What Is Dyslexia? A Common — And Misunderstood — Learning Disability : NPR Ed It's the most common learning disability, yet it's still hard to answer the question: What is it? An NPR reporter who has dyslexia talks with other people — young and old — in search of answers.

Millions Have Dyslexia, Few Understand It

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Millions of people in America have dyslexia. It's the most common learning disability. It's also widely misunderstood. People who have dyslexia say it's hard to answer the question, what's it like? Gabrielle Emanuel of the NPR Ed team has dyslexia, and she sometimes gets that question. So she set out to find some answers.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: In kindergarten, I leave class to work in a little closet with a space heater and a reading specialist. In middle school, I went to a learning center about an hour from my home. And recently here in D.C., I returned to a reading center just like it, and I saw something familiar - students writing in the air with their finger.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All right, I'm going to give you some air-writing words - C-O-R-T.

EMANUEL: One of the tutors is working with Thomas Lester, who's a fourth grader. She asks, what are the two middle letters?



THOMAS: ...Or R-O. Or - it's or.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It is or. Good job.

EMANUEL: I have a different question for Thomas. It's that question. What is it like to have dyslexia?

THOMAS: It's hard - like, really hard. It's, like, frustrating that you can't read the simplest word in the world.

EMANUEL: He decides to demonstrate, opening his book and picking the word galloping.

THOMAS: Gulping (ph), gulping (ph) - I quit.

EMANUEL: Sometimes Thomas might want to quit, but he's bright and motivated. In fact, that's part of the definition of dyslexia. It's when an otherwise smart, normal kid has a really hard time reading even if they have a good education at home and at school. Thomas, who's 9, told me he actually likes books. He says, just give him the audio version.

THOMAS: I listen to the book on Audible, like, 10,000 times.

GEVA LESTER: His comprehension is that of a 13-year-old.

EMANUEL: That's Geva Lester, Thomas's mom.

LESTER: He can understand "Harry Potter," but he can't read it.

EMANUEL: Before coming to this reading center, Lindamood Bell, which is the organization I went to as a kid and is a financial supporter of NPR, his mom says Thomas struggled with the most basic books like "See Spot Run."

LESTER: On one page, he would figure out the word there, and the second page, he would see it, and he would have no idea what it said.

EMANUEL: Sitting there with Thomas and his mom, I remember doing that myself. And in some ways, I still do. Dyslexia is not something you grow out of. So while I have learned to work with and to work around it, I still notice its presence.

When I bring my editor Steve Drummond a draft of a story, there are oodles of spelling mistakes. We often end up talking about dyslexia, and he'll ask that same question.

STEVE DRUMMOND: What's it like?

EMANUEL: And so we decided to try an experiment.

DRUMMOND: I just downloaded onto my phone the new "Harry Potter" book, the one that just came out. It's a play. And so what if I were to give you this book, page one...


DRUMMOND: ...And ask you to tell me what you see.

EMANUEL: OK, so let's see. Act one, scene one - so OK, there are two types of words, I would say, on this. There are some words that I just see, and I know them. It's like instant recognition. But for people with dyslexia, they have to see it again and again and again. And that's what I did when I was growing up.

My parents and my teachers would create index cards - hundreds of them - and we would go through them multiple times every day. And I just memorized them because it didn't come naturally.

DRUMMOND: So act one, scene one...


DRUMMOND: You know those words.

EMANUEL: Those - I know those words. But then there are other words here that are a little bit harder. Let's see - shoulders...

OK, let me explain this. This is the second category - all the words I don't know, like galloping for Thomas. The letters aren't jumbled or backwards like people sometimes say. Thomas and I can see the letters clearly and in the right order.

What we can't do is sound them out. Steve asked me to read a bit.

OK, a busy and crowded station full of people trying to go somewhere. Almost the hustle - amongst the hustle and bustle, two large cages rattle on top of two laden trolleys.

DRUMMOND: So clearly this is a children's book. You know most of these words, and you can read this fairly fluidly.

EMANUEL: Yeah, fairly, but there are still, even at this level, going to be words that weren't on those index cards for me.

DRUMMOND: So give me an example.

EMANUEL: OK, let me find one. Can I keep scrolling?


EMANUEL: OK. Here is one. In parentheses, it has thoroughly and then a word I don't know - starts with a D, and if I can't figure it out based on context clues, then I just have to skip it or ask someone around me what it is.

DRUMMOND: So what word is it? Yeah, let me see.


DRUMMOND: Discombobulated.


DRUMMOND: Yeah. When I say it to you, though - discombobulated - you know that word.

EMANUEL: Absolutely, of course. But I don't break it down. That first three letters, dys - I don't break that into a unit. And then the next ones - I mean I can't even tell you how it's spelled right, so I don't know what the next few letters are.

JONATHAN GORHBAND: It's basically like looking at a foreign word. And then I might ask, like, well, what's this word? And then it's like, oh, of course that's what it is (laughter).

EMANUEL: That's Jonathan Gorhband. He's a videographer in Chicago, and at 31, he says dyslexia is still part of his daily life. You can see it in his writing. He told me a funny story about a former boss who approached him after getting lots of emails with spelling mistakes.

GORHBAND: Hey, I know it's the weekend, but don't email while you're drunk. And I was perfectly sober (laughter). So it's very time-consuming and kind of exhausting.

EMANUEL: Experts say he's not alone in that. For people with dyslexia, reading and writing takes a lot of energy and concentration. It's draining like taking a big test. And there's an emotional component, too. Dyslexia isn't it just exhausting and frustrating. It's embarrassing.

GORHBAND: Because if you tell people that you're dyslexic, they'll think you're dumb or something.

EMANUEL: I felt that, too. I used to keep my dyslexia something of a secret not because I thought I wasn't smart. My parents made sure I didn't feel dumb. But I was worried other people would think I wasn't smart.

Yet there can be a turning point where the embarrassment fades. For me, it came sometime between graduating college and starting my Ph.D. For Jonathan, it was when he found videography. It was a language that came easily, and others saw he was really talented.

GORHBAND: I felt so much more confident.

EMANUEL: And a lot of people have said there are benefits that come from struggling with dyslexia. They say living outside their comfort zone has made them more humble and less judgmental, more creative and less rigid. And one thing I hear again and again...

GORHBAND: It's been very clear to me that a lot of things aren't going to come easy to me.

EMANUEL: But Jonathan Gorhband says it's also taught him to try new things and try hard at them. Gabrielle Emanuel, NPR News.

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