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Spotting the Signs of Dyslexia

Last updated on 20th April 2023

It is important to remember throughout this article that children experience dyslexia in various different ways. No two children with dyslexia present with the exact same signs, just like all children.

What is dyslexia?

The British Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia as a neurological difference that affects around 10% of the population.

Here’s how they define dyslexia:

“Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty which mainly affects the development of literacy and language-related skills. It is likely to be present at birth and to be lifelong in its effects. It is characterised by difficulties with phonological processing, rapid naming, working memory, processing speed, and the automatic development of skills that may not match up to an individual’s other cognitive abilities.”

Essentially, dyslexia affects the way in which a child processes information, mostly in terms of print but also other types of input, and how they retrieve that information.

Boy struggling with his work because he has dyslexia

The signs of dyslexia

Reading difficulties

Slow reading speed is an early indicator of dyslexia. Children tend to be hesitant to read, especially out loud in the classroom and are reluctant to read for pleasure.

Children with dyslexia will:

  • Have difficulty recognising sounds such as ‘ph’ and ‘th’ and remembering these and using them in a words such as ‘thing’ or ‘elephant’.
  • Often get sounds and letters in words out of sequence such as ‘ephelant’.
  • Substitute words when reading aloud, for example, saying ‘car’ for ‘bus’.
  • Have difficulty with rhyming and, in particular, remembering the sequence of the rhyme.
  • Often put letters and numbers the wrong way round, for example ‘b’ and ‘d’, and ‘6’ and ‘9’.

Children may have difficulties in learning phonics and letter names and, in turn, will also have low comprehension of what they have just read, as the effort it takes them to decode words is significant.

When listening to the children read there will be a number of tell-tale signs that they may be struggling to read.

Some learners with dyslexia report that letters can appear to move in a variety of ways on the page. This can make sustained work with print difficult and tiring.

  • Have they mentioned that the words are blurry, swirling or flickering?
  • Do they say that words become squashed up or spread out?
  • Do they say words have disappeared or have run off the page?

You may notice that some of your readers may:

  • Skip words or lines when reading.
  • Lose their place on the page.
  • Repeat words or lines when reading.
  • Use a marker or finger to keep place on the page.
  • Read slowly, with a jerky rhythm and hesitates often.

Semantic errors are quite common among children with dyslexia, as they indicate that the reader is relying heavily on context.


A child reads, ‘the poor horse bolted his food’, instead of ‘the scared horse bolted fast’. This would indicate that the child has little real understanding of the text other than it is about a horse. The guess the child made does not fit the context.

A child adding or omitting words to/from sentences they are reading is also an indication of superficial reading.

  • Can the child tell you what’s happened in the text they’ve just read?
  • Are they adding or missing out words?
  • Does what they’ve read make sense?

Writing difficulties

Poor spelling is another key indicator of dyslexia.

Children with dyslexia may:

  • Have difficulty spelling their own name.
  • Make phonological errors in spelling, e.g. ‘f’ for ‘ph’.
  • Be inconsistent when using similar sounds, e.g. ‘s’ and ‘z’.
  • Have persistent difficulties spelling basic/common words.
  • Reverse words such as ‘was’ and ‘saw’, ‘top’ and ‘pot’.
  • Confuse or omit vowels.

Writing and page presentation can also be a particular struggle for dyslexic children.

  • Writing can be slow.
  • Capital and lower-case letters are used inconsistently.
  • Handwriting may be untidy or illegible.
  • Writing may not stay in a horizontal line and may climb up or down the paper.
  • Pupils may not leave finger spaces or leave very wide or inconsistent spaces.

Poor spelling is one of the easiest signs to spot, whether in a spelling test or when writing in their exercise books, as it is done on a daily basis. You may notice that the child has really good ideas, but cannot get them down on paper.

When they do write, you notice they use simple ideas and vocabulary that do not reflect their verbal ability. The child may not finish their written work and you notice that this is a recurring trend.

You may also find that the child has a lack of interest, refusing to do the work or is using diversion tactics; however, on a 1:1 basis when reviewing their written work, the child is able to evidence that they know a lot about writing.

  • They are able to comment on corrections and make suggestions for improvements.
  • Their handwriting in their book is illegible even when the child has taken their time. The child has written something, but only a simple sentence or two.
  • The sentences do not make sense but when asked about what they have written, they can explain in a lot more detail.
  • Punctuation is inconsistent or not used at all.
Girl having difficulty remembering things

Processing and memory difficulties

Processing difficulties and both long-term and short-term memory difficulties are a common sign that a child may have dyslexia.

A child may:

  • Struggle to remember lists of information and dates, including date of birth.
  • Have difficulties remembering homework, days of the week, school clubs.
  • Not be able to remember spoken instructions if given all at once, e.g. “put your English book away, get out your reading book and sit on the carpet”. A child may only process the first or the last instruction and would not have heard the others.
  • Take longer to answer a question or not answer at all.

In addition, children may have poor articulation and have difficulties remembering labels, names and words for everyday items. Word-finding for dyslexics can be particularly frustrating and can add to the anxiety they may feel in the classroom.

You may notice children with dyslexia are unable to retain the information you have taught them from one lesson to the next.

They are usually slow to process instructions both written and spoken and will often look like they are not doing as they’ve been asked. For example, walking around the classroom or still sat at their desk when you have asked the class to transition to the next task.

You find yourself naturally giving one instruction at a time because they are unable to follow instructions that you have addressed to the class.

They consistently forget homework or PE kit and often forget to take their belongings home at the end of the day.

Planning and organisational difficulties

Planning and organising their day can be particularly tricky for a dyslexic child.

They may present as having difficulties with:

  • Forgetting where they put certain items.
  • Keeping their school bag tidy.
  • Keeping their tray and desk organised.
  • Losing or misplacing resources they were using.
  • Forgetting homework or permission slips.
  • Preparing in advance for lessons where they have to bring additional items to school, e.g. PE, art, show and tell, project work.
  • Finding their way around the school – this is most evident in secondary school where they are required to move to different lessons.

Sequencing and copying difficulties

Sequencing difficulties may include struggling with:

  • Counting forwards and backwards.
  • Reciting the alphabet.
  • Using a dictionary/thesaurus.
  • Remembering strings of numbers.

Sequencing plays an enormous part in a child’s school life and affects their ability to remember the formation of letters and words when writing and even some maths problems such as long division.

You may notice that a child may not be able to copy from the whiteboard or text book accurately, for example, the date or learning objective of the task.

The child may:

  • Make spelling errors when the word is in front of them.
  • Lose their place when looking to and from the board.
  • Mix up words from two separate sentences.
  • Omit words or replace words they see with words the teacher is speaking.
Girl with dyslexia struggling with spelling in school

Concentration and coordination difficulties

The disparity between a dyslexic child’s intelligence and poor submitted work sometimes leads to the teacher assuming the child is lazy, and careless, inattentive and lacking in concentration.

In fact, the child may be using much more effort to complete simple tasks that others may do automatically or with little effort. Concentration, as a result, is difficult.

Children may:

  • Be fidgety.
  • Find it difficult to sit still for long.
  • Present as bored.

Dyslexic children can also have difficulties in coordination and motor skills, including:

  • Poor handwriting.
  • Difficulty tying shoelaces.
  • Tripping and falling more frequently.
  • Bumping into things and dropping things.
  • Difficulty distinguishing left from right.
  • Poor hand-eye coordination.

Other signs of dyslexia

You may also see difficulties in:

  • Learning to tell the time.
  • Time keeping.
  • Concepts such as today/tomorrow/yesterday.
  • Using maps due to the confusion of transfer from two-dimension to three-dimension.
  • Learning times tables and mental maths.
  • Place value in maths.
  • Propositions such as in between/under/behind.
  • Clapping a rhythm.
  • Motivation and challenging behaviour.
Boy in school struggling to learn times tables

Dyslexia facts

Dyslexia is genetic and family members have often discovered years into their adulthood that they, themselves, have been diagnosed with dyslexia. Some adults still may not even know they have it but know that they struggled at school in the same way as their child or grandchild.

Dyslexia is not a disease and therefore cannot be cured. In the same way, children will not grow out of dyslexia; instead, with proper support, they will find ways to manage their differences with literacy and reach their full potential.

  • The word dyslexia comes from the Greek word ‘dys’ which means poor or inadequate + ‘lexis’ meaning words and language.
  • It will take a child with dyslexia much longer to complete reading and writing tasks. It’s important to give them extra time but it’s also important to reduce their reading and writing activities so as not to overwhelm them.
  • Children with dyslexia may have good and bad days just like all children.
  • Around 2 million people in the UK are severely affected by dyslexia.

True or false

‘Dyslexia always causes letters or words to appear backward or out of order.’

False – Actually, it is quite common for children to reverse letters when writing or confuse word order when reading. Dyslexia does not always cause letters and words to appear differently. Children with dyslexia struggle to connect speech sounds with written letters and groups of letters. Some people with dyslexia have reported letters and words moving around the page but it is by no means a definitive symptom.

‘Gifted children can be dyslexic.’

True – Intelligence is not connected with dyslexia in any way. There are many accomplished people in the world who have dyslexia such as athletes, entrepreneurs, and actors and actresses.

Here are a few:

  • Maggie Aderin-Pocock – Astronomer and space scientist.
  • Richard Branson – Entrepreneur and billionaire.
  • Walt Disney – Founder of the Disney Empire.
  • Orlando Bloom – Actor.

‘Dyslexia occurs in all ethnic groups and all languages.’

True – Although the complexity of the language has a direct impact on the difficulty a child may experience. For example, Italian only has one sound for ‘a’, whereas English has numerous sounds such as ‘ay’- play, ‘ea’- break, ‘a-e’- cake, ‘ai’- rain. These different sounds make it much more difficult for a dyslexic child to process and therefore read fluently.

‘More boys than girls have dyslexia.’

False – Historically, more boys were diagnosed with dyslexia and it is thought that this is because boys may have expressed their frustration with reading in more obvious ways than girls. However, research has shown that dyslexia presents almost equally in both boys and girls.

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About the author

Evie Lee

Evie Lee

Evie has worked at CPD Online College since August 2021. She is currently doing an apprenticeship in Level 3 Business Administration. Evie's main roles are to upload blog articles and courses to the website. Outside of work, Evie loves horse riding and spending time with her family.

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