Understanding Dyslexia

Raising a child with dyslexia can stir up a lot of emotions. You may look ahead and wonder if this learning issue will affect your child’s future. But dyslexia is not a prediction of failure. Dyslexia is quite common, and many successful individuals have dyslexia.

Research has proven that there are different ways of teaching that can help people with dyslexia succeed. There’s a lot you can do as a parent too.

If you’re just starting your journey, don’t try to tackle everything at once. You can start helping your child simply by learning more about the symptoms, causes and strategies that can be used at home and in school.

What is dyslexia?

A good way to understand dyslexia is to establish what it is not. It’s not a sign of low intelligence or laziness. It’s also not due to poor vision. It’s a common condition that affects the way the brain processes written and spoken language.

Dyslexia is primarily associated with trouble reading. Some doctors, specialists and educators may refer to it as a “reading disorder” or a “reading disability.” But it can also affect writing, spelling and even speaking.

People with dyslexia can still understand complex ideas. Sometimes they just need more time to work through the information. They may also need a different way to process the information, such as listening to an audiobook instead of reading it.

If your child has dyslexia, she won’t outgrow it. It’s a lifelong condition. But that doesn’t mean your child can’t be happy and successful. There are many effective teaching strategies and tools that can help your child. In fact, many people with dyslexia have successful careers in business, science and the arts.

There’s a long list of famous people with dyslexia. This list includes director Steven Spielberg, investor Charles Schwab and actress Whoopi Goldberg. It also includes quarterback Tim Tebow, and author Dav Pilkey, who created the popular Captain Underpants books.

People with dyslexia are often very creative. It’s unclear whether such creativity comes from thinking outside the box or from having a brain that’s “wired” a bit differently.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that struggles with reading and other issues can lead to frustration and low self-esteem. The stress of dealing with schoolwork can make kids with dyslexia lose the motivation to keep trying.

There are lots of tools and strategies that can help. It might take some trial and error for you to figure out which work best for your child. But finding the right strategies and seeing improvement can boost your child’s confidence.

Essential Skills for Reading Comprehension

For kids with dyslexia, reading a single word can be a struggle. Dyslexia also makes it hard to understand and remember what they’ve read.

Early in elementary school, students are expected to read a passage of text and answer questions about it. This is what’s known as “reading comprehension,” and it’s essential for building a strong foundation for success in school. Students with dyslexia often have reading comprehension problems because they need to develop several underlying skills, such as:

  • Connecting letters to sounds: Kids have to learn that each letter of the alphabet is associated with a certain sound or sounds. (Teachers refer to this as “phonics.”) Once your child can make these connections, she’ll be able to “sound out” words.
  • Decoding text: The process of sounding out words is known as “decoding.” Once your child can decode individual words, she can start to make sense of entire sentences.
  • Recognizing “sight” words: The ability to read a familiar word at a glance without having to sound it out is called “word recognition.” The more words kids can recognize by sight, the faster they’ll be able to read. Average readers can recognize a word by sight after sounding it out a dozen or so times. Students with dyslexia may need to see it 40 times.[1]
  • Reading fluently: Fluent readers can recognize most words by sight and quickly sound out unfamiliar words. They also can read smoothly and at a good rate. Fluency is essential for good reading comprehension.
  • Understanding the text: Strong readers can remember what they’ve just read. They can summarize it and recall specific details. Readers with dyslexia can get bogged down sounding out individual words. This interrupts the flow of information and makes it harder to understand and relate the new material to what they already know.

If your child has been having trouble reading, it’s a good idea to find out what’s going on and get her some extra help. That’s because kids who start out struggling with reading rarely catch up on their own.[2]

Fortunately, researchers have been studying dyslexia for decades. They know which teaching methods and tools can help children with dyslexia succeed. If dyslexia is diagnosed by third grade, it’s easier to catch up. But it’s never too late.

How common is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is very common. As many as 17 percent of U.S. schoolchildren may have dyslexia.[3] It’s the most commonly identified learning issue. As many as 85 percent of students with learning disabilities have dyslexia.

Reading issues are only slightly more common in boys than in girls, but schools identify boys with dyslexia twice as often.[5] This might be because boys with reading issues tend to act up more in class than girls. This catches the teacher’s attention.


What causes dyslexia?

Researchers have yet to pinpoint what causes dyslexia. But they do know that genes and brain differences might influence a child’s chances of having dyslexia. Here are some of the possible causes of dyslexia:

  • Genes and heredity: Dyslexia often runs in families. So if your child has dyslexia, there’s a chance you or another relative may have it too. About 40 percent of siblings of children with dyslexia may have the same reading issues.[6] As many as 49 percent of parents of kids with dyslexia may have it too.[7] Scientists have also found several genes associated with reading and language processing issues.
  • Brain anatomy: Having dyslexia doesn’t mean your child isn’t bright. In fact, many people with dyslexia have above-average intelligence. But their brain may look different from the brain of people who don’t have dyslexia. Consider, for example, the planum temporale. This area of the brain plays a role in understanding language. It’s typically larger in the dominant hemisphere (the left side of the brain for right-handed people) than in the right hemisphere. But if your child has dyslexia, the planum temporale is probably about the same size on both the left and right sides of the brain.
  • Brain activity: To be able to read, our brains have to translate the symbols we see on the page into sounds. Then those sounds have to be combined into meaningful words. Typically the areas of our brains responsible for language skills work in a predictable way. But if your child has dyslexia, those areas don’t work together in the same way. Kids with reading issues end up using different areas of the brain to compensate.

As researchers zero in on what causes dyslexia, they’re also learning how the brain can change. This concept is known as “neuroplasticity.” Studies show brain activity in people with dyslexia changes after they receive proper tutoring.

What does this mean for your child? With the right help, your child can make real and lasting improvements in reading ability. Knowledge of how the brain “rewires” itself may also lead to even more effective help for dyslexia in the future.


What are the symptoms of dyslexia?

Because dyslexia affects some people more severely than others, your child’s symptoms may look different from those in another child. Some kids with dyslexia have trouble with reading and spelling. Others may struggle to write or to tell left from right.

Some children don’t seem to struggle with early reading and writing. But later on, they have trouble with complex language skills, such as grammar, reading comprehension and more in-depth writing.

Dyslexia can also make it difficult for people to express themselves clearly. It can be hard for them to structure their thoughts during conversation. They may have trouble finding the right words to say.

Others struggle to understand what they’re hearing. This is especially true when someone uses nonliteral language such as jokes and sarcasm.

The signs you see may also look different at various ages. Some of the warning signs for dyslexia, such as a speech delay, appear before a child reaches kindergarten. More often, though, dyslexia is identified in grade school. As schoolwork gets more demanding, trouble processing language becomes more apparent.

Many children have one or two of these issues on occasion. But kids with dyslexia have several of these issues, and they don’t go away.

Here are some signs to look out for:

Warning Signs in Preschool or Kindergarten

  • Has trouble recognizing the letters of the alphabet
  • Struggles to match letters to sounds, such as not knowing what sounds b or h make
  • Has difficulty blending sounds into words, such as connecting C-H-A-T to the word chat
  • Struggles to pronounce words correctly, such as saying “mawn lower” instead of “lawn mower”
  • Has difficulty learning new words
  • Has a smaller vocabulary than other kids the same age
  • Has trouble learning to count or say the days of the week and other common word sequences
  • Has trouble rhyming

Warning Signs in Grade School or Middle School

  • Struggles with reading and spelling
  • Confuses the order of letters , such as writing “left” instead of “felt”
  • Has trouble remembering facts and numbers
  • Has difficulty gripping a pencil
  • Has difficulty using proper grammar
  • Has trouble learning new skills and relies heavily on memorization
  • Gets tripped up by word problems in math
  • Has a tough time sounding out unfamiliar words
  • Has trouble following a sequence of directions

Warning Signs in High School

  • Struggles with reading out loud
  • Doesn’t read at the expected grade level
  • Has trouble understanding jokes or idioms
  • Has difficulty organizing and managing time
  • Struggles to summarize a story
  • Has difficulty learning a foreign language


What skills are affected by dyslexia?

Dyslexia doesn’t just affect reading and writing. Here are some everyday skills and activities your child may be struggling with because of this learning issue:

  • Social skills: There are several ways dyslexia can affect your child’s social life. Struggling in school can make your child feel inferior around other kids. Your child may stop trying to make new friends or may avoid group activities. Your child may also have trouble understanding jokes or sarcasm. You can help your child decode humor and also try different strategies to improve self-esteem.
  • Listening comprehension: People with dyslexia tend to be better listeners than readers. But dyslexia can make it hard to filter out background noise.[8] This means your child could have trouble following what the teacher is saying in a noisy classroom. Sitting near the teacher can help reduce distractions.
  • Memory: Kids with dyslexia can take so long to read a sentence that they may not remember the sentence that came before it. This makes it tough to grasp the meaning of the text. Listening to an audio version or using other kinds of assistive technology can help.
  • Navigation: Children with dyslexia may struggle with spatial concepts such as “left” and “right.” This can lead to fears about getting lost in school hallways and other familiar places. Using a buddy system can help with transitioning from class to class.
  • Time management: Dyslexia can make it hard to tell time or stick to a schedule. A cell phone alarm, picture schedule and other prompts can help keep kids (and adults) on track.


How is dyslexia diagnosed?

Finding out what’s causing your child’s reading issues can help in a variety of ways. Your child’s teachers can use the information to figure out which methods of reading instruction to use. A diagnosis could also open the doors to more free resources and support at school. These resources might include one-on-one tutoring sessions with a reading specialist and a laptop your child can use at home and at school.

There’s no single test for dyslexia, and getting a formal identification often involves a team of professionals. As part of the evaluation process, you may be asked to fill out questionnaires about your child’s strengths and weaknesses. Your child’s teachers may be asked to do the same thing. Here are the steps involved:

Step 1: Get a medical exam. Your child’s doctor may test your child’s vision and hearing to see if these could be affecting her ability to read. The doctor will also ask you about your child’s development and whether other family members have reading problems or other learning issues.

Step 2: Get a referral to a specialist. Your child may be tested by a psychologist or other professional who specializes in learning issues. These specialists can provide insights into how your child thinks. They’ll do tests to zero in on which areas she’s struggling with. Your child will be asked to read words and do some rhyming, spelling and writing, among other things.

Psychological testing can also determine whether ADHD, anxiety, depression or other issues are interfering with learning.

Step 3: Put it all together. The specialists will discuss their findings and recommend ways to help your child. These may include a type of tutoring called phonological awareness training. This can help improve your child’s understanding of how sounds and letters go together.

Remember that it’s never too early to start asking questions and getting your child some extra help. The sooner your child starts getting the right kind of help, the better her chances are of catching up to other kids her age.

There are resources in place to help infants and toddlers develop the language skills needed to become good readers. If your child is under the age of 3, you can ask your state’s early intervention system to do a free evaluation. No referral is needed.


What conditions are related to dyslexia?

It’s not unusual for kids to be diagnosed with dyslexia and another condition. There are also conditions that can look like dyslexia because they have some of the same symptoms. Here are some conditions that can coincide with or be mistaken for dyslexia:

  • ADHD can make it difficult to stay focused during reading and other activities. Roughly a third of students with attention issues also have dyslexia. It’s also worth noting that teachers sometimes overlook signs of dyslexia and assume a child has ADHD. That might be because kids who have difficulty reading can fidget from frustration. They can also act up in class to cover up not knowing how to do what the teacher is asking.[9]
  • Auditory processing disorder affects kids’ ability to sort through the sounds they hear. They may struggle to understand what people are saying. Reading can also be tough for them. That’s because so much of reading involves connecting sounds with letters. Kids with auditory processing disorder often have trouble recognizing the difference between letters like b and d and sounding out new words.
  • Visual processing issues can make it hard to see the difference between letters or shapes. Kids with visual processing issues may complain of blurry vision or of letters “hopping around on the page.” They may try to compensate by squinting or closing one eye. They often reverse letters when writing and struggle to stay within the lines.
  • Dysgraphia can affect children’s ability write and spell. It can also make it hard to organize their thoughts on paper. Many kids with dysgraphia also have dyslexia.
  • Dyscalculia makes it hard to do math. Many kids have serious difficulties in both reading and math and may have dyscalculia in addition to dyslexia.[10] Trouble learning to count is associated with both conditions.
  • Executive functioning issues can affect children’s ability to organize and stay on task. Kids with weak executive functioning skills may struggle with reading comprehension.

There are many ways parents and teachers can help with each of these conditions. Some strategies may work better for some conditions than others. That’s why it’s a good idea to get professionals to help you identify which issues your child is struggling with. More information can lead you to more effective ways to help.


How can professionals help with dyslexia?

There are many people who can help your child improve her reading and writing skills. Some of these people may work at your child’s school. Some you may want to seek out in your community. Here are ways professionals can help with dyslexia.

Your Child’s Teachers Schools have been working for decades to help students with reading issues. Your child’s teacher may be familiar with several methods of reading instruction and try different approaches to help your child.

There are also accommodations that can help in class. These might include giving extra time on tests or letting your child use high-tech tools like word-prediction software. Even without a diagnosis, your child’s school can do a lot of things to help your child academically.

Response to intervention (RTI) is a process some schools use to provide extra help to students who are falling behind. If your child’s school uses RTI, routine screenings identify which kids need help to develop certain skills. Then those kids will receive small-group instruction either within or outside of their regular classroom. If your child doesn’t make enough progress in a small group, the school should try other approaches until it finds one that is successful.

Informal supports are strategies teachers can use to help struggling students. Set up a meeting to talk about your mutual concerns. Common strategies teachers use to help kids with dyslexia include using a multisensory approach to link listening, speaking, reading and writing, and having kids repeat directions back to the teacher.

Often, after trying some informal supports, you or the school may recommend getting a 504 plan. A 504 plan will be created only if the child is found to have a condition that interferes with learning. This is a written plan detailing how the school will accommodate your child’s needs.

Another option you may want to pursue is to request an evaluation for special education services. An evaluation will determine whether your child qualifies for an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

A key part of IEPs is setting yearly goals. If your child qualifies for an IEP, you’ll get to help the teachers set these goals. Goals may include increasing your child’s vocabulary. They may also include improving reading comprehension.

The plan will detail how the school will help your child meet these goals. For example, the plan might include twice-a-week sessions with a reading specialist. It might also include giving voice-recognition software to your child.

Reading Specialists Public schools have reading specialists who can work with your child one-on-one or in small groups. These specialists can help your child focus on improving reading skills. There are also private tutors who use specialized methods of reading instruction that may help your child.

Your Child’s Doctor Sometimes dyslexia can take such a toll on your child’s self-esteem that anxiety and depression can set in. This makes school even more difficult. Talk to your pediatrician about what you’re seeing. Seeing a psychologist could help your child manage stress.

Parent Advocates Every state has at least one parent advocacy center. These nonprofits are staffed by parents whose kids have disabilities. These experienced parents have learned how to navigate the education system. They can help you prepare for important school meetings and do other things to get more resources for your child. You can find the center in your area through the Parent Technical Assistance Network.


What can be done at home for dyslexia?

Helping your child with dyslexia can be a challenge, particularly if you’re never been confident in your own reading and writing skills. But you don’t have to be an expert to help work on certain skills or strengthen your child’s self-esteem.

Keep in mind that kids (and families) are all different, so not all options will work for you. Don’t panic if the first strategies you try aren’t effective. You may need to try several approaches to find what works best for your child. Here are some things you can try at home:

  • Read out loud every day. If your child is very young, read picture books together. For a grade-schooler or middle-schooler, snuggle up with a copy of Harry Potter. For a teenager, consider reading magazine or newspaper articles or maybe a recipe. Billboards, store-discount signs and instruction manuals are also fair game. Hearing you read can let your child focus on understanding the material and expanding his overall knowledge base. Do it every chance you can get.
  • Tap into your child’s interests. Provide a variety of reading materials, such as comic books, mystery stories, recipes and articles on sports or pop stars. Look for good books that are at your child’s reading level. Kids with dyslexia and other reading issues are more likely to power through a book if the topic is of great interest to them.
  • Use audiobooks. Check your local library to see if you can borrow audio recordings of books. You can also access them online. Some stores sell books for younger kids that come with a recording of the story on a CD that prompts them when it’s time to turn the page. Listening to a book while looking at the words can help your child learn to connect the sounds she’s hearing to the words she’s seeing.
  • Look for apps and other high-tech help. Word processors and spell-check can help kids who have trouble with reading and spelling. Voice-recognition software can help older students tackle writing assignments by letting them dictate their ideas instead of having to type them. There are also lots of apps and online games that can help your child build reading skills.
  • Observe and take notes. Watching your child more closely and taking notes on her behavior may reveal patterns and triggers that you can begin to work around. Your notes will also come in handy if you want to talk to teachers, doctors or anyone else you enlist to help your child.
  • Focus on effort, not outcome. Praise your child for trying hard, and emphasize that everyone makes mistakes—you included! Help your child understand how important it is to keep practicing, and give hugs, high-fives or other rewards for making even the smallest bits of progress. Your encouragement will help your child stay motivated.
  • See what it feels like. Use Through Your Child’s Eyes to experience what it’s like to have dyslexia. Sometimes simply acknowledging that you understand what your child is going through can boost her confidence enough to try different strategies and stick with them long enough to see which ones are the most helpful.
  • Make your home reader-friendly. Try to stock every room (including the bathroom!) with at least a few books or magazines your child might be interested in reading. Take a book when you go out for pizza or on a trip, and read it to your family so you can all discuss it. Look for other creative ways to encourage reading and writing at home.
  • Boost confidence. Use hobbies and afterschool activities to help improve your child’s self-esteem and increase resilience. Try different ways to identify and build on your child’s strengths.

What can make the journey easier?

Dyslexia can present challenges for your child and for you. But with the proper support, almost all people with dyslexia can become accurate readers. Your involvement will help tremendously.

Wherever you are in your journey, whether you’re just starting out or are well on your way, this site can help you find more ways to support your child. Here are a few things that can help make the journey easier:

  • Connect with other parents. Remember that you’re not alone. Use our safe online community to find parents like you.
  • Get behavior advice. Parenting Coach offers expert-approved strategies on a variety of issues that can affect children with dyslexia, including trouble with time management, anxiety and fear, frustration and low self-esteem.
  • Build a support plan. Come up with a game plan and anticipate what lies ahead.

Understanding dyslexia and looking for ways to help your child is an important first step. There’s a lot you can do—just don’t feel you have to do everything all at once. Pace yourself. If you try a bunch of strategies at the same time, it might be hard to figure out which ones are working. And do your best to stay positive. Your love and support can make a big difference in your child’s life.


Key Takeaways

  • Dyslexia is a lifelong condition that affects reading, writing, spelling and even speaking.
  • Dyslexia is very common and is not a sign of low intelligence.
  • Teaching methods that involve sight, sound and touch can improve skills significantly.


[1] Handler, Sheryl, and Walter Fierson. “Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia, and Vision.” Pediatrics 127.3 (2011): E818-856. American Academy of Pediatrics. Web. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/127/3/e818.full?sid=bd9574fb-4575-4d35-a46e-a63394e68331

[2] Ibid.

[3] Shaywitz, Sally, and Bennett Shaywitz, “Neural Systems for Compensation and Persistence.” Yale Center for Dyslexia. http://dyslexia.yale.edu/CLI_ScientificDiscoveries.html

[4] “Dyslexia Basics.” Interdys.org. International Dyslexia Association. Web. http://www.interdys.org/ewebeditpro5/ upload/DyslexiaBasicsREVMay2012.pdf

[5] “Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia, and Vision.”

[6] Shaywitz, Sally, and Bennett Shaywitz. “The Neurobiology of Reading and Dyslexia.” Focus on Basics 5.A (2001). NCSALL.net. National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy. Web. http://www.ncsall.net/index.html@id=278.html.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Sperling, Anne, et al. “Deficits in Perceptual Noise Exclusion in Developmental Dyslexia.” Nature Neuroscience 8 (2005): 862–63. Nature.com. Nature Publishing Group. http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v8/n7/abs/nn1474.html

[9] Spiro, Linda. “The Most Common Misdiagnoses in Children.” Childmind.org. Child Mind Institute. http://www.childmind.org/en/posts/articles/2013-4-9-most-common-misdiagnoses-children

[10] Barbaresi, William, et al. “Math Learning Disorder: Incidence in a Population-Based Birth Cohort, 1976–82, Rochester, Minn.” Ambulatory Pediatrics 5.5 (2005): 281–89. Web.

[11] “Parent Center Listing.” Parentcenternetwork.org. Parent Center Network. Web. http://www.parentcenternetwork.org/parentcenterlisting.html



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