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Dyslexia – reading, writing and spelling difficulties


What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling.

‘Dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities’
Difficulties of with dyslexia can affect children across the range of intellectual abilities. Previous diagnosis referred to dyslexia as a specific learning difficulty and individuals that received a diagnosis of dyslexia had an IQ in the average range or above. A specific learning difficulty is a neurological (rather than psychological) difficulty, it often runs in families and occurs independently of intelligence, and other factors such as autism or hearing impairment. Evidence now highlights that regardless of the general level of ability, those individuals with reading and spelling difficulties perform poorly on tasks such as decoding, written word recognition and phonological awareness, and IQ does not predict how individuals will respond to literacy intervention or their long-term outcomes.


Dyslexia is on a continuum
Dyslexia is best thought of as a continuum without cut-off points, from mild to severe. Many individuals will also have other co-occurring difficulties, such as language delay, motor co-ordination difficulties, working memory delay, listening and attention difficulties and personal organisation difficulties, but these are not, by themselves, indicators of dyslexia.


Signs of Dyslexia

The signs of dyslexia are not always initially obvious and some children will cope relatively well in early schooling and then start to struggle during later years when reading and writing becomes more complex. However, for many children the signs are more obvious from an early age. The problem is often made worse because many poor readers do not enjoy reading and so it does not become a leisure activity, which in turn affects reading and spelling development. When there is an obvious discrepancy between the ability to express ideas orally, and a difficulty recording these ideas in writing, this can be  of dyslexia in older children. Some signs of dyslexia at different ages are listed below:



  • Delayed or problematic speech
  • Poor expressive language
  • Poor rhyming skills
  • Little interest or difficulty learning letters


Early school years

  • Poor letter-sound knowledge
  • Poor phoneme awareness
  • Poor word attack skills
  • Idiosyncratic spelling
  • Problems copying


Middle school years

  • Delayed reading, writing and spelling skills
  • Slow reading
  • Poor decoding skills when faced with new words
  • Phonetic or non-phonetic spelling


Adolescence and adulthood

  • Poor reading fluency
  • Slow speed of writing
  • Poor organisation and expression in work – difficulties putting ideas and thoughts into the written form


Characteristic features of dyslexia

Phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed are all aspects of phonological processing and evidence shows that delayed development of these processes are reliable markers of dyslexia.

Phonological awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate the sounds in words, and is a key skill for the development of early word-level reading and spelling development. An example of phonological awareness would be demonstrated by understanding that if the ‘m’ in the word ‘mat’ is changed to an ‘s’, the word becomes ‘sat’, or recognising that the difference between ‘pen’ and ‘pet’, is the final sound.

Verbal (phonological short-term) memory is the ability to remember a sequence of verbal material for a short period of time, for example, to recall a list of words or a telephone number, or to remember a list of instructions.

Verbal processing speed is the time taken to process familiar verbal information, such as letters and digits.


The severity of Dyslexia

One way to identify the severity of dyslexia can be gained by looking at how the individual responds or has responded to research-based intervention techniques. For example, if a teacher/parent uses certain proven techniques for improving the literacy skills of children with dyslexia, and these children either do not improve or improve at a very slow rate, we may be able to assume that the dyslexia is more severe. Those children with mild literacy or dyslexic difficulties should make good progress in developing literacy skills with appropriate interventions, and good, regular teaching. Only a small proportion of children will need more intensive support over a longer period. Those children that respond well to intervention when they are young should continue to be monitored through schooling as the literacy demands change and become different as they progress through the education system.


The Short and Long-term effects of dyslexia
There is a growing body of evidence about the serious short and long‑term effects of dyslexia from the start of education into adolescence and adulthood. Younger children with dyslexia tend to gain less pleasure from reading, and so read less. These children’s overall educational development is often delayed because of the need for reading and writing and spelling skills throughout schooling. Academic failure and a lack of qualifications often impacts on the occupational choices and opportunities in adulthood.

While some individuals develop coping strategies and/or overcome their difficulties, many become disaffected and disengage from education. Studies show a high level illiteracy among the prison population. A recent UK report estimates that dyslexia may significantly affect the literacy attainment of between 4% and 8% of children. There are a number of influences that predict better and poorer long term outcomes:


Things that influence better outcomes

• High quality intervention
• Strong oral language skills
• Ability to maintain attention
• Good family/carer support


Problems which may cause poorer outcomes

• Severity of phonological problems
• Slow speed of processing
• Lack of compensatory resources
• Co-occurring learning difficulties
• Late recognition and intervention
• Poor teaching


Effective Intervention

It is generally agreed that the earlier dyslexic difficulties are identified the better the outcomes for the individual. Effective interventions and effective teaching using well established evidence-base intervention programmes prioritising phonological skills are key to helping young people with dyslexia. Teaching that adheres to the following principles has been shown to be beneficial:

  • highly structured
  • systematic
  • ‘little and often’ 


Research shows that regular daily sessions can be particularly effective, although some children with dyslexia will respond very slowly even to the most effective of teaching approaches. These children will require skilled, intensive, one-to-one interventions. Success will depend on teachers who know what they are doing and what they are trying to achieve.

All teachers of beginner readers should know what to look for in children at risk of dyslexia and know where to seek advice on what steps are needed to help them. It is essential for schools to engage parents, and for the school and parents to work together to help the child overcome the difficulties associated with dyslexia. The child’s progress (no matter how slow) must be met with praise and encouragement from home as well as school to build confidence and self-esteem, and develop a culture where reading is an enjoyable activity.


In the coming weeks I will be adding information relating to assessment, treatment, and activities to help individuals with dyslexia at home and in the classroom.


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