Dyslexia Is Not Just a Reading Disability – It Is a Reading, Spelling, and Writing Problem

You often hear people explaining dyslexia in narrower terms that does not do service to the totality and complexity of the problem. Dyslexia is largely framed as a problem with reading. This framing does not do justice to the scope of the problem and how it may affect a child’s learning progress overall.

One of the things to understand as a parent when it comes to dyslexia is that it is not just a reading problem. In the vast majority, dyslexia is a reading, spelling, and writing problem.

In fact, in some ways the most challenging and often most painful aspect of dyslexia is with written expression and spelling. In part, this is because dyslexic children are often thrown into the deep end with little support to help them with their writing.

Here is a rule of thumb to consider. Wherever the child is with her reading skills, the writing typically lags much farther behind. So, let’s say a child has been identified as having a reading disability/dyslexia and is 10 years old in the fourth grade. Her functional reading skills have been shown to be a low third-grade level, with total frustration in the fourth grade. With such a scenario, specialists would expect a corresponding second grade (or lower) level writing. As the child gets older, the gap typically widens between the reading and writing levels.

A long-term belief still currently held in schools is that children would improve with writing by simply doing more of it. “The only way to improve writing is to do more of it,” goes the philosophy driving many classrooms.

Such a philosophy may work for the non-dyslexic children. But, for dyslexic children writing is excruciating with problems on numerous levels. Among the main issues, dyslexic children do not know how to get started, are hampered by their poor spelling (even if the teacher has assured them not to worry about spelling) and they lack an internal “compass” (or understanding) of sentence structure. This lack of an internal compass is most likely related to the weaknesses with language functions already mentioned previously and problems with active working memory, both of which are the engine to contribute being able to write adequately.

Children with dyslexia need much more structurally guided direction relative to writing than is typically offered with “open-ended” writing prompts. It’s the equivalent of asking someone who barely knows any musical notes or chords to play a piece of music. It’s virtually impossible.

There are no immediate answers or fixes, but the important point as a parent is to understand that when you talk about dyslexia, most people immediately fall to the reading portion of the equation.

By broadening your understanding of dyslexia to include writing and spelling, you put yourself in a better position to advocate for your child and support her in the areas where she needs it. If you suspect your child has a learning disability of any type, it is important to seek professional advice as soon as possible to give your child their best start for overcoming their issues.

Excerpted from Dyslexia:  25 Essential Points for Parents by Richard Selznick, PhD, 2019, Sentient Publications. Dr. Selznick is the Director of the Cooper Learning Center, part of Children’s Regional Hospital at Cooper. For more information about our Dyslexia Assessment and Treatment Program, please click here.

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