Dyslexia and Synonyms

During my years in dyslexia tutoring, one of the strangest phenomenons that I have noticed in my dyslexic students is their use of synonyms. Dyslexia is known for making reading and spelling a challenge for dyslexic students, but I have not read much material on what I like to call the “Thesaurus Effect”. During a dyslexia tutoring session, I will be observing my student as they read out loud; they will come to a word that they cannot immediately recognize or read, and suddenly, they will use a synonym for that word which fits perfectly in the sentence. For example, they may read a sentence like “James came home last night and was very exhausted,” and read it as “James came home last night and was very tired”. Now, if they come across a word that is difficult for them, I expect them to struggle a bit with it, to try to sound it out, and to apply the rules that they have learned; but I don’t necessarily expect them to insert a perfectly sensible synonym! Or, I should say, that I didn’t expect them to insert a perfectly sensible synonym in the beginning. After having worked for years as a dyslexia tutor, and seeing this strange occurrence again and again with various students, I do expect it!

This dyslexia phenomenon might make more sense if the words in question were at all related in spelling or sound, because then it may simply be an issue of a dyslexic student reading one part of a word correctly and one part incorrectly. Or, it could be a case of them reading the first part and filling the rest in without reading it. However, this is not the case; the words in question are almost always of a completely different spelling and sound than each other.

I am fascinated by the many facets of dyslexia, and this phenomenon has interested me since the day that I first came across it. This interest not only comes from the fact that it is unusual, but also from the fact that it hints at the interesting way that the dyslexic mind works. This phenomenon tells us that at some level, the dyslexic student has understood the word that they are looking at, but that does not mean that they are able to immediately say it. It is possible that with the continuing advances in brain sciences and dyslexia research, we may eventually know the exact cause of this phenomenon; but until that time comes, it may continue to be a thing of wonder.

8 thoughts on “Dyslexia and Synonyms”

  1. Justine Kinnaird

    I am experiencing the same thing! I have been teaching special education for 8 years and I have never encountered the “thesaurus effect” until now. Have you found further research? I am fascinated by this and I would like to be a more effective teacher.

    1. Dyslexia Connect

      Thanks for your comment, Justine! Yes, it’s very interesting, isn’t it? I have not found much research on this issue. You might try checking with the International Dyslexia Association. Have a great day.

  2. Hi, any updated info on this phenomenon? I homeschool my 7 year old son who is a struggling reader and he just substituted “noises” for the word “sounds” (we were learning the vowel combo “ou”). Is this related to orthographic memory?

    1. Hi, Kate. Thanks for your question. At this point, I don’t believe there is specific research into this phenomenon. That’s interesting about your son! I have worked with many students who made similar substitutions. It’s uncertain what causes this phenomenon. Have a great day!

  3. I’m dyslexic. What your witnessing is verbal dyslexia. I can literally see the word but I struggle to pronounce it. 5 degrees and yet I still can’t spell the word yacht or say big words. My brother always used to say to me, can’t you use different words, and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I understood it was part of my dyslexia.

  4. I have noticed this for many years. It is most pronounced when students substitute “a” for “the” or “she” and “her” but I also see it with other words like “ship” and “boat”. After reading Sally Shaywitz’s “Overcoming Dyslexia” where she showed that kids who are dyslexic compensate with the right side of the brain I started to wonder if using both sides of the brain while reading makes them see the meaning of the word. I believe when a student with a brain working like this learns a new word, what sticks in their head is the meaning of the word. So, as they read they see the meaning before they see the parts (letters and sounds). It’s my theory, but just a theory.

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