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What is Dyslexia or Reading Disorder and How Do Learning Disability Evaluations Work?

What is Dyslexia or Reading Disorder and How Do Learning Disability Evaluations Work in New Jersey Practice?

Dyslexia is a type of learning disorder.  There is a diagnostic manual used by psychologists and educators called the DSM-5. DSM-5 considers a learning disorder to be a type of Neurodevelopmental Disorder  that impedes the ability to learn or use specific academic skills (e.g., reading, writing, or arithmetic), which are the foundation for other academic learning. The learning difficulties are ‘unexpected’ in that other aspects of development seem to be fine. Early signs of learning difficulties may appear in the preschool years (e.g., difficulty learning names of letters or counting objects), but they can only be diagnosed reliably after starting formal education.


Specific learning disorder (SLD), of which dyslexia or reading disorder is one type, is a clinical diagnosis that is not necessarily the same as ‘learning disabilities’ as identified within the education system: that is, not all children with learning disabilities/difficulties identified by the school system would meet a DSM-5 clinical diagnosis of SLD.


So What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is the medical term for a hardwired difficulty learning to read.  Children with dyslexia have normally developing intellect, but their ability to connect sounds to letters, and read fluently does not keep up with that of their classmates’.  This results in considerable frustration.  Most children, incorrectly, conclude that they must be “stupid” if they cannot learn to read.  They may begin to act up in school to divert attention from their reading deficit.  They may appear to have trouble concentrating, particularly when reading or writing.


We now know a lot about what happens in the brains of dyslexic children. fMRI scans (brain scans that take real time images of children’s brains as they read) tell us that children with dyslexia process reading differently in their brains than typically developing children.  When children and adults without dyslexia read, the information is processed on the left side of their brains, moving from back to front.  Children with dyslexia do not show this typical pattern. However, after intensive, scientifically based reading instruction, these brain differences can disappear.  The key is intensive, EARLY intervention.


Does My Child Have Dyslexia?

Because research indicates that early intervention produces the best outcomes, it is important to seek a comprehensive assessment early.  “Wait and see” often results in a significant amount of lost instruction time and also increases frustration for children.

Scientists in the area of learning disorder have determined that problems in phonological awareness are responsible for reading disorder.  Phonological awareness refers to an individual’s awareness of and access to the sound structure of his or her oral language.   It includes the individual’s ability to access speech sounds and put them together to make words.  The spoken word “bat” has three phonemes – “B-A-T” – each of which happens to correspond to the sound made by the three letters of the printed word BAT.  Children (and adults) who are weak in phonological awareness show improvement in their word-level reading skills after being given intervention designed to improve phonological awareness.  Phonological memory is also very important for reading (this refers to coding information phonologically for temporary storage in short-term or working memory).  Phonological memory supports the role of working memory in comprehension.  A problem with phonological memory does not have to lead to poor reading of familiar material, but is more likely to impair decoding of new words, particularly words that are long enough to sound out  bit by bit.  A deficit in phonological memory may not negatively impact listening or reading comprehension for simple sentences but may do so for more complex sentences.  Another kind of functioning essential for phonological processing is rapid word naming.


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