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Dyslexia – reading, writing and spelling difficulties

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty that affects a person’s ability to accurately read and spell. Not everyone that has reading and spelling difficulties has dyslexia. People with dyslexia generally need more targeted, specific teaching over a longer period of time to help them improve reading and spelling skills.


What causes dyslexia

Anyone can have difficulties with reading and spelling, and although there is no specific cause, there does appear to be a genetic link with reading difficulties often running in families. Individuals with dyslexia often have difficulties with all or some of the following processes:

The combination of these difficulties can make reading and spelling very difficult. Many people with dyslexia have other difficulties (co-morbidity) such as At
Attention Deficit and Hyper-Activity Disorder (ADHD), or Dyspraxia, but these are not causes of dyslexia.


Signs of dyslexia


Although speech and language delay may not be a cause of reading difficulties, it may be an indication that there are underlying difficulties which will make it harder for a child to learn to read.


Early school years

In the early years of school, some students appear to be developing reading skills normally, but start to have problems later on. If your child is having difficulties in some of the areas described below, it may indicate a reading difficulty (see our page on Reading for more information about how students learn to read).

  • Poor letter-sound knowledge
  • Poor phoneme awareness
  • Poor word attack skills
  • Unusual 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


The severity of dyslexia

One way to identify the severity of dyslexia is by looking at how a person responds to an evidence based literacy program. If a person has regular literacy lessons, is taught in the correct way using a proven program, and either does not improve, or improves at a very slow rate, it may be an indication that their literacy difficulty is more severe. People with mild literacy or dyslexic difficulties should make good progress with the right interventions, and good, regular teaching. A small amount of people will need more intensive programs over a longer period.


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.


Can Adults overcome Dyslexia

Yes, but it may be harder to learn to read as an adult. However, many adults with reading difficulties do improve their reading skills and/or use technology to help them read and spell.


Can we do anything to fix Dyslexia?

Absolutely! With the right programs and practice everyone can improve their ability to read, write and spell.
Things that improve your chances of overcoming dyslexia:

  • Early intervention – the earlier you start to help your child, the better their chances of overcoming dyslexia
  • High quality intervention – use programs that are based on research and evidence
  • Strong oral language skills – if your child has good language skills, this can help with learning to read
  • Ability to maintain attention – being able to listen and attend is a foundation for learning and is especially important when learning to read
  • Good family/carer support – being willing to read to your child and help them with their reading program each week is vital
  • Teaching – teachers that know what they are doing, and using the right interventions are also vital for beating dyslexia
  • For early readers, all the evidence points to focusing on improving phonological awareness skills
  • Adults can also learn to read if they receive the right training program
  • Teaching that adheres to the following principles has been shown to be beneficial:

– highly structured
– systematic
– ‘little and often’ – regular daily sessions

To read more about difficulties with Reading – Click here
To read more about difficulties with Writing (Dysgraphia) – Click here
To read more about difficulties with Spelling – Click Here


FAQS about Dyslexia

How can you beat Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is classified as a Specific Learning Disability by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual 5th Edition (DSM-V). As such, it can be thought of as a life-long condition. However, with the right intervention many people can overcome the difficulties of dyslexia and go on to be very successful both academically and in their careers (law, medicine, education etc). It must be remembered that these people overcame their difficulties through perseverance and hard work. To beat dyslexia you need the right program (one that is backed by evidence that it really works), the right guidance (help from a specialist that knows how to teach people reading and writing difficulties), and the motivation to practice regularly. If you are working with a child, their 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.


What is the Diagnostic Statistical Manual 5th Edition (DSM-V)?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) is the handbook used by health care professionals in much of the world as the authoritative guide to the diagnosis of many disorders. The DSM contains descriptions, symptoms, and other criteria for diagnosing these disorders. Dyslexia is referred to as a Specific Learning Disability in this manual.


What is a Specific Learning Disability?

Specific learning disability (SLD) is a developmental disorder that begins by school-age, although it may not be recognized until later in schooling. It involves ongoing problems learning key academic skills, including reading, writing and math, and is not simply the result of poor instruction. Key skills that may be affected include reading of single words, reading comprehension, writing, spelling, math calculation and math problem solving. Difficulties with these skills may cause problems with learning other academic subjects, such as history, science etc. An SLD, if not treated, can potentially cause problems throughout a person’s life, including lower academic achievement, lower self-esteem, higher rates of dropping out of school, higher psychological distress and poor overall mental health, as well as higher rates of unemployment.


What is Phonological and Phonemic Awareness and how does it affect reading?

A very simple explanation is that Phonological Awareness refers to your ability to hear a sentence and pick out the words, or hear a word and separate it into syllables. If you have normal phonological awareness skills you should be able to recognise the first sound of a word or recognise that 2 words rhyme.

Phonemic awareness is a part of phonological awareness and refers to your ability to hear a word, and recognise the individual sounds in the word and be able to manipulate these sounds to form new words. For instance, you would recognise that the word “cat” has 3 sounds -/c/, /a/, /t/, and you would know that if you replace the first sound with a /p/ you would have the word “pat“.

If an individual has difficulty with phonological or phonemic awareness, they will have difficulty recognising the individual sounds in words. To try and describe what this is like, imagine 3 musical notes played by 3 different keys on a piano, and think about the 3 sounds in the word “cat“. If we hear these 3 keys on a piano played one after the other we can hear the 3 individual musical notes. When we hear the word “cat” we can hear the 3 distinctive sounds, firstly the /c/, then the /a/, then the /t/.

Now imagine all three keys on the piano are pressed down at the same time – it becomes very difficult to pick out the 3 individual musical notes, we just hear one sound (all three notes together). I imagine this is what it might be like for someone with poor phonological awareness – when they hear the word “cat“, they hear one complete word, not the individual sounds that make it up. For people with dyslexia it takes extra practice to be able to break the word into sounds.


What is Working Memory and how does it affect reading?

Working memory refers to an individual’s ability to hold a piece information they have heard or seen for a short time, while they also process and do something with that information. For instance, if I ask you to do the sum 14 x 11 in your head:

  • First, you have to hold and not forget the information 14 x 11
  • Secondly you have to process the instruction, so you have to understand that I want you to multiply 14 by 11, not add, subtract or divide etc, so you then have to access your knowledge of how to do this
  • Thirdly you then have to make the calculation. You might have a strategy to do this such as doing 10×11=110 and 4 x11=44, so 110+44+154


So working memory is a very dynamic system, but what has it got to do with reading? Firstly, when we are learning to read, we need to be able to seed a word, say the sounds of the word, and then hold all those sounds in our memory as we blend them together to figure out the word – this needs working memory skills. As reading improves, we read a sentence of words, and we need to hold these words in our working memory as we piece together the meaning of the sentence. If we hear new words we need to hold them long enough to analyse them before we store them efficiently in our mental lexicon (the word store in your brain). If we don’t have time to analyse new words properly (and this analyse happens very quickly) we might either forget them or have a poor representation in our mental lexicon. If we have a poor representation in our mental lexicon, when we go back later to access that word to read, spell or speak it, we may not be able to access it.

Working memory is also needed during reading. As we read we should be holding the written information for a short period so we can process it. If we cannot hold that information for long enough to process it, we might get to the end of the sentence and have forgotten what we read at the start, so the sentence does not make sense. I have read about


Verbal memory and Auditory memory, how is this different?

I may be corrected on this, but my understanding is that these are the same or similar to the processes mentioned above e.g. we hear information, we hold it, we analyse it, we understand it, and then we store it so that we can access it efficiently later.


What is a mental lexicon / a lexical representation?

The mental lexicon is our store of words and holds information about the meaning of a word, how it sounds, how it is spelled, and what it looks like. We should be able to access this information quickly and easily whenever we are talking, reading or writing. Difficulties occur when we cannot store new information efficiently in our lexicon, or if we have trouble accessing that information.


What is Processing Speed and how does it affect reading?

Some students have difficulties with processing spoken and/or written information quickly. What does this mean? It means when they hear or a see a written word it may take a fraction longer (or possibly seconds longer) to process this information. It is like taking a short cut and the long route to reach your destination – people with processing difficulties take the long route.

Why does this affect reading? Well, if you are reading a line of text, you want to be reading quickly and fluently. If you are reading too slowly because it takes longer to recognise words, you are less likely to be getting the gist of what you are reading and this in turn will affect comprehension (understanding).


Are people with dyslexia more artistic?

It is true that some people with dyslexia are very artistic and are highly skilled in certain areas. However, this is often the exception rather than the rule, so don’t assume that because you have dyslexia that you will have some kind of artistic gift.


Other difficulties that might co-occur with Dyslexia

What is dysgraphia?

The Dyslexia SPELD Foundation describe dysgraphia as “…. as difficulties with spelling, poor handwriting and trouble putting thoughts on paper”. People with dyslexia often have difficulties with writing tasks.


What is “Glue ear” or Otitis Media?

This is a common condition among young children. When Otitis Media occurs there is a build up of sticky fluid in the middle ear behind the ear drum. This condition can often last for months or keep recurring causing partial deafness for the child in a critical period for speech and language learning. It is believed that Otitis Media is often responsible speech and language delay and possibly later literacy problems.


What does co-morbidity mean?

This means one or more co-occurring conditions that occur alongside dyslexia, but are not the cause of dyslexia such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Language delay.

What is Attention Deficit (and Hyperactivity) Disorder ADHD / ADD

Children with this disorder have difficulty concentrating and paying attention for short periods, they may be impulsive, and they may be over-active. We must make the distinction between ADHD and ADD – some students have ADD, which primarily affects their attention, ability to concentrate, plan and organise themselves, but they do not have the hyperactive behaviours. This disorder often co-occurs with Dyslexia and obviously impacts on a child’s ability to learn.


What is a Language Delay / Disorder?

Reading and language are connected. To read a text you must have a knowledge of the vocabulary, you must understand syntax (understand the rules and structure of a sentence and word order and punctuation) , and obviously be able to comprehend (understand) the language. A knowledge of language also includes pragmatics which involves being able to use context, inference, and cues to understand subtle meaning of what you are reading. Children that have difficulties with language sometimes have a specific disorder with language (like Dyslexia is a specific learning disability). This will impact not just on their reading, but more broadly on there ability to communicate and understand language.

What is s Speech Delay / Disorder?

Delayed speech is often associated with difficulties with phonological awareness and because literacy development is also dependant on phonological awareness skills, a speech delay can often be a sign that a child may have difficulties with reading. A mild delay, such as a difficulty articulating one or two sounds correctly may not be serious, but if you child is unable to articulate many sounds, misses sounds or syllables off words, or is generally hard to understand this might be a reason to be concerned. A speech disorder, is different to a speech delay and may be more serious and need intensive speech therapy.


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