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Reading, writing, spelling difficulties - could the problems your child is facing suggest dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a common difficulty, but that does not make it less of a problem. Despite its being so well recognised, there are still those who deny its existence or, more subtly, underestimate or ignore the significance of the problem for a particular individual.

A child with dyslexia?

Dyslexia is primarily about difficulties with reading, spelling and writing. It is difficult for any child to realise why they are different. They may recognise that what they can and cannot do is different, for example spelling accurately or remembering times tables, but they are unlikely to know why. 

Dyslexia is a life-long condition that cannot be cured, but its effects can be minimised with appropriate, timely help and intervention, and good use of coping strategies. There may be associated difficulties that can be identified and treated; for example, glue ear (otitis media), common in children with dyslexia, can affect their hearing, which in turn affects their ability to learn phonics in reading. Aids, such as coloured lenses (it is important to screen for this), are likely to be effective in only some 20 per cent of cases. 

The dyslexic child is one who usually:

  • Fails at school despite adequate intelligence.
  • Writes 41 for 14, reads ‘on’ for ‘no’, writes b for d and can’t remember the sequence of letters that make up a word.
  • Hears a clock ticking, the sound of pencils scratching on paper, but doesn't hear what the teacher says.
  • Forgets names of people, places, their own phone number, date of birth, but remembers the ads on TV.
  • Loses homework, misplaces a book, doesn't know what day it is.
  • Has a messy room, a shirttail hanging out, shoelaces undone, attracts dirt like a magnet.
  • Doesn't look where they are going, bumps into doors, doesn't look at the person who is talking to them.
  • Has trouble lining up, doesn't stop talking, fiddles with anything and everything.
  • Calls breakfast ‘lunch’, says ‘Good morning’ in the afternoon, has little sense of time.
  • Has a limited concentration span, especially with anything written.
  • Is reluctant to try new things, to accept even minor changes in routine.
  • Says ‘I don’t care’ or ‘I won’t’ when they mean ‘I can’t’, and would rather be labelled bad than stupid.
  • Is a quiet child who has withdrawn from involvement in any classroom activity.
  • Is the child who has a headache or tummy ache on the same day each week, the day of the lesson they dread.

Indicators of dyslexia

  • Dyslexia in the family.
  • Problems with speech and language, including mispronouncing or jumbling words, poor use of syntax, difficulties with rhymes, inaccurate and inconsistent use of words, word-naming problems.
  • Problems with putting words or numbers in sequence.
  • Poor organisational skills including difficulty dressing.
  • Visual difficulties - standard eye tests may reveal perfect vision, but there may be underlying problems.
  • There may be auditory difficulties. The child may hear, but not be able to distinguish sounds. Hearing test results may be normal, but the child may have problems remembering a string of instructions, learning nursery or other rhymes, learning tables, the alphabet, days of the week or months of the year. 
  • Counting, especially counting backwards, may be problematic. 
  • Fine motor skill problems may be apparent – perhaps holding a pencil awkwardly, having difficulty with scissors or cutlery, problems tying shoe laces.
  • Gross motor skill difficulties may be apparent: the child may be slow to hop, skip or jump, appear clumsy and bump into things, have difficulty distinguishing right from left.

In isolation, or indeed in young children, these indicators of dyslexia should not give cause for concern. It is when several indicators are present that dyslexia (or another specific learning difficulty) may be present. If you suspect that your child may have a learning difficulty, discuss it with teachers.

Facing the school day

Dyslexia is mainly associated with reading and writing, but it affects more than just English lessons. For example, the writing demands of history can be a problem and the child may find sports difficult..

Dyslexics can also run into difficulties in maths if not taught appropriately – many dyslexics find learning times table facts very difficult, which can be a great source of frustration for child, parent and teacher.

The impact of dyslexia depends on the tasks the child is asked to do and on the circumstances that surround them. Dyslexics can flourish in the cosy, reassuring atmosphere of a good primary school, but many things about the structure of secondary schools make them inherently more difficult. For example, pupils now meet many teachers instead of just the class teacher, and they are expected to be more independent in their learning, to read more and write more, to adjust to more new demands from each new lesson, to be organised. Dyslexic children will struggle with all of these to a greater or lesser degree.

10 things that hinder the dyslexic child

  1. Teachers who go too fast and expect too much. 
  2. Being expected to produce the same amount of work (as non-dyslexic pupils) in the same time.
  3. Teachers who do not stick to the point.
  4. Teachers who know that the child is dyslexic, but don't help enough. Being patronised.
  5. Too much copying off the board and/or dictating notes. Removing work from the board too soon.
  6. Having test results read out loud. People who make fun or who are sarcastic.
  7. Being told off when asking a friend for help.
  8. Not being allowed to use a laptop in lessons.
  9. Confusing ‘dyslexic’ with stupidity. Lack of understanding/empathy for dyslexia (from teachers and other students).
  10. Being made to read aloud in class.

20 things that help the dyslexic child

  1. Being given help disreetly.
  2. Being given more time.
  3. Handouts with summaries of work.
  4. Marking work in dark colours ... tidily.
  5. Working in smaller groups.
  6. Trained teachers. An awareness of dyslexic difficulties. 
  7. Teachers who care.
  8. Grades that show individual improvement.
  9. Marking that is clear and helpful.
  10. Catch-up exercises.
  11. Work judged for content, not spelling.
  12. Working from the pupils’ strengths.
  13. Multi-sensory teaching and learning.
  14. Use of study skills and mind maps.
  15. Visual aids such as diagrams, pictures, charts, interactive whiteboards etc.
  16. Audio-visual aids – including encouraging alternative means of recording such as voice-recognition software.
  17. ICT as a tool (eg for touch-typing) as well as a teaching/learning aid.
  18. Emphasising and promoting key words.
  19. Limiting the amount to be copied from the board.
  20. Praise, encouragement and rewards.

These issues should be addressed in any school’s policy for special educational needs. Ask to see the policy and ask for examples as to how it is implemented in the school.

Vision and reading problems

Sometimes problems with reading or focusing have nothing to do with actual visual impairment, but with control over how the eyes move, or how the brain interprets what they see. Vision and reading problems are frequently identified in children with specific learning difficulties. 


Difficulty with the control of the eyes often results in unpleasant visual symptoms, which commonly include: blurring, movement, shimmering, flickering, fading, distortion of print, merging of print and background, double vision, headaches and/or sore eyes.

Children who suffer visual stress may have difficulty with:

  • viewing patterns in print
  • seeing colours in print
  • copying
  • scanning and maintaining their place when reading
  • reversing letters
  • organising and spacing print.

Symptoms may be worse under certain lighting conditions, in particular fluorescent lighting, and if print is small and densely packed. Sufferers may also feel that the page is too bright to look at. The symptoms may be constant or intermittent and may be caused by several visual difficulties.

Visual problems do not in themselves cause dyslexia or dyspraxia; however, they may be a considerable additional barrier to learning to read and write.

The more visual symptoms a person has the more likely they are to have problems with reading. Equally, of course, visual problems can afflict children and adults who do not have dyslexia or dyspraxia.

Symptoms can be indicative of a number of problems, which an orthoptist can check for and treat. Undetected, they can lead to children lagging behind or missing out on learning at crucial times.

Binocular vision difficulties

Binocular vision involves the control and co-ordination of both eyes. Although each eye sees two separate images, these images are blended in our brain into one single picture. There are many aspects of binocular vision which are crucial to comfortable and accurate reading.

Our eyes are rarely completely straight. In most people the eyes drift slightly and this is controlled without our even noticing. If the eyes drift too much, this can cause headaches and discomfort, especially when reading. Three essential components of eye control, if faulty, affect our ability to read for prolonged periods. These are:

  • convergence (pulling the eyes in)
  • accommodation (fine focusing of vision to stop things looking blurred)
  • fusion (a brain function which compensates for drifting of the eyes and keeps the eyes aligned).

These aspects of vision are weak in many people who find reading difficult. Difficulty with accommodation and convergence will result in problems seeing print clearly and maintaining single clear vision. If there is insufficient fusion, the eyes will tire and visual symptoms will result which will make reading difficult. Some people have problems with focusing and co-ordinating the eyes, resulting in fatigue when doing close work.

The good news is that binocular vision problems are easily remedied for most people with some simple exercises, and in some cases glasses.

Meares-Irlen syndrome (MIS)/visual stress/scotopic sensitivity

This is caused by pattern sensitivity. Children (and adults) with MIS may complain of many of the visual symptoms in the list above. They may appear to have sore eyes and will get tired easily when reading. In extreme cases they may avoid reading altogether.

It has been shown that patterns or stripes can create uncomfortable visual distortions, which can cause headaches.

Print can also take on the appearance or illusion of stripy patterns, creating uncomfortable visual symptoms and distortions when reading. These distortions are common (they are an exaggeration of a normal phenomenon) and are not exclusively experienced by people with dyslexia, but can affect up to 50 per cent of dyslexic readers. MIS sufferers find their problems are worse with small print, shiny paper and some font types.

This condition can be treated with tinted overlays and precision-coloured lenses. Each person has an individual colour preference, and the right colour (ascertained by a specially trained orthoptist) will generally reduce the symptoms and discomfort, increase reading speed, reduce headaches and so possibly improve attention and concentration.

Eye movements

Good eye movements are essential to reading. People with reading difficulties may have eye movements that are not properly controlled or coordinated.

Abnormal control of eye movements is particularly common in children with other co-ordination problems such as dyspraxia or developmental co-ordination disorder.

Saccadic (jumping) eye movements are used in reading to change focus from one word to another. If these little leaps are poorly controlled then the reader may lose their place or miss words out. This may also cause problems when copying, and the student may not be able to copy accurately, especially if they have problems directing their gaze accurately. Common indications of this include:

  • excessive head movements when changing gaze
  • difficulty changing focus from one target to another (called an initiation problem)
  • poor control of reflexive eye movements, making the person easy to distract
  • inaccurate eye movements.

Gaining better control of saccades can make reading more accurate and faster.

Tracking ability

Tracking is used when reading to search for information and follow a line of writing. The ability to do this improves with age and practice. If it is underdeveloped, a child will have problems keeping their place when reading and copying. This can be improved with exercises and by using a ruler or window to keep the place. Copying can be improved by placing the material to be copied on the desk directly above, rather than to the side, of the paper the child is writing on.

A bright future?

For those who persevere, and many dyslexics persevere at levels non-dyslexics will never attain, the results can be impressive. There is generally good help and support for bright dyslexics at university. Note-takers, mentors and extra-time are some of the things that may be funded via the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) grant. Each case is assessed on merit and will need to be supported with appropriate up-to-date document such as a recent educational psychologist's report.

Well-known dyslexics include Tom Cruise, Lord Rogers, Sir Jackie Stewart, Sir Steve Redgrave, Linda LaPlante, Cher, Sir Richard Branson and Susan Hampshire.

With thanks to Sandra Hutchinson, Dr Nadia Northway and to Steve Chinn for additional material. 'What helps, what hinders'  reproduced with kind permissions and in part from Thomson and Chinn in Dyslexia: Theory and Good Practice, Whurr, 2001)



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