The Science of Learning Blog

October 28, 2020

2020 Dyslexia Research Update

BY Amy Takabori

October is Dyslexia Awareness Month, and neuroscientist and Northwestern University professor Dr. Martha Burns presented our 6th annual webinar on updates to dyslexia research. She made the research on dyslexia easy to understand for anyone and actionable for educators.

Here is a quick overview of three articles published in 2020 that expand our understanding of dyslexia, the most common and often-misunderstood learning disability.

Watch the full 1-hour webinar, “2020 Dyslexia Update: New Science and Solutions,” on-demand here.

dyslexia, illustrated profile of child's head, blackboard, books, man holding giant pencil, teacher

1. Dyslexia Has a Genetic Component

Dyslexia runs in families. In fact, Dr. Burns shared that her family always looks for early signs of dyslexia in their grandchildren. Some family members have had dyslexia, which raises the chances their youngest will develop it as well.

Fifty percent (50%) of children with a sibling or parent with dyslexia will receive the diagnosis themselves (Gaab, 2017). Scientists have identified several specific genes that are strongly associated with dyslexia, making those who carry them predisposed to developing it.

New 2020 research corroborates the strong inheritability of dyslexia. A lab experiment was conducted with 19-month-old infants, half of whom were genetically at-risk for dyslexia and the other half genetically not at-risk. The results of a speech-based word-learning task led the researchers to conclude that the at-risk infants had a harder time with novel word-learning. The takeaway? Genetics do indeed play a role in dyslexia.

To be clear, there’s no such thing as “the dyslexia gene” that determines a child’s fate. And genetic factors are just one type of underlying factors that lead to dyslexia. The multiple deficit approach to dyslexia is now considered the most accurate way to understand causation. In addition to genetic factors, dyslexia is a result of brain-level differences, perceptual/cognitive-level differences, and environmental factors. The most effective and cost-efficient interventions consider multiple dimensions.

The 2020 Dyslexia research:
Kalashnikova, M., Goswami, U., & Burnham, D. (2020). Novel word learning deficits in infants at family risk for dyslexia. Dyslexia, 26(1), 3-17.

2. Dyslexia Involves a Disconnect between Sight and Sound

Researchers have mapped out the regions of the brain that are activated during the act of reading. This network that makes up the reading brain includes the visual word form (VWFA) in the occipitotemporal regions. The VWFA connects the syllables and words you hear to the letters and words you see on the page—an important cognitive task for the reading process.

New research reinforces what other research has found: with dyslexia, the VWFA is less activated than in neurotypical brains. What’s new is that this study found that the VWFA is less activated not just during the act of reading, but in an earlier developmental stage of hearing the difference between phonemes, such as how /b/ sounds different from /d/, also known as auditory phoneme discrimination.

Because this dyslexia marker, the difficulty in linking speech sound perception to visual word recognition, exists earlier in the speech processing stream, an important target of early intervention in children at risk for dyslexia should be to develop the brain’s ability for auditory processing. The only reading intervention that is deliberately designed to develop both auditory processing and the standard pillars of reading skills is the Fast ForWord software. Learn more here.

The 2020 Dyslexia research:
Conant, L., et al. (2020). Differential activation of the visual word form area during auditory phoneme perception in youth with dyslexia. Neuropsychologia, 146, 107543.

3. Dyslexia Comes with Strengths

If we approach dyslexia through a deficit model, we only see what students can’t do. It’s important to remember that although reading may not come easily to learners with dyslexia, these bright individuals offer different talents and skills. 

A British researcher reviewed the literature on neurodiversity and listed strengths found in individuals with dyslexia in the workplace:

  • Entrepreneurialism
  • Creativity and cognitive control
  • Visual reasoning
  • Practical skills, visual-spatial skills, and story-telling ability

Have you seen any of these strengths in your learners with dyslexia? How can you leverage their strengths to help them excel academically?

The 2020 Dyslexia research: 
Doyle, N. (2020). Neurodiversity at work: A biopsychosocial model and the impact on working adults. British Medical Bulletin 135(1), 108-125.


As we wrap up Dyslexia Awareness Month 2020, we thank you for joining us in increasing our awareness of what dyslexia is, how it affects our students and children, and what we can do to support them and their unique strengths and weaknesses. We invite you to continue learning with us!

Watch the full 1-hour webinar, “2020 Dyslexia Update: New Science and Solutions,” on-demand here.

Download the Dyslexia Guide. Keep it as a quick reference for dos and don’ts, a checklist of symptoms, and how technology can help.

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