Many parents come to my office asking if their child might be dyslexic. Let me start by explaining what dyslexia is—and what it isn’t. It is NOT about seeing things backward or upside down! Dyslexics see just fine. Some dyslexics show signs of reversals (i.e., confusing b with d, or w for m) and some do not. Almost all kindergarteners and first graders reverse their letters and numbers, so don’t worry if this is happening.
The problems accompanying dyslexia are language based, not visual. In other words, dyslexia affects the written-language part of the brain. It’s where the brain decodes, or sounds out a word. Dyslexia also affects the ability to encode, or spell, and to express ideas in writing. (When we talk about spelling, we mean spelling while getting thoughts on paper, not the weekly classroom spelling test.)
The principal cause of dyslexia is based on phonological processing problems. Phonological processing is the ability to analyze speech or spoken language. It includes identifying individual words, the smaller word parts called syllables, and the smallest parts called phonemes, or speech sounds.
Individuals with dyslexia are commonly misdiagnosed or even missed entirely. There is no one test for diagnosing dyslexia. To make the diagnosis, one needs to administer the appropriate tests and be well versed in what dyslexia looks like.
Helping Pre-K and Kindergarten Students
Signs of dyslexia can be seen as early as pre-school & kindergarten, if you know what to look for. Some early indications of dyslexia include:
- struggling with learning the alphabet and the corresponding sounds
- trouble with rhyming words
- difficulty learning simple high frequency words or site words
- trouble with hearing beginning or ending sounds of a syllable
If you are seeing any of these early warning signs in your child, seek a professional who is very knowledgeable about dyslexia.
What to Look For in Grades 2–6
Unfortunately, students usually are not diagnosed until second through sixth grade. Some signs to look for at this age are:
- trouble decoding simple one-syllable words and/or multi-syllabic words
- reading one word for another when two words look similar
- problems spelling when getting thoughts down on paper
- difficulty with written expression
- trouble with grammar work (nouns, verbs, adjectives etc.)
Dyslexia in Middle School & Beyond
Older students who are dyslexic are often missed altogether. Since there are varying degrees of dyslexia, many older students seem to be reading fine, but perhaps have learned to read by sight. In other words, they have learned to recognize words when they see them. However, if a student lacks the necessary phonemic awareness skills, their decoding skills will suffer and consequently reading comprehension will be compromised, too. Without decoding skills, students often misread words that look alike (for example, reading stomp for stamp). If a student is learning to read by sight only and has poor decoding/encoding skills, it has been my experience that these students rarely stay at grade level for reading beyond fourth or fifth grade.
If an older student seems to be struggling with reading, look for these signs:
- Had trouble learning to read when younger
- Needs to read something two or three times to gain meaning
- Hates reading out loud
- Often omits, transposes, or adds letters when reading or writing
- Commits spelling errors when writing even after using Spell Check
- Has difficulty pronouncing uncommon multi-syllabic words when reading
- Struggles to learn a foreign language
In a nutshell, the dyslexic brain is wired differently—not wrong, just different. Dyslexic students learn differently. Their strengths and weaknesses are distinct, although not all dyslexic profiles will look the same. They are typically very creative people who can “think out of the box.” Dyslexics can learn to read as well as anyone if the appropriate reading program is used.
Unfortunately, most schools do not offer the reading programs that work for dyslexics. Even more unfortunate, most educators do not understand dyslexia or the best teaching methods for the dyslexic brain. In defense of teachers and schools, we are simply not taught enough about reading when getting our degrees. Twenty-five years ago, with an M.A. in Special Education, I did not know how to diagnose dyslexia, let alone teach a dyslexic how to read. All the knowledge I have gained over the years about dyslexia, I have learned while doing my own research.
I cannot stress the importance of finding someone who truly understands what dyslexia is, knows how to diagnose dyslexia, and knows how to teach dyslexics. Keep in mind, a person’s degree does not necessarily qualify them!
What to Do if Your Child is Dyslexic
Lastly, but most importantly, is developing an instructional plan if your child is diagnosed with dyslexia. Let me point out that children will have fewer decoding problems, whether they are dyslexic or not, if a good phonics program is used in kindergarten and first grade. However, if a child is truly or severely dyslexic, a phonics program is often not enough.
Dyslexics need a structured, multisensory approach, and phonics programs are typically not structured. Seventy-four percent of children who are poor readers in third grade remain poor readers in the ninth grade, usually because they have not received appropriate structured literacy instruction with the needed intensity or duration. Research shows that reading programs with a structured, multisensory approach are the most successful in helping children and adults learn to read or to become better readers. My personal favorite is the Wilson Reading System.
It is also vital to note that dyslexia is not tied to intelligence, gender, or drive. People from all backgrounds can have dyslexia, and it can be passed from one generation to another. Dyslexics are capable intellectually and may even be gifted in the arts, math, sciences, athletics, or sales. Males are no more likely to have dyslexia than females. People who aren’t getting help for their dyslexia may lose confidence in their academic abilities and believe they can’t succeed. This situation is the result of a lack of support, not a lack of motivation.
With appropriate teaching methods, individuals with dyslexia can become successful learners. It is never too late for a person with dyslexia to learn to read, process, and express information more efficiently.
For more information about dyslexia visit the International Dyslexia Association, the Wilson Reading System, and Connections Learning Center.
Interested in learning more about how Connections Learning Center helps children with dyslexia? Attend an upcoming Parent Night!
Debra Gawrys is the founder of Connections Learning Center. This blog allows Debra to share her expertise as a special education teacher and as the parent of a daughter who grew up with dyslexia and a son who had sensory integration issues.