Common misconceptions about dyslexia

Misconceptions about dyslexia: a young teenager smiles behind a yellow book while smiling.

At the age of eight, Madeleine Morley received a diagnosis of dyslexia. Throughout her upbringing, she adeptly adapted to living with the condition, simultaneously conquering common misconceptions about dyslexia. In her reflections, she highlights how she triumphed over misleading ideas about dyslexia that once undermined her own experiences.

Common misconceptions about dyslexia

Dyslexia: myths and misconceptions surrounding dyslexia run deep

Before I could read, the allure of books as gateways to wondrous journeys fascinated me. However, when I finally sat down with a book as I grew older, a crucial element seemed to elude me. Reading out loud with my parents turned the pages into dense, insurmountable barriers. The amalgamation of letters refused to form coherent units, and weaving words together failed to weave magic into the world around me. Instead, it felt like trudging through thick, wet concrete.

At the age of eight, a schoolteacher brought up the possibility of dyslexia, which a subsequent test confirmed. Thus began the painstaking journey of working with a tutor after school, unraveling words phoneme by phoneme.

Occasionally, I questioned my intelligence or even wondered if there might be an issue with my eyes. At other times, I entertained the idea that 'dyslexia' was just an elaborate hoax; that dyslexia was just a myth.

Yet, looking back, it's not surprising that these thoughts crossed my mind. Myths surrounding dyslexia run deep, and such misconceptions about dyslexia have significantly influenced the early experiences of those with this learning disability. However, none of those notions turned out to be true.

Dyslexia as an excuse for low intelligence

In 1896, 14-year-old Percy F was taken by his father to see Dr William Pringle Morgan, a doctor working in Seaford, Sussex. Percy was “bright and intelligent” but seemed incapable of learning to read. And instead of writing his name, he’d write “Precy”, and “scojock” would appear in place of the word ‘subject’.


“Percy … has always been a bright and intelligent boy, quick at games, and in no way inferior to others of his age. His great difficulty has been – and is now – his inability to learn to read. This inability is so remarkable, and so pronounced, that I have no doubt it is due to some congenital defect.” wrote Morgan, in what is probably the first record of a dyslexia diagnosis in the UK.

“I couldn’t make sense of the units of conjoined letters, and knitting words together didn’t transform the world around me. Instead, it felt like wading through wet concrete.”

The concern of parents like Percy’s father reflected the growing importance of literacy in the late 19th century; indeed, the first appearances of dyslexia as a diagnosis in Britain correspond with the advent of compulsory schooling. With these first dyslexia patients, the disability became strongly associated with the anxieties of parents, who worried over their children’s futures. And the role of parents prompted the notion that the diagnosis simply concealed a lack of intelligence.

By the mid-20th century, educational psychologists confirmed, with the aid of specialised education, that the learning difficulty was altogether distinct from intelligence. Yet writing in The Spectator less than a decade ago, journalist Rod Liddle still derided the disability as a mere “crutch” with which parents “support themselves when they discover their children are actually dense”. Such ignorance can be pervasive.

In middle school, as I delved into poetry, I would meticulously go over each intricate line. However, a lingering thought at the back of my mind suggested that dyslexia might simply be a more polite term for being "dense." Despite this initial feeling, I soon came to realize that, with the unwavering support of my patient parents and consistent daily exercises, the world of books was gradually unfolding before me. Dyslexia was not a barrier, but rather an opportunity to grow and thrive.

Dyslexia as a pretext for middle-class parents

In high school, I couldn't help but entertain thoughts that dyslexia is a myth after all. My dad's occasional jests about it being a "middle-class illusion" influenced me, as he had grown up in a working-class environment where information about invisible disabilities, such as learning difficulties and mental illness, was scarce.

For a long time, dyslexia, like ADHD, had been labeled a "middle-class myth," with some believing it served as an excuse for poor grades or a means to gain advantages in exams, such as extra time and the use of computers. However, as Dr Philip Kirby points out, the early history of dyslexia reveals that certain parents' concerns were taken seriously.

Before dyslexia gained official recognition, only children with financially privileged parents had access to the support they needed. Thanks to tireless campaigning efforts, it wasn't until the 1970s that the UK began to open the doors to widespread state support and funding for dyslexia.

Nevertheless, some have used the historical association of dyslexia with the middle class to cast doubt on its existence. This persistent misconception about dyslexia makes it more challenging for students from all backgrounds to receive the attention they deserve.

Despite these past misconceptions about dyslexia, it's essential to recognize that dyslexia is a valid learning difference, and progress is being made to ensure that students of all backgrounds receive the support and understanding they need to succeed.

"The early history of dyslexia shows that the worries of certain parents were deemed serious enough to be considered”

Dr. Philip Kirby

Defining dyslexia as a visual disability

During exams, I'd find myself passionately pouring out paragraph after paragraph as I answered the questions. I left the room feeling elated, convinced that I had aced it this time. However, the next day, my teacher would kindly call me over, praising my writing but pointing out that I hadn't actually answered the question at all.

I'd read the exam prompt multiple times and couldn't help but wonder if it had changed from the day before. Was there something wrong with my eyes?

At the turn of the 20th century, dyslexia's early observations primarily came from ophthalmologists who coined the term "word blindness" to describe the disability. Although subsequent testing revealed that dyslexia symptoms weren't related to eyesight, the term "word blindness" persisted.

Word Blindness

What is word blindness?

Word blindness, an outdated term, refers to a person's inability to recognize and comprehend words they see. It was the initial term used by doctors in the late 19th century to describe what we now know as dyslexia.

Even today, dyslexia is often associated with visual distortions. A child with dyslexia might receive spelling instruction for "d-o-g" repeatedly, yet struggle to recognize the word the next day.

From an outsider's perspective, these symptoms may appear visual, but the reality is that the child isn't struggling due to an inability to see the individual letters. Instead, the difficulties stem from challenges in linking letters to units of sound—a neurological processing issue.

Understanding the true nature of dyslexia can lead to more effective support and interventions that address the root neurological causes and empower students to overcome obstacles and achieve their full potential.

"Misconceptions about dyslexia breed ignorance, hindering the potential of everyone with the condition."

The false hope of dyslexia-friendly fonts

At some point during my schooling, when exam prompts seemed to shift before my eyes, a thoughtful teacher provided me with a set of transparent color overlays and suggested using specialized fonts on the computer. The purpose was to prevent letters from swimming and turning, as children with dyslexia often confuse similarly shaped letterforms, such as 'b' and 'd'.

Though I appreciated the gesture, I felt too embarrassed to admit that I never experienced letters spinning, and these colored sheets didn't offer the expected help. I worried that revealing this might lead others to doubt my dyslexia diagnosis or worse, consider me a lost cause.

While such aids can sometimes cause frustration and disappointment, exploring effective solutions tailored to individual needs is essential.

Over the years, colored lenses and overlays have been used to alleviate visual difficulties in reading, and more recently, "dyslexia-friendly fonts" have emerged, aiming to enhance letterform visibility and memorization. However, some peer-reviewed research indicates that these fonts do not have any significant effect, and the full potential of overlays remains unexplored. As psychologist and dyslexia expert Margaret J Snowling has noted, they are unlikely to improve spelling skills.

When disabilities are invisible, they can be challenging to define, and doubts may arise. These misconceptions about dyslexia took root over time, distorting my understanding of my diagnosis. However, it was never about my eyes or intellect, and certainly not a cover-up. With the right support, my reading improved, and I went on to study English at university. Just like other invisible disabilities, dyslexia can be difficult to understand, but with the proper assistance and understanding, individuals can thrive and achieve their goals.

Common misconceptions about dyslexia” is adapted from “Dyslexia and its misconceptions”, published by the Wellcome Collection. It is republished here under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence

Article by
Madeleine Morley

Madeleine Morley, the author of "Common misconceptions about dyslexia," s a writer based in Berlin and originally from London. Most of her work focuses on art, design, tech and culture, and her words have appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, Dazed & Confused magazine, Fast Company, and many more.