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Myth #8 -- Some people are justgenetically "dyslexic"

The belief in an underlying geneticcause for dyslexia ignores the fact that reading and writing simply havenot been around long enough to become part of our genetic makeup (see theNaturalness argument in Myth #1).  It was long argued that when adisparity existed between a person's intelligence and their reading skill,the person should be described as a "dyslexic."  The term "dyslexic"eventually became a catch-all term used to account for people who failedto learn to read despite apparent intellectual capacity and environmentalsupport.

Frankly, the term "dyslexia" isbasically meaningless.  The term simply means "difficulty with words,"and anybody who has not learned to read could be called, "dyslexic." There is nothing about that taxonomy that addresses the underlying reasonsfor the difficulty with words.  We know that people fail to learnto read for a very wide variety of reasons, and categorizing all non-readersunder the "dyslexia" umbrella belies the complexity of reading disorders.

Clearly, some people have more difficultylearning to read than others.  In broad strokes, the three reasonspeople have difficulty developing basic reading skills are

1. they have difficulty developingdecoding skills,
2. they have difficulty developinglanguage comprehension skills or,
3. both.

 Difficulties developing decodingskills very often arise from difficulties processing sounds in speech (phonologicalprocessing skills).  Some people seem to have an easier time thanothers breaking spoken words apart and tuning into the subparts of spokenwords (e.g. alliteration, rhyme, etc.).  To learn to decode words(at least in alphabetic systems like English), it is necessary to understandthat the letters in text represent the phonemes in speech.  For peoplewho have difficulty hearing and manipulating the phonemes in speech (becauseof phonological processing difficulties), it is unlikely that they willmake the connection between letters and phonemes.

It could be argued that variationsin phonological processing skills have a genetic root, but even if thatis the case, we know that it is quite easy to teach children to be awareof the phonemes in speech.

While some children have difficultydeveloping decoding skills because of poor phonological processing skills,other children simply do not get adequate instruction in the other necessaryknowledge domains that are important for developing good decoding skills(concepts about print, letter knowledge, and knowledge of the alphabeticprinciple).  Or, they do not get ample opportunities to practice decodingreal words, and thus fail to develop sufficient cipher knowledge or lexicalknowledge about words.  There is no genetic factor for insufficientinstruction -- the deficit is not intrinsic to the child; it is intrinsicto the classroom and the system that failed to help the child to developthese critical knowledge domains.

Difficulty developing language comprehensionskills often stem from either insufficient practice with language in generalor insufficient practice with a particular language (children often havewell developed language comprehension skills in languages other than English). To be good at understanding a language, children need to develop a richvocabulary and appreciation for semantics, and they need to combine thatwith a wealth of background knowledge about the world.  They alsoneed to have an implicit understanding of the mechanics of the language(syntax), and their ear needs to be tuned to the phonology of the languageso they are less likely to confuse words that sound similar (like "hair"and "here").

None of these areas could be describedas "genetic" factors that lead to reading difficulty.  They are environmentalfactors, and good instruction can overcome them.  The unpleasant factthat we must come to terms with is that the reason that so many childrenare "dyslexic" has nothing to do with the children; it has to do with thequality of their education.  They were simply never taught to read.


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Last Updated 8-7-03