Dyslexia is a specific learning difference that can affect both children and adults and cause difficulties with reading, spelling and math. It’s important for parents and teachers to understand that dyslexia does not affect intellect. Rather, it is a different way of processing language in the brain. Often individuals who are dyslexic struggle to split words into their component sounds. For children who are learning how to read and write, this causes frustration and poor performance in activities involving literacy skills. Because reading is required across the curriculum, students may quickly fall behind their same-age peers and lose confidence in the classroom. That’s why it’s important to recognize the symptoms early on so children can gain access to appropriate coping strategies and accommodations that can help them achieve their full potential at school.
What makes dyslexia especially difficult for educators to identify is it comes in many forms and no two children will present the same set or severity of symptoms. Additionally, many of the characteristic traits are common amongst children who do not have dyslexia but are in the early stages of learning how to read. For this reason, if you suspect dyslexia is causing a student to experience difficulties in the classroom, it is best to take a multi-step approach to diagnosis.
Begin by looking for common signs and symptoms associated with dyslexia and taking notes on what you have observed. How does the child’s work and reading ability compare to that of same-age peers and does their performance fluctuate from day to day or week to week?
Next, get to know your student. How do they feel about schoolwork? Are they frustrated? Do they like reading and writing? What’s going on at home that might be impacting their ability to focus during the school day? Do they have any brothers or sisters who have dyslexia? Dyslexia is a hereditary condition
that runs in families so having a sibling or a parent who is dyslexic can make it more likely that the child is dyslexic too.
Finally, consider providing a battery of diagnostic tests that measure a child’s IQ, ability to manipulate sounds, decoding and processing skills, and productive ability. When students are of average or above average intelligence yet unable to demonstrate this in reading and writing, some form of dyslexia may be present. The same is true for motivated students who enjoy learning via activities that involve speaking and listening but lose their confidence when faced with reading and writing based tasks.
What is dyslexia?
There are several types of dyslexia but all of them are rooted in a difference in the way the brain processes information. Individuals who have phonological dyslexia struggle to map sounds to letters and hear the phonemes that make up words. Perceptual dyslexia is associated with trouble recognizing words in reading, whereas visual dyslexia makes it difficult to process and retain images. Students may also struggle with math dyslexia (dyscalculia) or spatial dyslexia and it is possible for a child to have more than one learning difficulty. For example, dyslexia and dyspraxia can co-present, as can dyslexia and ADHD.
In addition to literacy skills, dyslexia can also impact on memory, planning and organizational abilities. When it goes undiagnosed, children are at risk for developing low self-esteem and a negative attitude toward school and learning. They may fail to do their homework or refuse to participate in classroom activities, and acting out is common.
Signs of dyslexia in children
Difficulty manipulating the sounds in words.
Phonological awareness is one of the key pre-literacy skills required for reading because it helps children break spoken language down into sounds that can then be paired with letters of the alphabet. If a pre-school aged child struggles with rhyming or songs like Old McDonald and Bingo
, they may need extra phonics practice to help them notice and identify the sounds and sound patterns that make up words. Phonemic awareness also encompasses the ability to blend sounds to create new words. Learn more in our posts on pre-literacy skills and phonemic awareness.
Hesitancy to read aloud both alone and in a group setting. Sounding out words is one of the first steps in early reading. Beginner readers typically read aloud, even when on their own, sounding out every word until they reach a stage where familiar words are recognized more quickly and can be read via sight. If you suspect a child has dyslexia, it is best not to call on them to read aloud unless he or she volunteers. That’s because dyslexic students typically struggle with decoding and may experience embarrassment and high anxiety when they are expected to read in front of others. Learn more about reading and sight words in this post.
Poor and inconsistent spelling. Students with dyslexia often have trouble spelling for the same reasons that causes them to struggle with decoding. Spelling requires children to identify the sounds in words so they can then translate them into letters and letter combinations. This is made even more difficult in English because of the high number of homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently) and a lack of 1:1 sound-letter mappings. The main thing to look for in students who are dyslexic is an inconsistent approach to spelling. They may spell a word one way on one day and another on the next. They will also typically make spelling mistakes with high frequency words and spelling errors will persist even as same age peers begin to develop their skills and make fewer errors in writing.
Flipping letter shapes, reversing letter combinations and writing in all caps. Many children with dyslexia have trouble with English letters that contain the same shapes, for example a lowercase b is a flipped version of a lowercase d. While it’s common for kids who are learning how to write to flip letters, when this behaviour persists in second and third grade, dyslexia may be to blame. It’s also worth looking at the types of spelling errors students make. Reversing letters and struggling with vowels is more commonly associated with dyslexia. Teachers may also find dyslexic students prefer to write in all caps. Learn why in our post on the difference between upper and lower case letters.
Messy writing and misuse of punctuation. Translating ideas into language and re-reading one’s own writing can be cognitively exhausting activities for a student with dyslexia. Very little mental capacity may be left over to deal with the more superficial elements of writing, such as producing neatly formed letters and observing punctuation conventions.
Trouble concentrating during reading and low comprehension. For dyslexic students it is often more difficult to get the meanings associated with words to stick long-enough to make sense of a piece of text. This is a result of a lack of automaticity in decoding and the cognitive weight of the reading task. Words may also be skipped over and anxiety about reading can further contribute to poor comprehension skills and an inability to stay focussed.
Difficulty reading certain fonts, especially with flourishes. Just as it is easier for students with dyslexia to confuse same-shape letters they can also become visually distracted by flourishes and other embellishments added to words written in serif fonts. That’s why some teachers prefer to write in Arial or other sans-serif typefaces, to ensure every student finds printed text equally accessible. Learn more about printing handouts on colour paper and making use of dyslexia-friendly fonts in these posts.
Writing skills that don’t match speaking ability. Teachers will find that kids who are struggling with dyslexia generally employ a more limited vocabulary in writing exercises than they are capable of producing in speaking. They may also be quite bright, engaged and full of ideas, but unable to write them down. Their compositions can be hard to follow and there can be a general avoidance of free reading and homework that requires written responses.