Articles and Topics
What is dyslexia?
Carly Des Moines
The term dyslexia is both overused and misused. It literally means difficulty (“dys”) reading (“lexia”). Thus, any child who is a bit slow or having major problems is literally “dyslexic.”

The problem is that some people, professionals and lay, use the term to describe a highly specific type of reading disability. You will hear parents say, “My son was having problems with reading. We did everything we could to help him but finally discovered he had dyslexia.” To them, that made everything seem all right! All along the boy was dyslexic (i.e., he had trouble reading), but it seemed to relax his parents when the term was used as a diagnosis rather than a description of the problem.

We see the same thing with ADD, or Attention Deficit Disorder. A harried mother might tell you, “My son has a very short attention span and doesn’t seem to listen when anyone talks to him." (Note that she has basically described the clinical condition.) But if he is seen by a specialist and diagnosed as having ADD, she might well say, “My son has ADD,” as though the official term offered more of an explanation than her own description, and could be accepted as an excuse for his behavior. Sometimes we need those crutches, but often that is all the official term provides. It doesn’t explain the cause or prescribe a remedy.

By saying that your son might be dyslexic, his teacher may simply be trying to explain why she has not been able to help him read better, and why he hasn’t learned faster. By implying the existence of some mysterious malady – dyslexia – she takes both herself and your son off the hook. Also, I would guess that she thinks your son has some specific neurological problem that is associated with his dyslexia. Many people who have studied children with reading problems have thought this, but no one has ever proven it. Incidentally, such problems are about four times as common in boys as in girls.

You appear to be a good observer and listener, noting that your son talked later than your other children, confuses “d” and “b” and might be a slow learner. I would go with your instincts. There is undoubtedly a good developmental center where you can get a professional opinion, if you think it is needed. Also, the school district probably can arrange for an evaluation that might help pinpoint the problem and offer recommendations for improving the situation. Try not to push him and make him anxious about reading. Even though he is now in first grade, continue to read to him. Don’t ask repeatedly during the story, “What is this word?” unless you are absolutely certain he knows it. And be sure to praise him when he gets it right.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education