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This article by Dr Piotr Wozniak is part of SuperMemo Guru series on memory, learning, creativity, and problem solving.


Dyslexia is a deficit in learning to decode print.

Definition controversies

In the past we used to look at reading deficits against the background of IQ. This is rather unfortunate because all forms of development associated with learning are dendritic in nature, and progression is always uneven, unpredictable, or loosely related to the exposure that is determined by the environmental factors. In addition, kids with lower IQ would be automatically set at the disadvantage in the competition for remedial resources.

A transition towards mapping dyslexia against the age is even more slippery. All kids with natural delays are exposed to an increased pressure to accelerate (see: precocity paradox). All forms of acceleration expose kids to the possibility of toxic memories.

In agreement with Dr Julian Elliot's reasoning, guru provides no distinction between dyslexia, and a general reading deficit as referenced against the developmental appropriateness. In other words, a dyslexic is hard to distinguish from a "poor reader".

However, as the term dyslexia itself is neat and unlikely to ever be uprooted, I use the term dyslexia to refer to a subset of reading problems that exclude obvious neglect, lack of interest, or normal developmental unreadiness. As for neurobiological pathology, it cannot possibly form a substantive subset of cases due to the nearly epidemic levels of diagnosis of dyslexia (up to 15%).

Dyslexia and intelligence

I have always been interested in dyslexia as a good model of a hiccup on the way to genius accomplishment. Could dyslexia demonstrate tangible genetic limits on human mind? How does it develop and how can it be prevented? My biological way of thinking used to overestimate the importance of the genetic component. Even if genetic influences are proven, do they affect low level processing or do they impact the mind via properties of the personality? As I keep studying the impact of schooling on intelligence, I see a wider scope for the influence of toxic memories. It is also clearer today that there is a very little link with intelligence and that remedial learning could help in a vast majority of cases. I agree with Dr Maryanne Wolf that the "dyslexic brain", which I rather call a semantic brain, is a brain that preceded the reading brain. Humans have always been excellent problem solvers. They may occasionally struggle with reading because their semantic brain has few adaptations to master reading. Each and every individual needs to figure out how to harness dedicated areas of the cortex to decode print.

Learning to read

Instead of being marked as a disorder, and used as an excuse, in otherwise healthy kids, dyslexia should simply be a call for a wiser approach to learning, and learning to read in particular.

Decoding print requires a huge load of knowledge that may be acquired (1) naturally by the exposure to print (e.g. in comic books, computer games, etc.), or (2) by using asemantic methods (as in school). In the latter case, there is an increased chance of deficits due to the possibility of establishing toxic memories that always lead to shaky mnemonic frameworks that are necessary to acquiring reading skills. Interestingly, reading deficits are more likely to be associated with reading anxiety in smarter kids, or kids from "smarter households". Being "smart" is often associated with increased expectations, and a higher pressure to perform.

In the process of learning to read, children collect bits of information on how to decode print, the correspondence between letters and sounds, the appearance of individual words, rules of syllabic pronunciation, how words fit in context, etc. Those bits of information can be deduced, generalized by example, or provided by a tutor. The database of data needed for reading is enormous (see Vellutino's hierarchy). This is why learning to read is a laborious process. In democratic schools, without tutoring, reading skills may develop as late as in teen years. However, once the basic reading skills are achieved, with hundreds of pages passed in reading, some bits of knowledge can be shed as automaticity and fluency take over. Entire words or their combinations can be translated into their semantic equivalents subconsciously in milliseconds. Dr Vellutino research shows how word identification is more important in the early stages of development of reading abilities, while world knowledge plays a larger role in comprehension at later stages. Fluent readers build a higher-level database of knowledge useful in reading (e.g. vocabulary, idioms, and general knowledge about the world). At that stage, low-level decoding skills become integrated into fast circuits of high stability. Reading becomes a skill for life.

Causes of dyslexia

There is little impact of intelligence on dyslexia, which can be seen as just a deficit in learning low-level print decoding skills. Children with Down syndrome can master reading. So do people at a very advanced age as there is no critical period for reading.

There may always be a degree of neurobiological background to dyslexia. However, at the current level of diagnosis, significant impact of biology on reading deficits seems unlikely. Cortical activation symmetries can be explained by lack of activity established by training. Analogously, postmortem symmetries may be explained by lesser cortical involvement throughout life (see: Dyslexia may result in gray matter differences).

In contrast, Prof. John Stein insists that narrowly defined dyslexia may be predominantly neurobiological (see: video), but the hint about the involvement of toxic memories comes from the association of reading deficits with other areas of asemantic learning that are affected by errors of early instruction at school. In Stein's words:

most dyslexics have problems with sequencing things, with remembering the order of the days of the week or the months of the year, problems with remembering the sequence of numbers and problems with knowing their left from their right

Dr Vellutino showed that dyslexic children are as good, and sometimes better, at memorizing the symbols of Hebrew without prior knowledge of Hebrew. This shows that inherent deficit in information processing is not the predominant root cause of dyslexia.

Similarly, we can observe that dyslexia can affect reading in one language while leaving another language intact. The example of bilingual boy with dyslexia in English only illustrates that we need to scrutinize the way children learn to read, esp. the pressures of early reading.

I have no doubts that the mechanism that leads to toxic memories can also result in reading difficulties (see: Can coercion cause dyslexia?). The scale of that phenomenon is unclear, however, all parents and teachers should be aware of the problem. For a very inspirational self-documented case see: I love books. I don’t love reading them

See also: Schools contribute to the dyslexia epidemic


Dyslexia can be overcome by learning, incl. instructional intervention. As always, direct instruction can do more harm than good if undertaken unprofessionally. One of the key factors is to ensure conducive learning conditions, and religious avoidance of duress, stress, and comparison between children in a group. If dyslexia shows up in conditions of time constraints, we know that it may lead to stress, toxic memories, and the associated worsening of the reading skills. If it shows up in conditions of contradictory input, e.g. in bilingual reading, we know it needs more time to assemble overlapping memory databases of underlying bits of information.

Examples of great minds like Richard Branson's may contribute to the positive message that dyslexia bestows an advantage (see video). All deficits in cognitive processing require workarounds that may become advantageous in some contexts, however, my message is far more optimistic. For a healthy brain, dyslexia can be overcome by slow and incremental acquisition of atomic skills. It is the sense of being left behind or the sense of the need to hurry and catch up that may do most damage. Finding comfort in dyslexic geniuses may be the first step, but this should not be an excuse for never trying to learn. Bit by bit, reading is difficult until it becomes easy and then fluent and pleasurable. For more see: Educational dyslexia

Further reading

For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru