Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011
Dyslexia is a common type of learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in the reading and spelling of words.
Dyslexia should be recognised as a spectrum disorder, with symptoms ranging from very mild to very severe. In particular, people with dyslexia have difficulties with:
- phonological awareness
- verbal memory
- verbal processing speed
These terms are explained in more detail below.
Phonological awareness is thought to be a key skill in early reading and spelling development. It is the ability to identify how words are made up of smaller units of sound, known as phonemes. Changes in the sounds that make up words can lead to changes in their meaning.
So, for example, a child with a good level of phonological awareness would understand that if you change the letter 'p' in the word 'pat' to 's', the word would become 'sat'.
Verbal memory is the ability to remember a sequence of verbal information for a short period of time.
For example, the ability to remember a short list such as 'red, blue, green', or a set of simple instructions, such as 'put on your gloves and your hat, find the lead for the dog, and then go to the park'.
Verbal processing speed
Verbal processing speed is the time that it takes to process and recognise familiar verbal information, such as letters and digits.
For example, your verbal processing speed is the time that it takes you to look at the following numbers and letters - 'B', 'B,' 'C', 1', and then realise that the information relates to the name of the television channel BBC1.
Dyslexia and intelligence
Even though dyslexia is classed as a learning difficulty, there is no connection between dyslexia and a child's intelligence. Children of all intellectual abilities - from low to high intelligence - can be affected by dyslexia.
Similarly, a child's difficulty with reading and spelling is not determined by their intelligence, but by how severe their dyslexia is. Children with average intelligence and mild dyslexia are likely to be more skilled at reading and writing than children with high intelligence and severe dyslexia.
How common is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is thought to be one of the most common learning difficulties. It is estimated that 4-8% of all schoolchildren have some degree of dyslexia.
Dyslexia appears to be more common in boys than girls. For example, it is estimated that boys are one-and-a-half to three times more likely to develop dyslexia than girls.
Dyslexia affects people of all ethnic backgrounds, although a person's native language can play an important role. A language where there is a clear connection between how a word is written and how it sounds, and consistent rules grammatical rules, such as in Italian and Spanish, can be more straightforward for a person with mild to moderate dyslexia to cope with.
However, languages such as English, where there is often no clear connection between the written form and sound, as in words such as 'cough' and 'dough', can be more challenging for a person with dyslexia.
The cause (or causes) of dyslexia is unknown. However, many experts think that the condition is probably caused by genetic factors that affect the normal development of certain areas of the brain.
Although there is currently no cure for dyslexia, a range of educational programmes and interventions have proven effective in improving reading and writing skills in many children with the condition.
The outlook for dyslexia is highly variable. Around 95% of children respond well to educational interventions and go on to make moderate to good progress with reading and writing.
The remaining 5% of children continue to find reading and writing difficult and will require more intensive support and long-term assistance.
It should be stressed that although children with dyslexia will face challenges on a day-to-day basis, even children who have severe dyslexia can go on to lead full and productive lives.
The brain controls thought, memory and emotion. It sends messages to the body controlling movement, speech and senses.
A different way of thinking
Some experts argue that it is incorrect to classify dyslexia as a problem with thinking, emphasising that it is just a different way of thinking that makes use of other skills.
For example, most educational methods and many areas of work tend to emphasise the skills that people with dyslexia have trouble with, such as reading, writing, remembering lists and sequences, and organising and planning.
However, the skills that people with dyslexia tend to be better at, such as creative thinking, visual awareness, problem solving, and verbal communication, tend to only be emphasised in certain areas, such as the arts and the media, plus a number of scientific disciplines including physics, mathematics and computer programming.
Brain imaging studies have shown that people with dyslexia use different parts of their brain, and that they make more use of the right hemisphere, which is involved in the more creative aspects of thought.
People with dyslexia often:
- have good verbal skills
- have good social skills
- are able to think laterally and solve problems by making unexpected connections (it is often reported that people with dyslexia can solve complex problems without being aware of how they came to the solution)
- are able to understand the ‘big picture’
- have good visual reasoning and awareness skills
Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011
The symptoms of dyslexia can differ from person to person, and each person with the condition will have a unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses.
In some cases, it may be possible to detect symptoms of dyslexia before a child starts school.
Possible symptoms include:
- delayed speech development in comparison with other children of the same age
- speech problems, such as not being able to pronounce long words properly and 'jumbling' up phrases - for example, saying 'hecilopter' instead of 'helicopter', or 'beddy tear' instead of 'teddy bear'
- problems expressing themselves using spoken language, such as being unable to remember the right word to use, or putting together sentences together incorrectly
- little understanding or appreciation of rhyming words, such as 'the cat sat on the mat', or nursery rhymes
- difficulty with, or little interest in, learning the letters of the alphabet
Early school years
Symptoms of dyslexia in children who are 5-7 years of age include:
- problems learning the names and sounds of letters
- spelling that is unpredictable and inconsistent
- problems copying written language
- poor phonological awareness
Poor phonological awareness
Phonological awareness is the ability to recognise that words are made up of smaller units of sound (phonemes) and that changing and manipulating phonemes can create new words and meanings.
A child with poor phonological awareness may not be able correctly answer the questions below.
- What sounds do you think make up the word 'hot' and are these different to the sounds that make up the word 'hat'?
- What word would you have if you changed the 'p' sound in 'pot' to a 'h' sound?
- How many words can you think of that rhyme with the word 'cat'?
Word attack skills
Young children with dyslexia also have problems with 'word attack skills'. This is the ability to make sense of unfamiliar words by looking for smaller words, or collections of letters, such as 'ph' or 'ing', that a child has previously learnt.
For example, a child with good word attack skills may read the word 'sunbathing' for the first time and gain a sense of the meaning of the word by breaking it down into 'sun', 'bath', and 'ing'.
Middle school years
Symptoms of dyslexia in children who are 7-12 years of age include:
- slow reading speed
- problems with the correct spelling of words
- problems understanding and recognising new words - for example, children with dyslexia may have problems with school subjects that introduce them to technical terms, such as science subjects
Teenagers and adults
Symptoms of dyslexia in teenagers include:
- slow writing speed
- poorly organised written work which lacks expression - for example, even though an older child may be very knowledgeable about a certain subject, they may have problems expressing that knowledge in writing
- problems with reading fluency - reading fluency is the ability to read text smoothly, rapidly, and automatically, without having to use any, or little, conscious effort
Dyslexia in adults
It may be possible for someone with dyslexia to reach adulthood without the condition being properly identified. Signs that you may have dyslexia include:
- trying to avoid reading and writing whenever possible
- trying to conceal any difficulties that you have with reading and writing from other people
- poor spelling
- poor time management and organisational skills
- relying on memory and verbal skills, rather than reading or writing
Associated symptoms of dyslexia
There are a number of associated symptoms of dyslexia. While they are not directly connected to reading or writing, they can affect some people with dyslexia. They include:
- problems with number skills, such as counting, comparing two sets of numbers, or carrying out sums in their head
- poor short-term memory
- problems concentrating
- short attention span
- organisation and time management problems
- physical coordination problems - some people with dyslexia can appear unusually clumsy, and younger children can find it difficult to carry out tasks that require a degree of physical co-ordination, such as tying their shoelaces
Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011
There are a number of different theories about the causes of dyslexia which all tend to agree that it is a genetic condition that changes how the brain deals with information, and that it is passed on through families.
Dyslexia is thought to be a genetic condition which means it runs in families. It is estimated that if you have dyslexia, there is a 40-60% likelihood that your child will also develop the condition.
Further evidence that dyslexia is a genetic condition is that if one identical twin is born with the condition, it is very likely that the other twin will also have it.
A number of genes that may contribute to dyslexia have been indentified by researchers, but exactly how these genes may affect the development of the brain is still uncertain.
The most widely supported theory of how dyslexia affects reading and writing is known as the phonological processing impairment theory. In order to better understand this theory, it is useful to distinguish between how spoken language and written language is comprehended.
The ability to understand spoken language seems to be a natural capacity of the human brain. This is why children as young as three years of age can often speak and understand relatively complicated sentences.
As a result of this natural ability, when we listen to spoken language, we do not register that a word is made up of phonemes (the smallest units of sound that make up words). We only hear the word itself.
For example, when you hear the word 'crocodile', you hear it as a seamless whole. You do not have to break up the word into its phonemes and then reassemble them to make sense of it (which in this case, would be the sounds 'crok', 'er', 'dyle').
The same is not true of reading and writing. Both of these skills require the ability to first recognise the letters in a word, then using the letters to identify the phonemes, and assembling them to make sense of the word.
This ability is known as phonological processing. It is thought that people with dyslexia find phonological processing much more difficult than other people.
Dyslexia and the brain
It is thought that the reason people with dyslexia have problems with phonological processing is that some areas of their brain function in a different way than in people without the condition.
One body of research looked at three areas that are found in the left hemisphere (half) of the brain. These are known as:
- Broca's area - which is thought to be involved in producing written words
- parietotemporal region - which is thought to be involved in analysing written words
- occipitotemproal region - which is thought to be involved in identifying written words.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans have shown that activity levels in all three regions of the brain are much lower in people with dyslexia when they are trying to read. These low brain activity levels may contribute to their problems with phonological processing.
Another body of research has looked at an area of the brain called the cerebellum, which is located at the lower back of the brain. It is thought that the cerebellum plays an important role in helping to process language.
The cerebellum is also responsible for coordination, and your ability to estimate how much time has passed. This may explain why many people with dyslexia have problems with coordination and time management.
Again, the results of MRI scans have suggested that the cerebellum functions differently between people with dyslexia and those without the condition.
It should be emphasised that all of the areas of the brain discussed above are thought to have a high degree of 'plasticity'. Plasticity is a term that means that an area of the brain and its function is not 'set in stone', but can be remodelled over time.
It may therefore be possible for people with dyslexia to use appropriate treatment to effectively 'rewire' areas of their brain over time and improve their phonological processing ability.
- The brain controls thought, memory and emotion. It sends messages to the body controlling movement, speech and senses.
Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011
It is thought that the earlier a child with dyslexia is diagnosed, the more effective their future treatment will be.
In practice, identifying dyslexia in younger children can be very difficult for both parents and teachers because the signs and symptoms are often subtle. However, early continuing difficulties with differentiating sounds, particularly at the beginning or end of a word, can be a sign of possible difficulties in the future.
Many children, including younger children, also develop ways to compensate for their dyslexia, such as relying on their long-term memory more than usual or by 'picturing' the whole word.
Screening programmes have been suggested for children starting school, but pilot projects in the UK proved unreliable and hence are not carried out.
If you are concerned about your child's progress with reading and writing, you should first talk to their class teacher. You may also want to meet with other staff in the school. If you or your child's teacher has a continuing concern, you should take your child to visit your GP. It may be that your child has health problems that are not connected to dyslexia but are affecting their ability to read or write. For example, they may have:
- vision problems - such as short-sightedness (myopia) or a squint (strabismus)
- impaired hearing - as the result of a condition such as glue ear
- other conditions - such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
If your child does not have any obvious underlying health problems to explain their learning difficulties, it may be that they are not responding very well to the method of teaching that is being used.
To help them learn to read, an approach can be used where words are understood by learning sound-letter matching and by sounding out and building up words using a method that is known as synthesis and segmentation.
If your child is still having difficulties, the next stage would be for them to receive additional teaching and support, possibly using a different approach, such as smaller group work or one-to-one teaching, and frequent 'short burst' inputs - for example, two to three times a day for 15 minutes. Many children, even those with mild or moderate dyslexia, usually make good progress with this type of support.
A more in-depth assessment may be recommended if concerns still exist about your child's progress after they have received additional teaching and support. The assessment will be carried out by an educational psychologist, who will be able to support the teacher, child and parent and help them to understand the child's learning difficulties, as well as suggesting targeted support to help with the difficulty.
An educational psychologist is a professional who specialises in assisting children who are having problems progressing with their education due to emotional, psychological, cognitive (learning) or behavioural factors.
For information on assessment and supports including supports for adults with dyslexia go to www.dyslexia.ie
- Hearing test
- Audiometry is any testing that checks hearing.
Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011
While there is currently no cure for dyslexia, there are a range of specialist interventions and treatments that can help children with dyslexia with their reading and writing abilities. The amount and type of intervention that they will need will depend on the severity of their condition.
Educational intervention - early years
Research has found that early educational interventions, ideally before a child reaches seven or eight years of age, are an effective way of achieving long-term improvements in their reading and writing.
A wide range of educational interventions and programmes are currently available. For example, a recent report looking at effective ways to improve literacy in children with reading and writing difficulties found that there are currently 60 types of interventions and programmes currently being used in England.
With so many different programmes available, it can often be confusing for parents when deciding which ones would be most beneficial for their child.
There is a large body of good quality evidence that interventions that focus on improving phonological skills (the ability to identify and process sounds) are the most effective way of improving reading and writing. These types of educational interventions are often referred to as phonics. Phonics is a system that is widely used to teach all children to read and write, not just those with dyslexia.
Phonics - core elements
Phonics focuses on six core elements:
- phonemic awareness
- phonics instruction
- spelling and writing instruction
- fluency instruction
- vocabulary instruction
- comprehension instruction
These are explained in more detail below.
Phonemic awareness teaches children how to recognise and identify phonemes (sounds) in spoken words. For example, it helps a child to recognise that even very short words, such as 'hat' are actually made up of three phonemes 'h', 'a', and 't'.
Another important part of phonemic awareness involves understanding that you can manipulate phonemes to change words, such as changing the 'h' to a 'c' to create the word cat.
Phonics instruction teaches children how to sound out printed words by recognising the written letters that correspond to spoken phonemes. Letters that correspond to phonemes are known as graphemes.
Phonics also teaches children how to decode multisyllabic words, such as 'crocodile' and apply previous learned rules so that they have a better understanding of new words.
Spelling and writing instruction
Spelling and writing instruction encourages children to combine letters and graphemes in order to create words and then, over time, to use the words to create more complex sentences.
Fluency instruction provides children with practice in reading words accurately. The goal is for a child to be able to read with a good level of accuracy and speed.
This is important because if a child spends a lot of time trying to focus on reading individual words, it is easy to lose track of the text as a whole, and they may not properly understand what they are reading.
Vocabulary instruction teaches children to recognise the words they are reading while building and understanding new words.
Comprehension instruction teaches children to monitor their own understanding while they read. They are encouraged to ask questions if they notice gaps in their understanding, while also linking what they are reading to information they have previously learned.
Phonics - important features
There is also a large body of good quality evidence to indicate that the most effective methods of teaching phonics to children with dyslexia contain a number of important features. These are explained below.
Teaching needs to be highly structured, with development made in small steps, building logically on what has been learnt before.
Children with dyslexia learn better when they can use as many different senses as possible. An example of multi-sensory teaching is where a child is taught to see the letter 'a', say its name and sound, and write it in the air (all at the same time).
Skills should be reinforced through regular practice because children with dyslexia often have to 'overlearn' skills that they have already mastered. This helps to improve their automatic recognition of the correct phonemes, letters, and rules in reading and writing.
Early interventions in children with dyslexia should focus on the development of useful skills that can be transferred to other areas. Trying to teach children to learn and retain big chunks of information instead could place, arguably unnecessary, pressure on their memory.
Metacognition is a word that essentially means 'thinking about the way you think'. In practice, metacognition involves encouraging children to recognise that there are several different learning methods and approaches available to them, and then thinking about which ones would be best for them to use in different circumstances.
Breaking down emotional barriers
Another important feature of any educational intervention is to recognise that many children with dyslexia can develop emotional barriers that can make learning more difficult such as:
- low confidence
Therefore, it is important to break down these barriers through encouragement, empathy, and fostering the child's self-esteem.
Many older children with dyslexia feel much more comfortable working with a computer than with an exercise book. This may be because a computer uses a visual environment which corresponds more closely to their method of thinking.
Word processing programmes can also be very useful because they have a spellchecker, and an auto-correct facility that can help to highlight any mistakes in your child's writing.
Most web browsers, and word processing software also have 'text-to-speech' functions, or available 'plug-ins', where the computer reads the text as it appears on the screen.
Speech recognition software can also be used to translate what a person is saying into written text. This type of software can be useful for children with dyslexia because their language abilities are often much better than their writing skills. The software can take a considerable amount of time and effort to use before it can be used with speed, but some children may find that the effort is eventually worthwhile.
There are also many educational interactive software applications which may provide your child with a more engaging way of learning a subject, rather than simply reading from a textbook.
Much of the advice and techniques that are used to help children with dyslexia are also relevant for adults. Making use of technology, such as word processors and electronic organisers, can help you with your writing and to organise your daily activities.
The best way to learn something is to use a multi-sensory approach. For example, you could use a digital recorder to record a lecture, and then listen to it as you read your notes. It is also recommended that you break large tasks and activities down into smaller steps.
If you need to draw up a plan, or make notes about a certain topic, you may find it useful to create a 'mind map', rather than writing a list. Mind maps are diagrams that use images and keywords to create a visual representation of a subject or plan.
You should let your employer know that you have dyslexia because they are required by law to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace in order to assist you.
Examples of reasonable adjustments include:
- providing you with assistance technology, such as voice-recognition software
- allowing you extra time for tasks that you find particularly difficult
- providing you with information in formats that you find accessible
Helping your child
As a parent, you may want to help your children with their reading, but you may be unsure about the best way to do it. Below is some advice that you may find useful.
- Read to your child - this will improve their vocabulary, listening skills, and it will encourage their interest in books.
- Share reading - you both read some of the book and then discuss what is happening, or what might happen.
- 'Overlearning' - you may get bored of reading your child's favourite book over and over again, but repetition will reinforce their understanding and build familiarity with the text.
- Silent reading - children need the chance to read alone in order to encourage their independence and fluency.
- Make reading fun - reading should be a pleasure, not a chore. Use books that are about subjects your child is interested in, and ensure that reading takes place in a relaxed and conformable environment.