Starting school can be challenging for all children, but especially for those with learning disabilities. Imagine looking at words, trying to learn to read, and seeing them backward or simply not understanding them at all. This is what happens when a child has dyslexia.
Unraveling the Mystery of Dyslexia
"It's a language-based learning difference that affects reading and spelling, but included in that is a difficulty with hearing, perceiving, and sequencing sounds, word retrieval, organization, and working memory," explains Joan A. Mele-McMarthy, vice president of the board of directors of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) and director of education of the Summit School, a private school for children with dyslexia and other learning disabilities.
The IDA reports that 15 to 20 percent of the general population has language-based learning disorders  and dyslexia is the most common cause of reading, writing, and spelling problems. The disorder, which can be inherited, affects boys and girls almost equally.
"It used to be thought that boys were affected twice as much, but research has shown that both are equally affected," says Dr. Mele-McMarthy, adding that girls with dyslexia are just able to muddle through a bit better than boys.
Beyond reading letters in the wrong order, people with dyslexia have problems learning to speak, organizing both written and spoken language, memorizing number-related facts, learning foreign languages, and doing mathematics.
"Some of the early warning signs can be seen in preschool years with kids  who don’t learn colors, shapes, rhyming, or the letters of alphabet," says Mele-McMarthy. "In first grade they have a very difficult time breaking the language code, even with good instruction, and figuring out what the words say. They don't perceive and sequence the sounds well. They can't hold all of the sounds in working memory as they blend them. They struggle with decoding that piece of reading."
While most children in first grade go through an explosion of reading, children who have dyslexia lag significantly behind their peers despite good intelligence and problem-solving skills.
According to IDA, possible signs to look for in preschoolers include:
- Difficulty reading single words, such as those on flashcards
- Trouble learning the connection between letters and sounds
- Confusing short words, such as “it” and “to”
- Reversing letters, such as “b” for “d”
- Reversing whole words, such as “top” for “pot”
Having one of these symptoms doesn't mean your child has dyslexia. A lot of kids reverse letters before the age of 7. But if your child has several of these problems, or if you have a family history of dyslexia, it might be time for a formal evaluation.
There is no single test for dyslexia. "It's done by a battery of assessments," Mele-McMarthy says. "Very typically we look at information processing, a child's ability to engage in verbal reasoning tasks, non-verbal reasoning tasks, working memory, processing speed, an ability to rapidly retrieve and spell words, manipulating sounds, rhyming, and how well can they talk about difficult concepts."
A second component when making a diagnosis involves more closely examining how well the student reads and comprehends.
Achieving Success With Dyslexia
A dyslexia diagnosis does not mean your child won't finish school , go on to college , or succeed in work. But without some special assistance, children with learning disabilities can suffer from self-esteem problems.
"Instruction must be implemented with intensity and fidelity," Mele-McMarthy says. "A half-day or after-school training program won't work. … We teach in a multisensory way. It can also be done in a public school, but the teachers have to understand dyslexia.”
Learning disabilities don't have to hold your child back. There are a lot of famous individuals who have overcome dyslexia, including Charles Schwab, founder of the brokerage house Charles Schwab & Co.; actress Whoopi Goldberg; John T. Chambers, president and CEO of Cisco Systems, Inc.; and fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger.
With proper training, people with dyslexia can tackle, and master, just about anything in life.