Surface Dyslexia: What You Need to Know – Dyseidetic Visual Dyslexia or Orthographic Dyslexia

“Dyslexia is a neurological issue, not a character flaw.” James Redford

Overview of Surface Dyslexia:

Surface dyslexia is when people cannot recognize a word as a whole word and retrieve its pronunciation from memory. Instead, they rely on pronunciation rules. It is a sub-type of dyslexia.

People with this read non-words fluently, like “yatchet”, but struggle with words that defy pronunciation rules, like “pint”. Often semantic knowledge is preserved for surface dyslexics.

Surface dyslexia may also be labeled as dyseidetic, visual dyslexia, or orthographic dyslexia.

Another way to put this is, an individual who can sound out new words with ease but fails to recognize familiar words by sight. Scientists believe that the brain fails to recognize what a word looks like in order to process the word quickly. This affects words that need to be memorized because they don’t sound how they are spelled, making it more difficult to sound them out.

A dyslexic person may have been taught and learned basic reading, but they are likely to get confused when the print and pronunciation of the words differ. It is not always limited to words it can also show up in not being able to perform a correct move or perceive coordinates.

Examples of words that fight with a surface dyslexic brain:

Words that differ in grapheme and phoneme.

  • Island
  • Honor
  • Bought
  • Right

Reading signs of surface dyslexia can include:

  • Difficulty with spelling
  • Problems reading words that don’t sound the way they’re spelled
  • Challenges reading new words by sight
  • Difficulty with whole word recognition
  • Spelling same words wrong
  • Slow to read
  • Avoidant of reading activities
  • Late speech

Surface dyslexia is one of the possible reasons for semantic dementia. Surface dyslexia is not limited to reading disorders only. As they move into adulthood the person may show an inability in other areas and struggle with behaviors.

Semantic dementia (SD) is the neural basis of surface dyslexia. It designates a progressive cognitive and language deficit, primarily involving comprehension of words and related semantic processing. These people lose the meaning of words, usually nouns, but retain fluency, phonology, and syntax.

Behavioral and processing signs of surface dyslexia can include:

  • Remembering dates
  • Daily schedule
  • Inability to associate pictures with words and vice versa
  • Word pronunciation
  • Vocabulary build-up
  • Information retrieval
  • Word recall
  • Arrangement of words in a given order
  • Homophones differentiation (a word having the same visible form or spelling as another but a different meaning)

 Examples of Surface Dyslexia in action

There is a distinct loss of perceptual wisdom. They will struggle or cannot read by sight, or perform organization activities, to begin with.

Showing average proficiency in some of the reading skills but struggling with the discrimination part is to be employed.

Loss of speaking and reading skills due to a brain injury. Sometimes, due to brain injury, a person loses the ability to read and write like a normal person. It is called orthographic dyslexia. Such patients need to re-learn these skills from scratch.

Incorrectly sound out all letters, low to no understanding of the concept of silent letters in English language.

Omission of letters in spellings where similarly structured phonemes (any of the perceptually distinct units of sound in a specified language that distinguish one word from another) appear. An example would be, finding mostly ‘e’ omitted in spellings where it comes along with cursive ‘l’.

Confusing between letters like small case qs and ps, or b and d, m and w, and cursive h and p, and other similar ones.

What tools can be used to improve surface dyslexia in reading?

Many of the interventions that exist are based on the dual route model of reading and use a targeted approach based on the individual assessment results.

Case studies conducted by Law and Cupples (2015) recommend first identifying specific oral reading difficulties experienced. Then based on the reading patterns identified, designing a theoretically motivated and targeted reading program. One of the interventions involved targeting visual-orthographic processing by increasing the efficiency by which surface dyslexics identified nonwords. The second involved training in the identification and decoding of common letter patterns in irregular words.

  1. Repeat writing tasks. Repetition and practice can be helpful.
  2. Read from special books repeatedly to help the brain stretch.
  3. Play word recall games more often. Use flashcards and have some fun.
  4. Complete the sentence activity.  The goal being to build neuroplasticity.
  5. The Davis method – I am not endorsing this; I am just sharing that it exists.
    Davis Orientation Counseling® teaches people how to recognize and control the mental state that leads to distorted and confused perceptions of symbols, words and concepts.
    • Get the letters to stop moving – be aware of and self-correct misperceptions, such as perceiving letters flipped or transposed.
    • Clay play – build the alphabet out of clay
    • “Spell-reading” and “sweep-sweep spell” learning to read left to right and noting sequence.
    • Clay words – mastery of 200+ commonly used words built in clay.

6.Edublox’s Development Tutor – I am not endorsing this, I am just sharing that it exists.

They aim at strengthening underlying cognitive skills such as visual processing skills, visual memory, visuospatial memory, and rapid recall. In addition, a child with surface dyslexia will also need application in the form of reading and spelling lessons.

Something to note

It’s not uncommon for an individual with dyslexia to also have both phonological and surface dyslexia.

My insights on the topic

Surface dyslexia is not always an inborn problem. It may also occur due to an unaddressed reading disorder, or sometimes due to traumatic brain injury (TBI). 

The goal is to identify it early and to then get the proper learning techniques implemented.  Having the right diagnosis can mean a world of difference in someone’s life. A person also needs to stay aware of that diagnosis throughout their life and watch for new studies, training, and insights. This is why I coach adults with dyslexia. Their brain has not changed.  While they were in school they were taught workarounds to learn to read because that really is the most important thing, but as you can see from the list processing signs, those are issues a person is going to have their whole life and can create real headaches and suffering.

It is also important to note that stress, panic, anxiety, and depression can layer onto this and make it even harder on the brain to access its best processing skills. Learning to manage these mental health issues is also key to working with surface dyslexia.

I personally have a level of surface dyslexia. They didn’t have this name for it when I was diagnosed and they didn’t have all of these great resources.  I can see a lot of ways that this plays out in my adult life and I have implemented some of the suggestions noted above.  I am aware of my issues with remembering dates and my schedule, that is why I write out my schedule every day, so that it is placed in a different part of my brain.  I continue to have spelling tests.  When I find a word that I can’t spell, I add it to a list and then use written repetition and flashcards to add the word into my memory.

Being neuro-different is my gift for my whole life. I continue to embrace it, learn about it and enjoy the journey. It is an adventure because I never know what I am going to learn next and how it will change my life.


Business Owner, International Neurodiversity Coach and Speaker



Semantic – relating to the meaning in language or logic

Cognitive – relating to cognition.  of, relating to, being, or involving conscious intellectual activity (such as thinking, reasoning, or remembering)

Fluency – is a speech language pathology term that means the smoothness or flow with which sounds, syllables, words and phrases are joined together when speaking.

Phonology – The sound patterns that occur within languages.  The system of contrastive relationships among the speech sounds that constitute the fundamental components of a language.

Syntax – how words and morphemes (the smallest meaningful lexical item in a language. ) combine to form larger units such as phrases and sentences.

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