Learning
  • Tufts University’s Center for Reading and Language Research
  • The University of Texas Health Science Center
  • The University of Washington Multidisciplinary Learning Disabilities Center
  • Yale University’s Center for the Study of Learning and Attention

This list is not complete, but it should give you a head start if you want to do your own research. Google “brain imaging,” or “fMRI” along with “dyslexia,” and see what you find.

Most of these studies, and several more on the subject, are funded through grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD). Some have continued for more than twenty years. Although done independently, their findings support each other. 

The research results since the mid-1990’s are astounding. With the development of the Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine, scientists have been able to pinpoint the areas in our brain that are used during specific activities such as reading, math, or listening to music. It accomplishes this by tracking the flow of blood to localized areas in the brain. They have also used Magnetoenchelalography (MEG/MSI) to track very slight magnetic fields present with the flow of electrical impulses in the brain. There are other brain imaging techniques being developed even as I write this book. Most universities with any form of brain-imaging capabilities and an education department are teaming up to study different aspects of dyslexia. The studies are show similar results.

Researchers have found that dyslexics don’t use the same parts of the brain to read as readers who read fluently. This has been clearly documented and replicated at independent sites around the country. It has also been shown that with proper instruction, dyslexics can learn to read using the more efficient parts of the brain.

The implication of this discovery is huge! If we provide dyslexic children with appropriate interventions early enough, they can learn to read—but only if we use techniques that work for them. Although there is no “cure” for dyslexia, they can become literate people. Some even become completely fluent readers.

People can have successful lives in our society, even if their reading speed is slower, but it’s much harder to succeed in this world if they are functionally illiterate. Now, with our new understanding of how dyslexics learn, there is no reason they can’t learn to read. And there is no reason they can’t learn in public school classrooms—in your classroom!


How Common is Dyslexia?

 If dyslexia were a rare disability affecting only one child out of hundreds, there would be no need to discuss it in a book such as this. But what if it’s a common problem? No book dealing with interventions for struggling readers could possibly overlook it, but many books do. So, how common is it?

According to Yale University’s “Connecticut Longitudinal Study,”3 17.4% of people have a reading disability. According to this figure, out of a class of thirty children, six of them have trouble learning to read. It’s important to note that the Yale study disqualified any students struggling to read due to:

  • lack of intelligence
  • lack of motivation
  • lack of good instruction

 They stated that dyslexia is due to a short circuit somewhere in that person’s “wiring” where reading is processed in the brain.

According to the International Dyslexia Association, 85% of reading disabilities are caused by dyslexia. In our class of thirty, that would be five children. (The ratio of 5 struggling readers to 25 “normal” readers was pretty consistent over the several years that I taught fourth and fifth grade general education classes.)

With the advent of DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Literacy Skills -  to be discussed more fully in Chapters 3 and 4), an even higher number of students were identified as “strategic” or “intensive” readers, meaning that they needed extra attention right away if they were going to have any hope of keeping up with their classmates in reading. Some of these problems were caused by lack of intelligence, motivation, or poor reading instruction in the past, but it would be foolish to assume that all of them were. There are just too many kids who don’t fit that pattern. It would be reasonable to treat them with interventions that work with dyslexia and to see if they improve. It couldn’t hurt—it could only help.

For more information, see books, “Overcoming Dyslexia,” “Help, I Can’t Read!”  (both available through this website), or go to www.interdys.org.


* Word found in "Glossary."

1 Shaywitz, S.E. (2003). Overcoming Dyslexia,  New York, New York, Vintage Books, p. 132.


2 International Dyslexia Association website (IDA) www.interdys.org


3 Shaywitz, Overcoming,  27-30. Shaywitz, (The Connecticut Longitudinal Study began in 1983 in twenty-four randomly selected public schools of Connecticut to represent the geographic and demographic diversity at that time. 445 children began the study and over 90% were still participating as of 2003.)



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