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Dyslexia is a common learning difficulty that can cause problems with reading, writing and spelling. It is a Specific Learning Difficulty and there are recognised overlaps with these.

This is especially the case with dyspraxia and attention problems with underlying skills, such as phonological processing and working memory.

It is important to remember that although dyslexia has 50 years of research behind it and is generally referred to as a disorder of reading and spelling, there is still much that is unknown about the condition.

What dyslexia means for your child

As reading is fundamental to academic success and confidence, a dyslexic child may face stigma and problems at school, but with well-informed intervention and good support they may learn to manage dyslexia and discover untapped talents.

Well-known dyslexics who found their passions outside of the classroom include Tom Cruise, Keira Knightley, Sir Jackie Stewart, Sir Steve Redgrave, Linda LaPlante, Cher, Sir Richard Branson and Albert Einstein.

Variations of dyslexia

Because dyslexia covers a range of difficulties, 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, additional support may be required for a longer time and more frequently and it will take longer for spelling, reading or mental arithmetic to become less of a stumbling block.

There may be associated difficulties that can be identified and treated. For example, glue ear (otitis media), which is common in children with dyslexia, can affect their hearing, which in turn affects their ability to learn phonics in reading. Binocular vision, which involves the control and co-ordination of both eyes, is also common in children with dyslexia and can be treated.

Indicators of dyslexia

If you notice your child writes 41 for 14, b for d, or misses out words as they read aloud, you might begin to suspect dyslexia. But there are many less obvious signs. Every child is different, and dyslexia manifests differently in different age groups.

Look out for these signs:

  • Hears a clock ticking, the sound of pencils scratching on paper, but doesn't hear what the teacher says.
  • Forgets 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.

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. 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.

Some other signs to look out for:

  • Dyslexia in the family.
  • Problems with speech and language, including especially speech sounds, mispronouncing or jumbling words, poor use of syntax, difficulties with rhymes, inaccurate and inconsistent use of words, word-finding naming problems, avoidance of verbal expression.
  • Problems with putting words or numbers in sequence and remembering them.
  • Poor organisational skills including difficulty dressing or packing the schoolbag.
  • Visual difficulties - standard eye tests may reveal perfect vision, but there may be underlying problems.
  • Auditory processing difficulties. The child may hear, but not be able to distinguish sounds.
  • Auditory or visual memory difficulties: Hearing or sight test results may be normal, but the child may have problems remembering a string of instructions, learning nursery or other rhymes, copying from the board.
  • 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.
  • Avoidance of verbal, number and literacy tasks, more interest in learning by doing.

Testing for dyslexia

So, what should be done if you suspect there is a problem? The first port of call is the class teacher. He or she should be able to shed some light on the reading difficulty and help you to understand whether there is a legitimate reason to be concerned. Teachers can give you an idea of your child’s reading ability and indicate whether this is the level expected for their chronological age.

Next, a visit your GP is a good idea, to see whether there are any underlying health issues. If a child is struggling to read, it’s sensible to get their eyesight and hearing checked. It goes without saying that if a child can’t see the letters on the page or hear sounds clearly, then reading is going to be an uphill struggle.

If problems persist, and your child reaches the age of 7 or 8 you should make an appointment (if you haven’t already) to meet the school SENCo (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator). Discuss your concerns, what support your child has already received, what else is on offer in school (such as one-to-one support from a specialist teacher) and what the next steps are. At this stage, it’s often suggested that the child should be assessed or screened for dyslexia, which will show if the child is at risk.  If positive, a formal diagnostic assessment by a qualified dyslexia teacher is recommended, usually by an educational psychologist.

Testing focuses on areas such as vocabulary development, reasoning, memory, and visual and auditory processing. A detailed report should follow, outlining your child’s performance, their strengths and needs, as well as recommendations to be followed both at school and at home. Once the school has digested this report, they should set up an education plan for your child which will target his or her particular needs.

Parents can feel powerless when a child is diagnosed with dyslexia but the most important thing you can do is provide positive emotional support. Try not to reveal your deep concerns to your child; be patient and praise them for their efforts. Your child needs your love and understanding more than ever if they are finding reading frustratingly hard.

How the school can help

For reading difficulties, 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.

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 and text to speech reading software, within the classroom, and in exams.

Teachers can send lesson notes directly from the whiteboard to the child's laptop or suggest that they take a photograph of the board on their 'phone instead of copying down. With all schools (like every other organisation) needing to follow the Equality Act by making reasonable adjustments, you may find that if your child’s main way of communication is via a laptop that they are able to use this in exams too. Remember such needs should be discussed with the SENCo or headteacher well in advance of the actual tests.

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.

At secondary school, pupils 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 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 the difference.

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.

The future for dyslexic children

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.

Whilst we applaud every learning support department with a poster of Sir Richard Branson, 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.

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 pupil's 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 laptop.
  20. Praise, encouragement and rewards.

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

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