The Dyslexia Myth

Put up your hand if think that people with dyslexia have difficulties with letter and word reversals. From where I am sitting, it looks to me like most of you have your hand raised. I can’t really see you of course, but my experience tells me that the majority of people, even teachers, believe that the defining feature of dyslexia is reversals. Sadly, even some individuals diagnosed with this disorder believe that this is the case. I met a man who proclaimed that he was dyslexic because he often mixed up numbers when taking down phone numbers over the telephone. Mixing up numbers or backwards reading is not dyslexia. Dyslexia means “difficulty with words”. This difficulty is not characterized by reversing letters or words, but by difficulty with sounds. I have found that when I explain this to people, I am met by a great deal of scepticism and even some hostility. That is why I was so happy to find a lovely, succinct, entertaining and accurate article dispelling this well-entrenched myth.

50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology by Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio, and Beyerstein (2010) is a treasure trove of myth-busting anecdotes including “The Defining Feature of Dyslexia is Reversing Letters”. This is my personal favourite given the work I do, and I think that every elementary teacher and parent of a child who is struggling with reading should read this three-page explanation of how this myth started and what science now tells us about the nature of the disorder. The authors, all professors of psychology, collaborated on this information packed book that not only dispels many commonly held myths but explains why it is that so many myths and misconceptions have been perpetuated despite the presence of oodles of research to prove them incorrect.

I had long wondered how the whole reversal myth began. Lilienfeld and colleagues explained that Samuel Orton, an American neurologist, coined the term strephosymbolia (meaning “twisted symbol”) to refer to the tendency to reverse letters. He initially believed that this was the underlying cause of reading difficulties and that many children could read more easily if they held their writing up to a mirror. As the authors point out, however, letter reversals are a part of normal development for many children and are not unique to children with reading disabilities. My own three children all reversed letters until they were eight or nine years of age and experienced no reading difficulties. Despite little evidence to suggest that reading disabilities are related to visual problems, this belief is firmly entrenched in our culture.

Most researchers now agree that dyslexic readers have difficulty with phonological processing, or the awareness of and ability to manipulate the sound structure of spoken words. The English language is comprised of 44 phonemes, or sound units. These sound units are blended together to form words. Many individuals who experience problems learning to read have significant difficulty segmenting and differentiating individual speech sounds in spoken words, blending speech sounds to form a spoken word, and using phonological codes. Without going into copious detail, Lilienfeld et. al. provide a lovely explanation of what researchers now understand about the nature of reading difficulties. They also explain that many poor readers continue to exhibit letter reversals as well as other more important characteristics of younger children who are learning to read and write.

A more comprehensive explanation of dyslexia, one that not only answers, “What is dyslexia?” but also “What causes it?” and “What can be done about it?”is found in Tunmer and Greany’s Defining Dyslexia (2010). While the focus of the article is on the first question, all three are inextricably intertwined. And that is precisely why I believe that all professionals involved in the education of our children need to understand what dyslexia is. To understand what dyslexia is, to understand what causes one of the leading reasons for reading disabilities, provides the foundation for understanding what intervention strategies will be effective. It has been common practice and belief that children learn to read when exposed to instruction based on a whole language approach, or what Tunmer and Greaney refer to as the “multiple cues” approach. The authors explain, however, that poor readers rely too much on sentence context clues to help them compensate for their difficulties with alphabetic or phonemic principles. More emphasis on using meaning cues does little to improve reading (Tunmer & Greaney, 2010).

It has been well established that effective early identification and intervention can prevent dyslexia or at least minimize its impact. For those children who do not intuitively develop an understanding of the connections between speech and print, explicit instruction in crucial. And the earlier the better. Numerous research studies have investigated early predictors of reading achievement and have found that alphabetic knowledge and phonological awareness are good predictors of early reading ability. Tumner and Greaney are bold enough to say that while approximately 10% of the population experiences significant difficulty learning to read, many of these children are not learning disabled, but teaching disabled (2010). They also contend that when children who are identified at-risk are provided with effective phonologically based intervention, they developed the skills and profiles of proficient readers (p. 237). In fact, the authors offer that a child should not be labelled dyslexic if they have not been “exposed to high quality evidence-based literacy instruction and intervention” (Tumner & Greaney, p. 239).

It is unfortunate that much of the research regarding the nature of reading disabilities has not filtered down to the classroom level. I think that most teachers would be surprised to learn what dyslexia is and what it is not. So if you are looking for some light summer reading that will provide you with wonderful fodder for summer barbeques, pick up 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. If you only have a few minutes, watch this nifty little Youtube video produced by TedEd. For heavier and more in-depth reading regarding the nature of reading disabilities, Defining Dyslexia can be found in the Journal of Learning Disabilities May/June 2010 edition.

Post by Michele Pentyliuk


  • Lilienfeld, S, Lynn, S, Rusico, J, & Beyerstein, B. (2010). 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. Hong Kong: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Tunmer, W. & Greaney, K.(2010). Defining dyslexia. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 43(3), 229-2

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