Billy seems like many typical third grade boys. He loves to play outside with his friends, is extremely social, and always has a story to tell or a joke to pass along. When asked about school, he says his favorite subjects are recess and lunch. When pressed to find another subject, he picks PE and then decides that science is not so bad either.
Billy’s been struggling in reading and his parents are concerned about his progress. Though he has been (barely) on grade level every year, this year he seems to be slipping further and further behind. His teacher seems to think that it’s a lack of focus and his parents feel that Billy just isn’t working hard enough. The father states that he struggled in school too, so he understands how challenging it can be. They are hoping tutoring will help Billy get up to grade level and keep him from being put on an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) and getting pulled out for services.
Journey Starts Here
For many parents of children with dyslexia, their journey starts here. Their child manages to get through a few years of school undetected and is able to hide their dyslexia through memorization, or other coping strategies. It’s only in 3rd or 4th grade that the signs start to become more obvious in students with dyslexia. Some parents however have a different journey. Their child starts to struggle at an earlier age and they start looking for answers. No matter which starting point you have, it can be overwhelming and confusing trying to figure it all out. For students with dyslexia, it can take a toll on their self-esteem and make school a daily struggle.
Here is the official definition of dyslexia by The International Dyslexia Association.
Dyslexia is defined as a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede the growth of vocabulary and background knowledge (IDA, 2015).
Ok, now let’s put that definition into more user-friendly terms. Basically, dyslexia is caused by the way a person’s brain is wired. It is almost always inherited or passed down in families. If a parent has dyslexia, a child has a 50% chance of also having dyslexia. Most children with dyslexia have difficulty reading at the word level. For example, if given words in isolation to read, a child with dyslexia will usually struggle with this task. It can also cause difficulty in spelling and with a child’s ability to decode or sound out words. Usually, these struggles are caused by the part of the brain that is in charge of processing sounds and connecting those sounds to the alphabetic letters.
Dyslexia is unexpected because these kids are very bright and excel in many other areas of their life. It just doesn’t make sense for them to be having such difficulty with reading given their obvious intelligence and reading instruction that they have received in school.
Dyslexia causes poor reading
Dyslexia can also cause poor reading comprehension. Since kids with dyslexia don’t like to read, and most of a child’s vocabulary and much of their background knowledge about things comes from books, they will often miss out on learning new vocabulary words or lack basic background knowledge on subjects. For example, we had a student who didn’t know what a covered wagon was. Most children have read books that had covered wagons in the story but this student had never read one and lacked that background knowledge.
Dyslexia is a brain-based condition that affects reading, writing, and spelling. It’s also a lifelong condition that tends to run in families. A parent, cousin, or grandparent may have dyslexia or they may have struggled in school without a formal diagnosis.
Dyslexia has nothing to do with a child’s intelligence. In fact, researchers are starting to study the strengths that may be associated with dyslexia. The research also shows that dyslexia is not a problem with vision, but rather a problem with understanding aspects of our language and connecting the sounds in our language to their written representation. Scientists know this because they are able to study the brain and see what happens when people are doing language tasks. What they see in people with dyslexia is that they use different, less effective pathways in their brain for certain language tasks. This is why children who are at risk for dyslexia can be identified as early as preschool before children learn to read because it shows up in different language tasks.
Problems in recognizing words
These are the kids who may struggle with rhyming, blending sounds, and pulling them apart. For example, when we say the word cat, we don’t say c-a-t. We say cat. It’s one continuous sound. It may seem obvious to us that there are three sounds in that word, but that’s only because our brain has learned to isolate the smallest unit of sound in our language. For someone with dyslexia, their brain isn’t wired that way. They may hear the word cat, but they may not be able to isolate or understand that there are three different sounds that make up that word. When they get a little older and start to learn their letters, they may struggle with attaching those three sounds onto the letters that represent them in our written language
Scientists have a much better idea now of why this is happening. It starts with realizing that reading is actually a relatively new process for humans. We’ve only been doing it for about 5,000 years. Unlike speech, our brains were not automatically wired to be able to read. While a young child can be immersed in hearing language and acquire speech naturally, the same is not true for our reading abilities. This is why immersing a child in books, as we do with language early on, will not create a skilled reader.
We may take it for granted, but reading is actually a very complex process. In order for us to accomplish it, our brain had to rearrange itself and use different areas in the brain that were intended for other things. For people with dyslexia, they tend to struggle with this process and they have to be explicitly taught in a specific manner in order for that change to occur in their brain, in order for them to build new effective pathways for reading and spelling.
Have you ever started to study a foreign language like Spanish and then listen to someone speaks fluently in that language? They go so fast! Everything they say is strung together that it’s really hard to try and figure out what they’re saying. You may know individual words and a few phrases, but it’s hard to isolate the ones that you know in fluent speech. The same is true with our language.
When we first began to speak, we’re only aware of spoken language. We know nothing about written language. For example, your parents come into your room and say, “Did you eat something?” What you hear is one long phrase that might be represented with letters like this – didjuetsomthn. It’s only when we start to study written language that we realize that sentences are made up of words, and those words are made up of individual sounds that we have attached to letters that can actually be pulled apart.
For children with a language-based learning disability like dyslexia, this can be extremely challenging. They struggle to hear all the individual sounds in a word and they struggle to attach those sounds to letters and these are the skills that are critical to becoming a good reader and speller.
Luckily the research also shows us that specialized instruction that is explicit and focuses on helping children break words down into their individual sounds, attach those sounds to letters and blend them together to make words helps make some of those connections in the brain.
The most common approach to do this is the Orton Gillingham approach. The Orton Gillingham approach teaches children the structure of the language and provides them the opportunity to practice and get more fluent. You can actually see the difference in the brain of a person who has had effective structured literacy intervention.
So while dyslexia is a lifelong condition, with the right interventions and support, a person with dyslexia can become a skilled reader. Dyslexia in no way limits a child’s potential or possibilities.
So, what does dyslexia look like?
Dyslexia is not a one-size-fits all diagnosis. It occurs along a spectrum. Your child could have mild dyslexia, moderate dyslexia, or severe dyslexia. It presents differently in different children. Some children struggle with learning sight words. Some children struggle with decoding or sounding out unfamiliar words. Some kids have trouble holding sounds, or words, in their memory and some have a hard time retrieving information, or getting the words or sounds to come out when needed. Some children struggle with all of the above. Many children with mild dyslexia can read pretty well, but struggle with spelling or written composition. In other words, dyslexia is a complex and multi-faceted disorder.
As it states in the definition, most children with dyslexia have difficulty reading words in isolation. They may also struggle with word retrieval, which means coming up with the right word. They know what they want to say. They just can’t get it out of their brain to retrieve it. So these kids might be the ones that are always saying that thingamajig or that whatchmacallit it because they just can’t access that word in their brain. They can’t retrieve it.
One of the most common struggles with children with dyslexia is with phonological awareness. Phonological awareness refers to being aware of how language breaks down into different pieces and can be put back together to create words. For example, segmenting words into their individual sounds is a phonological skill. A child could hear the word “cat” and break it down into three sounds, /c/ /a/ /t/. Blending individual sounds together to make a word is another phonological skill. A child could hear the three individual sounds, /m/ /o/ /p/, and put them together to say the word mop.
Children with dyslexia can also struggle with their working memory. This is the ability to hold something in their brain long enough to work on it. So for instance, if you have a three-syllable word that you’re decoding (or sounding out), you have to remember what you decoded for that first syllable once you’ve gotten to the end of that third syllable so you can put it all back together.
Reading comprehension can also be impacted in children with learning disabilities. If you have a student who is really focusing on decoding (or sounding out words) and has to spend all of their working memory and their brainpower decoding a word, they’re not going to have any brainpower left for reading comprehension.
Here are some warning signs of dyslexia you can look out for:
For younger children:
- speech delay and/or have speech articulation problems, particularly leaving off sounds or mixing up sounds in a word (aminal for an animal)
- unable to distinguish rhyming words
- have trouble coming up with the right word or sound when needed
- struggle with learning the names and sounds of the letters of the alphabet
- has a relative who struggled in school
- trouble learning to tie shoes
- Often gets ear infections
- Confuses left and right
- Reverses letters and numbers after the first grade
For older elementary children
- Choppy, slow reading
- Misreads small words like a, of, the
- Might read a word right on one line and then on the next line read it as something completely different
- Mixes up sounds when reading (ex saying lost for lots)
- Leaves off suffixes in words (saying plan instead of planned)
- Uses context to read rather than decoding (says kitty when the word is a cat)
- Seems to guess at words based on the shape of letters and context rather than on decoding
- Difficulty remembering abstract facts (days of the week, month, math facts)
- Trouble telling time with a clock with hands
- Poor spelling (might get good grades on the spelling test but then misspell those same words when writing other assignments)
- Messy handwriting, difficulty with writing
- Has trouble decoding or sounding out unknown words
- Has trouble coming up with the right words when needed
- Has trouble with multistep directions
- Does not like to go to school or read on their own
- confuses words that sound alike
- has difficulty remembering isolated pieces of verbal information (rote memory)
- tend to be very slow readers without any strategy for decoding new words
- has trouble with reading comprehension; can’t understand what they’ve read
- has trouble with small function words such as “that”, “an”, “in”
- struggle with learning a foreign language
- performs poorly on multiple-choice tests
- unable to finish exams within the allotted time
- poor spelling
- trouble getting their thoughts down on paper
- trouble taking notes in class or copying off the board
- may have a large vocabulary but when writing, they use small words that they know how to spell
- may act out in class to avoid work or reading aloud
One thing that I hear over and over again when I talk to parents is that they knew something was wrong, that their child was struggling, but their concerns kept getting dismissed. Trust your gut. If your child is having difficulty keep searching for answers or for someone knowledgeable who can help you. You know your child better than anyone. If you are seeing signs of possible dyslexia, start looking for resources to help them now. Based on my years of dealing with families, the odds that you are right about your suspicions are astronomically high.