What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a common type of specific learning difficulty that mainly affects the skills involved in the reading and spelling of words.
A person with dyslexia has difficulty "decoding" words despite appropriate learning opportunities. This difficulty will also be significantly greater than for other areas of learning.
Dyslexia should be recognised as a spectrum disorder, with symptoms ranging from mild to severe. In particular, people with dyslexia have difficulties with:
- phonological awareness
- verbal memory
- verbal processing speed
These terms are explained in more detail below.
Phonological awareness is thought to be a key skill in early reading and spelling development. It is the ability to identify how words are made up of smaller units of sound, known as phonemes. Changes in the sounds that make up words can lead to changes in their meaning.
So, for example, a child with a good level of phonological awareness would understand that if you change the letter "p" in the word "pat" to "s", the word would become "sat".
Verbal memory is the ability to remember a sequence of verbal information for a short period of time.
For example, the ability to remember a short list such as "red, blue, green", or a set of simple instructions, such as "Put on your gloves and your hat, find the lead for the dog and then go to the park."
Verbal processing speed
Verbal processing speed is defined as the time it takes to process and recognise familiar verbal information, such as letters and digits.
For example, having difficulty writing down unfamiliar words when they are spelled out, or telephone numbers.
Dyslexia and intelligence
Even though dyslexia is classed as a learning difficulty, there is no connection between dyslexia and a child’s intelligence. Children of all intellectual abilities, from low to high intelligence, can be affected by dyslexia.
Similarly, a child’s difficulty with reading and spelling is not determined by their intelligence, but by how severe their dyslexia is. Children with average intelligence and mild dyslexia are likely to be more skilled at reading and writing than children with high intelligence and severe dyslexia.
Read more information about the symptoms of dyslexia.
How common is dyslexia?
Dyslexia affects people of all ethnic backgrounds, although a person’s native language can play an important role. A language where there is a clear connection between how a word is written and how it sounds, and consistent grammatical rules, such as in Italian and Spanish, can be more straightforward for a person with mild to moderate dyslexia to cope with.
However, languages such as English, where there is often no clear connection between the written form and sound, as in words such as "cough" and "dough", can be more challenging for a person with dyslexia.
It can be difficult to diagnose dyslexia in young children as the signs may not always be obvious. If you are concerned your child has dyslexia, the first step is to speak to their class teacher, or other staff at their school.
If additional teaching and support are not helping your child’s reading and writing skills to improve, your school may request a more in-depth assessment. It is also possible to request an assessment through other organisations if necessary.
Read more about how dyslexia is diagnosed.
The cause (or causes) of dyslexia is unknown. However, many experts think the condition is probably caused by genetic factors that affect the normal development of certain areas of the brain.
Treatment and support
Although there is currently no cure for dyslexia, a range of educational programmes and interventions has proven effective in improving reading and writing skills in many children with the condition.
The outlook for dyslexia is highly variable. Around 95% of children respond well to educational interventions and go on to make moderate-to-good progress with reading and writing. The remaining 5% of children continue to find reading and writing difficult and will require more intensive support and long-term assistance.
Although children with dyslexia face challenges on a day-to-day basis, even children who have severe dyslexia can go on to lead full and productive lives.
Read more about how dyslexia is treated.
Symptoms of dyslexia
The signs and symptoms of dyslexia differ from person to person. Each individual with the condition will have a unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses.
Some of the most common signs of dyslexia are outlined below.
In some cases, it's possible to detect symptoms of dyslexia before a child starts school. Symptoms can include:
- delayed speech development compared with other children of the same age (although this can have many different causes)
- speech problems, such as not being able to pronounce long words properly and "jumbling" up phrases – for example, saying "hecilopter" instead of "helicopter", or "beddy tear" instead of "teddy bear"
- problems expressing themselves using spoken language, such as being unable to remember the right word to use, or putting together sentences incorrectly
- little understanding or appreciation of rhyming words, such as "the cat sat on the mat", or nursery rhymes
- difficulty with, or little interest in, learning letters of the alphabet
Symptoms of dyslexia usually become more obvious when children start school and begin to focus more on learning how to read and write.
Symptoms of dyslexia in children aged 5-12 include:
- problems learning the names and sounds of letters
- spelling that is unpredictable and inconsistent
- putting letters and figures the wrong way round – such as writing "6" instead "9", or "b" instead of "d"
- confusing the order of letters in words
- reading slowly or making errors when reading aloud
- visual disturbances when reading – for example, a child may describe letters and words as seeming to move around or appear blurred
- answering questions well orally, but having difficulty writing down the answer
- difficulty carrying out a sequence of directions
- struggling to learn sequences, such as days of the week or the alphabet
- slow writing speed
- poor handwriting
- problems copying written language, and taking longer than normal to complete written work
- poor phonological awareness and "word attack" skills (see below)
Phonological awareness is the ability to recognise that words are made up of smaller units of sound (phonemes) and that changing and manipulating phonemes can create new words and meanings.
A child with poor phonological awareness may not be able to correctly answer these questions:
- what sounds do you think make up the word "hot", and are these different from the sounds that make up the word "hat"?
- what word would you have if you changed the "p" sound in 'pot' to an "h" sound?
- how many words can you think of that rhyme with the word "cat"?
Word attack skills
Young children with dyslexia can also have problems with "word attack" skills. This is the ability to make sense of unfamiliar words by looking for smaller words or collections of letters that a child has previously learnt.
For example, a child with good word attack skills may read the word "sunbathing" for the first time and gain a sense of the meaning of the word by breaking it down into "sun", "bath", and "ing".
Teenagers and adults
As well as the problems mentioned above, the symptoms of dyslexia in older children and adults can include:
- poorly organised written work that lacks expression – for example, even though they may be very knowledgeable about a certain subject, they may have problems expressing that knowledge in writing
- difficulty planning and writing essays, letters or reports
- difficulties revising for examinations
- trying to avoid reading and writing whenever possible
- difficulty taking notes or copying
- poor spelling
- struggling to remember things such as a PIN or telephone number
- struggling to meet deadlines
If you're concerned about your child's progress with reading and writing, first talk to their school teacher.
If you or your child's teacher has an ongoing concern, take your child to visit a GP so they can check for signs of any underlying health issues, such as hearing or vision problems, that could be affecting their ability to learn.
If your child doesn't have any obvious underlying health problems to explain their learning difficulties, different teaching methods may need to be tried, or you may want to request an assessment to identify any special needs they may have.
If you're an adult and think you may have dyslexia, you may want to arrange a dyslexia assessment through your local dyslexia association.
Read more about diagnosing dyslexia .
The earlier a child with dyslexia is diagnosed, the more effective educational interventions are likely to be.
However, identifying dyslexia in young children can be difficult for both parents and teachers, because the signs and symptoms are not always obvious.
If you're worried about your child
If you're concerned about your child’s progress with reading and writing, first talk to their teacher. You may also want to meet with other staff in the school.
If there's an ongoing concern, take your child to visit a GP. It may be that your child has health problems that are affecting their ability to read or write. For example, they may have:
- vision problems, such as short-sightedness or a squint
- hearing problems, as the result of a condition such as glue ear
- other conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
If your child doesn't have any obvious underlying health problems to explain their learning difficulties, it may be that they're not responding very well to the teaching method, and a different approach may be needed.
Read about managing dyslexia for more information about educational interventions that may help.
If there are still concerns about your child’s progress after they've received additional teaching and support, it may be a good idea to have a more in-depth assessment.
This can be carried out by an educational psychologist or appropriately qualified specialist dyslexia teacher.
They'll be able to support you, your child and your child's teachers by helping improve the understanding of your child's learning difficulties and by suggesting interventions that may help them.
Requesting an assessment
There are various ways to request an assessment for your child, although it can sometimes be a time-consuming and frustrating process.
The first step is to meet your child's teacher and their school's special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) to discuss your concerns and any interventions that have been tried already.
If your child continues to have difficulties despite interventions, you can ask for them to be referred for assessment by a local authority educational psychologist or other specialist in dyslexia.
The Independent Parental Special Education Advice (IPSEA) is an independent charity for parents of children with special needs. Their website contains information about steps you can take to have the needs of your child assessed.
Alternatively, you can approach an independent educational psychologist or another suitably qualified professional directly. You can find a directory of chartered psychologists on the British Psychological Society's website.
You can also contact a national or local dyslexia association for help arranging an assessment.
The assessment procedure
Before the assessment takes place, you and your child's school may be sent a questionnaire that asks about your child and related issues, such as their general state of health, how well they perform certain tasks and what you think needs to change.
The assessment itself may involve observing your child in their learning environment, talking with key adults involved with your child’s learning and asking your child to take part in a series of tests.
These tests may examine your child's:
- reading and writing abilities
- language development and vocabulary
- logical reasoning
- the speed they can process visual and auditory (sound) information
- organisational skills
- approaches to learning
What happens afterwards
After your child has been assessed, you'll receive a report that outlines their strengths and weaknesses, with recommendations of what could be done to improve areas they are having difficulties with.
Depending on the severity of your child's learning difficulties, it may be possible for their difficulties to be managed through an action plan drawn up for them and undertaken by their school, called an individual education plan (IEP). This will be reviewed with you and your child each term.
In a small number of cases, where a child's difficulties don't improve and progress doesn't seem to be made, you may want to request a fuller assessment that covers all aspects of your child's development.
This would result in a more formal, legally binding educational plan being drawn up for your child, known as an Education Healthcare Plan (EHC). This sets out what your child's educational needs are and the support required to meet those needs in a document that is reviewed formally every year.
Visit GOV.UK for more information about children with special educational needs (SEN).
While dyslexia is a lifelong problem, there's a range of specialist educational interventions that can help children with their reading and writing.
These interventions are generally most effective if they're started at a young age.
The type and extent of intervention necessary will depend on the severity of your child's difficulties. A specific action plan for your child may be drawn up and implemented by their school.
Most mainstream schools should be able to offer suitable interventions for your child, although a small number of children may benefit from attending a specialist school.
A number of educational interventions and programmes are available for children with dyslexia.
These can range from regular teaching in small groups with a learning support assistant who delivers work set by teaching staff, to one-to-one lessons with a specialist teacher.
Most interventions focus on "phonological skills", which is the ability to identify and process word sounds. These interventions are often referred to as "phonics".
Phonics interventions can involve teaching a child to:
- recognise and identify sounds in spoken words – for example, helping them recognise that even short words such as "hat" are actually made up of three sounds: "h", "a" and "t"
- combine letters to create words, and over time, to use the words to create more complex sentences
- practise reading words accurately, to help them read more quickly
- monitor their own understanding while they read – for example, by encouraging them to ask questions if they notice gaps in their understanding
These interventions should ideally be delivered in a highly structured way, with development in small steps, and should involve regularly practising what's been learnt.
It can also help if your child is taught in a "multisensory" way, where they use several senses at the same time. An example of multisensory teaching is where a child is taught to see the letter "a", say its name and sound, and write it in the air, all at the same time.
How you can help your child
As a parent, you might be unsure about the best way to help your child. You may find the following advice useful:
- Read to your child – this will improve their vocabulary and listening skills, and it will also encourage their interest in books.
- Share reading – both read some of the book and then discuss what's happening, or what might happen.
- "Overlearning" – you may get bored of reading your child's favourite book over and over, but repetition will reinforce their understanding and means they will become familiar with the text.
- Silent reading – children also need the chance to read alone to encourage their independence and fluency.
- Make reading fun – reading should be a pleasure, not a chore. Use books about subjects your child is interested in, and ensure that reading takes place in a relaxed and comfortable environment.
Parents also play a significant role in improving their child's confidence, so it's important to encourage and support your child as they learn.
Technology for older children
Many older children with dyslexia feel more comfortable working with a computer than an exercise book. This may be because a computer uses a visual environment that better suits their method of learning and working.
Word processing programmes can also be useful because they have a spellchecker and an auto-correct facility that can highlight mistakes in your child's writing.
Most web browsers and word processing software also have "text-to-speech" functions, where the computer reads the text as it appears on the screen.
Speech recognition software can also be used to translate what a person is saying into written text. This software can be useful for children with dyslexia because their verbal skills are often better than their writing.
There are also many educational interactive software applications that may provide your child with a more engaging way of learning a subject, rather than simply reading from a textbook.
Much of the advice and techniques used to help children with dyslexia are also relevant for adults. Making use of technology, such as word processors and electronic organisers, can help with your writing and to organise daily activities.
Using a multi-sensory approach to learning can be helpful. For example, you could use a digital recorder to record a lecture, and then listen to it as you read your notes. It can also be useful to break large tasks and activities down into smaller steps.
If you need to draw up a plan or make notes about a certain topic, you may find it useful to create a 'mind map', rather than writing a list. Mind maps are diagrams that use images and keywords to create a visual representation of a subject or plan.
Adjustments at work
If you're in work, let your employer know that you have dyslexia, as they are required by law to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace to assist you.
Examples of reasonable adjustments may include:
- providing you with assistance technology, such as digital recorders or speech to text software
- giving you instructions verbally, rather than in writing
- allowing you extra time for tasks you find particularly difficult
- providing you with information in formats you find accessible