The Paradox of Dyslexia: Slow Reading, Fast Thinking

Molly Patterson April 3, 2011 7

Dr. Sally Shaywitz is the Audrey G. Ratner Professor in Learning Development, and Dr. Bennett Shaywitz is the Charles and Helen Schwab Professor in Dyslexia and Learning Development and Chief of Child Neurology at Yale University. Together they head The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, which studies the correlation between reading and IQ in dyslexic and typical students, shedding new light on what has been termed “the hidden disability.”

Dyslexic students are often frustrated or confused as to why certain assignments – reading, for example – take them longer to complete than their peers. “Someone once said to me, ‘I wonder what it feels like when a child first realizes that he or she can’t do what those around him or her are doing.’ And that was really quite devastating,” says Sally Shaywitz.

She and her husband Bennett set out to help these students by examining the science of dyslexia. Most recently, the Shaywitzes at the Yale Center for Creativity & Dyslexia have established a connection between IQ and reading in dyslexic students versus typical students.

Connecting IQ, Cognition, and Behavior
The Shaywitzes conducted epidemiologic longitudinal research on a large sample population of Connecticut students. Twenty-four elementary schools were chosen from the state of Connecticut – two were randomly selected from twelve separate towns across the state – and students were tested upon entry into kindergarten. The same students were tracked over more than twenty years, each taking a reading test annually and an IQ test biannually until adolescence. The tests were individually administered, constituting a statistical “gold standard,” according to Sally Shaywitz. Including these tests, researchers examined the cognition and behavior of dyslexic versus typical students and then recorded and compared the brain images of dyslexic and typical students.

The results show that in typical readers, IQ and reading track together and are dynamically linked over time. Sally Shaywitz calls the two components “kissing cousins” because they are “intertwined,” a conclusion that she notes has been widely accepted by the public. In contrast, the Shaywitzes found that in dyslexic readers, IQ and reading diverge. Thus, a highly intelligent dyslexic student can have a low reading score. This paradox is illustrated in Figure 1, where the left panel shows the dynamic link between reading and IQ development in typical readers, and the right panel shows the disconnection between reading and IQ in dyslexic readers.

Figure 1: The dynamic (left) and dissociated (right) links between IQ and reading in typical and dyslexic students. Graphic courtesy of Drs. Shaywitz, The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to record images of dyslexic and typical children and adoslecents. Figure 2 illustrates these images: The left figure is a composite fMRI of 74 typical readers contrasted with 70 dyslexic readers. The yellow regions are parts of the brain that are more active in typical readers com-pared to dyslexic readers. The right figure is a schematic view. Both images show three systems for reading: an anterior system in the region of the inferior frontal gyrus (Broca’s area), which is believed to serve articulation and word analysis, and two posterior systems, one in the parietotemporal region, which is believed to serve word analysis, and a second in the occipitotemporal region (the word-form area), which is believed to enable the rapid, automatic, fluent identification of words. These systems are used for fast, fluent automatic reading, but the scans show that dyslexic individuals are neurobiologically wired to read slowly.

Figure 2: An illustration of three neural systems for reading on the surface of the left hemisphere. Graphic courtesy of Drs. Shaywitz, The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity.

Functional brain imaging has made the once-hidden disability of dyslexia a visible one, increasing awareness and understanding of dyslexia in education and policy-making. As one of many resulting policies in education, dyslexic students are often allotted additional testing time. This allows them to demonstrate what they know and not be penalized for slow reading that is biologically determined and therefore beyond their control. These compelling findings of a neural signature for dyslexia are, according to Bennett Shaywitz, “replicable around the world.”

Dyslexia Around the World
Dyslexia, a fundamental difficulty in separating the sounds of a spoken language, is common to every alphabetic and logographic language. In languages with increased transparency between sounds and letters, including Italian or Finnish, dyslexic children may initially appear to read accurately, with difficulties often not emerging until adolescence or young adulthood. Bennett Shaywitz cites a study by Eraldo Paulesu, who aimed to compare dyslexia in Italian, English, and French college students. He had to recruit Italian college students in schools of engineering because so few Italians had been diagnosed with dyslexia. Indeed, dyslexics not only succeed in engineering but in a range of fields including medicine and law. Ultimately, although they are slower readers, dyslexic students have strengths in higher order thinking and reasoning skills. In fact, as Bennett Shaywitz points out, the 2009 Nobel Laureate in medicine, molecular biologist Dr. Carol Greider, is dyslexic.

The scientific and educational communities have reacted positively to the results of the IQ and reading study, says Sally Shaywitz. The results are particularly compelling because they confirm the relationship between IQ and reading, elucidate the experiences of the dyslexic, and corroborate the clinical findings of other researchers.

As a secondary result of the study, the data identified certain basics of dyslexia that were initially unknown or misunderstood. “From an epidemiologic perspective, we’ve been able to determine from the random sample of Connecticut school children that dyslexia affects one in five individuals,” says Sally Shaywitz. “We’ve also found that there is no significant difference between the number of girls and boys identified [as having dyslexia].”

A neural signature for dyslexia. Image courtesy of Drs. Bennett and Sally Shaywitz.

Identifying Dyslexia in School Systems
School systems often have trouble identifying dyslexic students because testing students for dyslexia is not a standard procedure, and dyslexic individuals often exhibit only subtle symptoms. It is often difficult for teachers to recognize that the same child who is extremely bright can also be the one who is struggling to retrieve spoken words or to read fluently.

To better help students with dyslexia, Sally Shaywitz suggests teachers instruct dyslexic students in smaller groups of a size no bigger than five students. Instruction needs to be delivered in this manner consistently – 60 to 90 minutes a day, 4 to 5 days a week – by educators trained in teaching dyslexic students. This is a tall order and “a very slow, laborious process,” Sally Shaywitz concedes, but rewarding in the end. Sally Shaywitz says that accuracy can be taught; however, closing the gap in reading fluency continues to remain an elusive goal.

Looking Ahead: Standardized Testing
The Shaywitzes are focuing new research on how the disparity between IQ and reading in dyslexics affects their performance on high-stakes exams such as the SAT, MCAT, and other standardized tests. Dyslexic students require the accommodation of extra time, which is supported both by scientific evidence and the law; but testing agencies often withhold this accommodation “to the detriment of the student and society,” says Sally Shaywitz. The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity has focused its efforts on determining the “predictive validity” of these tests. Such results may be uneven between dyslexic and typical students, given the heavy emphasis of reading fluency on standardized exams. The data on this new research is not yet available, but will certainly be anticipated by students, educators, and testing companies alike.

About the Author
MOLLY PATTERSON is a sophomore Chemical Engineering major in Trumbull College.

The author would like to thank Drs. Sally and Bennett Shaywitz for their time and for their dedication to research.

Further Reading
Ferrer, E., Shaywitz, B.A., Holahan, J.M., Marchione, K., and Shaywitz, S.E. Uncoupling of Reading and IQ Over Time: Empirical Evidence for a Definition of Dyslexia. Psychological Science, 21(1) 93–101, 2010.
Shaywitz, S. Overcoming dyslexia: A new and complete science-based program for reading problems at any level. 2003. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Bennett A. Shaywitz, Pawel Skudlarski, John M. Holahan, Karen E. Marchione, R. Todd Constable, Robert K. Fulbright, Daniel Zelterman, Cheryl Lacadie and Sally E. Shaywitz, “Age-Related Changes in Reading Systems of Dyslexic Children,” Annals of Neurology, Volume 61, Number 4, (2007): 363 – 370.
Sally E. Shaywitz, Maria Mody and Bennett A. Shaywitz, “Neural Mechanisms in Dyslexia,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, Volume 15, Number 6, (2006): 278-281.


  1. Leigh McCann April 18, 2012 at 12:17 PM -

    Please add twitter and linkedIn to your social media feeds so this article can more easily be pushed to employers who are testing, university groups, etc. Adult Dyslexics are being rampantly discriminated against at an alarming rate in the job search current filterings. Especially the ones who slipped through the system early on due to being high performance and weren’t properly diagnosed. It is so important to protect my children, my peers, and the future of incredible minds which must not be wasted. There is still such rampant ignorance out there.

  2. Bill Taylor June 28, 2012 at 7:34 PM -

    You are exactly right Leigh. I am in the process of building a website for this exact reason.. I am an adult dyslexic. I will be posting my story in there as well others who may wish to post. I love what you have said here and hope that I can honor you in the fight you have chosen to fight. Thank you for posting

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  4. Susan September 17, 2013 at 9:18 AM -

    2 of my children were unable to read and write fast enough to finish the tests to qualify for advanced math in junior high. With the help of those who recognized they needed extra time and qualified them for the extra time they needed, they were able to demonstrate their knowledge rather than their reading limitations in testing. Even with extra time, they could not finish their exams, but could at least demonstrate about 90% of what they knew. My son struggled in high school even though he got 5/5 in AP physics and calculus exams when he was only 14 and helped his small high school be 2nd in the nation in the national academic decathlon and left high school as a junior for college. My son graduated from college with honors in a triple major in math, economics and statistics and my daughter summa cum laude in chemistry with multiple publications and is now in med school studying to become a heart transplant surgeon. Without the help they needed, neither would have been able to even go to college. These children need advocates and with your help, other children can demonstrate what they know despite slow reading and writing.

  5. sam chapple March 15, 2014 at 11:24 AM -

    It is wonderful to finally realise why my extremely intelligent 6 year old daughter hates reading. I have read about Optilexia and recognise this as her problem. She currently reads above her expected level, but she hates it, it is a chore for her despite her lifelong love of books and stories and her thirst for knowledge.
    Uk schools teach the phonic method of learning to read, not the guided phonic method and this has caused the problem. what I don’t know is how to fix it for her. I have always loved books and reading and it upsets me greatly that my clever, beautiful daughter doesn’t.
    Her problems with spelling and writing have led her school to no longer recognise her abilities. She was recognised as ‘gifted’ but they have no knowledge or understanding of dual exceptionality.
    Rant over, keep up the good work, maybe one day children such as my daughter will be catered for in uk schools.

  6. Patricia Bond November 10, 2014 at 6:06 AM -

    I am a dyslexia specialist tutor and I have met several students who tell me that their brain is going too fast when they try to read. If they are reading aloud to me they stumble over the words and they are the words 3 or 4 in front of where their finger is pointing. I know about forward reading which the brain does automatically for neoronormal readers but perhaps in dyslexic readers the speed is wrong and is too fast?