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Why people struggle to read

Author: Sarah Forrest
Published: Nov 14 2012

So you have been diagnosed as having dyslexia, after years of struggling with no success at finding a solution.

But what is dyslexia? It is a loose term which captures a variety of reading difficulties. Dyslexia describes strong visual-spatial capacities that lead people down the wrong path in reading and spelling tasks.

What's important to remember is that reading and writing are neurological processes performed by the brain, and almost every brain is able to function correctly in order to interpret text. So if something has gone wrong with reading and writing, then the reason for that must lie in a breakdown of the neurological process. Once that cause has been discovered, finding a solution is usually easy.

There are 7 main reasons why people struggle with reading. By defining which of these you struggle with, you can then set about finding the appropriate solution.

1. Optilexia

The most common issue we see is Optilexia or an auditory deficit. Someone with Optilexia is usually a sight reader, having chosen the path of least resistance when learning to read. There could be many reasons for sight reading, such as dyslexia, a strong visual learning capability or inability to distinguish phoneme sounds. Regardless of the reason, an Optilexic reads without engaging the auditory cortex in the brain. This means the reader is unable to sound out new words because they do not have the ability to use phonics when reading. Optilexia carries specific symptoms: guessing words; reading a word on one page but not on the next page; spelling; and an inability to sound out new words.

2. Eye-Tracking Weakness

Does you find you often skip words and lines when reading? Do single words seem easier than sentences and paragraphs of text? Normally a reader's eyes perform a refined jump from word cluster to word cluster left to right, called a saccade. Some struggling readers have weakness in the neural feedback loops controlling the eye muscles that control this movement. That makes focusing accurately on a word in a sentence very hard. The right simple eye-tracking exercises usually fix this neural weakness in just days.

3. Irlen Syndrome

This is an inherited condition that affects the way the brain processes light. The brain is unable to process certain wavelengths correctly, and this causes sensitivity to high contrast and may result in visual distortions. The most common symptom of Irlen Syndrome is sensitivity to light, although some people will have Irlen Syndrome and be fine in bright light. Other symptoms include distortions on the page when reading, such as jiggly or blurry text, swirling patterns, flashing or excessive brightness. It is triggered by pages with a lot of text (i.e. chapter books), fluorescent lights or reading for extended period of time.

4. Poor Short-Term Memory

Do you struggle to read longer words? Is it hard to follow the meaning of sentence? When you learn to read you have to use the short-term memory capacity through the entire reading process. Words are broken into sounds, which then have to be held in memory to be turned into a word, which then have to be held in memory to be placed in a sentence, which then...etc! Some struggling readers have a limited short-term memory capacity (they might find recalling more than 4 numbers of a sequence difficult), which causes low comprehension and great difficulty with decoding longer words. The good news is that if you are guided through reading practice in a way that makes it easy, then the whole process will eventually drop into the automatic "procedural" zones of the brain. At that point this issue ceases to be a concern.

5. Attention Deficit

If a learner is struggling to focus mental energy on a task, learning to read becomes far harder. You may have noticed, however, that people with low attention spans can focus when they are interested in something. So the solution is to make reading more interesting! Finding fun reading material through games and jokes goes a long way.

6. Fluency Block

Some people find that they have learned to read, but their reading never becomes fluid or rapid. They have to read and decode each word, and the process causes a fluency block that makes reading very laborious. There is an area of the brain called the Letterbox Cortex that contains the mapping of letter patterns to sound combinations. Have you eevr seen a sntcenee wtih scrmbaeld txet but wree slitl able to raed it? You are using the letterbox cortex to recognize the letter patterns. People with a fluency block do not have these mappings in place, which is why they cannot just see a word and know what it says.

7. Stress Spirals

With a lot of children especially - though adults struggle as well - frustration rises when deciphering thorny English spelling. The stress in and of itself can lead to a worsening performance and more stress, in a spiral that ends in a tantrum or an unresponsive sullen silence. Those are both natural neurological responses to rising adrenaline and cortisol levels in the blood. Changing this entails making the reading experience more structured, contained and most of all... fun!

If these patterns seem familiar and you want more information, you can visit the Easyread website or talk to your local dyslexia charity.

David Morgan is CEO of Oxford Learning Solutions and founder of the Easyread System. Easyread provides support for spelling and reading problems through short daily lessons online. Find out more at

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