Understanding Dyslexia

See also: Understanding Dyscalculia

Dyslexia is one of a ‘family’ of conditions known as specific learning difficulties. The condition often manifests as difficulty in reading and writing. Indeed, the common perception of it as ‘word-blindness’ has come from this issue. However, dyslexia is actually all about how information is processed within the brain. It therefore affects ability to take in and remember information.

People with dyslexia may therefore have problems with school subjects like foreign languages or mathematics (which is effectively a language, with numbers as the alphabet). They may struggle more generally with learning and remembering information, or in taking in and recalling instructions. Dyslexia can also affect organisational skills.

This page explains how dyslexia may manifest, including its common signs. It also discusses the type of support that is (or should be) available to children and adults with dyslexia.

Defining Dyslexia

The word dyslexia comes from the prefix dys-, meaning ill, bad, abnormal, and the Greek word lexis, meaning word. Initial thinking about the condition was that it was a problem with words. However, thinking has now moved on, and the current definition adopted by many of the dyslexia charities and voluntary bodies was developed in 2009 (see box).

Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling. Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed. Dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities. It is best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, and there are no clear cut-off points. Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor co-ordination, mental calculation, concentration and personal organisation, but these are not, by themselves, markers of dyslexia. A good indication of the severity and persistence of dyslexic difficulties can be gained by examining how the individual responds or has responded to well-founded intervention.

Source: Identifying and Teaching Children and Young People with Dyslexia and Literacy Difficulties An independent report from Sir Jim Rose to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, June 2009

The British Dyslexia Association adds to this definition:

The British Dyslexia Association acknowledges the visual and auditory processing difficulties that some individuals with dyslexia can experience, and points out that dyslexic readers can show a combination of abilities and difficulties that affect the learning process. Some also have strengths in other areas, such as design, problem solving, creative skills, interactive skills and oral skills.”

It is not clear what causes dyslexia. However, it tends to run in families, suggesting that there is at least some genetic component. It is also often seen together with other related conditions such as dyspraxia (problems with coordination), dyscalculia (problems with numbers) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Dyslexia in Practice

It will be clear from the definition above that dyslexia can manifest in many different ways.

It is likely that no two people with dyslexia will have exactly the same presentation, even if their profile on tests is very similar. It is therefore often difficult to identify dyslexia without doing a specialist assessment. However, there are certain signs that might suggest that a professional assessment would be helpful.

During the early years of education, up to about age 5, these mostly manifest as problems listening and sitting still—issues that may simply indicate a developmental lack of readiness to be at school. Children with dyslexia may also show signs such as confusing directional words like up and down, or have trouble remembering friends’ names, or distinguishing words aurally.

Once children with dyslexia reach school age, the signs usually become more obvious, including:

  • Reading and writing very slowly;

  • A poor standard of written work compared with oral work;

  • Confusing the order of letters in words;

  • Being confused by letters that look similar or mirrored, and writing them the wrong way round (for example, “b” for “d”);

  • Having poor or inconsistent spelling or capitalisation;

  • Having poor handwriting;

  • Understanding verbal information, but struggling with written information;

  • Finding it hard to understand mathematical concepts such as place value (units, tens, hundreds);

  • Having difficulty telling the time, understanding days or keeping to time;

  • Needing instructions to be repeated several times, or written down;

  • Finding it hard to remember and carry out a sequence of directions;

  • Confusing directions such as left/right or up/down;

  • Finding it hard to work out a multi-step problem or process;

  • Being easily distracted or ‘switching off’, especially when they are being asked to take in a lot of information; and

  • Struggling with planning or organisation in a way that seems oddly age-inappropriate.

It is important to say that all these things may simply be a matter of development. In other words, small children may make many of these errors when learning to read and write without having dyslexia. However, when the issue keeps manifesting for longer than in their peers, it may be a sign of difficulty.

The parents of children who have received a relatively late diagnosis of dyslexia (at secondary school, after the age of 11 in the UK) often report that they realised that there was an issue when their otherwise extremely capable and intelligent child suddenly had a problem with one particular area of learning.

This is particularly true for highly intelligent children. They tend to develop ‘workarounds’: for example, they might use very good language skills to predict the next word in a sentence, and therefore compensate for a slower reading speed, or not being able to decipher a new word. However, there comes a point when these workarounds cannot compensate anymore, and then suddenly the problem comes to light (see box).

Examples of dyslexia presentation

Cass’s dyslexia was diagnosed at the age of 16. Her mother had noticed for some time that her marks were much lower in English than in other subjects, and decided to ask for an assessment. The school was reluctant, because she was ‘doing fine’—but as her mother said, she did much better with extra help and time.

James was diagnosed at the age of 14. Without having had any real problems earlier in his school career, he had spent most of the academic year struggling with both maths and languages. His mother mentioned the issue to a friend whose daughters had dyslexia, and she suggested an assessment. James’ mother was sceptical, because he read fluently, but decided to get him assessed ‘just to rule that out’. The assessment showed a clear profile of dyslexia, with problems in two areas of processing that were affecting his maths in particular. As James himself said, just because you can read doesn’t mean you don’t have dyslexia.

Amy, James’ younger sister, was assessed and diagnosed shortly after James—in fact, once their mother had read James’ assessment report. She had shown real problems organising her work, and remembering strings of instructions, and this was becoming more and more of a problem as she got older. However, she took real pleasure in reading, and read fast and fluently.

Diagnosing Dyslexia

The only sure way to diagnose dyslexia is through an in-depth assessment from a specialist in assessing specific learning difficulties.

This may be an educational psychologist, or another specialist. For a child at school, this may be accessed via the Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCo) in the UK. For children in state schools, this assessment should be provided free of charge.

However, the school may be reluctant to organise an assessment, especially if your child is not presenting ‘typically’.

If so, there are organisations that offer private assessments or can put you in touch with qualified assessors for you to organise your own assessment. In the UK, these include charities such as the British Dyslexia Association, or organisations like PATOSS (the Professional Association of Teachers of Students with Specific Learning Difficulties). You will have to pay for this assessment—which is why getting it through the school may be the best option.

Support for Dyslexia

Individual presentations of dyslexia vary very widely. The support required by individuals with dyslexia therefore also varies.

There are some common aspects, and some ‘standard offerings’. For example, many if not most children with dyslexia will be offered extra time in exams, so that they have time to process all the information. They may also be allowed a computer, especially if their handwriting is poor, or so that they can edit their work as they go along. However, other ‘accommodations’ may also be helpful or required by particular individuals—both in exams and more generally at school or at work to enable them to learn or work effectively.

The key is to look at what issues or areas cause you problems, and then find a way to address them.

Cass, James and Amy, the examples from earlier, needed some similar help to each other, but also some different accommodations:

  • Cass got extra time in her public exams later that year, but very little other help or support—there simply wasn’t time to organise very much before she took the exams.

  • James got extra time in his public exams, and was allowed to use a computer. He was also allowed to use a laptop to write essays routinely. Unusually, his school allowed him to drop French just before the exam entries were submitted.

  • Amy is permitted to wear a smartwatch in school (which other pupils at her school are not allowed to do). This enables her to use reminders to keep herself organised. She too gets extra time in exams, and is allowed to use a computer for them. She uses a laptop to take notes in lessons, and is encouraged to submit her homework electronically to avoid missing deadlines.

These accommodations are highly individual, and worked out by the children concerned, in conjunction with their parents and the schools’ Special Educational Needs Coordinator. There should be a willingness to experiment with different options to find the right accommodations for each child.

A Final Thought

Dyslexia is a lifelong condition, and classified as a disability in the UK’s Equality Act 2010. It is therefore not something that you can ‘get over’ or ‘treat’—and neither should you think about it this way.

Instead, try considering dyslexia simply as a difference in how you think compared with other people. It may prevent you from doing some things—but it may also help you to do others better.