Taking a closer look at the theory behind dyslexia.

umbrellaDyslexia, a wide umbrella term used to describe a range of difficulties a person may have with reading and phonological awareness. Dyslexia is a  highly controversial term because research has been carried out for different purposes and this has resulted in different findings. A major consequence of this, is that there isn’t a clear conception of dyslexia, making it still quite an unclear term for many. Uncertainty as to how to help someone with dyslexia and what being dyslexic entails are issues that arise within the educational system.

Firstly, it is important to distinguish between what causes dyslexia and what the description of dyslexia is. Descriptions don’t necessarily trace back to the same cause and vice-versa. A great analogy, I read during my Masters course in SEN, was that of an “allergy” – the same allergy can lead to different symptoms depending on the individual. I’m by no means saying that dyslexia is an allergy, I am clearly stating that it is vital to determine the true cause of it, so to administer the appropriate intervention. Someone with dyslexia, needs the appropriate intervention based on the cause of their dyslexia and not only by their symptoms.

Research shows that there are three levels of theory of dyslexia. These are: 

Behavioural – which can be seen as ‘symptoms’ poor reading, spelling, rhyming etc

Cognitive – which can be seen in slow infornation processing; phonological awareness; deficits in short/working memory etc

Biological – how the brain functions, cerebellum, abnormlities in language areas of the brain etc

These levels of theory could be the underlying cause of confusion when it comes to understanding dyslexia. Fawcett notes that one of the reasons of tensions in dyslexia is the different agendas of the individuals or interest groups researching. Practitioners are concerned with the treatment, educational psychologists focus on the symptoms and researchers are concerned with uncovering the cause. Nicolson (2001) mentions other reasons such as marketing issues and increasing ranges of ‘treatments’ for dyslexia. ‘Research’ may confuse and mislead practitioners if there has been claim for the success of a particular so called ‘treatment’.

Firth believes that a causal modelling framework involving all three levels can solve problems and confusion. The integration of all three is essential to support improved student learning.

Dyslexia can be defined as a neuro-developmental disorder with a biological origin and behavioural signs beyond written level. 

Interactions with cultural influences occur at all three levels. When we consider these influences on the clinical demonstration of dyslexia, the difficulties encountered by the individual and possibilities for remediation, only  then can a precise definition of dyslexia be formed.

You will find many definitions of dyslexia by doing a simple search on the internet. Here I share with you just a couple.


In October 2007, the British Dyslexia Association approved the following definition:

“Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty that mainly affects the development of literacy and language related skills.  It is likely to be present at birth and to be life-long in its effects.  It is characterised by difficulties with phonological processing, rapid naming, working memory, processing speed, and the automatic development of skills that may not match up to an individual’s other cognitive abilities. It tends to be resistant to conventional teaching methods, but its effect can be mitigated by appropriately specific intervention, including the application of information technology and supportive counseling.

Often there is a negative feeling about having dyslexia because we concentrate on the disadvantages and difficulties it causes. The situation can be turned around to harvest the positive aspects of having dyslexia.

This post hopes to bring more awareness on the theories behind dyslexia. Only by keeping positive and focusing our attention on somebody’s uniqueness can we help them to fully develop into the person they really are.

Till next time…

Peppi Orfanogianni


Nicolson, R. I., Fawcett, A. J., & Dean, P. (2001). Developmental dyslexia: the cerebellar deficit hypothesis. Trends in Neurosciences

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