When Sean Slattery, 17, looks at a page of text, he can see the letters. He can tell you the letters' names. He can even tell you what sounds those letters make. But it often takes a while for the articulate high school student from Simi Valley, Calif., to tell you what words those letters form. "I see a wall," he says. "I see a hurdle I have to get over." Some words are easier for Sean to figure out than others. "I can get longer words, like electricity," he says. "But I have trouble with shorter words, like four or year."
Slattery has dyslexia, a reading disorder that persists despite good schooling and normal or even above-average intelligence. It's a handicap that affects up to 1 in 5 schoolchildren. Yet the exact nature of the problem has eluded doctors, teachers, parents and dyslexics themselves since it was first described more than a century ago. Indeed, it is so hard for skilled readers to imagine what it's like not to be able to effortlessly absorb the printed word that they often suspect the real problem is laziness or obstinacy or a proud parent's inability to recognize that his or her child isn't that smart after all.
The mystery--and perhaps some of the stigma--may finally be starting to lift. The more researchers learn about dyslexia, the more they realize it's a flaw not of character but of biology--specifically, the biology of the brain. No, people with dyslexia are not brain damaged. Brain scans show their cerebrums are perfectly normal, if not extraordinary. Dyslexics, in fact, seem to have a distinct advantage when it comes to thinking outside the box.
But a growing body of scientific evidence suggests there is a glitch in the neurological wiring of dyslexics that makes reading extremely difficult for them. Fortunately, the science also points to new strategies for overcoming the glitch. The most successful programs focus on strengthening the brain's aptitude for linking letters to the sounds they represent. (More later on why that matters.) Some studies suggest that the right kinds of instruction provided early enough may rewire the brain so thoroughly that the neurological glitch disappears entirely.
The new science may even be starting to change public policy. When the U.S. government launched an education initiative in 2001 called No Child Left Behind, its administrators made clear that their funding would go only to reading programs that are based on solid evidence of the sort that has been uncovered in dyslexia research. "In education, the whole idea that there is evidence that some programs are more effective than others is new," says Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a Yale neuroscientist who has written a fascinating new book, Overcoming Dyslexia (Alfred A. Knopf; April 2003), that details the latest brain-scan research--much of it done in her lab. "The good news is we really understand the steps of how you become a reader and how you become a skilled reader," she says.