You’ve heard the term “dyslexia” and wonder if it applies to your child who’s struggling in school. How can you tell if she has this language-based learning disability?

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge. (Adopted by the IDA Board in November 2002 and by the National Institutes of Health in 2002.)

The Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA) defines dyslexia as a learning disability in the area of reading.

These organizations point out that the term dyslexia is defined in many different ways. While reading is the primary problem, some definitions of dyslexia also include difficulties with:

  • Writing
  • Spelling
  • Listening
  • Speaking
  • Math

A person with dyslexia is someone whose problem in reading is not the result of emotional problems, lack of motivation, poor teaching, mental retardation, or vision or hearing deficits. Dyslexia is a persistent, lifelong condition. There’s no cure for it, but there are ways to approach learning and be successful.

Although kids with dyslexia have language processing and learning difficulties in common, the symptoms and severity can be quite different. Kids learn some academic skills at a level lower than others their same age and intellectual peers, but they can do other things quite well. They may be talented in the arts, skilled in technology, or adept with spatial relationships. These strengths and talents need to be encouraged and reinforced.

What should I look for?

Most kids have problems in school at one time or another. Ask yourself and the teacher if your child has shown these characteristics to a greater degree than normal over a period of time and in different environments, e.g., school, home, child care.

Ages 6-11

  • Has difficulty pronouncing words, may reverse or substitute parts of words
  • Has difficulty carrying out a sequence of directions
  • Doesn’t hear fine differences in words; e.g., writes “pin” for “pen”
  • Has problems stating thoughts in an organized way
  • Confuses the order of letters in words
  • Doesn’t recognize words previously learned
  • Spells a word several different ways; doesn’t recognize the correct version
  • Has poor reading comprehension

Ages 12-Adult

  • Has difficulty remembering what he just read
  • Has difficulty concentrating when reading or writing
  • Is unable to tell important information from unimportant details
  • Spells poorly; misspelling is not phonetic
  • Has problems taking notes accurately
  • Has difficulty organizing and completing written projects

What if I suspect my child has dyslexia?

Prepare to talk with your child’s teacher about the problems you’ve observed at home and learn how your child is doing in the classroom. Rest assured: There are many techniques that may help your child succeed, either by gaining new skills or by using bypass strategies.

  • Take notes on the types of errors your child makes, how often they occur, and where you’ve noticed them.
  • Keep copies of her work and results from group tests.
  • Conference with her teacher to get a sense of how she’s doing in comparison with her peers.
  • Check to see if the school offers any special instructional programs that might be appropriate for her.
  • Request a meeting of your school’s student/teacher support team. (These multidisciplinary, general education, pre-referral teams have different names in different school districts and states.) Express your concerns to the group and develop a plan of action with a specific time to be evaluated.
  • Ask the teacher if she thinks your child might have a learning disability. (Remember that’s the term most schools use instead of dyslexia.) If you feel your child’s problems are significant and she may need special education services to benefit from the general academic curriculum, you can make a written request for assessment and send it to the school and/or district administrator. You’ll need to be specific about her problems, so the information you gathered earlier will come in handy.

What can the school do to help my child?

Your child’s teachers and other school professionals will want to identify the specific skills your child already has and those he needs to master in developmental sequence, e.g., hearing differences in sounds, learning letter names, spelling words that don’t follow the rules, etc. This will allow you and the teacher to plan the next steps of your child’s instructional program by building on what he already knows.

What can I do to help my child?

  • Depending on your child’s age and language skills, speak with her about the difficulties you’ve observed.
  • Ask her how she feels about school and what she feels she needs help with.
  • Tell her you know she tries hard, but you and her teachers are going to help her find ways to succeed.
  • Work in collaboration with school staff; let your child see you functioning as a team.
  • Look into private tutoring through community agencies or privately if you can afford it.
  • Encourage her to use her strengths and talents.
  • Be patient with her and support her efforts.