Letters are the most ubiquitous symbols around us. When we learn to read, we train our brains to transform these symbols into sounds and meanings. However, doctors estimate that at least 10% of the population has dyslexia. The term “dyslexia” was invented in 1887 by the German ophthalmologist Rudolf Berlin. It comes from the Greek roots dys meaning difficult and lexia meaning reading. (It is likely that the symptoms were not identified until then because before that era, the general population did not read. Rather, only the educated few could read. As more and more people became literate, the brain abnormality underlying dyslexia was discovered.)
People with dyslexia do not recognize and process certain symbols, like letters, but it has nothing to do with understanding complex ideas. As Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a director of the Center for Dyslexia and Creativity at Yale University, put it, students with dyslexia struggle with word retrieval, not with knowledge retention.
Many famous writers – from F. Scott Fitzgerald to W. B. Yeats – had dyslexia. Today, celebrities, including Tom Cruise and Kiera Knightly, have also been open about the challenges they faced learning to read. Recently in the New York Times, poet and dyslexic Phillip Schultz discussed his early troubles with words. He did not learn to read until he was 11, but his difficulty gave him the gift of appreciation. He says, “I didn’t know that I was to become a poet, that in many ways the very thing that caused me so much confusion and frustration, my belabored relationship with words, had created in me a deep appreciation of language and its music.”
Have you ever struggled to read or comprehend words?