What is dyslexia?

Just what is dyslexia? Here we give a brief overview of dyslexia as well as more academic definitions.


Dyslexia is a neurological education condition which affects an estimated 10% of the UK population. It is likely to be present at birth and to be life-long in its effects. Dyslexia is not affected or caused by intelligence and there is no cure but individuals can overcome it. Individuals with dyslexia will be affected differently but tend to have difficulties in some of the following areas:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Spelling
  • Sequencing
  • Rapid naming
  • Working memory
  • Expressing thoughts
  • Differentiating left from right
  • Orientation
  • Short term memory
  • Time management
  • Organisation

It is important to remember that many children and adults with dyslexia have strengths and talents that can be used to compensate for these difficulties. The British Dyslexia Association lists possible strengths as including:

  • Innovative thinkers
  • Excellent trouble shooters
  • Intuitive problem solving
  • Creative in many ways
  • Lateral thinkers.

Our website, dyslexic.com features a wide range of technological solutions that use these strengths to help overcome the difficulties associated with dyslexia. We offer a range of articles to help you find out more about the software and hardware tools that are available from introductory overviews to in-depth product reviews and comparisons.

Defining Dyslexia

In 2009 Sir Jim Rose’s Report on ‘Identifying and Teaching Children and Young People with Dyslexia and Literacy Difficulties’ gave the following description of dyslexia.

The description of dyslexia adopted in the report is as follows:

‘Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling.

Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed.

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.

Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor co-ordination, mental calculation, concentration and personal organisation, but these are not, by themselves, markers of dyslexia.

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.’

The British Dyslexia Association (B.D.A.) adds to the Rose Reports definition

In addition to these characteristics, the B.D.A. acknowledges the visual and auditory processing difficulties that some individuals with dyslexia can experience, and points out that dyslexic readers can show a combination of abilities and difficulties that affect the learning process.  Some also have strengths in other areas, such as design, problem solving, creative skills, interactive skills and oral skills.

Understanding the definition

The definition states that dyslexia is not due to the individual’s ability to learn and develop these skills. It is to do with the way people process information and how that affects their ability to learn. This processing difficulty can be due to a number of reasons, but it is this which causes problems with acquiring literacy skills. Most dyslexic students have been identified to have one or more of the following deficiencies in the sub-skills that are required to acquire and use adequate literacy skills:

A marked inefficiency in the working or short-term memory system

This means that a dyslexic student may have problems with the amount of information that can be held and processed in the real-time, conscious memory.

Inadequate phonological processing abilities causing problems with connecting the letter patterns with the associated sounds

This is usually due to problems with the speed with which auditory information can be processed and with accessing the memory of audio sounds to relate them to the letter pattern.

Difficulties with automaticity

This can cause problems with getting things in the right order or sequencing and may also show itself as clumsiness caused by the brain sending the wrong signals to parts of the body in the wrong order.

A range of problems connected with visual processing to do with the speed with which visual information can be processed and with accessing the memory of visual patterns

Some people use the term “visual dyslexia” to mean what we call Visual Stress.

So, dyslexia can be summarised as having problems with processing visual or auditory information; withholding that information in working memory and with kinaesthetic awareness, co-ordination and automaticity. These can affect academic progress across a variety of subjects. Their impact can be mitigated by correct teaching, strategy development and the use of information technology.

Because of these difficulties with specifically defining dyslexia, the term Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD) is frequently used in the education community. SpLD refers to a difficulty that is specific to a particular area, or that affects a particular process (as distinct from a general learning difficulty, which affects the learning of many different skills). SpLD includes other learning related disabilities such as:

Dysphasia, speech and language delay and/or deficit. Dyspraxia, motor and co-ordination difficulties. Dyscalculia, difficulty with mathematical concepts, calculations and interpreting mathematical symbols. Attention Deficit Disorder with or without Hyperactivity (ADD/ADHD), Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and Tourette’s Syndrome.

Within the UK the term SpLD is also defined under the term SEND which doesn’t just encompass dyslexia this looks at all Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) within the education system.

Assessment and Screening

Diagnosis of dyslexia can be very difficult due to the complex nature of the condition and the co-occurring impacts of other conditions within dyslexia. We can look at different steps to identify through either screening or assessment to determine the condition. Screening or checklists are used as early identifiers of dyslexia. These cannot be used as a definitive identification but can be used to identify specific traits within the condition to help understand the ability of the individual and give indications of weakness. A full diagnostic assessment can only be carried out by a specialist dyslexia teacher which holds an AMBDA qualification (Associate Member of the British Dyslexia Association) and/or an APC (Assessment Practising Certificate) or an Educational Psychologist with HCPC registration who can use a battery of assessments to ascertain and diagnose dyslexia.

Brain structure could be different in dyslexic children

T476983311 (1)he brain structure of a dyslexic child could be different to that of a youngster without the condition.

The structural connectivity of a dyslexic child’s brain could be different to that of a typically developed child, a new study has suggested.

Dyslexia is a common learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in the reading and spelling of words. This includes struggling to recognise and decode words, and problems with comprehension. According to the NHS, an estimated one in ten people have dyslexia to some degree, with the condition affecting individuals from all walks of life.

Over the years, scientists have conducted copious amounts of research into discovering the exact cause of dyslexia. Specialist brain scans, in particular functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, have shed light onto reduced functioning of an area near the back of the brain called the occipito-temporal cortex.

However, little research has been performed on the sub-cortical brain regions that involve processes such as short and long-term memory, decision making and emotional reactions – all of which are affected in someone with dyslexia.

Researchers at Vanderbilt Peabody College in the US set out to examine the structural differences in the brain connectivity of 20 children with developmental dyslexia, compared to 20 typically developing readers. All participants were aged between eight and 17.

Focusing on the sub-cortical thalamus brain region, they used a specialised neuroimaging technique called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), which works by visually mapping the structure of the brain.

The thalamus plays an important role in the brain and has multiple functions: it processes and relays sensory and motor information to different subcortical regions via nerve fibres that make up part of the brain’s white matter; and also regulates states of sleep and wakefulness, including arousal and the level of awareness.

It was hoped that the DTI method would produce a clearer picture of the thalamus and enable the researchers to gain a better understanding of its role in reading behaviour.

The results showed that in the dyslexic group, a different pattern of thalamic connectivity was found in their sensorimotor and lateral prefrontal cortices – in comparison to these brain regions in the typically developing group.

Commenting on the findings, lead researcher Laurie Cutting said: “These results suggest that the thalamus may play a key role in reading behaviour by mediating the functions of task-specific cortical regions.

“Such findings lay the foundation for future studies to investigate further neurobiological anomalies in the development of thalamo-cortical connectivity in individuals with dyslexia.”

In a related study, the scientists decided to investigate the structural connectivity patterns in the left occipito-temporal region of the brain, which is important for reading.

Although past research has shown this area to have reduced functioning in people with dyslexia, few studies have focused on its visual word form functionalities.

The team set out to do so by performing diffusion MRI on the occipito-temporal region and surrounding area in 55 dyslexic and typically developing children.

Again, the brain structure differed between the two groups; those with dyslexia displayed greater connectivity to the regions involved with memory and vision, while the typically developing readers displayed increased connectivity to linguistic regions.

These studies reinforce the need to provide dyslexic children with additional help and support – both in school and at home.
One way in which teachers and parents can do so is by making use of assistive technologies. These digital software programs are interactive learning tools designed for people with learning difficulties. They involve a series of games and activities, which are a fun way of enhancing a child’s literacy and numeracy skills.

Dyslexic children at school ‘struggle on multiple fronts’

When children with disabilities and learning difficulties such as dyslexia begin school, their behaviour tends to get worse, a new study has suggested.

The latest data comes from the Millennium Cohort Study, in which researchers from the Institute of Education, the London School of Economics (LSE) and the National Children’s Bureau analysed information on around 6,371 children born in 2000 and 2001 in the UK.

This study records information provided by parents on their child’s relationship, behavioural and emotional issues at the ages of three, five and seven.

teacher helping young primary school student
teacher helping young primary school student

The researchers set out to compare such factors between children without disabilities and those who have a variety of learning, developmental and health problems, including special educational needs.

By comparing the records, differences between the two groups could be identified. It was found that children with long-term illnesses and learning difficulties like dyslexia were more likely to have emotional problems, struggle to form relationships with other children and display hyperactive behaviour.

It was noted that these issues were most severe between the ages of three and seven.

Lucinda Platt, professor at the LSE department of social policy, said: “If schools could be more aware that those with disabilities are likely to be struggling in multiple ways then they might be able to intervene earlier on.”

Speaking about the findings, Philippa Stobbs – assistant director of the Council for Disabled Children – said it should be “imperative that we focus on improving the learning environment for our youngest and most vulnerable children”.

One way for teachers, parents and carers to enhance the skills of children with learning disabilities is to make use of assistive technologies. These are digital software tools specially designed to help those struggling with subjects such as maths and English. By working through each fun-filled activity, the child can increase their numeracy and literacy knowledge, and boost their level of self-esteem.

This could contribute towards significantly improving their behaviour in the school environment, as they will feel less frustrated, more confident and at ease around their peers who don’t have learning difficulties.

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