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Dyslexia in Children: A Comprehensive Guide

Understanding dyslexia in children.
Reading is a complex act. It involves many processes and skills that all have to act at once. Children with dyslexia have severe difficulty with reading and, because of that, also with spelling. Our Dyslexia in Children guide promises to answer many questions.


For several reasons, some children have difficulty reading and assembling the meaning of a text. In an age where reading is a vital life skill, this can cause significant problems.

They read slowly and haltingly, and words they read correctly in one sentence may be misread in a subsequent sentence. Reading aloud can be particularly painful. Poor spelling and trouble writing are usually included. They may have a learning disability known as dyslexia.

It’s important to point out that not all children who experience trouble reading have dyslexia. Obviously, being able to read and write well depends on adequate training. If a child hasn’t received this training, they will find it hard to read. Similarly, some kinds of brain injury or impairment may make complex tasks like reading difficult to achieve. However, when a child’s reading skills lag behind their overall ability, dyslexia may be present.

But where is it present, and why? In this guide, we are going to consider:

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is difficulty with words. Like all words that start with dys, it refers to a problem, deficiency, or lack. Lexia has to do with words and language. In particular, dyslexia refers to difficulty with reading and writing words.

Traditionally, scholars defined dyslexia as a discrepancy between actual reading performance and what would be expected based on the child’s intelligence. The ‘true dyslexic’ was typically a child who, despite struggling with reading, is above average in intelligence. When children are less intelligent, their reading troubles have been ascribed to their general intellectual limitations. 

Research, however, has shown that the distinction between the intellectually able dyslexic poor reader and the ‘garden-variety’ poor reader is no longer tenable. Using brain imaging scans, Tanaka et al. (2011) found no difference between the way poor readers with or without dyslexia think while reading.

The Rose Report (2009) states that dyslexia can occur across the IQ range and that poor decoding skills require the same kinds of intervention irrespective of IQ. The Rose Report defines dyslexia as follows (p. 10):  

Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling. Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed. Dyslexia occurs across a range of intellectual abilities.

In their DSM-5, the American Psychiatric Association uses the term ‘Specific Learning Disorder with impairment in reading’ to describe what others call dyslexia. The DSM-5 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.

Dyslexia is best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, and there are no clear cut-off points. Like hypertension, it can vary in severity. The terms mild, moderate, and severe are commonly used to describe the degree:

The most common subtypes of dyslexia are phonetical, surface, and deep. Developmental dyslexia may be used to distinguish the problem in children and youth from similar difficulties experienced by persons after severe head injuries.

Read the article below for more information on dyslexia types:

What are the signs of dyslexia in children?

The complexity of learning disabilities, in general, makes it difficult to pinpoint a discrete set of definitive signs. Here is a list of some of the more common ones:

Linguistic signs

Children tend to develop language in a predictable series of stages, and there is a correlation between a failure to reach certain landmarks and trouble reading later on. While none of these are conclusive proof of dyslexia, they are worth noting if you observe them in your child:

  • Late language acquisition: Many dyslexic children exhibit a delay in language acquisition. Acquisition is the term linguists use to describe the process whereby you take on your mother tongue.
  • Difficulty with rhyme: A child with dyslexia may find it difficult to answer a question like, “Can you think of a word that rhymes with hot?”

Problems with literacy

Once a child completes the process of acquiring their first language (usually around the age of 5), literacy is introduced through elementary schooling. The child must begin to learn to interpret written text. Several other mental processes must be effortless and routine for this to happen.

  • Learning sound-symbol relationships: A persistent difficulty in linking letter symbols to sounds can be an early indicator of dyslexia. Some children routinely give the wrong sound for a given letter symbol, even frequent ones.
  • Difficulty blending: In English, and many other languages, each character in a written word represents one phoneme or sound. To successfully deal with a word, a beginning reader must “blend” the individual sounds represented by the various symbols: the sequence t – a – p must become a single sound: “tap.” Dyslexia can make it difficult for the young reader to do this.
  • Difficulty segmenting: Just as they may struggle to blend sounds into words, children with dyslexia often do not readily do the opposite task of breaking words into separate sound segments.
  • Reading for comprehension: Effective reading involves more than accurate decoding of text. The reader must understand what the text is saying. Children with dyslexia might have significant difficulty with reading comprehension.

Behavioral signs

In addition to language and literacy skills, a child’s behavior and non-verbal abilities can provide information about future reading outcomes.

  • Retaining heard information: Dyslexic children often fail to follow verbal instructions, which can easily be mistaken for defiance or a deficit in hearing.
  • Motor skills: There appears to be a high correlation between dyslexia and difficulties with motor skills. We recruit these skills to do things like sit and balance (gross motor) or hold and manipulate paper and pencils (fine motor).

Read the article below for more information on dyslexia symptoms, early warning signs, and risk factors:

How common is dyslexia in children?

Determining exactly how many children have dyslexia is tricky. This is because the definition of this learning disability is not precise in the way that many other disorders are. What unifies all children with dyslexia is that they find it difficult to read effectively for understanding.

While it’s hard to arrive at a concrete figure, dyslexia seems to affect a large number of children. Most estimates place the number at between 4 and 12 percent. According to the International Dyslexia Association, at least one in every ten otherwise able children has serious dyslexia problems.

What is the impact of dyslexia on children?

Poor reading skills cast a dark shadow. Extensive evidence suggests that learning to read is directly linked to a young child’s self-concept and mental well-being and that children with hampered reading skills fare poorly academically.

As the poor achiever’s hope for a fulfilling and productive life diminishes, they may start contributing to the overall number of school dropouts, single parents, and juvenile delinquents.

On the other hand, strong reading skills have been tied to many personal, social, and economic benefits.

What causes dyslexia?

The cerebellum, a brain structure traditionally considered to be involved in motor function, has been implicated in developmental dyslexia. The visual magnocellular deficit theory suggests that a dysfunction of the magnocellular system, a part of the visual system, causes the visual processing difficulties seen in dyslexia. 

However, the three leading causes of dyslexia involve genetic influences, cognitive deficits, and brain differences. Read the article below for more information on the three leading causes:

How is dyslexia diagnosed?

A comprehensive evaluation is required to make a diagnosis of dyslexia. This evaluation looks at a child’s reading ability and other factors such as general academic ability and family background. Typically, a large amount of information is required, and the person administering the evaluation or assessment will take the child through a series of tests. This thoroughness is necessary because one needs to rule out other possibilities.

Read the article below to learn more about how a dyslexia diagnosis is made, the difference between dyslexia screening and dyslexia testing, and who can make a dyslexia diagnosis.

Can dyslexia go undetected?

Sometimes, specific learning disabilities like dyslexia can be hard to detect. Some children evade a diagnosis because they have exceptional abilities that can mask their dyslexia. They feature in the literature as “twice exceptional” cases because they are above average in ability and intelligence while living with a reading disability.

What conditions can occur with dyslexia?

As various fields of study converged on the problem of dyslexia, experts began to discover relationships between dyslexia and other conditions. Some of these are Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and dyspraxia. Read more in the article below:

What can parents do to help their children?

If your child has trouble learning to read, the best approach is to take immediate action. Ninety-five percent of poor readers can be brought up to grade level if they receive effective help early. The longer you wait to get help for a child with reading difficulties, the harder it will be for the child to catch up.

What is the best treatment for dyslexia?

The best treatment for dyslexia combines cognitive skills training with the teaching of decoding and reading fluency and the development of orthographic mapping.

Cognitive skills training focuses on the skills that underpin reading:

  • Focused, sustained, divided, and visual-spatial attention;
  • Visual, auditory, and phonological processing;
  • Rapid naming and processing speed;
  • Visual, auditory, sequential, visuospatial, iconic, short-term, long-term, and working memory;
  • Logical thinking.

Decoding is crucial in learning to read and involves separating the sounds in words (segmenting) and blending sounds. Reading fluency is the ability to read with speed, accuracy, and proper expression.

The process of orthographic mapping involves the brain linking the three forms of a word — its sounds, spelling, and meaning — and storing them together in long-term memory. It allows for instant word recognition, fluent reading, and accurate spelling.

The article below explains the four pillars of Edublox’s dyslexia treatment program:

Can dyslexia in children be overcome?

While children do not ‘outgrow’ dyslexia, it can be overcome with proper treatment. Below are success stories of children who overcame their dyslexia symptoms and the difference it made to their lives:

Edublox offers cognitive training and live online tutoring to students with dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and other learning disabilities. Our students are in the United States, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere. Book a free consultation to discuss your child’s learning needs.

Authored by Susan du Plessis (B.A. Hons Psychology; B.D.), an educational specialist with 30+ years experience in learning disabilities, and Dylan Arslanian (B.A. Hons Linguistics, Cambridge DELTA). Medically reviewed by Dr. Zelda Strydom (MBChB).