Young boy with book open, points to words on a page

Is My Child Dyslexic?

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.

Getting the Hang of Homework: A Survival System for the New School Year

When you help your child with homework, do you worry that you’re doing too much? If your student needs lots of help, you’ve probably asked yourself this question. I certainly did when I was working with my dyslexic daughter. Now that she is an adult and a successful college graduate, I can unequivocally say that you are most likely not helping too much—unless you’re doing the homework while your child is indulging in screen time.

Here are my time-tested strategies for helping a struggling who is student with homework.

1. Read Aloud, Then Talk it Out

Because my daughter struggled with reading, I had to read her textbooks aloud to her. I could have gotten books on tape. But she needed me to read and then have a discussion with her, so she could understand and remember the information. When we discussed the information, I wrote notes about key points for her to review later. (Obviously, if your child is not reading well enough, you’ll skip the note taking.) I would then quiz her on the information if a test was coming up.

2. Break Big Assignments into Digestible Chunks

Book reports were challenging. Students with learning difficulties often have trouble knowing which facts are important. They want to retell the entire book, which would be daunting for anyone. When doing book reports I would read a chapter, then we would discuss what we read and which information was important. Then I would type her ideas into the computer. When we were finished reading the book, our book report was also finished! Students with IEPs or part of an intervention program should be allowed modifications. As a parent, you are also entitled to make modifications to help your child complete homework assignments. For example, suppose your child needs to to copy sentences and underline parts of speech, but copying sentences is laborious. You could write the sentences yourself, and then underline the correct words together.

3. Identify & Work Toward a Goal

The key is to ask yourself: what is the goal of this homework? If the point is to learn about nouns and verbs, then copying the sentences is a shortcut that you can help with. Once the goal has been met, you should be done. However, it’s always a good idea to write the teacher and let him/her know the modifications you made and your reasons for using them.

4. Be a Good Role Model

I can assure you that your child is learning while you do these tasks together, even if it feels like you are doing all the work. Once my daughter got to her second year of high school, she became independent with her homework. I saw her doing many of the things I had been modeling for her. For example, she began taking her own notes while reading a textbook. I then realized I had not done too much! While we worked together, she was learning how to be a great student!


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.

Lower half of a young girl's body, wearing a school uniform skirt, knee socks and black shoes, and holding a red backpack in her left hand

Don’t Let the New School Year Be ALL About Homework

My children are grown now, but at the beginning of September I always remember what it felt like in our house as my kids started a new year. In my experience, there are two types of parents. Some are excited at the prospect of taking the kids back to school, adjusting to a regular schedule, and (if they’re lucky) having some free time to themselves. But for the other type of parent, the school year brings hours of agonizing homework every night.

Suffice it to say I wasn’t the excited parent when school started. Having a daughter who was dyslexic and needed a lot of help with homework was labor intensive for both of us. I basked in our leisurely summers and seasonal breaks. I loved having no assignments hanging over our heads, and being able to do fun things with the kids. It wasn’t that I minded helping with homework. But in our house, back to school meant our relationship became all about homework.

I talked to my daughter’s teachers about the amount of time it was taking, and they all said the school only expected her to do an hour of homework each night. It became clear to me they weren’t parents of a student who struggled. Otherwise, they’d have known we couldn’t get through one subject in one hour, let alone all of them! Two to three hours a night was our usual situation. For the sake of sanity, I came up with ways to make homework easier. I’ll share them in my next post.

How are you feeling about homework at the start of the school year? If it’s not too bad, that’s great news! But if you are anything like me, you may already be counting the days until your next break. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post, when I’ll explain how I managed to manage homework.

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.