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What Is Dyslexia? Dyslexia Symptoms and Signs

Table of contents:


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Deer Sir
Heerdy I aply for any posision in your cumpony. I am ninteen yeers of age and have now cumpleted 10th grabe. I am interisted in peepel and a motivateb persen. I do not hav any work ecsperiense dut I am wiling to lurn.
Yors faitfuly,
Mr. R. M. White.

When reading the above letter you might think that it was written by someone with low intelligence. You are wrong. Mr. White’s intelligence is above average, but he is limited in his ability to read and spell correctly.

Mr. White has dyslexia.
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What is dyslexia?

The term dyslexia was introduced in 1884 by the German ophthalmologist, R. Berlin. He coined it from the Greek words dys meaning ill or difficult and lexis meaning word, and used it to describe a specific disturbance of reading in the absence of pathological conditions in the visual organs. In a later publication, in 1887, Berlin stated that dyslexia, “presuming right-handedness,” is caused by a left-sided cerebral lesion. He spoke of “word-blindness” and detailed his observations with six patients with brain lesions who had full command over verbal communications but had lost the ability to read. In the century to follow the narrow definition Berlin attached to the term dyslexia would broaden.

Today dyslexia refers to a difficulty in learning to decode (read aloud) and to spell. It is considered to be the most common learning disability, affecting children across languages, writing systems, and educational approaches. Perhaps the most widely cited definition of dyslexia states that “[Dyslexia is] a disorder manifested by difficulty in learning to read despite conventional instruction, adequate intelligence, and sociocultural opportunity. It is dependent upon fundamental cognitive disabilities, which are frequently of constitutional origin” (Snowling, 2000).

For many years, research on dyslexia proceeded on the basis that it was a specific learning difficulty. The term ‘specific’ here referred to the fact that children with dyslexia have reading and spelling difficulties that are ‘out of line’ with expectation, given age and IQ. Educational and clinical psychology practice was to look for a discrepancy between expected and actual reading achievement to ‘diagnose’ dyslexia. However, the failure to find qualitative differences in reading (and the phonological skills that underpin it) between children with dyslexia and children with more general learning problems led to this kind of ‘discrepancy’ definition to lose credibility. (Snowling et al., 2020). 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 the range of intellectual abilities. It is best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, and there are no clear cut-off points. Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor coordination, mental calculation, concentration and personal organization, but these are not, by themselves, markers of dyslexia. A good indication of the severity and persistence of dyslexic difficulties can be gained by examining how the individual responds or has responded to well-founded intervention.

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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Prevalence and cut-off points

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).

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

  • Most adults show some blips and would be levels 1 or 2.
  • Levels 4 or 5 have difficulty in spelling and punctuation. If they maintain high levels of discipline, they can be successful.
  • Levels 6 or 7 have difficulty with spelling and reading textbooks. They can sometimes finish college, but it takes tremendous effort.
  • Levels 8 or 9 find academic learning almost impossible. It takes 2-3 times longer to finish assignments. They need constant help.
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What are dyslexia symptoms and signs?

Most children look forward to learning to read and, in fact, do so quickly. For dyslexic 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 are slow to learn to decode words and become fluent; they also struggle to generalize, that is, to read novel words they have never seen before. Words that they read correctly in one sentence may be misread in a subsequent sentence. Reading aloud may be particularly painful. Below are possible symptoms and signs:

Weakness in phonological processing

The term “phonological” comes from  the Greek word phone, which means “sound.” Phonological processing refers to the use of phonological information — especially the sound structure of one’s oral language — to process written language (i.e., reading, writing) and oral language (i.e., listening, speaking).

Symptoms that indicate difficulties in phonological processing include:

  • Poor ability to remember individual sounds or sequences of sounds.
  • Difficulty blending individual sounds into words. Children with dyslexia may sound out the letters of the word, but then be unable to say the correct word. For example, they may sound the letters ‘c-a-t’ but then says cold.
  • Difficulty listening to words and omitting one sound and substituting it for another (say cat; now take off the /c/ and put on an /f/); such abilities are essential for word analysis because that is what figuring out how to phonetically decode a word is all about; children usually develop this skill with initial consonants, and then medial vowels or consonants.
  • Difficulty remembering the sounds that individual letters and phonetically regular and irregular letter combinations represent.
  • Inability to rapidly retrieve letter sounds while analyzing words, so that the beginning of the word is forgotten by the time the last letter of the word is recalled (naming problem).
  • Difficulty analyzing unknown words because of poor knowledge of phonetic rules and difficulty sequencing sounds.
  • Difficulty applying the phonetic rules from words that can be read to pseudowords that follow the same pattern but are not real words.
  • Vowel sounds are particularly troublesome.
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Directional confusion

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.

Directional confusion may take several forms, from being uncertain of which is left and right to being unable to read a map accurately. A child should know their left and right by the age of five, and be able to distinguish someone else’s by the age of seven. Directional confusion affects other concepts such as up and down, top and bottom, compass directions, keeping one’s place when playing games, being able to copy the gym teacher’s movements when he is facing you, and so on. As many as eight out of ten severely dyslexic children have directional confusion. The percentage is lower for those with a mild condition (Hornsby, 1984).

Directional confusion is the reason for reversing letters, whole words, or numbers, or for so-called mirror writing. The following symptoms indicate directional confusion:

  • The dyslexic may reverse letters like b and d, or p and q, either when reading or writing.
  • They may invert letters, reading or writing n as u, m as w, d as q, p as b, f as t.
  • They may read or write words like no for on, rat for tar, won for now, saw for was.
  • They may read or write 17 for 71.
  • They may mirror write letters, numbers and words.
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Sequencing difficulties

Sequencing refers to our ability to perceive items in a specific order, and also to remember that sequence. In saying the days of the week, months of the year, a telephone number, the alphabet, and in counting, the order of the elements is of paramount importance. 

Many dyslexics have trouble with sequencing. Naturally, this will affect their ability to read and spell correctly. After all, every word consists of letters in a specific sequence. To read one has to perceive the letters in sequence, and also remember what word is represented by the sequence of letters in question. By simply changing the sequence of the letters in name, it can become mean or amen.

The following are a few of the dyslexia symptoms that indicate sequencing difficulties:

The writings of a 10-year-old girl with severe dyslexia.
  • When reading, the dyslexic may put letters in the wrong order, reading felt as left, act as cat, reserve as reverse, expect as except.
  • They may put syllables in the wrong order, reading animal as ‘aminal’, enemy as ’emeny’.
  • They may put words in the wrong order, reading are there for there are.
  • The dyslexic may write letters in the wrong order, spelling Simon as ‘Siomn’, time as ‘tiem’, child as ‘chidl’.
  • They may omit letters, i.e. reading or writing cat for cart, wet for went, sing for string.
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Dyslexics may also have trouble remembering the order of the alphabet, strings of numbers (for example, telephone numbers), the months of a year, the seasons, and events in the day. Younger children may also find it hard to remember the days of the week. Some are unable to repeat longer words orally without getting the syllables in the wrong order (for example, words like preliminary and statistical).

Here are some other tasks that tend to be a challenge for those with dyslexia, according to the website BrightStar Learning:

  • Shoe-tying: this is a skill that involves a sequence of steps as well as directionality. Lots of dyslexics cannot tie their shoes until they are in their teens.
  • Forming letters: Dyslexics may begin and end letters at strange points. They can’t remember the series of pencil strokes they must make to form the letters. So, they just dig in and start writing from wherever and continue until the letter bears some relation to its correct form.
  • Long division: Long division problems entail following a sequence of five steps, in the same sequence, for each problem. The dyslexic may have a good grasp of each step but may not perform them in the proper sequence, and they may end up generating the wrong answer.
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Difficulties with the little words

A frequent comment made by parents of children struggling with their reading is, “He (or she) is so careless, he gets the big difficult words, but keeps making silly mistakes on all the little ones.” Certainly, the poor reader gets stuck on difficult words, but many do seem to make things worse by making mistakes on simple words they should be able to manage — like ‘if’, ‘to’, ‘and’.

The following are indications of problems with the little words:

  • Misreads little words, such as a for and, the for a, from for for, then for there, were for with.
  • Omits or reads twice little words like the, and, but, in.
  • Adds little words which do not appear in the text.
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It is important to note that this is extremely common, and not a sign that a child is particularly careless or lazy. There are three likely reasons for this, says Morgan (1986). First, big words are not more difficult to remember once they’ve been seen once, than the common little words. Airplane is not much like other words and is fairly easy to recognize (or to guess correctly when you come across a long word starting with ‘air’ in a book with airplanes in it!) — but telling the difference between if and of needs much closer inspection. Second, when a difficult word is spotted coming up in a sentence, there is a natural tendency to look ahead to it and pay less attention to the smaller words leading up to it — increasing the risk of ‘careless’ mistakes. This is like a mountaineer setting his eyes on the mountain ahead and tripping over a molehill on the way. Third, getting the small ‘linking words’ in a sentence right (like to, and, so) relies very much on knowing the meaning of the whole sentence. If you are a child spending so much time fighting with each word that you’ve lost the meaning of the sentence, then you’ve also lost your major clue to the smaller words in it.

Late talking

Research has revealed a dramatic link between the abnormal development of spoken language and learning disabilities such as dyslexia. In several longitudinal studies, children with preschool speech or language impairments have been found to remain at risk for developing reading disabilities at older ages (Scarborough, 2005). A study by Valtin (1974), based on one hundred pairs of dyslexic and normal children, found indications of backwardness in speech development and a greater frequency of speech disturbances among dyslexics than among normal children. According to Hornsby (1984), about 60 percent of dyslexics were late talkers.

In most cases, a baby should be able to understand simple words and commands from the age of nine months. From around a year, they should be saying their first words. By two they should have a vocabulary of up to 200 words, and be using simple two-word phrases such as “drink milk.” By three they should have a vocabulary of up to 900 words and be using full sentences with no words omitted. They may still mix up his consonants but their speech should be comprehensible to strangers. By four, they should be fully able to talk, although he may still make grammatical errors.

If a child talks immaturely or still makes unexpected grammatical errors in their speech when they are five years old, this should alert the parents to probable later reading problems. The parents should immediately take steps to improve the child’s language.

Difficulties with math

Children with dyslexia will almost always have problems with reading mathematical texts. Mathematics books and examinations have ‘word’ problems that have to be read correctly or there is no way that an accurate answer will be found. They may, however, also struggle with other aspects of math:

  • The dyslexic may have a problem with numbers and calculations involving adding, subtracting and timetables.
  • They may be confused by similar-looking mathematical signs: + and ×; –, ÷ and =; < (less than) and > (greater than).
  • They may not grasp that the words ‘difference’, ‘reduction’, and ‘minus’ all suggest ‘subtraction’.
  • They may understand the term ‘adding’, yet be thrown if asked to ‘find the total’.
  • The dyslexic may reverse numbers, and read or write 17 for 71.
  • They may transpose numbers i.e., 752 – 572.
  • They may have difficulty with mental arithmetic.
  • They may have a problem with telling the time.
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A 10-year-old with dyslexia reversing the numbers  2, 3, 7, and 9.

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The word dyscalculia is often used to describe a severe math problem.

Difficulties with handwriting

Some dyslexics suffer from poor handwriting skills. The word dysgraphia is often used to describe a severe difficulty in this area, and is characterized by the following symptoms:

  • Generally illegible writing.
  • Letter inconsistencies.
  • A mixture of upper/lower case letters or print/cursive letters.
  • Irregular letter sizes and shapes.
  • Unfinished letters.
  • Struggle to use writing as a communicative tool.
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Other dyslexia symptoms

  • Makes up a story, based on the illustrations, which bears no relation to the text.
  • Guesses wildly at words regardless of whether they make sense or not. Hornsby (1984) uses the following example to illustrate how some dyslexics guess wildly at words: “Now the children were discussing their new play. ‘We need a brave person for the mountain rescue,’ explained the boy,” was read as “How the children were designing their new play. ‘We need a brave man of the mount chishimse,’ ixslating the boy.”
  • Spells bizarrely, for example substance spelled ‘sepedns’, last spelled ‘lenaka’, about spelled ‘chehat’, may spelled ‘mook’, did spelled ‘don’, or to spelled ‘anianiwe’.
  • Reads very slowly and hesitantly, word by word, monotonously.
  • Loses orientation on a line or page while reading, missing lines or reading previously-read lines again.
  • Mispronounces words, or puts stress on the wrong syllables.
  • Reads only in the present tense although the text is in the past.
  • Foreshortens words, for example, ‘portion’ for proportion.
  • Substitutes another word of similar meaning, for example, dog for pup.
  • Omits prefixes, omits suffixes, or adds suffixes.
  • Reads with poor comprehension.
  • Remembers little of what was read.
  • Spells words as they sound, for example, ‘rite’ for right.
  • Cannot write or match the appropriate letter when given the sound.
  • Often ignores punctuation. They may omit full stops or commas and fail to see the need for capital letters.
  • Poor at copying from the board.
  • Has trouble attaching names to things and people.
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Videos: Overcoming dyslexia symptoms and signs

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. Click here to follow their journey to learning success.

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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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Key takeaways

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NEXT: Page 4: Dyslexia causes


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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References and sources:

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Lallier, M., Lizarazu, M., Molinaro, N., Bourguignon, M., Ríos-López, P., & Carreiras, M. (2018). From auditory rhythm processing to grapheme-to-phoneme conversion: How neural oscillations can shed light on developmental dyslexia. In T. Lachmann, & T. Weis (Eds.). Reading and dyslexia (pp. 141-157). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

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