Reading, Human Exceptionalism, and Dyslexia

Reading, Human Exceptionalism, and Dyslexia

Only human beings read. The act of reading involves blending the sounds of letters to form words that symbolize ideas, objects, or entities (abstract or concrete). Interestingly, both religious and secular scientists in various disciplines today think that human exceptionalism—the idea that humans differ from animals in kind, not mere degree—is evidenced in part by our unique ability to think, speak, listen, write, and read.

So, the complex symbolism of language is one of the things that makes human beings different in kind from the animals. According to philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler (1902–2001), animals don’t engage in language, per se, but rather send signals to one another.1 Yet despite the extraordinary complexity of written language, most children master basic reading skills by the tender age of seven years.

From a biblical worldview perspective, it may be reasonably inferred that humans’ capacity to read is part of the intellectual endowment that comes from being made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26–27). Our Creator gave his image to humans only, which seems on par with the idea of human exceptionalism. Moreover, God gave humankind a divinely inspired book, the Bible, to read and study in order to discover truth and salvation. Christians share with Jews the designation of being called “people of the book.” Sometimes the religions of Islam and Zoroastrianism are also included under this title.

Reading is fundamental to living—especially in a modern society—in untold ways (education, employment, citizenship, reflection, etc.). But what happens when a child can’t read or has great difficulty reading? Educator E. D. Hirsch notes:

We all know that reading is the most important academic skill, and that there is a big reading gap between haves and have-nots in our schools. We know that reading is a key not just to a child’s success in school but also, in the information age, to his or her chances in life.2

Dyslexia: A Learning Disorder

Dyslexia is a well-known challenge to learning how to read. A Mayo Clinic article defines dyslexia as “a learning disorder that involves…problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words (decoding)….dyslexia affects areas of the brain that process language.”3

As a neurological condition, dyslexia is caused by a different wiring of the brain. The disorder is common. Experts estimate that it affects 15–20 percent of school children in America.4 Yet students with dyslexia have normal intelligence and usually normal vision. While there is no cure for dyslexia, the good news is that with tutoring and specialized training (by developing decoding and coping skills), students with the disorder can succeed and even excel in reading.

The International Dyslexia Association notes, “Many people with dyslexia have gone on to accomplish great things. Among the many dyslexia success stories are Thomas Edison, Stephen Spielberg, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charles Schwab.”5

Screening and early detection of dyslexia are key. Studies indicate the prevalence of dyslexia (often undiagnosed) among prison inmates in America is estimated to be almost 50 percent.6 One can reasonably see how this serious learning disorder likely contributes to incarceration rates.

According to the International Dyslexia Association:

In public school settings where many teachers are not knowledgeable about this condition, students with dyslexia may be considered stupid or lazy. Parents who have children diagnosed with dyslexia should seek out reading instruction that is based upon a systematic and explicit understanding of language structure, including phonics.7

How important is reading? It clearly affects one’s entire life including the quality of that life as well as the rest of society. Christians need to be aware and grateful for God’s endowment of the imago Dei (image of God). Christian philosophers and theologians generally believe that this God-given capacity grounds human rationality and human exceptionalism. Christians, especially those who work in education, should always be mindful of humans’ exceptional nature as they seek to become aware of learning disorders and how to help those who struggle with reading.8

What a gift it is to able to take up and read a book! Let’s not take it for granted.

Reflections: Your Turn

Who taught you to read? Have you extended gratitude to that person? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.


For a contemporary classic on reading, see Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972).

  1. See Mortimer J. Adler, Intellect: Mind over Matter (New York: Macmillan, 1990).
  2. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, James Trefil, The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, rev. and upd., 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), vii-viii.
  3. Mayo Clinic Staff, “Dyslexia,” Mayo Clinic, accessed 12/12/19,…/d…/symptoms-causes/syc-20353552.
  4. Mayo Clinic Staff, “Dyslexia.”
  5. “Dyslexia at a Glance,” International Dyslexia Association, accessed 12/12/19,
  6. Kathryn Currier Moody, “Dyslexia in the Prison Population,” Education Update Online, December 2008,–dyslexia.html.
  7. “Dyslexia at a Glance,” International Dyslexia Association.
  8. This article is motivated by a segment on dyslexia that I watched on CBS News Sunday Morning, August 25, 2019.