What Causes Dyslexia?

What causes dyslexia? I’ve seen many answers, usually involving descriptions of brain anatomy, phonological awareness, and genetics. Each perspective appears to be correct and useful in its own way; however, each answer is limited because it focuses on the individual. It’s important not to lose sight of the bigger context when answering this crucial question. What causes dyslexia? Society does.

Robert Langston explains in his post, “What Causes Dyslexia? We do!”

The cause of dyslexia is a perfectly healthy, functioning brain being born into a largely literate society. You see, the root cause of dyslexia is a largely illiterate society becoming largely literate over the last two hundred years. There is nothing medically wrong with a dyslexic person’s brain. I have seen fMRI’s and MEG scans to prove it. This leads me to believe that dyslexia is a technological disability, not a physical disability. The technology is the written language, and the disability is that not every brain is born naturally wired to learn this technology easily…So, you see, we, as a society, caused dyslexia. As little as two hundred years ago, if you had dyslexia, you probably would not have even known it.

Reading is an unnatural activity. Our brains didn’t evolve in order to read. When humans have to learn to read, they are essentially hijacking different parts of the brain, usually parts associated with language learning, memory, hearing, and vision, and forcing them to work together to accomplish the strange tasks of reading and writing.

As teachers, we work very hard to protect our students’ self-esteem and help them understand that they can succeed in spite of their dyslexia. Often well-intentioned educators try to accomplish this by falling back on generic platitudes that proclaim dyslexia is a gift. I’m not saying that being dyslexic doesn’t come with advantages, but simply saying it is a gift without acknowledging that it puts our students at a disadvantage can feel patronizing. For more on the subject, check out our blog posts The Upside of Dyslexia and The True Gifts of a Dyslexic Mind.

If we want our students to truly understand that the struggle of having dyslexia is not their ‘fault,’ then we have to explain to them the social causes of dyslexia. I have had a lot of success explaining this societal cause of dyslexia to my students. It makes it clear that they are healthy and normal without ignoring their very real disadvantages when dealing with the written word.

  • Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS Media Manager