Recognising early signs and symptoms of childhood dyslexia

With our children in and out of school so much, something that’s been preying on a lot of parents’ minds is ‘What if I’m missing something?’

It’s a valid concern, and you’re not alone in thinking it. We are not trained educational professionals. We don’t know the developmental milestones that our children should be reaching at each stage, nor do we know how to teach all the skills they learn in playschool and the early years in primary school. What may just seem like fingerpainting, singing and play is actually all weaving the basics of social, emotional and physical development as well as the basic tenets of learning. The playschool and early primary curriculum is specifically designed to teach these things in a fun way, so how can our home activities compete?

And more importantly, how can we tell if things are not on track with our child’s development?

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Dyslexia manifests itself differently from person to person. Everyone’s signs and symptoms will differ and will show their own unique set of strengths and weaknesses. 

According to the NHS, symptoms can include but are exclusive to:

  • 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 sentences together 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
  • 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.

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What does lack of phonological awareness look like?

For example, 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"?

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Lack of 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".

So what do I do if I recognise these signs and symptoms in my child?

Your child’s teacher is your first port of call if you’re worried about reading and writing progress. They may recommend you take your child to see your GP so that underlying health issues can be checked out, like hearing or vision problems, which could be the culprit of the learning difficulty, rather than dyslexia. Problems may include:

  • 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)

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If your child does not 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.

If it is ascertained that there are no underlying causes, your child may not be responding well to the teaching methods and may need a different approach. You possibly need to request an assessment to identify any special needs they may have.

Sometimes, dyslexia is linked with other problems unrelated to reading or writing. For example:

  • difficulties with numbers (dyscalculia)
  • poor short-term memory
  • problems concentrating and a short attention span, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • poor organisation and time management
  • physical co-ordination problems (developmental co-ordination disorder, also called DCD or dyspraxia)

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The earlier a child with dyslexia is diagnosed, the more effective educational interventions are likely to be, but it has to be acknowledged that it’s often very difficult recognise it in young children. The symptoms are not always obvious, which is why assessments are good for clarity.

Dyslexia assessments are carried out by educational psychologists or appropriately qualified specialist dyslexia teachers. Their job is to support you and your child and your child’s teacher along the journey to improving the understanding of the child’s learning difficulties and providing the interventions that can smooth the way for them.

However, requesting an assessment can be a time-consuming and frustrating process.

Option One: Request a meeting with the child’s teacher as well as the special needs education coordinator in their school to go over the actions that have been taken to meet your child’s needs. Outline the difficulties that have persisted despite these interventions, and see if they can refer your child for assessment by a local authority educational psychologist or another specialist in dyslexia.

Option Two: You can approach an independent educational psychologist or another suitably qualified professional directly or contact a national or local dyslexia association for help arranging an assessment.

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The assessment:

A questionnaire may need to be filled out before the assessment takes place to find out more about:

  • the general state of their health
  • how well they perform certain tasks
  • what you think needs to change

The assessor may also want to observe the child in their learning environment, speak to their teachers and carry out a series of tests to measure their abilities in areas like:

  • reading and writing abilities
  • language development and vocabulary
  • logical reasoning
  • memory
  • the speed they can process visual and auditory (sound) information
  • organisational skills
  • approaches to learning

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After the assessment, the assessor will compile a report detailing the child’s strengths and weaknesses in different areas and outline recommendations to improve areas they’re having trouble with. They may be able to manage these problems through the school’s special educational needs program, depending on the severity of the learning difficulties.

For more information and further help, please see here.