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Dyslexia Symptoms, Early Warning Signs, Risk Factors

Dyslexia symptoms index
Most children starting school look forward to learning to read and, in fact, do so quickly. For children with dyslexia, however, the experience is very different.

For them, letters and words, which seem to come effortlessly for everyone else, appear 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.

We investigate early warning signs of dyslexia, symptoms of dyslexia, risk factors and conditions that are related to dyslexia.


Table of contents:

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a learning disorder that affects your ability to read, spell, and write. People with dyslexia are often smart and hardworking, but they have trouble connecting the letters they see to the sounds those letters make. Dyslexia is considered to be the most common learning disability, affecting children across languages, writing systems, and educational approaches.

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).

Children with learning disabilities may start to resent school. It is, therefore, important that parents and teachers alike know the signs and symptoms of dyslexia so that they can intervene.

What are early warning signs of dyslexia?

Signs of dyslexia can be difficult to recognize before a child enters school, but some early clues may indicate a problem. Once a child reaches school age, the child’s teacher may be the first to notice a problem. Severity varies, but the learning disorder often becomes apparent as a child starts learning to read. Signs that a young child may be at risk of dyslexia include:

– Late at talking

Research has revealed a dramatic link between the abnormal development of spoken language and 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, based on one hundred pairs of dyslexic and typical children, found indications of backwardness in speech development among the children with dyslexia. According to Hornsby, about 60 percent of dyslexics were late talkers.

By five, a child should have acquired basic language, and only the complexity of usage and vocabulary will improve with the years. If a child still has a speech defect, however mild, or uses immature grammatical structure in his sentences when he starts school at five, this should alert parents and teachers to probably future problems with reading and writing.

– Trouble with nursery rhymes

Children who are at risk for dyslexia may have a hard time learning nursery rhymes or song lyrics that rhyme. Nursery rhymes are important for young children because they help develop an ear for language.

Bryant et al. (1989) found a strong relationship between early knowledge of nursery rhymes at age three and success in reading and spelling at age six even after differences in social background, IQ, and the children’s phonological skills at the start of the project were taken into account. The researchers concluded that knowledge of nursery rhymes enhances children’s phonological sensitivity, which in turn helps them to learn to read. 

– Late at walking

Twenty percent of dyslexics were late walkers, according to Hornsby. Children usually take their first uncertain steps around twelve to fifteen months of age and are walking well enough by eighteen months to no longer have to think about it – the activity has become automatic. If a child is not walking by eighteen months or later there may be cause for concern. 

– Clumsy and accident-prone

Children with dyslexia are popularly thought of as being clumsy and accident-prone, but while some dyslexic children are not well coordinated, many do brilliantly at sports. Clumsiness is not nearly such a significant early pointer as late talking or even late walking. However, it is as well to bear it in mind. If your child is badly coordinated, sports like trampolining, judo, and swimming can help to build up their confidence in their own physical abilities, and usually results in an overall improvement in coordination.

What are symptoms of dyslexia?

Symptoms of dyslexia usually become more obvious when children start school and begin to focus more on learning how to read and write. Symptoms of dyslexia include:

– 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 of dyslexia that indicate a difficulty in phonological processing include:

  • Struggles to decode words, which is the ability to match letters to sounds.
  • 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.
  • Children with dyslexia may find it difficult to blend individual sounds into words and may sound out the letters of the word correctly but then be unable to say the correct word. For example, they may sound the letters ‘c-a-t’ but then says cold.
  • Vowel sounds are particularly troublesome.
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– Poor reading fluency

Fluency is the ability to read “as you speak”. Hudson et al. define fluency this way: “Reading fluency is made up of at least three key elements: accurate reading of connected text at a conversational rate with appropriate prosody or expression.” Nonfluent readers suffer in at least one of these aspects of reading: they make many mistakes, they read slowly, or they don’t read with appropriate expression and phrasing.

Decades of research indicates that fluency is one of the critical building blocks of reading, because fluency development is directly related to comprehension. Here are the results of one study by Fuchs et al. that shows how oral reading fluency correlates highly with reading comprehension.

MeasureValidity Coefficients
Oral Recall/Retelling.70
Cloze (fill in the blank).72
Question Answering.82
Oral Reading Fluency.91

To interpret this type of correlation data, consider that a perfect match would be 1.0. As you can see, oral recall/retelling, fill in the blank, and question answering are all above 0.6, which indicates there is a strong correlation. But oral reading fluency is by far the strongest, with a .91 correlation.

– 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.

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

  • Children with dyslexia 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 on for on, tar for rat, now for won, was for saw.
  • They may read or write 71 for 17.
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A same 10-year-old reversing the numbers  2, 3, 7, and 9.

– Sequencing difficulties

Sequencing refers to our ability to perceive items in a specific order, and also to remember that sequence.  

Many people with dyslexia 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 child with dyslexia 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.
  • They 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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– Difficulty 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.
    .

It is important to note that this is extremely common, and not a sign that a child is careless or lazy.

– Guesses wildly at words

A child with severe dyslexia may make up a story, based on the illustrations, which bears no relation to the text. They may also guess wildly at words regardless of whether they make sense or not.

They may spell bizarrely, for example, substance may be spelled ‘sepedns’, last spelled ‘lenaka’, about spelled ‘chehat’, may spelled ‘mook’, did spelled ‘don’, or to spelled ‘anianiwe’. These words bear little, if any, relation to the sounds in the words. Below is an example of bizarre spelling (Miles & Miles, Help for Dyslexic Children):

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is bizarre.jpg

– Poor at reading comprehension

Decoding and fluency are key to reading comprehension. Children with dyslexia may add extra words to sentences, leave words out of sentences, misread words, conjugate verbs improperly, and make a variety of other reading mistakes that cause them to have a poor understanding of what they are reading. When these reading accuracy issues are multiplied over an entire passage or chapter, the dyslexic child is left knowing only bits and pieces of what they just read.

Another element that causes the dyslexic child to struggle with reading comprehension is poor vocabulary. Due to their reading struggles, they often do not acquire a solid base of vocabulary at the typical ages that other children do. As a result, they may not understand what they are reading, even if they can decode the words.

What are risk factors for dyslexia?

Risk factors are things that increase the chance of developing a disease, disorder or condition. Below are risk factors associated with dyslexia: 

– Heredity

There is a large body of research on children at risk due to family history of dyslexia. The estimated prevalence rate for dyslexia in the general English-speaking population is between 5 and 17%. However, the rate of reading-related skill deficits (e.g., word reading, orthographic coding, phonological decoding and phoneme awareness) based on familial risk studies is between 35 and 40%.

– Recurring ear infections

Frequent colds or ear infections in the first three years of life can impair hearing, depriving the developing brain of all-important language exercise time. Also known as “glue ear” and otitis media, these ear infections are known to cause dyslexia.

Over a period of eight years, Peer (2002) collected a sample of 1,000 children and adults who were referred for assessment due to identified difficulties along the dyslexia continuum. Of these, 703 had experienced serious bouts of glue ear and 297 had not. 

– Left-handedness

In western societies, about 90% of the adult population is said to be right-handed, with the remaining 10% consisting of persons variably identified as left-handed, ambidextrous, and/or ambiguously handed.

Koufaki and Papadatou-Pastou (2013) medically reviewed 44 studies and confirmed the statistically significant increase in non-right-handedness among people with dyslexia compared with non-dyslexics, providing support for the theory that specific language-associated brain function is not adequately lateralized to the left hemisphere in people with dyslexia.

Comorbidity is the presence of one or more additional medical conditions often co-occurring or co-existing with a primary condition. It is reported that approximately 60% of people with dyslexia also meet the criteria for at least one disorder.

– Difficulty with math

A child 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 word dyscalculia is used to describe a severe math problem.

– Difficulty with handwriting

Dyslexia may include poor handwriting skills. You may notice 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; struggles to use writing as a communicative tool. The word dysgraphia is often used to describe a severe difficulty in this area.

– Difficulty attaching names to things

The child may provide a detailed description of the word in question but is unable to recall its exact name. Normal individuals suffer this occasionally. Word recall problems are classified as dysnomia when they are severe enough to interfere with learning or with daily life. 

Difficulty with balance

While not all children with dyslexia show impaired balancing skills, many do. The word dyspraxia is often used to describe a severe difficulty in this area. Dyspraxia also goes by the name “clumsy child syndrome.” A child with dyspraxia has trouble planning and coordinating his body movements, and struggles with fine motor tasks like writing, buttoning his clothes, and tying his shoelaces.

Overcoming dyslexia symptoms

Edublox specializes in educational interventions that make children smarter, help them learn and read faster, and do math with ease. Our programs enable learners to overcome reading difficulties and other learning obstacles, assisting them to become life-long learners and empowering them to realize their highest educational goals.

Watch our playlist of customer reviews and experience how Edublox training and tutoring help overcome dyslexia signs and symptoms. Learn more about our approach to dyslexia treatment and book a free consultation to discuss your child’s learning needs. We cater for a variety of dyslexia types.


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Dyslexia signs and symptoms – key takeaways

Dyslexia symptoms key takeaways
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Authored by Susan du Plessis (B.A. Hons Psychology; B.D.), a reading specialist with 30+ years’ experience in the field of learning disabilities.
Medically reviewed by Dr. Zelda Strydom (MBChB).


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References and sources:

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Bryant, P., Bradley, L., Maclean, M., & Crossland, J. (1989). Nursery rhymes, phonological skills and reading. Journal of Child Language, 16(2), 407-428.

Butterworth, B., & Kovas, Y. (2013). Understanding neurocognitive developmental disorders can improve education for all. Science, 340(6130), 300-305. 

Elliott, J. G., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2014). The dyslexia debate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fuchs, L. S., Fuchs, D., Hosp, M. K., & Jenkins, J. R. (2001). Oral reading fluency as an indicator of reading competence: A theoretical, empirical, and historical analysis. Scientific Studies of Reading, 5(3), 239–256.

Henderson, A. (2012). Dyslexia, dyscalculia and mathematics: A practical guide (2nd ed.). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Hornsby, B. (1984). Overcoming dyslexia. Johannesburg: Juta and Company Ltd.

Hudson, R. F., H. B. Lane, and P. C. Pullen. (2005). Reading fluency assessment and instruction: What, why, and how. Reading Teacher 58(8), 702-714.

Koufaki, A., & Papadatou-Pastou, M. (2013). Μετα-ανάλυση: Δυσλεξία και προτίμηση χεριού (in Greek) [Meta-analysis: dyslexia and hand preference]. Proceedings of the 2nd Hellenic Conference of Educational Sciences, May 27-30, 2010. Athens: Smirniotakis.

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