Terminology

For those new to dyslexia, making sense of the many words and phrases used by physicians, educators, and researchers can seem daunting. This list of commonly used terminology is offered as a reference to enhance understanding about the academic, scientific, and legal words you will likely encounter.

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  • 504 Plan
    Established under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a 504 Plan entitles public school students in grades K-12 who have learning disabilities to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) that is comparable to the education provided to peers who do not have a disability.
  • Accommodations
    Changes within the learning environment, instructional delivery, and/or testing methods that enable students to achieve grade-level educational goals. Examples include modified assignments, longer test periods, oral testing, and use of assistive technology devices.
  • Alphabetic Principle
    The concept that letters and combinations of letters are symbols used to represent the sounds of words.
  • Assessment
    A measurement of a student’s skills and abilities through various aptitude, achievement, and screening tests. This helps determine whether any areas of weakness exist, and if so, if intervention is needed.
  • Assistive Technology
    The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines assistive technology as any piece of equipment or product “that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of children with disabilities.”
  • Automaticity
    The ability to make a skill automatic with time and practice. In reading, automaticity refers to accurate and quick word recognition requiring little attention or conscious effort that therefore allows students to focus on the meaning of text.
  • Comprehension (Reading)
    Understanding the meaning of text that is read. Comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading instruction.
  • Decoding
    A key skill in learning to read, decoding is the ability to match letters with their sounds in order to read words and sentences correctly. Also known as “word attack,” it is frequently described as the ability to “sound out” new words.
  • Dyscalculia
    A brain-based (neurological) disability that makes it difficult to learn or understand mathematics appropriate for an individual’s age and intelligence, despite adequate instruction. An estimated six percent of elementary school students in the U.S. are affected. Difficulties vary and affect individuals differently, and can include poor understanding of math symbols and pattern recognition, directional confusion, and perception of time.
  • Dysgraphia
    A brain-based (neurological) disability resulting in extremely poor handwriting or the inability to perform the fine motor movements required for handwriting.
  • Dyslexia (International Dyslexia Association)
    A specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.  
  • Dyslexia (National Institutes of Health/NIH)
    A brain-based type of learning disability that specifically impairs a person’s ability to read. These individuals typically read at levels significantly lower than expected despite having normal intelligence. Although the disorder varies from person to person, common characteristics among people with dyslexia are difficulty with phonological processing (the manipulation of sounds), spelling, and/or rapid visual-verbal responding. In individuals with adult onset of dyslexia, it usually occurs as a result of brain injury or in the context of dementia; this contrasts with individuals with dyslexia who simply were never identified as children or adolescents. Dyslexia can be inherited in some families, and recent studies have identified a number of genes that may predispose an individual to developing dyslexia.
  • Dyspraxia
    A brain-based (neurological) disability, also known as developmental coordination disorder, which results in lifelong impaired gross and fine motor coordination, memory, judgment, processing, and other cognitive skills. An estimated 6 to 10 percent of children show some signs of dyspraxia.
  • Encoding
    The process of using letter/sound knowledge to write.
  • Evaluation
    A process of gathering, analyzing, and interpreting information from parents, teachers, and testing to identify the factors contributing to a student’s difficulty with learning to read, write, and spell. Evaluations are used to identify the primary reasons for a child’s literacy difficulties, develop an intervention plan, and determine eligible services and accommodations.
  • Executive Function
    A set of skills responsible for attention and self-regulation that enables students to retain information, plan, organize, manage time, complete tasks, and regulate behavior. 
  • Fluency
    The ability to read with speed, accuracy, and proper expression, which allows students to focus on the meaning of what is being read (comprehension).
  • Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)
    According to Wrightslaw, FAPE is “an individualized educational program that is designed to meet the child's unique needs and from which the child receives educational benefit, and prepares them for further education, employment, and independent living.”
  • Grapheme
    The written form of a phoneme. The letter or letters representing one sound. (Example: the phoneme /f/ is represented by two graphemes f and ph.)
  • Graphophonemic Knowledge
    An understanding of the relationship and patterns between letters and their sounds.
  • Individualized Education Program (IEP)
    A detailed plan that outlines the instruction, supports, and services a school will provide to meet the specific educational needs of a student with a disability.
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
    The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a federal law that makes available a free appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities throughout the United States, and ensures special education and related services to those children.
  • Intervention
    An educational program used to supplement or replace an existing program for the primary purpose of increasing reading levels.
  • Kinesthetic
    A participatory learning style that involves physical activity, such as touch and movement.
  • Learning Disability
    An umbrella term used to describe a number of disorders that affect a student’s ability to learn.
  • Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)
    Under the IDEA, Least Restrictive Environment is the requirement that students with disabilities receive their education, to the maximum extent appropriate, with nondisabled peers, and are not removed from general education classes unless, even with support services, education in general classes cannot be achieved satisfactorily.
  • Metacognition
    Awareness of one’s own learning; the ability to know, understand, and explain what you are doing and why.
  • Morpheme
    The smallest unit of meaning in a word. For example, the word "predict" has two morphemes: "pre" and "dict", with each part holding meaning. 
  • Morphology
    The study of  the structure and forms of words. The study of word elements (prefixes, suffixes, Latin and Greek base elements).
  • Multi-tiered System of Supports (MTSS)
    An umbrella term that encompasses both Response to Intervention and Positive Behavioral Interventions and supports.
  • Orthography
    The study of the rules that govern the English language.
  • Orton-Gillingham Approach
    A multisensory, structured language instructional approach intended primarily for use with individuals who have difficulty with reading, spelling, and writing due to dyslexia or other language-based learning disabilities. It was developed by Dr. Samuel T. Orton and educator/psychologist Anna Gillingham. This methodology utilizes phonetics and emphasizes incorporation of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning. Instruction focuses on the structure of language and provides students with immediate feedback and a logical sequence of skills that integrates reading, writing, and spelling. Wilson programs are based on OG principles. See Structured Literacy.
  • Phoneme
    The smallest unit of spoken sound in a language.
  • Phonemic Awareness
    The ability to listen to a word or syllable and hear its separate sounds, such as being aware the word cat has three separate sounds /c/ /a/ /t/. This is the key component of phonological awareness that is most closely linked with reading acquisition.
  • Phonics
    The study of sounds; a method of teaching reading by developing learners’ phonemic awareness in order to teach the correspondence between sounds and the spelling patterns (graphemes) that represent them.
  • Phonological Awareness
    An umbrella term for an auditory awareness of language. The ability to hear and manipulate individual phonemes (the smallest units of sound in a language). An understanding that spoken language consists of parts, such as separate words, separate syllables, and separate sounds, or phonemes.
  • Phonology
    The study of phonemes, or the smallest units of sounds.
  • Screening
    An informal, universal assessment of all students to determine whether they are meeting benchmarks for their grade level. This process helps recognize whether a child may need additional help.
  • Semantics
    The study of the meaning of words, phrases, or sentences in a language.
  • Specific Learning Disability (SLD)
    A disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using written or spoken language. Examples include auditory processing disorder, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, dyslexia, language processing disorder, and non-verbal learning disabilities.
  • Syntax
    The way in which words are ordered in phrases or sentences.

References (click to show)

Birsh, J., Multisensory Teaching of Basic Language Skills, (4th Edition), 2018, Paul H. Brooks Publishing.

Harris, Theodore L, Hodges, Richard E., The Literacy Dictionary, the Vocabulary of Reading and Writing, 1995, International Reading Association, Inc.

International Dyslexia Association, IDA Dyslexia Handbook: What Every Family Should Know, 2014, Baltimore, MD.

California Department of Education, Sacramento, California Dyslexia Guidelines (2017).