Dyslexia – What it is, challenges, how to overcome it.

This is a comprehensive article covering the symptoms, causes and challenges of Dyslexia. Most importantly, at the end of the article, we go into detail about the most effective ways to support someone with Dyslexia thrive in academics, and in life.

In this article we’ll cover:

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What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia Definition

Dyslexia is a brain-based learning disability that impairs a person’s ability to read and write. It often causes problems in reading comprehension, vocabulary development and general learning. However, individuals with dyslexia usually do not have challenges with intelligence and other developmental growth. They are often made to feel lazy or stupid, but research shows that they are not – they just have difficulty with reading. It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have some degree of dyslexia.
Adapted from: [2], [3], [4], [5]

Read: Effective Tutoring for Dyslexics

Short course via Zoom: How to Understand and Support a Child with Dyslexia

In addition to the obvious problems with reading and writing, research shows that dyslexic people often have additional difficulties that affect their entire lives, such as:

  • Telling left from right
  • Following sequential instructions
  • Learning and following rules and procedures in the right order
  • This often means that they have to reinvent the wheel every time they have to do something like solving math problems. Instead of remembering the steps, they have to figure it all out again every time
  • Following travel directions (telling right from left, up from down and reading maps)
  • Learning to tell time
  • Remembering words, phrases and names
  • Memorizing written lists and phone numbers
  • Staying on topic
  • Understanding word math problems
  • Expressing their ideas in an organized way
  • They’re often accused of being lazy and procrastinating, but often it’s because they can’t figure out the very first step to start a task

The Four Types of Dyslexia

While there are no official diagnostic subtypes of dyslexia, some people recognize the following four types of dyslexia:

  1. Phonological dyslexia (also known as dysphonetic or auditory dyslexia)
    This is a difficulty in processing and remembering the sounds of letters and syllables.
  2. Surface dyslexia (also known as dyseidetic or visual dyslexia)
    This is a difficulty in recognizing whole words, which makes reading slow, as they have to sound out every letter to understand a word
  3. Rapid naming deficit
    This is a difficulty in naming letters, numbers, colors or objects quickly
  4. Double deficit dyslexia
    This is a combined difficulty in phonological processing (1) and naming speed (3)

Any given dyslexic person may display varying degrees of difficulty within these four areas.

However, these four subtypes only cover reading difficulties, and omit the additional challenges, which we have discussed above.

Read: Effective Tutoring for Dyslexics

Short course via Zoom: How to Understand and Support a Child with Dyslexia

Is dyslexia classed as a learning disability?

Dyslexia is classified as a specific learning disability in the USA, UK and Ireland.
Sources: [6], [7], [8]

Read: Effective Tutoring for Dyslexics

Short course via Zoom: How to Understand and Support a Child with Dyslexia

The Challenges of Dyslexia

Dyslexia brings with it the obvious challenges of reading and writing. And along with that impediments to comprehension and effective learning.

In 2008, the British government commissioned an independent report into dyslexia in the British education system. The investigation was led by Sir Jim Rose, and its results have become known as The Rose Report.

As part of that investigation, they surveyed people with dyslexia and received 863 responses. Here is how the Rose Report summarized the responses they received back:

Children and adults with dyslexia who responded to the call for evidence said that they often felt deeply humiliated when asked to read. They reported being ridiculed and bullied because of their reading difficulties. Further, because so much depends on being able to “read to learn” the overall educational progress of such children is often seriously hampered with worrying consequences for gaining qualifications and for their life chances. While some develop coping strategies and achieve remarkable success, others with severe literacy difficulties, including dyslexia, often become disaffected and disengaged from education. 
Quoted from: [5]

In other words, the impact of dyslexia goes far beyond just having difficulty reading and writing. It’s easy for them to feel like they’re stupid, lazy and unintelligent. It can lead to becoming disengaged from learning and even to depression.

But fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way. More on this topic when we get to Effective Tutoring for Dyslexics.

Short course via Zoom: How to Understand and Support a Child with Dyslexia

Causes of Dyslexia

Dyslexia is primarily genetic, but environmental factors can also play a role. [11]

Moreover, there are some environmental (i.e. non-genetic) risk factors for dyslexia, including stress. [12]

Whatever the cause, dyslexia is a brain-based disability. 

“For individuals with dyslexia, specific portions of the brain typically associated with important reading processes may not develop or function in the same ways that they do in individuals without dyslexia. Neuroimaging research suggests that individuals with dyslexia – compared to individuals without – may have fundamental differences in brain regions linked with reading and language. These differences are primarily, although not completely, noted in the left hemisphere of the brain.”
Quoted from: [1]

More on that soon, when we talk about neurodevelopmental weaknesses that can lead to dyslexia.

The Dyslexia Debate

Professors Joe Elliott and Elena Grigorenko caused quite a stir when they published their book, The Dyslexia Debate in 2004. [11], [13] , [14]

They did a thorough review of academic research into dyslexia, its causes and treatment. After working on the book for four years, they came to a stunning conclusion: They recommended throwing out a dyslexia diagnosis as a tool in education.

Now, this upset quite a lot of people with dyslexia, and their families.


Because people with dyslexia are often labeled as lazy and stupid. So having a diagnosis of dyslexia helps explain to themselves, and perhaps more importantly, to their families and teachers, that they are not lazy or stupid. 

Rather, they just have a specific learning disability that makes reading hard for them. As the authors explain in The Dyslexia Debate, there is little relationship between dyslexia and IQ. Dyslexics can be extremely intelligent in other ways. They just have trouble reading.

So rather than being dismissed as lazy or stupid, getting a dyslexia diagnosis indicates that they need special accommodations and special learning support.

So far, so good. In fact, Prof Elliot acknowledges this important function of a dyslexia diagnosis.

So why do they recommend abandoning diagnosing dyslexia?

The first reason is quite simple. As Elliot states, “Anyone with even reasonable intelligence can sit with a child for ten minutes and determine whether they have a reading difficulty.” [19]

The second reason is more subtle, but more important.

In The Dyslexia Debate, they argue that dyslexia is a very broad term, and the diagnosis actually gives no useful information about how to support an individual in learning to read and thrive academically.

Elliott’s interest, as an educator, is in figuring out what a given student needs in terms of educational support. And a dyslexia diagnosis provides no guidance on how to proceed.  

So, rather, Elliott recommends that practitioners develop a customized educational plan for each student, based on an assessment of their specific needs.

Moreover, he recommends starting with the simplest, easiest interventions first. If those work, great. You’re all set. 

And if the simple interventions don’t produce the desired results, then he recommends progressing to more in-depth and more sophisticated interventions.

We follow this approach when we work with clients with dyslexia:

  1. Start with an introductory consultation to get a sense of the scope of the issues the person is dealing with.
  2. If it appears that there are no important neurodevelopmental weaknesses, then work with a specialist reading tutor and possibly a specialist learning skills tutor. That will most likely be sufficient.
  3. If it appears that there are important neurodevelopmental weaknesses that need to be addressed, then we recommend a comprehensive neurodevelopmental assessment and developing a customized Neurodevelopmental Enhancement Program.

You can read more about our approach in Effective Tutoring for Dyslexics.

Short course via Zoom: How to Understand and Support a Child with Dyslexia

But while we’re still on the subject of the causes of dyslexia, let’s talk a little more about what kinds of neurodevelopmental weaknesses can lead to dyslexia…

Neurodevelopmental weaknesses that can lead to dyslexia

Here are some of the neurodevelopmental areas we assess with dyslexic clients:

  • Visual Processing – Eye tracking and convergence:
    Do they skip lines or words? Do they experience that the type moves in front of their eyes?
  • Visual memory:
    Do they have difficulty remembering the shapes of words or letters?
  • Figure-ground differentiation:
    Do they have difficulty distinguishing what is in the center of their gaze from what is behind it? For example, do they find it hard to see a person wearing a patterned shirt sitting in front of a patterned wallpaper?
  • Audition:
    Do they have difficulty hearing and remembering sounds?
  • Auditory sequencing memory:
    Do they have trouble remembering auditory sequences? This is essential for phonetics and disturbs understanding and following instructions.
  • Phonological loop:
    How well are the various parts of the brain involved in reading and comprehension integrated?
  • Processing speed:
    How is information is absorbed from the eyes and ears and processed in the brain?
  • Working memory:
    How strong is their ability to hold things in mind while thinking about them?
  • Laterality:
    Do they know their left from right and have they internalized that we read and write from left to right? Weaknesses here can cause reversals of letters, words and sequences and numbers.
  • Proprioception:
    This is the ability to feel one’s own body and know where your limbs are. This can impact the organization of time and space; planning; and the organization of words and numbers on the page.
  • Kinaesthetic memory:
    The ability to learn the movements of writing so that they become so automatic that they don’t even need to think about writing letters and words.
  • Vestibular functions:
    This is usually thought of as relating to balance, but also facilitates the eyes working together to read.
  • Interhemispheric integration (the connections between the two sides of the brain):
    This affects processing speed and the integration of the different brain regions required for reading, writing and comprehension. It also affects receptive and expressive language, math and other skills.

When we start working with a new client with dyslexia, if indicated, we do a thorough assessment of these and other potential issues, as the first step in developing a customized Neurodevelopmental Enhancement Program.

Can Dyslexics Truly Thrive in School and in Life?

The short answer is a resounding Yes!

In the groundbreaking book, The Dyslexia Advantage, the authors Brock and Fernette Eide explain that individuals with dyslexia share a unique learning difference that can create advantages in the classroom, on the job, or at home.

In fact, they show that dyslexic people often excel at spatial reasoning and interconnected thinking. They often display amazing creativity.
Source: [15]

When we work with dyslexic students, we teach them how to leverage their unusual strengths to their advantage. More on that in a moment. But just to drive home the point that dyslexia is not a life sentence to struggle and fail..

Famous People with Dyslexia

    • Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Astronomer and space scientist.
    • Orlando Bloom, Hollywood actor most commonly known for his starring roles in Pirates of the Caribbean and Lord of the Rings.
    • Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Records, Virgin Atlantic, and a host of other successful businesses.
    • Tom Cruise. You’ve probably heard of him.
    • Leonardo da Vinci, Renaissance artist (The Mona Lisa) and inventor, who incidentally, wrote backwards (from left to right instead of right to left).
    • Walt Disney. You’ve probably heard of him too!
    • Whoopi Goldberg, actor and comedian.
    • US presidents John F Kennedy, George Washington & George W Bush were believed to be dyslexic.
    • Jamie Oliver, celebrity chef.
    • Pablo Picasso. If you’ve seen his art, there’s kind of no surprise here!
    • Steven Spielberg, movie producer.
    • Jennifer Aniston, actor.

The list goes on and on. Indeed, it turns out that one in three American entrepreneurs had dyslexia.

But to truly thrive as a dyslexic, getting the right support can be a game changer.

Short course via Zoom: How to Understand and Support a Child with Dyslexia

Unfortunately, traditional approaches to tutoring dyslexics can work against their natural talents and make life harder for them.

So let’s get into the essential things to look for in a dyslexia tutor…

Effective Tutoring for Dyslexics

The advice here is based on our decades of experience tutoring students with dyslexia and other neurodiversities such as ASD (Autism/Aspergers), dyspraxia and ADD / ADHD.

As we discussed in the section on The Dyslexia Debate, a diagnosis of dyslexia is so broad it does not give much useful information about how to support any individual person succeed. It requires careful detective work to figure out what is getting in the way of that individual’s reading and other academic skills, and then developing a completely customized program for them.

To assess a given child and develop a comprehensive plan, you need a specialist who understands both how to unpick what specialist reading and study skills tutoring the child may need, and to determine whether a Neurodevelopmental Movement Program would be appropriate for them.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First let’s take a look at the common types of dyslexia tutors you’ll find out there…

The Common Types of Dyslexia Tutors

When you search for a dyslexia tutor, you’ll mostly find two kinds of tutors:

  1. Subject matter tutors who claim to have experience in working with dyslexic students
  2. Specialized reading tutors for dyslexics

Let’s break those two types of tutors down in more detail.

Subject Matter Tutors

First of all, what is a subject matter tutor?

Well, it means that they tutor their students in specific subjects like math, biology, history, etc.

If they turn up in a search for “dyslexia tutors” it’s most likely because they added something at the end of their profile like “Special Educational Needs: Aspergers, Autism, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia.”

They may be great subject matter tutors, but if they put their special needs ‘expertise’ right at the end of their profile, they’re probably not true experts in working with dyslexic students.

The problem with subject matter tutors working with dyslexic students is that dyslexic people don’t learn and think like most ‘normal’ people.

So when traditional subject matter tutors try to teach them as if they were just like every other student, your child will most likely continue to struggle, even with a great subject matter tutor.

So, we recommend against hiring subject matter tutors for your dyslexic child until they have learned to read at their reading age and have learned how to learn given their unique thinking style.

Reading Tutors

True dyslexia specialists will emphasize dyslexia tutoring in their profile. It will be the first thing they talk about, not the last thing in their profile.

Most specialized dyslexia tutors teach reading skills.

The best approaches to teaching reading skills to dyslexics are similar to the Orton–Gillingham method. Look for that kind of expertise in a reading tutor’s profile. Their profile might use the term “Orton–Gillingham” or the more technical term “Multisensory Structured Language Education (MSLE)”. Either one of these on their profile is a good sign.

If your child is young and has not received any specialized reading skills tutoring, this is often the best place to start.

If this goes well, then stick with it.

An appropriate goal is for your child to reach their standardized reading age by the time they reach age 10. In any case, it will also be important for your child to learn how to learn given their unique thinking style. We’ll cover that later in this article.

If your child continues to struggle reading even with specialized reading tutoring, then it’s appropriate to explore whether they have any neurological weaknesses that need to be addressed.

Identify and address any neurodevelopmental weaknesses

First, what is a “neurodevelopmental weakness”?

Simply put, it is some weakness in brain development. It’s not as scary as it sounds. It might be something as simple as not fully developing their ability to process what they read. And these are things that can usually be addressed once they have been identified.

Most people have some weaknesses in their neurological development. And dyslexics may have specific weaknesses that are affecting their ability to read and learn.

If you’d like to get a sense of the specific neurodevelopmental weaknesses that may affect a person’s ability to read, there’s a list earlier in this article: Neurodevelopmental weaknesses that can lead to dyslexia.

So, if your child is struggling to learn to read even with specialized help, it’s appropriate to assess and address those weaknesses.

This is where the field of neurodevelopmental movement comes in.

Quite simply, neurodevelopmental movement gives your child a way to strengthen the neurodevelopmental weaknesses that they somehow missed.

Madeleine Portwood has written extensively about this approach in her book Developmental Dyspraxia: Identification and Intervention: A Manual for Parents and Professionals. [16]

HANDLE® providers are also trained to develop Neurodevelopmental Movement Programs for individual students. [17]

Neuroscientists at the Harborview Medical Center have shown that the HANDLE approach can be effective in addressing issues even as severe as chronic traumatic brain injury. The neurodevelopmental issues of dyslexics are generally much less severe than traumatic brain injury, and so it is reasonable to assume, easier to address. [18]

So, we recommend looking for a specialist with expertise in creating a neurodevelopmental movement plan for your child. The plan should be based on observing your child in real life situations and 100% customized to your child.

Once your child has strengthened any important weaknesses in their neurological development, it will be much easier for them to learn to read, and to master other academic skills.

Now, catching up on reading is only part of the solution. There are other skills they will need to truly thrive in academics and in life.

It’s not just about learning to read – it’s about learning to think

Dyslexic students have difficulty processing written information, for sure.

But there’s so much more going on for dyslexic students.

They process information differently and think differently.

If you have a dyslexic child you’ve probably already noticed this. It may be hard to put your finger on it, but somehow you’re aware that they just think differently and process information differently from other children.

A great dyslexia tutor will address this by teaching your child:

  • How to work with the limitations of their dyslexic thinking style
  • How to understand and appreciate the particular genius of their dyslexic thinking style
  • How to bridge the gap between:
    • their unique thinking style and 
    • how their teachers expect them to explain their thinking in order to get good grades

Well, that’s all very nice, but how does it work?

The fundamental difference between the thinking style of most people and dyslexics is this:

  • Most people learn details and procedures first and then figure out the big picture later
  • Dyslexics do it the other way around. They think best when they get the big picture first, and then learn the details and procedures later.

Unfortunately for dyslexics, classroom teaching matches how most people learn and mismatches how dyslexics learn. This makes it hard for them.

So, the trick for the dyslexic student is to learn how to use these simple steps:

  1. Reframe what is taught in class into a framework that actually works for them (often using techniques to relate the new knowledge they are learning to the existing web of knowledge they already have)
  2. Think about the the problem in ‘their world’ – coming up with answers in a way that’s easy for them
  3. Translate their answers back from ‘their world’ to the linear, procedural answers that their teachers want to see to get good grades

Once your child has learned how to do this, they’ll struggle a lot less and discover that they can thrive in learning.

To summarize… 

The Four Essential Things to Look for in a Dyslexia Tutor

When looking for a dyslexia tutor, there are four essential things to look for:

  1. They are not just subject matter tutors who claim to work with students with special education needs
  2. They will teach your child how to read and process written information better
  3. They can assess and address any neurodevelopmental weaknesses
  4. They will teach your child how to think more effectively

So, where can you find a dyslexia tutor who meets these four criteria?

Online vs. In-Person Tutoring

Unfortunately, these four simple criteria eliminate most dyslexia tutors. Finding a great dyslexia tutor near you might be impossible.

Considering an online tutor opens up a lot more options, but does it really work?

Fortunately, the answer is a resounding Yes.

We’ve been working with all our students online over the last few years, and surprisingly, it turns out that their results are generally better online than with the old-school in-person tutoring.


Well, the answer is slightly different for younger children than for teens and adults.

Let’s break it down…

For younger children

If you have a young dyslexic child, you know them better than anyone else.

You see them every day. You know what they do well. You know where they struggle. You know when they get confused. You know when they get frustrated.

You see all these things. But you may not know how to interpret them and what to do about it. That’s not your fault. You’re a good parent, but you’re just not trained in special education.

So when we work with younger children, we ask you to take short video clips of your child going about their daily lives. Especially video clips of them doing the things you know that they struggle with on a daily basis.

Then you share those clips with your specialist tutor – who knows how to analyze the video clips and knows what to do about what they see.

Then your specialized tutor will give you ‘play’ activities to do with your child. These ‘play’ activities are specifically designed to help your child learn and thrive.

You sharing video clips of your child in a variety of situations with us gives us much richer information than we used to get by coming to observe your child in-person.

For teens and adults

For teens and adults, we work directly with the student. And, of course, advise the parents as well.

Dyslexic students often have difficulty processing the information they’re reading. When a tutor is sitting beside the student in-person, it’s hard to see their eye movements, how they’re scanning the information on the page, and where they get stuck.

But online, the tutor can actually see the student’s face as they’re working with the information they’re reading. The camera is right on the computer screen that the student is reading, so the tutor gets a bird’s-eye view of how the student is processing the information.

This turns out to be a significant advantage.

So, overall, online tutoring actually works better than in-person tutoring.

The most important thing is to find the best tutor for your child.

Short course via Zoom: How to Understand and Support a Child with Dyslexia

Find the Best Dyslexia Tutors

If you would like to talk with one of our experts to discuss what would be the best approach to supporting your dyslexic child, book a free consultation today.



Additional Resources


Related Posts

Things Dyslexia Students Struggle With And Their Hidden Superpowers

What does a dyslexia tutor do?

How long do kids with dyslexia need tutoring?

Will a Tutor Help with Dyslexia?

Approaches to Tutoring Dyslexic Students

How Important is it to get a diagnosis for Dyslexia?

4 Essential Things to Look for in a Dyslexia Tutor

The Hand-Holding Method




References to Dyslexia Research

[1] National Center on Improving Reading

[2] International Dyslexia Association

[3] National Health Service, UK

[4] The Dyslexia SPLD Trust

[5] The Rose Report

[6] American With Disabilities Act

[7] National Health Service, UK

[8] Dyslexia Association of Ireland

[9] The Rose Report

[10] Dyslexia Association of Ireland

[11] The Dyslexia Debate

[12] MDPI

[13] Durham University, UK

[14] University of Houston, USA

[15] The Dyslexia Advantage

[16] Environmental Factors: Their effect on the incidence of ADHD, ASD, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia

[17] The HANDLE Institute – What is HANDLE

[18] Philipp Ritt, Torsten Kuwert, Quantitative SPECT/CT—Technique and Clinical Applications, Molecular Imaging in Oncology, 10.1007/978-3-030-42618-7_17, (565-590), (2020).

[19] The Dyslexia Debate presentation by Prof. Joe Elliot, Durham University, UK

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