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Word On Dyslexia

Our thanks to the British Dyslexia Association for their input to our on-air report. Click here to visit their website, which is packed with information for parents, teachers and students. Our grateful thanks also to NHS Choices for the use of the information below as a means of introduction to Dyslexia. Click here to visit the NHS Choices website.

Dyslexia is a common learning difficulty that mainly affects the way people read and spell words.

Dyslexia and intelligence  Dyslexia only affects some skills and abilities and is not linked to a person's general level of intelligence.

Children of all intellectual abilities, from low to high intelligence, can be affected by dyslexia.

Similarly, the difficulty a child with dyslexia has 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 more severe dyslexia.

How common is dyslexia?  Dyslexia is thought to be one of the most common learning difficulties. It's estimated that up to 1 in every 10 people in the UK has a certain degree of dyslexia.

Dyslexia affects people of all ethnic backgrounds and has even been shown to affect languages based on symbols rather than letters, such as Cantonese.

However, a person’s native language can play an important role in the condition. For example, dyslexia is less problematic in languages with consistent rules around pronunciation, such as Italian and Spanish.

Languages such as English, where there is often no clear connection between the written form and sound (for example, words such as "a cough" and "dough"), can be more challenging for a person with dyslexia.

What causes dyslexia?  The exact cause of dyslexia is unknown, but it's seen more commonly in families.

Six genes have been identified that may be responsible for the condition, four of which affect the way the brain is formed during early life. Specialist brain scans (functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans) also show there is a reduced function of one area towards the back of the brain, called the occipitotemporal cortex.

Signs and symptoms Dyslexia is a spectrum disorder, with symptoms ranging from mild to severe. People with dyslexia have particular difficulty with:

  • phonological awareness
  • verbal memory
  • rapid serial naming
  • verbal processing speed

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.

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 becomes "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."

Rapid serial naming This is the ability to name a series of colours, objects or numbers as fast as possible.

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

For example, someone with a good verbal processing speed has the ability to quickly write down unfamiliar words when they are spelt out, or write down telephone numbers they are told.

The symptoms of dyslexia can differ from person to person, and each individual with the condition will have a unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses.

Preschool children In some cases, it's possible to detect symptoms of dyslexia before a child starts school. Symptoms can include:

  • delayed speech development in comparison with other children of the same age (although this can have many different causes besides dyslexia)
  • 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 incorrectly
  • little understanding or appreciation of rhyming words, such as "the cat sat on the mat", or nursery rhymes
  • a difficulty with, or little interest in, learning letters of the alphabet

School children  Symptoms of dyslexia usually become more obvious when children start school and begin to focus more on learning how to read and write. Symptoms of dyslexia in children aged 5-12 include:

  • problems learning the names and sounds of letters
  • spelling that is unpredictable and inconsistent
  • putting letters and figures the wrong way round –such as putting "6" instead "9", or "b" instead of "d"
  • confusing the order of letters in words
  • reading slowly or making errors when reading aloud
  • visual disturbances when reading – for example, a child may describe letters and words as seeming to move around or appear blurred
  • answering questions well orally, but having difficulty writing down the answer
  • difficulty carrying out a sequence of directions
  • struggling to learn sequences, such as days of the week or the alphabet
  • slow writing speed
  • poor handwriting
  • problems copying written language, and taking longer than normal to complete written work
  • poor phonological awareness and "word attack skills"

As highlighted above, 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 to correctly answer these questions:

  • what sounds do you think make up the word "hot", and are these different from the sounds that make up the word "hat"?
  • what word would you have if you changed the "p" sound in 'pot' to an "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".

Teenagers and adults  As well as the problems mentioned above, the symptoms of dyslexia in older children and adults can include:

  • poorly organised written work that lacks expression –for example, even though they may be very knowledgeable about a certain subject, they may have problems expressing that knowledge in writing
  • difficulty planning and writing essays, letters or reports
  • difficulties revising for examinations
  • trying to avoid reading and writing whenever possible
  • difficulty taking notes or copying
  • poor spelling
  • struggling to remember things such as a PINs or telephone numbers
  • struggling to meet deadlines

Identifying dyslexia  It can be difficult to diagnose dyslexia in young children as the signs are not always obvious. If you think your child has dyslexia, the first step is to speak to their teacher or the school’s special needs coordinator.

Identifying your child’s strengths (such as picture puzzles or maths) as well as their difficulties can be helpful. Many schools identify children who are having difficulty learning in particular areas and offer additional support.

If you or your child’s teacher has a continuing concern, take your child to visit a GP so they can check for signs of any underlying health issues, such as hearing or vision problems.

If your child doesn't have any obvious underlying health problems to explain their learning difficulties, different teaching methods may need to be tried, or you may want to request an assessment to identify any special needs they may have.

If your child does not make progress when offered this support, the school may request a more in-depth assessment from either a specialist teacher or educational psychologist. It is also possible to request private assessments, either directly from an educational psychologist or through voluntary organisations such as Dyslexia Action.

Adults who wish to be assessed for dyslexia can visit their local Dyslexia Action Centre.

Treating dyslexia Although dyslexia is a lifelong problem, a range of educational programmes and interventions are often effective in improving reading and writing skills in many children with the condition. Research has shown that the earlier appropriate interventions are adopted, the better.

Most children respond well to educational interventions and go on to make progress with reading and writing, although some children continue to find reading and writing difficult and will require more intensive support and long-term assistance to help them learn strategies for managing their difficulties.

Children with dyslexia face challenges on a day-to-day basis, but even children who have severe dyslexia can go on to lead full and productive lives. 

Listen to this weeks radio report

All material on this website is provided for your information only and may not be construed as medical advice or instruction. No action or inaction should be taken based solely on the contents of this information; instead, readers should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being.