dyslexia-learning-difference2Dyslexia has traditionally been defined as a brain-based condition that causes difficulty mastering reading-related skills, such as:

  • identifying and manipulating the component sounds in words (phonological processing)
  • sounding out words (decoding), recognizing printed words by sight, and spelling words (encoding)
  • reading sentences and passages quickly and accurately (fluently), and with comprehension in line with general verbal ability, especially in time-pressured situations.

In other words, dyslexia has been seen as a disorder or disability. It has been assumed that something has gone wrong with the way dyslexic minds have developed. They’re trying, but failing, to work like “normal minds”. As a result, our goal should be to find out what’s wrong with them and fix them.

This way of thinking about dyslexia is misleading in several ways.

Differences Between Dyslexic and Non-Dyslexic Brains are Widespread and Complex

First, the differences in structure and organization that distinguish “dyslexic brains” from non-dyslexic ones don’t just involve a few brain regions that play a role in reading, but are found throughout the brain. For example, dyslexic and non-dyslexic brains differ in the relative sizes of the two brain hemispheres, in the pattern of brain folding, in the size of the white matter tracts connecting the different parts of the brain, in the organization of the cells in the cortex, and in various features of the cerebellum. In short, dyslexic brains really look like they’re built to do all sorts of things differently.

Many Ways Dyslexic and Non-Dyslexic Brains Process Information Differently

Second, reading and spelling are just a few of the tasks that dyslexic brains perform differently than non-dyslexic ones. Differences are also found in a wide range of processing functions including word sound (phonological) processing, visual attention, word retrieval, processing speed more generally, procedural learning (or mastery of “how” skills in which steps and rules are learned to the point where they can be performed automatically), and auditory-verbal working memory.

Dyslexic Advantages 

Dyslexia Mind StrengthsThird, and most intriguingly, dyslexic people have been shown as a group to outperform non-dyslexics in certain cognitive functions. These include advantages in three-dimensional spatial reasoning, divergent creativity and problem-solving, and incidental learning (or learning from experience in a non-directed fashion). Dyslexic individuals have also been found to be present in significantly greater numbers than their prevalence in the general population in training programs and professions including art and design, engineering, and entrepreneurship.

Taken together, these facts suggest we should change our way of thinking about dyslexia. Here’s something we’ve found useful. Instead of asking, “What is dyslexia?” start by asking, “What can we learn about minds that have dyslexic reading and spelling challenges?”

In other words, don’t limit your thinking about “what it means to be dyslexic” to reading and spelling challenges. Instead, recognize that dyslexic minds work differently in all sorts of ways. And don’t focus only on challenges, but try to understand what dyslexic minds do well, because these strengths are the true core features of dyslexic minds. Once we understand what dyslexic minds are for, we’ll understand how to create an education for dyslexic students that fits their unique patterns of development and learning strength.