Monday, September 5, 2016

All about Dyslexia

Hello again! I meant to get this post up right after my previous post but life happened. ;) My last post was all about what happens in the brain while we read. Make sure you read that post first before continuing on to this one. This one will make more sense if you read that one first. After reading this post, you should also check out an older post about myths and misconceptions surrounding dyslexia. Knowing what dyslexia is NOT will help you understand what it IS. I am not an expert by any means. This has just become a passion of mine to learn more and spread any knowledge and understanding that I do have. I encourage you to do some more reading and, if possible, take a class or seminar by someone who is an expert so that you can learn more! The research about dyslexia is there and there is a lot of it. We just need to get it out there so it is common knowledge for all educators. Okay, I'll hop off my soapbox now and get to the good stuff. :)

I made this visual to quickly get out a few things that are important to know about dyslexia. Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. (IDA)

1. First, it is neurobiological. It is NOT from lack of effort or intelligence. There is a difference in the brain that develops before any formal instruction ever takes place. You will see below more about this.

2. It is a language based disability. It is not a problem with vision. (See my post on myths and misconceptions.) People with dyslexia have difficulty with language skills, including reading, spelling, writing, and even pronouncing words. 

3. Dyslexia is passed through families. When a child is struggling with reading, this is one of the first things I look for- family history. Many parents/grandparents might not know they have dyslexia but they will say they "had a hard time in school" or "don't like reading" or "aren't great readers." 
From "About 40% of the siblings of a person with dyslexia may have similar reading issues. Scientists have also located several genes associated with reading and language processing issues."

4. Dyslexia is more common than you realize. About 1 in 5 students have dyslexia. That means you most likely DO have a dyslexic student in your class. There is a wide spectrum of abilities and symptoms, so it is not always an obvious case. The more I learn about dyslexia, the more I see it. Think about it: If you have a class of 20, that means statistically, you have 4 kids who are struggling with this disability on some level. That's pretty significant!

Definition from International Dyslexia Association

As I mentioned above, there is a pretty wide spectrum when it comes to the severity of symptoms. I started studying dyslexia when I had a student who was/is profoundly dyslexic. It couldn't be ignored, even if I didn't know what I was dealing with. By studying his severe symptoms of dyslexia, I started to see the same symptoms in students who weren't struggling as much as he was. 

For more information about phonological awareness, click here.

This is the first thing I look for. When a student is struggling with phonemic awareness in kindergarten/early 1st grade, that is a red flag for you. I start working with kids in kindergarten who are struggling with phonemic awareness. Some of them turn out to be totally normal readers. Others, improve with intervention, but are identified later with dyslexia. The early intervention is significant for students with and without dyslexia because phonemic awareness is one of the main indicators of reading success. (See my post on phonemic awareness.

I think sometimes people think since I work at a private school, there must be no struggling readers. WRONG! Dyslexia doesn't care how much money your family has. It does not go away just because your family has read to you since birth. It is neurobiological, remember? Let me be clear though- being read to as a child is still incredibly important. It develops comprehension, vocabulary, language skills, and (hopefully) a love of literature and learning.  From what I understand, it won't prevent dyslexia though. 

I was also surprised to learn that dyslexia is equal among boys and girls. I do think girls tend to look for ways to compensate and please the teacher in the classroom, making it more difficult to spot sometimes. That's why assessments are so important. 

It's also important to remember that dyslexia has nothing to do with intelligence! In fact, dyslexics have average to above average intelligence. That's actually part of the definition. The best simple definition I heard was from PDX Reading Specialist. I don't know if she made this up or heard it somewhere else, but I'm giving her credit. This definition is simple and really sums it up.

Now that we've looked at what dyslexia is, we can look at some of the reasons why students struggle with this disability. Let's look at the brain! Disclaimer: I am not a brain scientist or an expert in any way. I'm simply taking information I've learned and sharing it with you all. First, let's review one slide from my last post. Make sure you read that one first. 

These are the three brain systems that are most active while reading. My previous post talked about the different roles each of these systems play.  

Remember that each system plays a part. They all work together to make reading a smooth process. 

Notice how they don't develop that left-side word form area, which leads to fluent reading.  This area is the place where word retrieval becomes automatic. 

To read a word, dyslexics take a longer path through the brain. They can get delayed in that slow, analytic frontal part of the brain.

New research has found that with appropriate instruction, we can begin to form new pathways for our dyslexic readers. That's why appropriate instruction is so important. (My next post will go into this more.)

Now let's look at the warning signs of dyslexia. When I see these symptoms, I'm not about to go diagnosing anything. (There are specialists for that.) I will, however, start giving them support they need. Early intervention is key! 

I don't work with preschoolers, but I do work with kindergartners. When a student is struggling to learn the alphabet and seems to forget a letter from one day to the next, I start intervention. When a student struggles with phonemic awareness, I start doing activities right away to develop that. Phonemic awareness activities should be fun! Every kindergarten classroom needs to have daily activities. These are simple and short activities. If a student isn't picking up these skills by mid-kinder, that's when I start intervention with them. It's still fun, simple activities though. I think the biggest warning sign for me is a student in mid-kinder who seems very bright and interested in learning, but struggles to remember their letters, days of the week, and other common things like that. If they are doing their little kinder journal and you see that they avoid sounding out words (instead they look around and only write words they can copy) or if they do try but it seems very difficult despite many opportunities to practice, I would look more into that. (Note: If kids come into your kinder class without literacy at home- no books, not read to, no instruction with letters prior- that is a different story usually. They need more exposure first before you can decide if it's a red flag. However, you would give them the same RTI at this point because you need to get them exposure.)

I can usually tell something is really wrong by mid/late first grade. If they are still really struggling with decoding or remembering sight words, that is a huge red flag. Poor spelling is still pretty common in first grade, but becomes a bigger red flag later. One of two of these symptoms alone are not red flags. Many kids have poor handwriting. Also, it's important to note that when kids are first learning to read, they will make frequent errors. I just look at all of these symptoms when I'm starting to wonder about a student. The biggest thing to look for is difficultly with phonics and/or learning sight words. I also look out for those kids who can memorize any sight word you put in front of them so they "word call" while they read. They can mask their disability. They sound like they are reading, but then you give them a word they don't know and their decoding skills are very poor. That is a red flag. They are memorizers, but are not actually reading. They must decode. These kids tend to have poor spelling because they can read those sight words well, but usually mix up letters when spelling those same words. I think the most common symptom is the problems with decoding. You'll get those kids who (by first grade) know their letters and the rules of phonics but they decode SO slowly. They sound out the same word on every page. They don't notice word families and other patterns that may help them. This is a red flag (after proper instruction and exposure.)

This is when spelling becomes a bigger red flag. Fluency is also a biggie. Comprehension problems are usually a result of the slow or inaccurate reading. These are kids that may have excellent comprehension during read-alouds but not when they read on their own. Third grade is usually the time where dyslexics hit a wall. If they were able to compensate with or hide their disability in the earlier grades, they usually can't anymore. That's because there are so many more words! They can't memorize every word anymore. Multi-syllable words become common. So many words look the same. Advanced decoding is necessary.

I hope this post was helpful! My information came from these resources.

Click on the picture to download these links.

To read more about dyslexia, click here and here or on the pictures below:


  1. Thank you so much for this very informative blog. I have been working with dyslexics for a number of years and I have never seen it so clearly defined and explained. Thanks again. Moyra

  2. Love this! It is so nice to see it visually represented in a way that even children can understand!

  3. I shared this with my first grade team, the KDG team, and pre-k team. we are anxiously awaiting your next blog!

  4. I am a teacher & a Mom of a 2nd Grader who struggles to read, write & now it is effecting all her classes. I looked into private testing, but it is just too expensive ($1500). I've started working on testing through a hospital that doesn't charge money, but it has a 7month wait list. By the time we have results, she will be in 3rd. I am highly frustrated.

    She knows all of her sight words from FRY's list in isolation, but not when reading. We spend HOURS on spelling words & she often makes a 70. So frustrating!!

  5. Have you heard of Trish Martin's Unlocking the Code/Rewiring the Brain? If not, you need to. Her program is amazing, and all about building better, stronger pathways in the brain to help children understand the structure of language/read. We are starting the program in our district this year...the training (I had a super condensed version) was eye opening!