Dyslexia is caused by differences in how the brain processes information. These differences don't make dyslexia a mental defect or disease, they simply mean that the child has an unusual way of thinking, learning, communicating, and solving problems.
Before dyslexia was discovered and labeled, these differences most likely went unnoticed because it was common and acceptable for children to discontinue their education at a young age, grow up to become farmers, artisans, or merchants, or take on other jobs that did not require a formal education. With their strong ability to learn through hands-on practice and apprenticeship, young people with dyslexia probably did quite well.
In today's world, though, strong literacy skills are essential. Increasing importance is placed on school performance and standardized tests; children learn in large classrooms where the “norm” (or average) is fast becoming a minimum standard to which all students are expected to aspire.
In this environment, teachers must use the methods that best reach the majority of students in their classrooms. A child with a learning barrier quickly falls behind, and so what was once merely a learning difference transforms into a learning disability.
Dyslexia is not caused by poor schools, bad teaching practices, neglectful parenting, or a difficult home life. These factors can explain why many other children have reading problems, but they cannot cause a child to develop dyslexia.
Areas of Cognitive Weakness
Educators and researchers have isolated some factors that seem to play an important role in dyslexia. Most of these are associated with language processing difficulties or the ability to think sequentially. Mental processing speed also seems to play a part.
The most significant areas of difficulty are:
Difficulties with phonemic awareness, which is the ability to break down and manipulate the small units of sound in words, such as the three separate sounds for the “c,” “a,” and “t” in the word “cat.”
Problems with word retrieval or rapid automatic naming, which is the time it takes for verbal response to a visual stimulus or cue, such as quickly saying the names of letters printed on a chart, or names of objects when a picture is shown.
Poor digit span, which is the ability to store a short sequence of letters or numbers in short-term memory.
Difficulties with sequencing or concepts of order.
Visual perceptual confusion, such as the inability to distinguish letters such as “b” and “d,” or perceiving letters out of order, such as confusing “was” and “saw,” or “from” and “form.”
Areas of Mental Strength
Even though dyslexia can cause extreme difficulties with learning, children with dyslexia are usually bright and capable. In fact, dyslexia is not really a single problem or issue, but the name that given to a certain common pattern. Individuals with dyslexia tend to be very creative thinkers, with a knack for “out-of-the-box” thinking. Many are artistically talented, and adults with dyslexia usually do well in careers such as engineering, design, or architecture. Another strength is the intuitive thought process; people with dyslexia often will know the answer to a problem or question, but have difficulty explaining how they arrived at it.