Dyslexia study: Why some very smart people can’t read

Among the interesting mail awaiting me was this release from the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity on a new study that will be published in the January 1st issue of Psychological Science, titled “Uncoupling of Reading and IQ Over Time: Empirical Evidence for a Definition of Dyslexia.”

I found this interesting because I have met highly intelligent people can’t read well. This study helps explain why that might be:

New Haven, Conn. — Contrary to popular belief, some very smart, accomplished people cannot read well. This unexpected difficulty in reading in relation to intelligence, education and professional status is called dyslexia, and researchers at Yale School of Medicine and University of California Davis, have presented new data that explain how otherwise bright and intelligent people struggle to read.

The study, which will be published in the January 1, 2010 issue of the journal Psychological Science, provides a validated definition of dyslexia. “For the first time, we’ve found empirical evidence that shows the relationship between IQ and reading over time differs for typical compared to dyslexic readers,” said Sally E. Shaywitz, M.D., the Audrey G. Ratner Professor in Learning Development at Yale School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, and co-director of the newly formed Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity.

Using data from the Connecticut Longitudinal Study, an ongoing 12-year study of cognitive and behavioral development in a representative sample of 445 Connecticut schoolchildren, Shaywitz and her team tested each child in reading every year and tested for IQ every other year. They were looking for evidence to show how the dissociation between cognitive ability and reading ability might develop in children.

The researchers found that in typical readers, IQ and reading not only track together, but also influence each other over time. But in children with dyslexia, IQ and reading are not linked over time and do not influence one another. This explains why a dyslexic can be both bright and not read well.

“I’ve seen so many children who are struggling to read but have a high IQ,” said Shaywitz. “Our findings of an uncoupling between IQ and reading, and the influence of this uncoupling on the developmental trajectory of reading, provide evidence to support the concept that dyslexia is an unexpected difficulty with reading in children who otherwise have the intelligence to learn to read.”

Typical readers learn how to associate letters with a specific sound. “All they have to do is look at the letters and it’s automatic,” Shaywitz explained. “It’s like breathing; you don’t have to tell your lungs to take in air. In dyslexia, this process remains manual.” Each time a dyslexic sees a word, it’s as if they’ve never seen it before. People with dyslexia have to read slowly, re-read, and sometimes use a marker so they don’t lose their place.

“A key characteristic of dyslexia is that the unexpected difficulty refers to a disparity within the person rather than, for example, a relative weakness compared to the general population,” said co-author Bennett A. Shaywitz, M.D., the Charles and Helen Schwab Professor in Dyslexia and Learning Development and co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity.

Sally Shaywitz estimates that one in five people are dyslexic and points to many accomplished writers, physicians and attorneys with dyslexia who struggle with the condition in their daily lives, including Carol Greider, the 2009 Nobel laureate in medicine. She hopes to dispel many of the myths surrounding the condition.

“High-performing dyslexics are very intelligent, often out-of-the box thinkers and problem-solvers,” she said. “The neural signature for dyslexia is seen in children and adults. You don’t outgrow dyslexia. Once you’re diagnosed, it is with you for life.”

Shaywitz also stresses that the problem is with both basic spoken and written language. People with dyslexia take a long time to retrieve words, so they might not speak or read as fluidly as others. In students, the time pressure around standardized tests like the SATs and entrance exams for professional schools increases anxiety and can make dyslexia worse, so the need for accommodations is key in helping those with the disorder realize their potential, she says.

Other authors on the study include Emilio Ferrer at the University of California Davis and John M. Holahan and Karen Marchione at Yale School of Medicine.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

12 comments Add your comment


December 28th, 2009
7:39 am

In college, years ago, I noticed that an inordinate number of my professors were left-handed. I thought that was interesting, too.


December 28th, 2009
7:52 am

A famous Yale University Drama School graduate, Henry Winkler, has Dyslexia – he didn’t discover this fact until his own child was diagnosed with the same condition.

I recently posted that story on my Crazy Classroom teacher blog:

Did you know The Fonz co-authored 9 children’s books about Dyslexia?

For what it's worth...

December 28th, 2009
11:13 am

Wish I could remember the researcher, but I can’t – during a class I had a couple years ago, the instructor mentioned a researcher of dyslexia who found it’s virtually non-existent in other languages, especially pictorial languages (like Chinese) and languages where the phonetics better match spelling. There was some study about early reading teaching methods, too – wish I could remember, but if you’re interested you can always try google!


December 28th, 2009
12:41 pm

Tihs artielc is veyr interesgnit!!!


December 28th, 2009
1:39 pm

I wonder if the research results would be the same for dyscalculia, which is a math-related version of dyslexia. My daughter really struggles with math and often when she is looking at solving math problems, it is like she has never seen it before. I think I must do some Googling.


December 28th, 2009
3:25 pm

The national testing craze is certainly a detriment to many people, especially those children with otherwise strong academic abilities. Reading difficulties interfere greatly with truly assessing what a child has learned because all state tests (especially those in Georgia) are predominantly reading tests. People learn through a variety of ways, and reading is only one.

In our present technological society, we are bombarded with visual and audible information all the time. But our testing methods require everyone to read the question and the choices. Then, the correct choice must be marked on a separate answer sheet. (This presents another challenge for dyslexic people.)

This is one very big reason parents and citizens need to make it known that gateway testing should be abandoned. Teachers should use multiple assessment forms. And, most importantly, children should be allowed to exhibit the knowledge they have gained through means that are more appropriate.


December 28th, 2009
4:38 pm

I’m left-handed, asthmatic, blue-eyed, and high-IQ, which is also some sort of syndrome I’ve read about. It’s fun to watch for those kids in my classes – they are always a fun find. Watch for them. Usually they have some kind of special skill that can make class interesting. I can write upside down and backwards without effort. Sure wakes up the class when I start writing on the overhead and they have to decode and copy into their notebooks.


January 1st, 2010
2:28 pm

I can’t wait to read this study. I am a school based speech language pathologist caught in a running battle with a school psychologist because she refuses to acknowledge that dyslexia exists.

Ole Guy

January 2nd, 2010
7:52 pm

Lisa, it would indeed be of interest if esteemed school psychologist could explain, in his/her best professional means, just exactly why some people, kids as well as adults, experience difficulty reading the written word. If esteemed psychologist is simply issuing a baseless statement, a proclamation, that dyslexia does not exist, than I am quite certain there are many in the blogging public who join me in this simple message to same…FIND ANOTHER LINE OF WORK.

uberVU - social comments

January 3rd, 2010
12:06 pm

Social comments and analytics for this post…

This post was mentioned on Twitter by UrbanEducation: Dyslexia study: Why some very smart people can’t read – http://bit.ly/79Zo1C…


January 5th, 2010
6:40 pm

The esteemed school psychologist has been an esteemed school psychologist for 30 years. In her best professional means she has made it clear that any 8th grader that cannot decode unfamiliar words simply needs to memorize his vocabulary lists. After all, that is how SHE learned to read. The battle rages on…


January 16th, 2010
1:25 pm

It’s interesting to see this research. It supports the commonly held view that those with dyslexia often have average or above average IQs yet underperform at school. This talk on http://www.dystalk.com from Oxford University’s Professor John Stein is interesting in emphasising the benefits of dyslexia: http://www.dystalk.com/talks/89-the-dyslexia-benefits