But what is dyslexia?


You may have heard all sorts of theories and definitions of dyslexia. Some of these are overly simplistic, defining it as a problem with getting letters around the wrong way, and others can be confusingly complicated. This is probably because dyslexia is a continuum, not a distinct category, occurring across a range of intellectual abilities with no clear cut-off points.

Difficulties with literacy and numeracy are a common feature of dyslexia, and the most immediate attribute is a problem in decoding words and their meanings. However, this is still only one aspect of a broader spectrum of difficulties affecting skills such as auditory and information processing, planning and organising, motor skills, short-term memory and concentration. Some of these can make it especially challenging for individuals to follow instructions, turn thoughts into words and finish work on time.

Brain research, including studies from Yale and Auckland universities, has shown that while it is common to use the ‘verbal’ left side of our brain to understand words, dyslexic people use the ‘pictorial’ right side – making them slower to process and understand language, but stronger in creative areas like problem solving, empathy and lateral thinking.


International dyslexia expert and Dyslexia Foundation consultant Neil Mackay notes that MRI technology shows that the dyslexic brain works differently – not wrongly but definitely in a different way. In a typical brain, most of the modules for writing, spelling and aspects of reading tend to be in the left brain, with the right brain having modules for more visual process, like recognising words quickly without needing to break them down. The brain of a dyslexic child or adult may not have this typical “left/right” organisation, with various modules appearing in different places.

This different organisation is probably the reason for the well established tendency for dyslexic people to “see” things differently and it may explain the numbers of successful entrepreneurs and inventors who are dyslexic. But it can also explain the problems many dyslexics experience in acquiring basic literacy skills – the different organisation makes it harder for some tasks to be done automatically – effectively the brain has to re -route and change direction in order to use some of the modules. In consequence learning to read and spell at an ability appropriate level may take much longer. On the flipside, these different “journeys around the brain” often result in many more links and connections which may, in turn, result in enhanced creativity and problem solving ability.

Dyslexic children often exhibit a pattern of good days and bad days. On good days difficulties may almost disappear and the child will be able to work effectively and achieve success. However, on the bad days even familiar words may appear strange and need to be worked out from scratch.

As dyslexics think in an atypical way, dyslexia can be characterized as a learning preference. This means appreciating that a child with a differently wired brain naturally prefers to receive, process and present information in the way that makes the most sense to him or her. It is also good to understand that dyslexia is for life, it is therefore inappropriate to talk about ‘cures’. Rather it is about tapping into potential and making the most of the incredible creative possibilities that properly addressed dyslexia can offer.

Leading-edge international research is now focused in this area, with US researchers Tom West and Sally Shaywitz both offering fascinating insights into this creative space. You can find out more in the 4D edge section of our Neil Mackay space. More from Tom West also be found here and from Sally Shaywitz here.

> Dyslexia Signs

Some of the most common signs of dyslexia can manifest both at home and in the classroom. By noticing, you can adjust your approach to support your child both in the home and at school. Initial indicators to watch out for include:

  • Family history
  • Difficulties with dressing

  • Quick thinker/doer, but not when given instructions

  • Enhanced creativity

  • Aptitude for constructional/technical toys

  • Can appear on the ball, but is a bit of an enigma in terms of how their thought processes work

Other signs, usually apparent after one year of schooling, can include:

  • Challenges with visual and/or auditory sequential working memory

  • Struggling to make links with phonological awareness

  • Difficulties with making letter/sound links, spelling common words and segmenting and blending sounds

  • Issues with learning sequences e.g. days of week

  • Good oral capability but difficulties, including behavioural ones, when requested to complete written exercises

  • Letters or numbers reversed or confused b/d/p/q, n/u, 13/31

  • Problems with labels, rhymes, sequences

  • Spells/reads on one line but not on the next

  • Being slower to process and needing repeated exposures to retain learning

  • Retrieval issues – learns something one moment, gone the next

  • Large gap between oral and written work

  • Failure to complete school work

  • Tiredness

  • Poor sense of direction – difficulty telling left from right

  • Poor execution of work and avoidance of tasks – may be the class clown!

  • Negative attitude and lack of motivation

  • Lack of concentration

  • Difficulties with peers and group work

  • Low self-esteem and unrealistic goals

  • Poor attitude to school


> Dyslexia Facts
  • Dyslexia is an alternative way of thinking and seeing the world

  • Dyslexic people think predominantly in pictures, not with the sounds of words

  • Dyslexia is a lifelong challenge

  • Dyslexia occurs across a range of intellectual abilities

  • Dyslexia tends to run in families

  • Dyslexia affects both boys and girls

> Dyslexia Myths
  • Dyslexia is not an illness or a disease

  • Dyslexic people are not less intelligent

  • Dyslexia does not only affect reading and writing

  • Dyslexia is not caused by brain or nerve damage, eye or inner ear defects

Back to top

©Copyright Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand. All rights reserved.
Content may be reproduced with permission of DFNZ, contact info@dfnz.org.nz