Almost everyone who has heard the term dyslexia knows that it is used to describe a person who is struggling to learn how to read. But many people are still confused about the core deficiency that defines dyslexia. Although the research community is clear about the underlying cause, if you ask someone off the street why a person with dyslexia struggles to read, the answer will likely be, “because they see and write letters backwards.”

This is not the case.

When people first began learning about dyslexia, they know little about the inner workings of the brain. According to the knowledge available at the time, dyslexia appeared to be strongly related to the visual system. This theory remained for many years, but recent brain research has helped us move beyond that idea.

Converging evidence now points to the auditory circuitry of the brain. More specifically, this deficiency is a lack of phonemic awareness, which is the ability to hear a spoken word and break it apart into the individual phonemes, or sounds. Usually the individual can see the letters just fine. The problem is that the brain can not process and separate the individual sounds that make up the word.

In 1994, researchers and education professionals published a consensus paper detailing the components of a working definition for dyslexia. This definition was updated in 2003 and it may well be narrowed and tightened again in the future as brain science moves forward.

The definition also explains that dyslexia has nothing to do with intelligence; in fact, many people with dyslexia are extremely bright. This can result in even more problems because young people with dyslexia can sometimes learn to compensate in other ways and seem to be able to read. They may memorize words or guess the words by understanding the context of what they are reading. But as these children with dyslexia get older, although they may have learned to recognize many words, they are not fluent, and actual reading is labored and slow. Consequently they do not like to read, which then creates a chain of events that affects learning in many ways, including such areas as writing, vocabulary and basic background knowledge.

If you are concerned about your child or a student who is not reading as well as her same age peers, do not wait. Evaluations backed by current research can be performed to help pinpoint while a struggling reader may have the under difficulty that defines dyslexia. And if dyslexic traps are found, the good news is that the trajectory is changeable and improvable. The brain can be rewired to recognize and process the sounds in words more effectively.