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What is Dyslexia?

by User Not Found | Oct 18, 2012

Just what is dyslexia? Here we give a brief overview of dyslexia as well more academic definitions using both UK and US terminologies.

What is dyslexia?

There are almost as many definitions of dyslexia as there are different dyslexia organisations. Different cultures and professions define it according to their perspective. In fact there is no right or wrong answer as there is no single accepted definition for dyslexia. Each individual with dyslexia will be affected differently but tend to have difficulties in some of the following areas:

  • Reading;
  • Writing;
  • Spelling;
  • Expressing thoughts;
  • Sequencing;
  • Differentiating left from right;
  • Orientation;
  • Short term memory;
  • Time management;
  • Organisation.

But it important to remember that many children and adults with dyslexia have strengths and talents that can be used to compensate for these difficulties. The British Dyslexia Association list possible strengths as including:

  • Innovative thinkers;
  • Excellent trouble shooters;
  • Intuitive problem solving;
  • Creative in many different ways;
  • Lateral thinkers.

Our website,, features a wide range of technological solutions that use these strengths to help overcome the difficulties associated with dyslexia. We offer a range of articles to help you find out more about the software and hardware tools that are available, from introductory overviews to in-depth product reviews and comparisons. If you are new to this area then we suggest reading as an introduction to the most common solutions.

Defining Dyslexia

Dyslexia is mainly defined as a problem with literacy skills, i.e. reading, writing and spelling; although it is now widely accepted that dyslexia can affect a number of areas including memory, organisation and concentration.

Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty that mainly affects reading and spelling. Dyslexia is characterized by difficulties in processing word-sounds and by weaknesses in short-term verbal memory; its effects may be seen in spoken language as well as written language. The current evidence suggests that these difficulties arise from inefficiencies in language-processing areas in the left hemisphere of the brain which, in turn, appear to be linked to genetic differences.

Dyslexia is life-long, but its effects can be minimised by targeted literacy intervention, technological support and adaptations to ways of working and learning. Dyslexia is not related to intelligence, race or social background. Dyslexia varies in severity and often occurs alongside other specific learning difficulties, such as Dyspraxia or Attention Deficit Disorder, resulting in variation in the degree and nature of individuals’ strengths and weaknesses.

(Dyslexia Action, 2006)

The British Dyslexia Association (BDA) have a short definition:

  • The word ‘dyslexia’ comes from the Greek and means ‘difficulty with words’.
  • Definition: Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty which is neurobiological in origin and persists across the lifespan.
  • It is characterised by difficulties with phonological processing, rapid naming, working memory, processing speed and the automatic development of skills that are unexpected in relation to an individual’s other cognitive abilities.
  • These processing difficulties can undermine the acquisition of literacy and numeracy skills, as well as musical notation, and have an effect on verbal communication, organisation and adaptation to change.
  • Their impact can be mitigated by correct teaching, strategy development and the use of information technology.

These definitions state that dyslexia is not due to the individual’s ability to learn and develop these skills. It is to do with the way people process information and how that affects their ability to learn. This processing difficulty can be due to a number of reasons, but it is this which causes problems with acquiring literacy skills. Most dyslexic students have been identified to have one or more of the following deficiencies in the sub-skills that are required to acquire and use adequate literacy skills:

A marked inefficiency in the working or short-term memory system

This means that a dyslexic student may have problems with the amount of information that can be held and processed in the real-time, conscious memory.

Inadequate phonological processing abilities causing problems with connecting the letter patterns with the associated sounds

This is usually due to problems with the speed with which auditory information can be processed and with accessing the memory of audio sounds to relate them to the letter pattern.

Difficulties with automaticity

This can cause problems with getting things in the right order or sequencing and may also show itself as clumsiness caused by the brain sending the wrong signals to parts of the body in the wrong order.

A range of problems connected with visual processing to do with the speed with which visual information can be processed and with accessing the memory of visual patterns

Some people use the term “visual dyslexia” to mean what we call Visual Stress.

So, dyslexia can be summarised as having problems with processing visual or auditory information; with holding that information in working memory and with kinaesthetic awareness, co-ordination and automaticity. These can affect academic progress across a variety of subjects.

UK Terminology

Because of these difficulties with specifically defining dyslexia, the term Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD) is frequently used in the education community. SpLD refers to a difficulty that is specific to a particular area, or that affects a particular process (as distinct from a general learning difficulty, which affects the learning of many different skills). SpLD includes other learning related disabilities such as:

  • Dysphasia, speech and language delay and/or deficit.
  • Dyspraxia, motor and co-ordination difficulties.
  • Dyscalculia, difficulty with mathematical concepts, calculations and interpreting mathematical symbols.
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with or without Hyperactivity (ADD/ADHD).
  • Autism, Asperger's Syndrome, Tourette's Syndrome.

US Terminology

In the USA the term Learning Disability (LD) is used. LD is defined as:

“a disorder that affects people’s ability to either interpret what they see and hear or to link information from different parts of the brain. These limitations can show up in many ways: as specific difficulties with spoken and written language, coordination, self control, or attention. Such difficulties extend to schoolwork and can impede learning to read, write, or do math.”
(National Institutes of Health, 1993)

The general view of dyslexia in the US is that it mainly affects reading, and the terms Reading Disability and Dyslexia are used interchangeably. On this web site we take the UK view that dyslexia does not just affect reading and can have a wider impact throughout life.


Clearly, for a definition to have use in the real world you not only need a certain measure of agreement on a definition, but you also need to agree how to diagnose it.  Attempts are being made to standardise diagnosis for different purposes. One such standard is the SpLD Working Group 2005/DfES Guidelines for diagnosing dyslexia and other Specific Learning Difficulties to qualify for the UK Disabled Student's Allowance for Higher Education.