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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 any less of a problem, actual and emotional, for a child and to an extent for the parent of a dyslexic child too. 

A child with dyslexia?

Dyslexia is commonly understood to encompass difficulties with reading, spelling and writing. But as an umbrella term referring to a variety of difficulties with underlying skills, such as phonological processing, or working memory, the presenting problems for many children with a diagnosis of dyslexia will be different.

Some will only suffer to a mild degree and with the aid of various coping strategies such as learning spellings via mnemonics, repetition of irregular spelling rules until they become embedded, or kinaesthetic learning instead of phonological, they may well be able to progress at the usual speed within the classroom and excel alongside their classmates.  For others, these strategies will also help but support may be required for a longer time and more frequently and it will take longer for spelling, reading or mental arithmetic to be something that is less of a stumbling block.

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 in glasses or writing on coloured paper can help, but are likely to be effective in only some 20 per cent of cases, so it is important to be screened by a specialist optometrist. 

Just some of the presentations of a child with dyslexia:

If your child writes 41 for 14, b for d, or misses out words as they read aloud, you might begin to wonder about a diagnosis of dyslexia. But there are many less obvious signs, which one might not immediately recognise. Does your child:

  • Hear a clock ticking, the sound of pencils scratching on paper, but doesn't hear what the teacher says
  • Forget the names of people, places, their own phone number or date of birth, but remembers song lyrics
  • Is a “frequent flyer” of the lost property box – anything and everything goes missing
  • Has a messy room and shoe-laces that seem to untie themselves
  • Tell stories in a jumbled way, starting in the middle
  • Doesn't look where they are going and gets frequent bumped knees
  • Has trouble lining up, doesn't stop talking, fiddles with anything and everything
  • Calls breakfast ‘lunch’, can’t distinguish ten minutes elapsing from half an hour and has little sense of time
  • Has a limited concentration span, especially with anything written
  • Arrives home from school exhausted with no energy for after-school activities
  • Says ‘I don’t care’ or ‘I won’t’ when they mean ‘I can’t
  • Is a quiet child who has withdrawn from involvement in 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

Every child is different and they might exhibit just one from this list, or all of them. 

Indicators of dyslexia

In isolation, or indeed in young children, these more formal 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. They may well recommend an assessment by an educational psychologist. As with everything, knowledge is power and this assessment will be invaluable in understanding the specifics of any difficulty and ensuring that your child receives the right support. 

  • 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.

Facing the school day

Dyslexia is mainly associated with reading and writing, but it affects more than just English lessons. Any lesson with a large amount of writing – which can be part of history, geography, religious education, even science - may present difficulties. New technologies are a boon. Schools are increasingly able to offer touch-typing classes and accommodate the use of lap-tops within the classroom, which can be transformative. Teachers can send lesson notes directly from the whiteboard to a child's laptop, or suggest that they take a photograph of the board on their 'phone instead of copying down. The use of laptops within standard testing however, has yet to be resolved and so preparation for the tests needs to be carefully thought about – children are currently unable to use laptops for official primary school tests.

Some dyslexics with working memory problems may also run into difficulties in maths if not taught appropriately – learning times tables may seem an endless, even impossible task and mental maths may require some flexibility with more stages and written steps to assist holding onto parts of a sum.

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. 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, but good, early and supportive preparation makes all of the difference. 

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 know that the child is dyslexic, but haven’t taken the time to understand the nuances of a particular child’s diagnosis.
  4. Teachers who hold their non-dyslexic classmates up to a dyslexic child as examples of what they should have done.
  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.
  7. Being told not to talk when asking a friend for help.
  8. Not being allowed to use a laptop in lessons.
  9. Lack of empathy for dyslexia (from teachers and other students) – at worst being made fun of.
  10. Being made to read aloud in class or given a part in the play/assembly with too many lines.

20 things that help the dyslexic child

  1. A culture of kindness and teachers who care.
  2. Excellent communication between the SENCo and class teacher.
  3. Being given help discreetly.
  4. Being given more time.
  5. Handouts with summaries of work.
  6. Marking work in dark colours ... tidily.
  7. Working in smaller groups.
  8. Trained teachers. An awareness of dyslexic difficulties.
  9. Grades that show individual improvement.
  10. Marking that is clear and constructive without over-correction of spellings.
  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 – IT which can send work on the board to a child’s lap-top.
  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. 

Symptoms

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. With effective learning support, over time strategies will start to work. Those with ‘spiky profiles’ – high cognitive scores, low scores perhaps in spelling or reading age – will find that their innate ability begins to shine through. Essential to succeeding on what can be a long road is support that allows a child to believe they can pursue the subjects that excite and interest them - not giving up because learning tasks in the early years are too hard. Finding something to be good at helps to keep their confidence and happiness afloat, be it music, art, sport, charity fundraising, or singing.

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 who found their passions outside of the classroom include Tom Cruise, Lord Rogers, Sir Jackie Stewart, Sir Steve Redgrave, Linda LaPlante, Cher, Sir Richard Branson and Susan Hampshire. Whilst we applaud every learning support department with a poster of Sir Richard, more could be done to help every single dyslexic child to reach their own dreams and potential. His success will seem a million miles from something they can achieve without a collective determination to nurture each dyslexic child’s abilities through the challenges they may face to a greater or lesser degree each day. 

With thanks to Melanie Bloxham, 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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