Ask Reading Kingdom: Why are there so many people with dyslexia in today’s world?


Karen (Parent) asks:

Why are there so many people with dyslexia in today’s world?

Dr. Marion Blank answers:

Years ago, in speaking about reading problems, it was common to speak about two groups. One, the far larger group, was referred to by a variety of names such as slow readers or poor readers.  Generally these were children from less advantaged homes who were having problems in achieving reading. The difficulties were seen as stemming mainly from the low levels of literacy in their homes and hence, a lack of opportunity to develop reading.

The other, a far smaller group, was referred to as dyslexics. These were individuals who were seen as having a brain-based language disability that interfered with the acquisition of reading. Although this group was small, it attracted far more attention. From a research point of view, they were far more interesting. Often they were very bright, articulate individuals whose low performance in reading seemed inexplicable. People wanted answers to the puzzle and considerable research was addressed to uncovering the source of the problems.

Gradually over time, the distinction has been abandoned and it is increasingly common to view almost all children with reading difficulties as being dyslexic. It is almost certainly the case that the label is being overused. Keep in mind that government studies over several decades shows that approximately 40% of children have reading problems. It is highly unlikely that this high a percentage of the population has the type of brain and cognitive issues that have been identified in dyslexic individuals.

So it is probably more appropriate to phrase the question in the following form: Why are there so many people with reading difficulties in today’s world? The answer to that question rests with a number of factors. One is the high tech world in which reading plays a relatively minor role. The typical child today spends as much as 8 hours a day (or more) with high tech devices such as iPads. By contrast, only a tiny segment of the day is spent in literacy related activities. The limited time simply does not foster the development needed for effective reading. At the same time, parents are spending less time reading to children.

Another factor is the learning style that has resulted from the focus on the high tech world. Children today expect to be entertained.  When they do not like an activity, they switch to another. Reading activity, however, requires a type of diligence that is markedly different from the edutainment that the children have become accustomed to.

Finally, the methods of teaching have not changed with the times. The dominant method is phonics instruction and this demands a level of diligence that many children simply do not possess. If one looks at the drills in the early McGuffey readers from the late 19th century, it is amazing to see how closely they resemble current phonic workbooks. Children in the 1800’s were willing to do the drills that this work entailed. So even if the system was not ideal, the steady effort that the children put forth enabled them to succeed. That is no longer the case. When all these factors are combined, the end result is the high level of reading difficulties that government figures keep telling us exist.

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