Dyslexia and Specific Learning Disabilities: 4 Common Myths

Students workingThis article tackles the most common myths about reading disorders. These myths are so pervasive, that there is even confusion within the school system. Armed with the facts about reading disorders can help teams provide the best help to students who are struggling.

Myth #1: Dyslexia and Specific Learning Disability in reading are two different things.

Dyslexia and Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) in reading are often mistaken for two separate conditions. They are two different names for the same underlying problem- a reading disorder. Let’s take a look at how they are diagnosed.

How is dyslexia diagnosed?

Dyslexia is diagnosed using the classification criteria set forth in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition (DSM-IV). The DSM-IV is manual published by the American Psychiatric Association to provide clinicians with a set of criteria for a variety of disorders. The DSM-IV states, “…individuals with Reading Disorder (which has also been called ‘dyslexia’),” have reading achievement measured by individually administered standardized tests that is substantially below what would be expected given the individual’s age, measured intelligence, and schooling. The DSM-IV states that a Reading Disorder is the same thing as dyslexia.

How is SLD determined?

Federal special education law (IDEA) refers to Reading Disorders as a Specific Learning Disability in reading. Prior to the reauthorization of IDEA, SLD was determined when a significant discrepancy was established between a student’s cognitive ability and academic achievement using standardized tests. According to IDEA (34 CFR § 300.307) states must now permit the use of data demonstrating a student’s response to research based interventions as part of the evaluation process. A student failing to make adequate progress when provided with appropriate learning experiences and instruction can be determined to have a Specific Learning Disability.

The qualifications for dyslexia and SLD both indicate that a student is reading substantially below what would be expected given the learning experiences provided to the child.

Myth #2: Schools do not test for dyslexia.

An evaluation for a Specific Learning Disability in reading is the same thing as an evaluation for dyslexia. School psychologists are qualified to assess cognitive ability and academic achievement (specifically the types of errors students make when reading). They are also able to evaluate a student’s exposure to quality instruction and response to research-based interventions in order to make a determination regarding eligibility. A student who has been found eligible for special education services as having a Specific Learning Disability in reading does not need to have any additional tests in order to diagnose dyslexia. The assessments are the same.

Myth #3: If a child has an outside diagnosis of dyslexia, he is automatically eligible for an IEP.

While an outside evaluation for dyslexia uses the same assessment tools as a school-based evaluation, there are two separate systems governing the medical and school fields. An evaluation for SLD within the school system must meet federal and state special education laws. These laws specify that in order for a child to be eligible for an IEP, the student must not only meet state and federal criteria for SLD, but must also be in need of specially designed instruction (special education services) as a result of the SLD. An outside evaluation for dyslexia uses criteria set forth in the DSM-IV which does not require identification of the need for specially designed instruction. Therefore, a child may be eligible under one system, but not the other. An outside evaluation of a reading disorder (dyslexia) does not automatically make a student eligible for an IEP. The school-based team must take this information into consideration, but is required under state and federal regulations to establish the impact of the diagnosis within the educational setting.

Myth #4: Children with dyslexia see letters and words in reverse order.

Contrary to popular belief, students with dyslexia do not see letters and words in reverse order. A reversal of letters/words was believed to be the cause of reading difficulties back in the 1920s when reading was considered a visual skill rather than a linguistic skill. Orton’s optical reversibility theory was widely accepted in the 1920s. This theory proposed that dyslexia was a result of students perceiving letters and words backwards. However, in the 1970s into the 1980s linguistic deficit models of dyslexia began to compete with visual deficit models.

Linguistic deficit models of dyslexia found that children with dyslexia were missing the ability to break words apart into particles of speech called phonemes. This lack of phonemic awareness and phonological decoding (linking letters with corresponding sounds) is now believed to be the cause of reading difficulties. Studies in the 1980s found that a student’s memory for visually presented letters and words (b and d, was and saw) did not differ between poor and normal readers on measures of visual recognition and recall. While letter and word reversals are not the cause of dyslexia, they can be a symptom of the disorder. Letter reversals are very common up through about age 9. After this time, students should have gained the linguistic skills to differentiate between letters. Reversals may be an indication that there is a problem with how a child’s brain is processing written language. Recent advances in brain imaging reveal disruptions in the left hemisphere of the brain for students with dyslexia during reading tasks. The left hemisphere is the area of the brain that supports language functions.

See Specific Learning Disability and Dyslexia: FAQ’s for more information and resources to help students with reading disorders.


Shaywitz, S. & Shaywitz, B. (2005). Dyslexia (Specific Reading Disability). Biological Psychiatry, 57, 1301-1309.

Velluntino, F., Fletcher, J., Snowling, M., & Scanlion, D. (2004). Specific reading disability (dyslexia): What have we learned in the past four decades? Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 45(1) 2-40.

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