Dyslexia: Brain Differences and Cognitive Skill Weaknesses

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By Christina Sevilla; Center Director and Owner of LearningRx- Denver and Centennial
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Dyslexia is the most common learning disability of children in this country. Surprised? If so, it may be because the old stereotype of a dyslexic is still pervasive – a struggling child, usually a boy, who can’t read because he mixes up similar letters like d’s and b’s.

One of the biggest problems with that stereotype is that many dyslexic students go unidentified and untreated. Reading problems can quickly turn into learning struggles, behavior concerns, and confidence issues.

The exact causes of dyslexia remain unknown, but studies show differences in the way the brain of a dyslexic person develops and functions. People with dyslexia are more likely to have a family member with reading problems and an average or above average IQ. And all people with reading struggles generally have a weakness in one or more cognitive skills. Cognitive skills are the underlying mental tools we all use to reason think, read, remember, learn and pay attention.

In the largest study of its kind, the National Institutes of Health determined that 88 percent of all learning-to-read problems were caused by a weakness in one specific cognitive skill: phonemic awareness, which is the ability hear, blend, unglue and manipulate sounds in a word.

Cognitive skills testing generally confirms that most people with dyslexia also have weaknesses in working memory, executive function, and attention. So, it’s not surprising that common symptoms of dyslexia are also signs of weak cognitive skills, including but not limited to:

  • Inability to sound out new or unfamiliar words
  • Difficulty understanding isolated words when not in context
  • Poor at distinguishing similarities and difference in words (no, on)
  • Weak at letter sound discrimination (pin, pen)
  • Poor comprehension
  • Little enjoyment of leisure reading
  • Poor spelling
  • Early problems with rhyming
  • Floundering while trying to retrieve words and relying instead on “stuff” or “things”
  • Guessing while reading or substituting similar words like food for fork or puppy for dog
  • Avoiding reading aloud
  • Difficulty summarizing or retelling a story
  • Troubles discerning left and right
  • Poor grasp of if/then analogies

 As with most learning disabilities, the earlier the problem is detected, the better the prognosis. A National Institutes of Health study states that 90 to 95 percent of poor readers can be brought up to grade level if they receive effective help early.

But even without early intervention, dyslexia doesn’t have to be a permanent diagnosis. Studies continue to show the brain can change and improve at any age. A Carnegie Mellon University brain imaging study found that the brains of dyslexic students and other poor readers were permanently rewired to overcome reading deficits after 100 hours of intensive remedial instruction.

LearningRx brain training is also proven to eliminate the symptoms of dyslexia by strengthening weak cognitive skills – including the key skill of phonemic awareness. A recent study of LearningRx results shows students who underwent six months of reading-focused brain training gained an average of 2.9 years in reading ability – even those students who had previously been diagnosed with dyslexia. When cognitive skills are strengthened, reading and learning becomes faster, easier and more enjoyable.

While today there is no stereotypical dyslexic – just people with varying struggles with words and reading. If someone in your family has symptoms of dyslexia, talk to your school about evaluation and testing and schedule a cognitive skills assessment to determine if a cognitive weakness is to blame. As with other learning disabilities, eradicating the symptoms starts with determining the cause.