What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is primarily associated with trouble reading. Some doctors, specialists and educators may refer to it as a “reading disorder” or a “reading disability.” But it can also affect writing, spelling and even speaking.
People with dyslexia can still understand complex ideas. Sometimes they just need more time to work through the information. They may also need a different way to process the information, such as listening to an audiobook instead of reading it.
If your child has dyslexia, she won’t outgrow it. It’s a lifelong condition. But that doesn’t mean your child can’t be happy and successful. People with dyslexia are often very creative. It’s unclear whether such creativity comes from thinking outside the box or from having a brain that’s “wired” a bit differently.
It’s important to keep in mind, however, that struggles with reading and other issues can lead to frustration and low self-esteem. The stress of dealing with schoolwork can make kids with dyslexia lose the motivation to keep trying.
A good way to understand dyslexia is to establish what it is not. It’s not a sign of low intelligence or laziness. It’s also not due to poor vision. It’s a common condition that affects the way the brain processes written and spoken language.
Essential Skills for Reading Comprehension
For kids with dyslexia, reading a single word can be a struggle. Dyslexia also makes it hard to understand and remember what they’ve read.
Early in elementary school, students are expected to read a passage of text and answer questions about it. This is what’s known as “reading comprehension,” and it’s essential for building a strong foundation for success in school. Students with dyslexia often have reading comprehension problems because they need to develop several underlying skills, such as:
Connecting letters to sounds: Kids have to learn that each letter of the alphabet is associated with a certain sound or sounds. (Teachers refer to this as “phonics.”) Once your child can make these connections, she’ll be able to “sound out” words.
Decoding text: The process of sounding out words is known as “decoding.” Once your child can decode individual words, she can start to make sense of entire sentences.
Recognizing “sight” words: The ability to read a familiar word at a glance without having to sound it out is called “word recognition.” The more words kids can recognize by sight, the faster they’ll be able to read. Average readers can recognize a word by sight after sounding it out a dozen or so times. Students with dyslexia may need to see it 40 times.
Reading fluently: Fluent readers can recognize most words by sight and quickly sound out unfamiliar words. They also can read smoothly and at a good rate. Fluency is essential for good reading comprehension.
Understanding the text: Strong readers can remember what they’ve just read. They can summarize it and recall specific details. Readers with dyslexia can get bogged down sounding out individual words. This interrupts the flow of information and makes it harder to understand and relate the new material to what they already know.
What are the symptoms of dyslexia?
Because dyslexia affects some people more severely than others, your child’s symptoms may look different from those in another child. Some kids with dyslexia have trouble with reading and spelling. Others may struggle to write or to tell left from right.
Some children don’t seem to struggle with early reading and writing. But later on, they have trouble with complex language skills, such as grammar, reading comprehension and more in-depth writing.
Dyslexia can also make it difficult for people to express themselves clearly. It can be hard for them to structure their thoughts during conversation. They may have trouble finding the right words to say.
Others struggle to understand what they’re hearing. This is especially true when someone uses nonliteral language such as jokes and sarcasm.
The signs you see may also look different at various ages. Some of the warning signs for dyslexia, such as a speech delay, appear before a child reaches kindergarten. More often, though, dyslexia is identified in grade school. As schoolwork gets more demanding, trouble processing language becomes more apparent.
Many children have one or two of these issues on occasion. But kids with dyslexia have several of these issues, and they don’t go away.
Here are some signs to look out for:
Warning Signs in Preschool or Kindergarten
Has trouble recognizing the letters of the alphabet
Struggles to match letters to sounds, such as not knowing what sounds b or h make
Has difficulty blending sounds into words, such as connecting C-H-A-T to the word chat
Struggles to pronounce words correctly, such as saying “mawn lower” instead of “lawn mower”
Has difficulty learning new words
Has a smaller vocabulary than other kids the same age
Has trouble learning to count or say the days of the week and other common word sequences
Has trouble rhyming
Warning Signs in Grade School or Middle School
Struggles with reading and spelling
Confuses the order of letters, such as writing “left” instead of “felt”
Has trouble remembering facts and numbers
Has difficulty gripping a pencil
Has difficulty using proper grammar
Has trouble learning new skills and relies heavily on memorization
Gets tripped up by word problems in math
Has a tough time sounding out unfamiliar words
Has trouble following a sequence of directions
Warning Signs in High School
Struggles with reading out loud
Doesn’t read at the expected grade level
Has trouble understanding jokes or idioms
Has difficulty organizing and managing time
Struggles to summarize a story
Has difficulty learning a foreign language
What skills are affected by dyslexia?
Dyslexia doesn’t just affect reading and writing. Here are some everyday skills and activities your child may be struggling with because of this learning issue:
Social skills: There are several ways dyslexia can affect your child’s social life. Struggling in school can make your child feel inferior around other kids. Your child may stop trying to make new friends or may avoid group activities. Your child may also have trouble understanding jokes or sarcasm. You can help your child decode humor and also try different strategies to improve self-esteem.
Listening comprehension: People with dyslexia tend to be better listeners than readers. But dyslexia can make it hard to filter out background noise. This means your child could have trouble following what the teacher is saying in a noisy classroom. Sitting near the teacher can help reduce distractions.
Memory: Kids with dyslexia can take so long to read a sentence that they may not remember the sentence that came before it. This makes it tough to grasp the meaning of the text. Listening to an audio version or using other kinds of assistive technology can help.
Navigation: Children with dyslexia may struggle with spatial concepts such as “left” and “right.” This can lead to fears about getting lost in school hallways and other familiar places. Using a buddy system can help with transitioning from class to class.
Time management: Dyslexia can make it hard to tell time or stick to a schedule. A cell phone alarm, picture schedule and other prompts can help keep kids (and adults) on track.
What conditions are related to dyslexia?
It’s not unusual for kids to be diagnosed with dyslexia and another condition. There are also conditions that can look like dyslexia because they have some of the same symptoms. Here are some conditions that can coincide with or be mistaken for dyslexia:
ADHD can make it difficult to stay focused during reading and other activities. Roughly a third of students with attention issues also have dyslexia. It’s also worth noting that teachers sometimes overlook signs of dyslexia and assume a child has ADHD. That might be because kids who have difficulty reading can fidget from frustration. They can also act up in class to cover up not knowing how to do what the teacher is asking.
Auditory processing disorder affects kids’ ability to sort through the sounds they hear. They may struggle to understand what people are saying. Reading can also be tough for them. That’s because so much of reading involves connecting sounds with letters. Kids with auditory processing disorder often have trouble recognizing the difference between letters like b and d and sounding out new words.
Visual processing issues can make it hard to see the difference between letters or shapes. Kids with visual processing issues may complain of blurry vision or of letters “hopping around on the page.” They may try to compensate by squinting or closing one eye. They often reverse letters when writing and struggle to stay within the lines.
Dysgraphia can affect children’s ability write and spell. It can also make it hard to organize their thoughts on paper. Many kids with dysgraphia also have dyslexia.
Dyscalculia makes it hard to do math. Many kids have serious difficulties in both reading and math and may have dyscalculia in addition to dyslexia. Trouble learning to count is associated with both conditions.
Executive functioning issues can affect children’s ability to organize and stay on task. Kids with weak executive functioning skills may struggle with reading comprehension.
There are many ways parents and teachers can help with each of these conditions. Some strategies may work better for some conditions than others. That’s why it’s a good idea to get professionals to help you identify which issues your child is struggling with. More information can lead you to more effective ways to help.
What can be done at home for dyslexia?
Helping your child with dyslexia can be a challenge, particularly if you’re never been confident in your own reading and writing skills. But you don’t have to be an expert to help work on certain skills or strengthen your child’s self-esteem.
Keep in mind that kids (and families) are all different, so not all options will work for you. Don’t panic if the first strategies you try aren’t effective. You may need to try several approaches to find what works best for your child. Here are some things you can try at home:
Read out loud every day. If your child is very young, read picture books together. For a grade-schooler or middle-schooler, snuggle up with a copy of Harry Potter. For a teenager, consider reading magazine or newspaper articles or maybe a recipe. Billboards, store-discount signs and instruction manuals are also fair game. Hearing you read can let your child focus on understanding the material and expanding his overall knowledge base. Do it every chance you can get.
Tap into your child’s interests. Provide a variety of reading materials, such as comic books, mystery stories, recipes and articles on sports or pop stars. Look for good books that are at your child’s reading level. Kids with dyslexia and other reading issues are more likely to power through a book if the topic is of great interest to them.
Use audiobooks. Check your local library to see if you can borrow audio recordings of books. You can also access them online. Some stores sell books for younger kids that come with a recording of the story on a CD that prompts them when it’s time to turn the page. Listening to a book while looking at the words can help your child learn to connect the sounds she’s hearing to the words she’s seeing.
Look for apps and other high-tech help. Word processors and spell-check can help kids who have trouble with reading and spelling. Voice recognition software can help older students tackle writing assignments by letting them dictate their ideas instead of having to type them. There are also lots of apps and online games that can help your child build reading skills.
Observe and take notes. Watching your child more closely and taking notes on her behavior may reveal patterns and triggers that you can begin to work around. Your notes will also come in handy if you want to talk to teachers, doctors or anyone else you enlist to help your child.
Focus on effort, not outcome. Praise your child for trying hard, and emphasize that everyone makes mistakes—you included! Help your child understand how important it is to keep practicing, and give hugs, high-fives or other rewards for making even the smallest bits of progress. Your encouragement will help your child stay motivated.
See what it feels like. Use Through Your Child’s Eyes to experience what it’s like to have dyslexia. Sometimes simply acknowledging that you understand what your child is going through can boost her confidence enough to try different strategies and stick with them long enough to see which ones are the most helpful.
Make your home reader-friendly. Try to stock every room (including the bathroom!) with at least a few books or magazines your child might be interested in reading. Take a book when you go out for pizza or on a trip, and read it to your family so you can all discuss it. Look for other creative ways to encourage reading and writing at home.
Boost confidence. Use hobbies and afterschool activities to help improve your child’s self-esteem and increase resilience. Try different ways to identify and build on your child’s strengths.