Dyslexia: Literacy Issue or Disability-Based Special Education Issue

  • Why is it important to view dyslexia as a literacy issue rather than simply a disability-based special education issue?

                By definition, “Dyslexia is a specific learning disability in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge” (Lynam, slide 5). When the exact wording of this definition is considered, dyslexia is regarded as a specific learning disability. Furthermore, when continuing to examine the entire dyslexia definition, it specifically mentions difficulty with fluent word recognition, poor decoding, and poor spelling. These deficits are rooted in the phonological component of language. The definition also acknowledges another important literacy component—reading comprehension.

                Additionally, the New Jersey Special Education Code states the definition of a specific learning disability (SLD) as "Specific learning disability" corresponds to "perceptually impaired" and means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia (NJ Special Education Code, p. 74). Under the code, dyslexia is considered to be a specific learning disability. The New Jersey Code continues its definition by including: A specific learning disability can be determined when a severe discrepancy is found between the student's current achievement and intellectual ability in one or more of the following areas: (1) Basic reading skills; (2) Reading comprehension; (3) Oral expression; (4) Listening comprehension; (5) Mathematical calculation; (6) Mathematical problem solving; (7) Written expression; and (8) Reading fluency (NJ Special Education Code, p. 74). Considering these descriptions, one or more deficits in several major literacy skills meet the criteria for SLD.

                When considering dyslexia from its acknowledged definition as well as the New Jersey Special Education Code lens, it’s understandable why and how the issue is viewed as a disability-based special education issue. However, since dyslexia involves numerous core reading skills such as phonemic awareness, decoding and phonic skills, encoding, word recognition, fluency, and reading comprehension, viewing dyslexia as a literacy-issue is completely reasonable. An individual determined to have dyslexia will experience difficulty understanding or using language, spoken or written.

                Three major subtypes of dyslexia have been identified. The first subtype is dysphonetic dyslexia. The hallmark feature of this subtype is an inability to utilize a phonological route to successfully bridge letters and sounds. Instead, there tends to be an overreliance on visual and orthographic cues to identify words in print (Feifer and Toffalo, 2007, p. 86). The second major subtype is surface dyslexia. Surface dyslexia, which is sometimes referred to as visual word-form dyslexia or dyseidetic dyslexia, is the exact opposite of dysphonetic dyslexia, as these students are readily able to sound out words but lack the ability to automatically and effortlessly recognize words in print. These readers tend to be letter-by-letter and sound-by- sound readers, as there is an over-reliance on the phonological properties of the word, and an under-appreciation of the spatial properties of the visual word form (Feifer and Toffalo, 2007, p. 95). The third major subtype of dyslexia is known as mixed dyslexia, representing the most severe type of reading disability for students. These students have no usable key to unlock the functional code of literacy. Generally, these students have difficulty across the language spectrum, and are characterized by a combination of poor phonological processing skills, slower rapid and automatic word recognition skills, inconsistent language comprehension skills, and bizarre error patterns in their reading (Feifer and Toffalo, 2007, p. 103). These three major subtypes of dyslexia encompass the core reading skills of phonemic awareness, decoding and phonic skills, encoding, word recognition, fluency, and reading comprehension as mentioned earlier. Viewing dyslexia as a literacy issue is completely reasonable when considering the three major subtypes of dyslexia.

                Securing services for an individual identified as having dyslexia can be undertaken from a special education or a general education stance. School districts often utilize the IQ Achievement Discrepancy Model as a gauge for special education classification of SLD with regard to dyslexia to determine if a severe discrepancy exists between to the individual’s IQ score and their reading achievement scores. Research provides evidence that individuals determined to have dyslexia often possess average to above average intelligence. These individuals often enjoy and are successful at robust, engaging interests such as art, music, drama, history, science, and sports. In these cases, the discrepancy is usually identified, the student will be classified as SLD, an IEP is written, and special educational services begin right away. In other circumstances school districts may encounter difficulty securing a classification of SLD for some students having dyslexia when these individuals have average to slightly below average IQs. It’s possible the gap between IQ and academic achievement is unable to be met.

               New Jersey’s Special Education Code contains a provision that states “A specific learning disability may also be determined by utilizing a response to scientifically based interventions methodology as described in N.J.A.C.6A:14+3.4(h)6 (NJ Special Education Code, p. 74). Therefore, from a special education standpoint, an individual with dyslexia may be eligible for classification as SLD, resulting in the reception of appropriate services.   

                From a general education stance, many school districts implement a Response to Intervention Model (RTI) and/or the Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) to identify and provide services for students struggling in academics and literacy in particular. Using these general education initiatives of RTI and/or MTSS, all students receive high-quality instruction using researched, evidenced-based instruction in their classrooms (Tier 1). Progress is monitored, and students who struggle begin Tier 2 services. These students are placed in a small group who meet more frequently for more intensive intervention. If at the end of a four to six week time frame a student is still struggling, then that student is placed in a smaller group of two to three children or one to one for intense, more specialized intervention services. At this level of intervention (Tier 3), high quality instruction using researched, evidenced-based instruction is delivered by a specially trained individual. Frequent progress monitoring is practiced, and data-based decisions steer instruction. Although the tiered system approach provides scaffolded supports, progress monitoring, data-based decision making, and low student-to-teacher ratios, the process takes time. If a student is still experiencing considerable difficulty, he/she may be referred to the Intervention & Referral Service team (I & RS), progress monitored in a similar way ending in a referral to the Child Study Team (CST) for a thorough examination that may lead to eligibility and special education classification and services. Notably, school districts assign the number of standard deviation points they require for determination of eligibility and classification, the length of time during tiers, the time of entry into the I & RS process, and the time of entry into the referral process. Fortunately, struggling students receive intervention services due to RTI and or MTSS during this lengthy process. Additionally, and of great importance, parents may petition the CST at any time for them to conduct their testing to expedite the process.

                A classification of SLD is needed to secure services for students diagnosed with dyslexia. Viewing dyslexia as a disability-based special education issue is the established and accepted practice in most school districts. This is how the system operates. However, if dyslexia is viewed as a literacy issue, would it be necessary to classify and label a student as “special ed”? Why can’t a student with a severe reading problem simply be a student with a severe reading problem? Many years ago a student having these difficulties went to the school reading specialist for additional instruction. These students were not classified. They simply received instructional services. Without a doubt, dyslexia is a literacy issue. When all the skills and subskills of reading are considered, dyslexia encompasses them. It’s difficult for reading to occur because of the difficulties learning and using them. In closing, even if dyslexia is viewed as a literacy issue, it’s still necessary at the present time to view it as a disability-based special education issue in order to receive remediation services.    


    Feifer, S., & Della Toffalo, D. (2007). Integrating RTI with Cognitive Neuropsychology: A Scientific Approach to Reading. School Neuropsych Press, LLC.

    Lynam, D. (2017). Understanding dyslexia [PowerPoint Slides]. Retrieved from AIM Institute Understanding Dyslexia course.

    N.J. Department of Education (2017) Special Education Code. Retrieved from www.state.nj.us/education/code/current/title6a/chap14.pdf (6A:14-3.5).