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Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty (SpLD) that, according to the NHS, affects an estimated 1 in 10 people in the UK. It primarily causes problems with reading, writing and spelling. It can also affect areas of the brain associated with processing language.
Dyslexia can range from mild to severe and often runs in families. It does not affect intelligence, and it is important to recognise there is no link between dyslexia and intellectual ability.
In 2008, the UK government commissioned an investigation into how to improve provision for children with dyslexia.
The resulting 2009 Rose Report included a definition that has become widely adopted and is commonly used in education settings:
The British Dyslexia Association (BDA) expands on this definition to acknowledge:
Individuals with dyslexia have a unique learning profile that presents a combination of strengths and difficulties. Strengths often include abilities in areas such as creativity, problem solving and design. The BDA promotes the positive nature of ‘thinking differently’ and highlights the importance of recognising this.
A formal diagnosis of dyslexia can only be made through a diagnostic assessment.
Only an appropriately qualified person can carry out diagnostic assessments for dyslexia, including:
- Specialist teachers or assessors with an Assessment Practising Certificate or Associate Membership of the British Dyslexia Association.
- Psychologists registered with the Health and Care Professions Council who specialise in SpLD.
The signs of dyslexia
The age from which dyslexia can be accurately diagnosed is often a point of much discussion. Some diagnostic assessments are only available for children from the age of 6 or 7, when results are considered more reliable than those generated with younger children. This has sometimes led to the false assumption that support can only be offered from this age.
There are early indicators, however, frequently noticed by teaching professionals and parents. In these cases, schools should not withhold support for fear of a ‘false positive’ diagnosis. Where young children are experiencing difficulties with literacy, delaying intervention only widens the gap between them and their peers and presents unnecessary hurdles at a later stage.
We shall look at the signs of dyslexia in the following age brackets: pre-school, primary, teenagers and adults.
Signs of dyslexia in pre-school-aged children
Until children start to learn to read, it is not always easy to identify signs of potential dyslexia. However, the earliest signs can show from between the ages of 1 and 2 years old, and it is always advisable to note them. Notes of observations can provide valuable information in any future assessment and diagnosis.
Remember, the following indicators only form part of a picture of a child’s learning profile and should not be used as a basis for making a formal diagnosis:
- Not using any form of words or phrases before the age of 15 months.
- Struggling to recall or learn essential words, letters of the alphabet, days of the week, shapes etc.
- Mispronouncing standard words.
- Jumbling sounds within words and phrases – ‘beddy tare’ instead of ‘teddy bear’, for example.
- Difficulty retelling and sequencing stories.
- Struggling to recognise rhyming patterns.
- Unable to recognise their name and its letters.
- Difficulty following multi-step instructions.
- Not engaging with songs and rhymes.
In Early Years settings, staff should carefully monitor children from families with a known family history of dyslexia.
Signs of dyslexia in primary-school-aged children
As children begin to learn to read and write, the signs of dyslexia begin to become more evident:
- Difficulty making links between phonemes and graphemes (phonemes are the individual units of sound used in the English language; graphemes are the written letters used to represent phonemes either individually or in groups of up to four letters – for more information, see Letters and Sounds).
- Slow or awkward reading.
- Making consistent errors in spelling and reading.
– Letter reversals (big instead of dig).
– Transpositions (left and felt).
– Word reversals (tap and pat).
– Inversions (w and m).
- Frequently hesitating or using “um” when responding orally.
- Difficulty learning to tell the time.
- Reversing numerical digits (6 and 9).
- Difficulty remembering names, details and instructions.
- Difficulty structuring or planning.
- Learning new skills through memorisation, not by understanding.
- Frequently using words such as ‘stuff’ and ‘things’ when struggling to find basic vocabulary.
- Confusing words that sound or look alike.
- Poor handwriting or an awkward pencil grip.
- Disliking or avoiding reading and writing.
- Describing visual disturbances to written words (words and letters blurring or moving).
- Confusing the symbols that represent the four primary operations in maths (+, –, x and ÷).
- Difficulty learning sequential information (the alphabet, days of the week, months).
- Difficulty copying text.
Signs of dyslexia in teenagers
By the time they are teenagers, undiagnosed learners have often learned and developed strategies to hide areas they are struggling with. This can make it more challenging to identify the signs at this age for those that are self-conscious and do not want others to know that they struggle.
In this phase of their education, work set routinely relies on an ability to read for comprehension across most curriculum areas, and those with undiagnosed dyslexia will find school life increasingly challenging. When given choices, they will often pick options that play to their strengths and actively avoid those that do not.
As well as the signs mentioned in the primary section, the following are dyslexia signs additionally associated with teenagers and young adults:
- An increased discrepancy between a student’s knowledge and what they can express on paper.
- Struggling to organise written work.
- Producing written work that lacks expression and detail.
- Significant effort required for reading.
- Difficulty working through math’s problems.
- Difficulty structuring and planning written assignments.
- Including elongated pauses and hesitations when speaking.
- Difficulty revising for tests and tackling multiple-choice questions.
- Rarely reading for pleasure.
- Struggling with memory retention and recall, including number sequences such as a PIN.
- Difficulty making notes.
- Possessing a limited vocabulary.
- Struggling to comprehend a person who speaks quickly.
- Routinely failing to meet deadlines.
- Having a low opinion of their ability (describing themselves as ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’) even when they are highly able.
Signs of dyslexia in adults
By adulthood, learners with dyslexia have frequently learned a combination of coping and avoidance strategies, some which they may not even be aware of.
In addition to the signs above, the following might also be signs of underlying dyslexia:
- Difficulty performing basic mathematical operations.
- Difficulty summarising information, particularly when it is in a written form.
- Failing to understand jokes or idioms.
- Mispronouncing words without realising.
- Finding tasks take longer than imagined.
- Avoiding tasks that require memorising information.
- Struggling to maintain focus on single tasks.
- Feeling overwhelmed when needing to complete forms or respond to surveys.
- Disliking public speaking or reading aloud.
- Low self-esteem or frequently feeling stressed.
- Getting frustrated if mistakes are made.
- Excelling in visual and design-based tasks.
- Thinking ‘outside of the box’.
- Selecting jobs that limit the need for skills with which they have difficulty.
- Showing little interest in promotion opportunities.
- Strong work ethic but perceived as underperforming.
- Difficulty reading text that uses unusual fonts.
- Confusing conversations and misremembering instructions.
- Struggling to read maps or timetables.
- Quickly becoming disengaged when required to read.
- Struggling to apply left and right, and compass directions.
- Demonstrating a high level of intuition.
Noting any of the signs above is not a definitive indication of dyslexia, which can only be diagnosed formally. However, checklists and records of observations can be valuable tools that can inform the need for an assessment and diagnosis or simply help understand an individual’s learning profile.
The Dyslexia Association have a valuable series of checklists of dyslexia signs if you are interested in further information about identifying the signs of dyslexia.
Managers should remember that under the Equality Act 2010, dyslexia is considered a disability. Schools and employers must make reasonable adjustments to support any individual known to have dyslexia. More information on supporting employees with dyslexia in the workplace can be found in our knowledge base.