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The Defining Feature of Dyslexia Is Reversing Letters

Humor often reveals our conceptions—and misconceptions—of the world, and few psychological conditions are the butt of as many jokes as dyslexia: "I'm an agnostic dyslexic with insomnia. I lay awake all night trying to work out if there really is a Dog." Or: "Dyslexics of the world, untie!"

Yet to people with dyslexia, these jokes aren't especially funny. Not only do they poke fun at people with a serious disability, they also reinforce inaccurate stereotypes of people with a genuine psychological condition and underscore just how distant the public's conception of dyslexia is from reality.

Most people believe that the defining feature of dyslexia is "mirror writing" or "mirror reading." Indeed, many laypersons believe that dyslexics literally see letters backward. Two types of reversals are commonly associated in the public mind with dyslexia: (1) reversing letters themselves, like writing or seeing "b" instead of "d," and (2) reversing the order of letters within words, like writing "tar" instead of "rat." Even among educators--including university faculty, special education teachers, and speech therapists—70 percent believe that reversing the order of letters is a defining feature of dyslexia.

This erroneous belief has early roots. In the 1920s, American neurologist Samuel Orton (1925) coined the term strephosymbolia (meaning "twisted symbol") to refer to the tendency to reverse letters, and hypothesized that it was the underlying cause of dyslexia. He also claimed that some children with this condition could read more easily if they held writing up to a mirror. Orton's views helped to perpetuate the longstanding belief that letter reversals are central to dyslexia. This misperception, or variants of it, is bolstered not only by jokes but also by media portrayals of dyslexia. For example, the 1994 comedy film, Naked Gun 33 1/3, shows lead character Frank Drebin (portrayed by Leslie Nielsen) reading a newspaper featuring the headline "Dyslexia for Cure Found." In the 2001 film, Pearl Harbor, Captain Rafe McCauley (portrayed by Ben Affleck) informs the nurse administering an eye exam that he can't read letters because "I just get 'em backward sometimes." Even journalists get it wrong: On a National Public Radio show on dyslexia in 2007, the host stated that the "simplest explanation, I suppose, is that you see things backwards."

So if dyslexia is not letter reversal, just what is it? Dyslexia (meaning "difficulty with words") is a learning disability marked by difficulties in processing written language. Dslexics typically experience problems with reading and spelling despite adequate classroom instruction, and they often they find it challenging to "sound out" and identify printed words. About 5 percent of American children suffer from dyslexia. Despite what many people believe, dyslexia isn't an indicator of low mental ability, because dyslexia occurs in many highly intelligent people. Indeed, the formal diagnosis of dyslexia (or more technically, "reading disorder") requires that children's overall intellectual ability be markedly superior to their reading ability.

The causes of dyslexia are controversial, although most researchers believe that dyslexics experience difficulty with processing phonemes, the smallest units of language that contain meaning. The English language, for example, contains 44 phonemes, such as the "c" in "cat" and the "o" in "four." Because dyslexics find it difficult to parse words into their constituent phonemes, they often make mistakes when identifying words. Some researchers believe that a subset of dyslexics have visual deficits in addition to deficits in phoneme processing, but this view is not universally accepted. In any case, there's no evidence that dyslexics literally "see" letters backward or in reverse order within words. Research on twins strongly suggests that dyslexia is partly influenced by genetic factors.

More important, research conducted over the past few decades demonstrates that letter reversals are hardly distinctive to dyslexia. Both backward writing and letter reversals are commonplace among children age 6 and younger, not only dyslexic children. These errors decrease over time in both groups of children, although less so among dyslexic children. In addition, most research suggests that letter reversals are only slightly more frequent, and in some studies no more frequent, among dyslexic than non-dyslexic children. Letter reversals also account for only a small minority of the errors that dyslexic children make, so they're certainly not a defining feature of the condition. Finally, although dyslexic children are worse spellers than other children of their age, teachers who've worked extensively with dyslexic children can't distinguish their spellings from those of non-dyslexic, but younger, writers. This finding supports the view that normal children make similar spelling errors to those of dyslexic children, but typically "outgrow" them.

So the next time someone asks you if you've heard the joke about the person with dyslexia who answers the phone by saying "O hell," you can politely reply that this view of dyslexia is now a few decades out of date.

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From 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein. Copyright © 2010 by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein.  This material is reproduced with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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