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Dyslexia in Children: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Reading and learning are the two things that determine the success of a child during their school career. First, they learn to read. Then they read to learn. Reading is therefore of paramount importance in the educational process.

Most children look forward to learning to read and, in fact, do so quickly. For some children, however, the experience is very different: For them, reading, which seems to come effortlessly for everyone else, appears to be beyond their grasp. The process whereby they learn to transform what are essentially abstract squiggles on a page into meaningful letters, then sounds, then words, and then entire sentences and paragraphs, seems to be an impossible task.

They grow frustrated and disappointed. Teachers wonder what they or the child might be doing wrong, often misdiagnosing the problem or getting bad advice. Parents question themselves, feeling alternately guilty and angry.

Poor reading skills, and therefore poor learning skills, is a reality for an alarming number of children. The Institute for Global Education and Service Learning states that 40 percent of American children have difficulty reading or learning to read, and as many as three-quarters of students who are poor readers in third grade will remain poor readers in high school.

Why do so many children struggle to learn to read? Do they have dyslexia?


Table of contents:
  • What is dyslexia?
  • How common is dyslexia in children?
  • What are the symptoms?
  • What are the different types of dyslexia?
  • How does dyslexia impact children?
  • What causes dyslexia in children?
  • How can children with dyslexia be helped?
  • How can Edublox help?

  • What is dyslexia?

    The term dyslexia was coined from the Greek words dys meaning ill or difficult and lexis meaning word. Developmental dyslexia may be used to distinguish the problem in children and youth from similar problems experienced by persons after severe head injuries.

    Dyslexia is not easy to define, mainly because the term encompasses a wide and differing range of characteristics. Traditionally, dyslexia has been defined in terms of a discrepancy between actual reading performance and what would be expected based on the child’s intelligence. The ‘true dyslexic’ was typically a person who, despite struggling with reading, is above average in intelligence (Elliott, 2015). When children are less intelligent, their reading troubles have been ascribed to their general intellectual limitations.

    Using brain imaging scans, however, Tanaka et al. (2011) found no differences between the way poor readers with or without dyslexia think while reading. Poor readers of all IQ levels showed significantly less brain activity in six observed areas. These findings were largely replicated by Simos et al. (2014).

    The British Dyslexic Society describes dyslexia in very general terms as “…a combination of abilities and difficulties defined by its characteristics that affect the learning process in one or more areas of reading, spelling, and writing.” 

    The DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) uses the term ‘Specific Learning Disorder with impairment in reading’ to describe what others call dyslexia. It considers dyslexia “specific” for four reasons: it is not attributable to

    • an intellectual disability, generally estimated by an IQ score of 65-75;
    • a global developmental delay;
    • hearing or vision disorders; or
    • neurological or motor disorders.
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    How common is dyslexia in children?

    Depending on the definition and diagnostic criteria employed, dyslexia affects from 3% to 20% of the population (Elliott & Grigorenko, 2014; Lallier et al., 2018; Shaywitz, 2005), and up to 40% experience some type of reading difficulty (Mather & Wendling, 2012).
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    What are the symptoms?

    The symptoms below as an indication that a child has a reading problem and therefore needs help:

    Reading

    Child is struggling to read.

    These are reading problems that are typical of dyslexia:

    • Some dyslexic children cannot work out words phonetically, and if they can, it is with great difficulty. For example, they may try to sound out the letters of the word (e.g. sound out “c-a-t”}, but then be unable to say the correct word (e.g. say “cold”).
    • A telltale sign of dyslexia is reversals. Children with this kind of problem may confuse letters like b and d, or they sometimes read words like “rat” for “tar,” or “won” for “now.”
    • They may read the letters of a word in the wrong order, like “left” for “felt,” or the syllables in the wrong order, like “emeny” for “enemy,” or words in the wrong order, like “are there” for “there are.”
    • Another sure sign is elisions, that is when a child sometimes reads “cat” when the word is actually “cart.”
    • Dyslexic children often cannot remember how to read very common words.
    • The child with dyslexia may read very slowly and hesitantly, without fluency, word by word; and may constantly lose their place, thereby leaving out whole chunks or reading the same passage twice.
    • When dyslexic children are given reading practice they may become tired very quickly.
    • They may read with poor comprehension.
    • They may remember little of what was read; they are prone to forget the beginning of a sentence by the time they reach the end.
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    Spelling

    Image of what dyslexia in children looks like.
    A 10-year-old boy with dyslexia reversing his b’s and d’s. He wrote: The glow-in-the-dark shark lives deep in the ocean. The whale shark has a lot of teeth. All sharks are made of cartilage.

    There are ranges of difficulties with spelling that affect children with dyslexia:

    • They do not properly distinguish and record the difference between similar-sounding words, such as “pin” and “pen”.
    • English cannot be read phonetically only, and the reader needs to remember a large number of words for which the spelling does not appear logical. A dyslexic child will frequently attempt the spelling of such words in a phonetic style and, for example, might spell says as sez, or was as woz.
    • Some children cannot absorb the rules of English spelling, such as the effect of an e at the end of a word.
    • Often, dyslexic children cannot remember familiar spelling patterns such as “ight”, which they will try to spell phonetically — for example, “rite” for “right” — and therefore inaccurately.
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    Most young children without dyslexia will exhibit initial difficulties with many of these spelling patterns and will, in time, overcome them. The dyslexic child, however, does not respond to traditional teaching and does not learn how to apply these spelling rules.

    Writing

    The writing problems shown by dyslexic children are often associated with a lack of physical coordination, for example:

    • The dyslexic child may have problems holding a pencil correctly.
    • There is sometimes no consistency of size between letters.
    • Capital letters and lowercase letters are sometimes intermingled.
    • Poor hand-eye coordination can make intelligible writing and accurate drawing very difficult to achieve.
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    >>>>> Read more about dyslexia symptoms.
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    What are the different types of dyslexia?

    There are three main types of dyslexia in children:

    The prominent characteristic of dyseidetic dyslexia, also called visual dyslexia, is the inability to revisualize the gestalt of words. Common symptoms include confusion with letters that differ in orientation (b-d, p-q), very limited sight vocabulary, losing the place because one doesn’t instantly recognize what had already been read, and difficulty learning irregular words that can’t be sounded out.

    Dysphonetic dyslexia or auditory dyslexia, on the other hand, is associated with phonological and auditory processing difficulties. These children have difficulty remembering letter sounds, analyzing the individual sounds in words, and sequencing/blending these into words.

    Mixed dyslexia or dysphoneidetic dyslexia is when a child struggles with both.
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    >>>>> Read more about dyslexia types.
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    How does dyslexia impact children?

    Dyslexia is known to have destructive emotional effects on children and can leave its scars for the rest of one’s life. Besides long-lasting emotional effects, dyslexia can also lead to unemployment or underemployment.

    “I’ve always felt I was stupid,” says Elizabeth, diagnosed as suffering from mild dyslexia at the age of 17. “I went through school having disguised my difficulties, adjusting around them and keeping my problem a secret. I worked so hard in that academic environment, but felt that I just kept getting nowhere. Everybody thought I was slow and treated me that way.” A recent IQ test showed that Elizabeth was far above average.

    Behavior problems often result from their negative experiences at school. The stress and frustration they have to endure as a result of their poor achievement cause them to be reluctant to go to school, to often have temper tantrums before school, and sometimes even to play truant. Cheating, stealing, and experimenting with drugs can also occur when children regard themselves as failures.

    Bob Turney is a dyslexic who turned to crime because he thought he was thick. At primary school, he sat at the back of the class looking at picture books and did not have a clue what the teachers were talking about. When they said that he was stupid, he believed them; and when they treated him as disruptive, uncooperative and lazy, he behaved accordingly. He left school at fifteen, barely able to write his name, got involved in his first burglary, and spent the next eighteen years in and out of prison..
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    What causes dyslexia in children?

    Most problems can only be solved if one knows what causes the problem. A disease such as scurvy claimed the lives of thousands of seamen during long sea voyages. The disease was cured fairly quickly once the cause was discovered, viz. a Vitamin C deficiency. A viable point of departure would therefore be to ask the question, “What is the cause of dyslexia?”

    There is a labyrinth of differing, opposing, and often contradictory theories about dyslexia; what it is, its causes, and its possible correction.

    • The cerebellum, a brain structure traditionally considered to be involved in motor function, has been implicated in developmental dyslexia. New research, however, shows that the cerebellum is not engaged during reading in typical readers and does not differ in children who have dyslexia (Ashburn et al., 2019).
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    • The visual magnocellular deficit theory suggests that the difficulties in the visual processing of dyslexia are caused by the dysfunction of the magnocellular system (Stein, 2001). 
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    • Some believe that dyslexia is genetically determined and inherited from generation to generation. They support this view by referring to many studies that have indicated that there is often a family history of learning disabilities. Hornsby (1984), for example, states that 88 percent of dyslexics had a near relative who had similar problems with reading and spelling. A large-scale study of twins with dyslexia yielded a concordance rate of 68% in identical twins, as compared with 38% in non-identical twins, indicating a substantial genetic component (DeFries & Alarcón, 1996).
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    • Some theorists say that dyslexia may be a result of “faulty wiring in the brain” during the mother’s pregnancy. The resulting abnormalities interfere with the brain’s ability to understand written material.
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    Data using fMRI indicate three neural systems for reading (shown in the image above). These are all located in the left side of the brain: one in the front of the brain (shown in green, in the region of the inferior frontal gyrus [Broca’s area]) and two in the back of the brain (one in the parietotemporal region, shown in red, and a second in the occipito-temporal region, shown in yellow). The latter system is of particular importance for skilled, fluent reading and is termed the visual word-form area (Shaywitz, 2005).

    In a meta-analysis of functional neuroimaging studies of dyslexia, Martin et al. (2016) list studies in which differences between groups with and without dyslexia were found in specific brain regions. The most consistent findings concerned the left occipitotemporal cortex, which includes the so-called visual word form area (VWFA), though to be critical for reading. The left inferior parietal lobule came in a close second in the meta-analysis study by Martin and colleagues (shown in red). This part of the brain is said to be involved in word analysis, grapheme-to-phoneme conversion, and general phonological and semantic processing. Imaging also reveals compensatory overactivation in other parts of the reading system (shown in green). The compensatory neural systems allow a dyslexic person to read more accurately. However, the critical visual word-form area remains disrupted and difficulties with rapid, fluent, automatic reading persist. The dyslexic continues to read slowly (Shaywitz, 2005).

    It should be noted that brain differences do not equal brain disorders. After reviewing the scientific evidence of the last few decades, Protopapas and Parrila (2018) conclude:

    Differences in brains are certain to exist whenever differences in behavior exist, including differences in ability and performance. Therefore, findings of brain differences do not constitute evidence for abnormality; rather, they simply document the neural substrate of the behavioral differences. We suggest that dyslexia is best viewed as one of many expressions of ordinary ubiquitous individual differences in normal developmental outcomes. Thus, terms such as “dysfunctional” or “abnormal” are not justified when referring to the brains of persons with dyslexia.

    It should also be noted that the brain is plastic. New connections can form and the internal structure of the existing synapses can change. New neurons, also called nerve cells, are constantly being born, particularly in the learning and memory centers. Approximately 700 new neurons are daily being formed in the brain. Neurons die each day too, keeping the overall number more or less balanced, with a slow loss of cells as we age (Spalding, 2015). A person who becomes an expert in a specific domain, will have growth in the areas of the brain that are involved with their particular skill.

    The human brain is a powerhouse; the human brain has put a man on the moon, created the silicon chip that can do billions of calculations per second, invented red, yellow, and green lights to control millions of people in traffic every day and — believe it or not — found ways to see what goes on inside itself. The human brain itself tells us that it is most certainly capable of overcoming learning obstacles like dyslexia, despite genetic influences and brain differences.
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    >>>>> Read more about dyslexia causes.
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    How can children with dyslexia be helped?

    While many factors may contribute to dyslexia, one should not overlook the age-old — but ageless — principle that learning is a stratified process. This is a self-evident fact, yet its significance in the situation of the dyslexic child has never been fully comprehended. Throughout the world, in all educational systems, it is commonly accepted that a child must start at the lower levels of education and then gradually progress to the higher levels. If human learning had not been a stratified process, if it had taken place on a single level, this would have been unnecessary. It would then not have been important to start a child in first grade. It would have been possible for the child to enter school at any level and to complete the school years in any order.

    Another simple and practical example is the fact that one has to learn to count before it becomes possible to learn to add and subtract. Suppose one tried to teach a child, who had not yet learned to count, to add and subtract. This would be quite impossible, and no amount of effort would ever succeed in teaching the child to add and subtract. This shows that counting is a skill that must be mastered before it becomes possible to learn to do calculations.

    This principle is also of great importance on the sports field. Take soccer as an example. The game of soccer consists of many fragmented elements or skills — passing, control, shooting, dribbling, goalkeeping, and heading. Before any child is expected to play in a full-game situation, they should first be trained to pass, head, control, dribble and shoot the ball. Until these skills have been automatized, the child will have two left feet on the soccer field.

    In the same way, there are also certain skills and knowledge that a child must acquire first, before they will become good readers.

    The first rung of the reading ladder

    Di dunia kini kita, tiap orang harus dapat membaca….

    Unless one has first learned to speak Bahasa Indonesia, there is no way that one would be able to read the above Indonesian sentence.

    This shows that language is at the very bottom of the reading ladder. If a child’s knowledge of English is poor, then his reading will also be poor. Evidence that links reading problems and language problems has been extensively presented in the literature. Research has, for example, shown that about 60 percent of dyslexics were late talkers.

    The second rung consists of cognitive skills

    While language skills comprise the first rung of the reading ladder, cognitive or brain-based skills comprise the second.

    In addition to phonological awareness — i.e. the ability to hear and identify the various sounds in spoken words — cognitive psychology has now linked many brain-based skills to dyslexia:

    • verbal fluency (Moura et al., 2015);
    • attention and executive functions (Menghini et al., 2010);
    • visual attention (Elliott, 2015; Valdois et al., 2004);
    • visuospatial abilities (Giovagnoli et al., 2016; Menghini et al., 2010; Helland & AsbjØrnsen, 2003);
    • processing speed (Moura et al., 2015; Stoodley & Stein, 2006);
    • short-term memory (Cowan et al., 2017; Majerus & Cowan, 2016);
    • auditory working memory (Vender, 2017; Weiss et al., 2014);
    • visual and visual sequential memory (Talepasand et al. 2018; Guthrie & Goldberg, 1972);
    • visual long-term memory (Binamé et al., 2015), especially for details (Huestegge et al., 2014);
    • verbal long-term memory (Helland & Morken, 2015); and
    • rapid naming (Brizzolara, 2006; Denckla & Rudel, 1976).
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    Weak cognitive skills prevent a process called orthographic mapping. Every word has three forms: its sounds, spelling, and meaning. The process of orthographic mapping involves the brain linking the three forms of the word and storing them together in long-term memory. It allows for instant word recognition, fluent reading, and accurate spelling.

    Until a child has mastered these brain-based skills first, reading will remain a closed — or, at most, a half-open — book to them.
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    How can Edublox help?

    Edublox Online Tutor is an online platform that houses a range of products and services to improve various aspects of learning. Our programs include Development Tutor, Reading Tutor, and Live Tutor. Live Tutor works in conjunction with Development Tutor, is recommended for students with mild to severe dyslexia, and aims at

    • strengthening cognitive skills;
    • teaching decoding, a key skill for learning to read that involves taking apart the sounds in words (segmenting) and blending sounds together; and
    • developing orthographic mapping.
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    Live Tutor is offered to students in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. Book a free consultation to discuss your child’s learning needs.

    Susan’s story

    Meet Susan, Vivienne’s mom. Vivienne was adopted from China at age 5. This video is about Susan helping her 11-year-old daughter catch up on development delays, including dyslexia. They started with the Edublox program 13 weeks ago. 
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    Maddie’s story

    Also meet Maddie, who has been diagnosed with severe dyslexia, moderate dyscalculia, and ADHD. Watch how she improved from the 1st to the 55th percentile in reading after doing Edublox intensively for 35 weeks..
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    Terry André’s story

    Terry had had remedial lessons for three years for his reading problem. “I have taught him to cope with the work but I have not been able to teach him to read. His reading has always been a serious problem and he has been diagnosed as dyslexic,” said Jennie van Zyl, Terry’s remedial teacher.

    By the middle of fourth grade, Terry’s reading ability was like that of a first-grade/second-grade child. His spelling was poor, he confused b’s and d’s and found creative writing a problem. Terry was very untidy, always in a hurry, happy with second best, and just generally not coping at all, said Mrs. Leslie, his class teacher. Because the children laughed at his efforts, reading in front of the class caused him great embarrassment.

    Terry started on the Edublox program in the third term of fourth grade, a few weeks before the examination. He nevertheless failed third term with an aggregate of 54 percent.

    Rapid improvement was noted during the fourth term. By the end of the school year Terry was no longer reversing letters. “The other day,” said Jennie, “he picked up a book and I was amazed to hear him reading without any stammering, hesitation or repetitions. It was the first time he had ever managed without being taught the words first. Now, whenever there is any spare time, he asks if we can read.”

    “He has settled down, completes all his tasks to the best of his ability, and takes pride in his work,” reported Mrs. Leslie. “He is also able to read aloud in front of the class without any of the problems which had caused him such embarrassment before.”

    Terry passed fourth grade with an aggregate of 66 percent. Edublox was continued into fifth grade, with attending progress.


    The bottom line

    The only solution for a problem like dyslexia is to address the causes. Until we have done that, the child will continue to struggle.
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    Key takeaways

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    Authored by Susan du Plessis (B.A. Hons Psychology; B.D.) who has 30+ years’ experience in the LD field.
    Medically reviewed by Dr. Zelda Strydom (MBChB) on May 21, 2021.
    Next review due: May 21, 2023.


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