Understanding Dyslexia for Improved Reading and Success

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: August 26, 2023
A cat floating in the cosmos while reading a book and listening to music

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    Did you know that one in every ten people might see the world of letters differently? Imagine trying to read a book, but the letters keep dancing or looking jumbled. For some, this is a daily challenge, not just an imagination. This is dyslexia.

    Dyslexia isn't just a word or a label. It's an experience that shapes how millions around the globe interact with language - be it reading, writing, spelling, or even understanding grammar. It's like trying to solve a puzzle where some pieces might seem out of place. But like any puzzle, there are ways to find a solution and see the whole picture clearly.

    In this post, we will dive deep into understanding what dyslexia really is, how it impacts the world of language, and offer foundational strategies to overcome its challenges.

    What is dyslexia?

    Dyslexia might look and sound like a complicated word, but let’s break it down.


    Dyslexia is a learning disorder that involves difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words. It’s a result of individual differences in areas of the brain that process language.

    In other words, even if a person is smart, they might still find it hard to read (or write) because of dyslexia. In fact, many notable people such as the businessman Steve Jobs and actress Whoopi Goldberg talk about trouble with reading due to dyslexia. This is not because they are lazy or not trying. It's because their brain works differently when it comes to reading.

    The biggest thing that people with dyslexia struggle with is “phonological processing”, which we’ll dig into more later. This means they find it hard to hear, think about, and play with the sounds in words and language, which is critical in reading and writing.


    How can we tell if someone has dyslexia? They might:

    • Confuse visually similar words like “cot” and “cat”, or words that have similar meanings but different spellings like “left” and “right”
    • Have trouble reading unfamiliar words
    • Make lots of spelling mistakes

    Dyslexia affects children and adults alike. Many people with dyslexia also have ADHD, a separate neurological condition that makes it harder to stay focused and easier to get distracted, which also makes reading more challenging.


    Doctors and other experts diagnose someone with dyslexia by first giving a series of tests that ask questions and give tasks. They’re looking at how a person reads, writes, and understands sounds. These tests help them see if someone has the common signs of dyslexia.

    Testing for dyslexia should look at:

    • Decoding: reading unfamiliar words by sounding them out
    • Spoken language skills
    • Reading fluency and reading comprehension
    • Spelling
    • Vocabulary

    Next, we’ll dig a little deeper into what actually happens when you have dyslexia. Better understanding how dyslexia works allows us to come up with some targeted strategies that can help those with dyslexia learn to read better.

    Dyslexia: disruption in the reading process

    The complexities and nuances of reading are, in many ways, under-appreciated. Most of us read words, sentences, and paragraphs without really thinking about all the different neurological processes that makes reading flow seamlessly. However, when these processes are disrupted – as in the case of dyslexia – it shows how interconnected the different processes of reading truly are.

    How Reading Works: Two Pathways

    Today, scientists generally agree upon a model for how reading works, called the dual route model of reading. In a very simplified way, this model describes the process of reading as occurring through two main pathways:

    1. Phonological Pathway: This is where our brain converts written words into their sound components.
    2. Lexical Pathway: In the lexical route, our brain recognizes words based on their appearance without sounding them out.

    Each of these pathways helps our brains connect what a word looks like, what we see when we read, to what the word means.

    You’ll notice that the two different pathways help your brain go from what a word looks like to what a word means in two different ways.

    The phonological pathway (”shape-to-sound-to-meaning”) first connects what a word looks like, specifically different parts of the word, to how it sounds. Imagine seeing the word “dog” and hearing its pronunciation in your mind: the sound of “d” followed by the sound of “og”. Then, if you know the meaning of that sequence of sounds, your brain has connected what “dog” looks like written as a word with what it means.

    The lexical pathway (”shape-to-meaning”) connects what a word looks like directly to what it means. For example, imagine seeing the word “cat”. If you’re a fluent English reader, you’ve probably read so much English by now that your brain instantly knows what the sequence of letters of “cat” means right after seeing it.

    You might be wondering why the brain needs these two different pathways to read. It might seem like the lexical pathway (”shape-to-meaning”) is more direct and “fast” than the phonological pathway (”shape-to-sound-to-meaning”). The exact reasons aren’t fully understood yet, but it seems that both pathways play an important role in being able to read fluently with good comprehension, and also in learning how to read in the first place.

    In essence, reading occurs through these two pathways, and through these two pathways, the brain learns to link three things together: what a word looks like, how it sounds, and what the word means. When reading happens smoothly, these three components fit together harmoniously. The word's shape on the page, its sound in our head, and its associated meaning all align.

    Dyslexia Disrupts the Phonological Pathway

    However, dyslexia introduces a disruption in the brain, primarily in what’s known as “phonological processing”, according to the latest research. Phonological processing is the ability for the brain to recognize and manipulate the different sounds of a language.

    Remember how the phonological pathway (shape-to-sound-to-meaning) of reading also relied on using the different sounds of a language to figure out what a word means. So, because phonological processing is disrupted in dyslexia, the phonological pathway, and thus the reading process, is also disrupted.

    For example: Let's take a brief journey back to your early reading days. You probably began by observing shapes of letters, linking them to sounds, saying the sounds aloud, connecting the sounds together into words, and then connecting those word sounds to its meaning. As a novice reader, you were in essence learning which sounds corresponded to which letters or clusters of letters (especially relevant for alphabetic languages like English), so that you could connect them together into words that you understood. This is phonological processing in action.

    For individuals with dyslexia, phonological processing, and thus the phonological reading pathway, is disrupted in the brain. As a result, reading becomes a slower and more difficult process.

    Writing, too, becomes a challenge. Think about it: you have a meaning or idea that you wish to express. You can speak it, but writing that thought down into words becomes difficult. Hampered phonological processing means that the link between language sounds and shapes (shape-to-sound-to-meaning) isn’t very efficient.

    In summary, the disruption in phonological processing due to dyslexia makes both reading and writing difficult. The brain, for whatever reason, just isn’t able to link language sounds with letter or word shapes, which is core to being able to read and write fluently.

    Proposed Science-Based Strategies to Help Overcome Dyslexia

    While dyslexia is not fully understood yet, the dyslexia research to date seems to suggest that the main trouble in dyslexia is connecting sounds to word shapes. Knowing this, we can find ways to help people with dyslexia read better. Let's explore some strategies based on this more fundamental understanding of dyslexia.

    1. Targeted Phonics Instruction

    When we learn to read, we first learn the sounds of letters and then how they come together to form words that we know. This is phonics. For people with dyslexia, this "shape-to-sound-to-meaning" connection is weakened, so it can can help to strengthen it with targeted practice.

    • Why it's helpful: English has 170,000 words. But it has much fewer sounds (phonemes): 44 to be exact. By learning these sounds/phonemes, what they look like as letters or letter combinations, and how they come together in words, you learn how to read many words, even those you’ve never seen before.
    • Quick tip: Start with small words and common sounds or phonemes. Once you're comfortable, add more complex sounds and longer words.

    2. Multi-Sensory, Meaning-First

    When we read, our main goal is to understand the meaning of the shapes we see on the page. We can strengthen this “shape-to-meaning” connection by engaging other senses when we read.

    For example, when you see a word on the page such as “cat” but have trouble reading it, you can first focus on the distinct shapes of the letters in “cat”. Then bring up a mental or actual image of cats or even a video with sounds, such as cats meowing. The vivid images and sounds will help your brain more strongly associate what the letters of “cat” look like to what the word actually means.

    • Why it's helpful: In dyslexia, the phonological pathway of reading, or “shape-to-sound-to-meaning” connection, is disrupted. Remember that reading occurs through two different pathways. So in contrast to the phonics strategy above which tries to strengthen the disrupted “shape-to-sound-to-meaning” reading pathway, the meaning-first strategy strengthens the other reading pathway, the “shape-to-meaning” or lexical pathway.
    • Quick tip: When reading something and you come across some difficult words or passages, try acting it out or drawing it. This way, you connect what the words look like directly with their meaning.

    3. Spell Reading

    Another potential strategy to overcome dyslexia is to practice “spell reading”. Here’s how to spell read:

    1. Start reading words out loud as you read them.
    2. Then when you come across an unfamiliar word, say each letter in the word out loud.
    3. If you recognize the word after spelling it, say the word and move on.
    4. If you don’t recognize the word, find out what it means, for example by having a reading partner tell you the meaning, or by typing the word into Google and looking it up.
    5. Once you understand the meaning and spelling of the word, say the word to yourself and move on.
    • Why it's helpful: Spell reading helps readers strengthen the “shape-to-meaning” pathway of reading in a more engaging way. Reading whole sentences or paragraphs, especially on topics you like, can make reading more fun and meaningful and increase your learning speed. It's also a great way to grow vocabulary.
    • Quick tip: Pick a topic that you love. Read short articles or books about it, and use spell reading. Over time, as you recognize more words through spell reading or otherwise, reading will become more smooth and enjoyable.

    In conclusion, while dyslexia can make reading a challenge, understanding the problem opens up creative strategies that we can use to tackle it. Using these strategies can make reading and writing more manageable and enjoyable for those with dyslexia.

    Understand to Overcome

    Dyslexia can sometimes feel like a tall mountain to climb. But by understanding the challenges it presents, we devise strategies to overcome those obstacles. The journey towards better reading and writing for individuals with dyslexia starts with knowledge—knowing what's happening in the brain and how different strategies can help make reading smoother.

    Remember, the more we understand about dyslexia, the more equipped we are to tackle its challenges and find ways to thrive despite them. Every person's experience with dyslexia is unique, but with the right approach, progress is not just possible; it's probable.

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