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Dyslexia: It’s more than mixing up letters

    Reading and writing are critical to success in school, so it can be frustrating for students, teachers, and parents when a kid struggles in those subjects. One reason why some children have difficulty learning is because they have dyslexia. The good news is--kids with dyslexia can manage these difficulties. We’re sharing helpful information and resources about dyslexia so your child can learn to enjoy reading and writing.

    What is dyslexia?

    First, what it’s not: dyslexia is not simply mixing up letters or words when reading, despite how it has been oversimplified on TV and in movies. Dyslexia is a disorder where the brain has difficulty connecting the sight of letters with the sounds of those letters, like the sound “buh” for the letter “b.” This disconnect between sight and sound can affect reading, spelling, writing, and memorization abilities. Kids with dyslexia are often of average or above average intelligence. They may be really good in other subjects but struggle in reading or writing because of difficulty connecting letters with their corresponding sounds. Don’t believe the myth that dyslexia means a lack of intelligence. It’s simply not true.

    How is dyslexia diagnosed?

    By mid-kindergarten or later, if a child’s reading level is not on pace with their peers, the child might be recommended by an educator or caregiver for evaluation. School psychologists or other trained specialists often can do dyslexia evaluations in school. Evaluations can also be done by trained specialists in a health care settings. Typically, we see children age 6 to 18 evaluated who have unexpected difficulties in reading and spelling, but otherwise have typical development. On average, 5 to 20% of kids evaluated are diagnosed with dyslexia.

    Assessments commonly include:

    • Evaluating how well your child comprehends and responds to spoken language.
    • Phonological processing skills (a.k.a. the use of the sounds of one's language to process spoken and written language).
    • Reading.
    • Spelling. 
    • Reading fluency.
    • Reading comprehension.
    • Non-verbal intelligence test (if needed).

    What causes dyslexia?

    Dyslexia tends to run in families, but the exact causes for individuals aren’t usually known. However, parents and caregivers can be aware of risk factors for dyslexia.

    Risk factors for dyslexia

    Risks factors for dyslexia in preschool and kindergarten-aged children:

    • Delayed speech and language.
    • Ear infections.
    • Family history of reading or spelling difficulties.
    • Confusion with left/right.
    • Trouble recognizing rhyming words.
    • Trouble saying sounds or syllables in long words.
    • Trouble memorizing the alphabet/phone number/learning letter sounds.

    Risk factors for dyslexia in elementary and middle school-aged children:

    • Letter or number reversals after first grade.
    • Difficulty learning cursive.
    • Poor handwriting.
    • Slow, incorrect reading.
    • Skips or misreads small words.
    • Poor spelling.
    • Trouble finding the right word when speaking.
    • Trouble memorizing sight words/math facts.

    How is dyslexia treated?

    Early intervention for dyslexia

    When dyslexia is diagnosed earlier in life, intervention has more time to be successful. Treatment for dyslexia may include more exposure to letters and sounds, often including more practice with the kinds of lessons kids are already learning in school. One well-regarded program called Orton-Gillingham uses a multisensory approach, such as having a student write the letter “w” with their finger in a bowl of water. Using touch and movement to learn the letters and sounds can help students better absorb the association between the two.

    Modifications for a child with dyslexia

    While early intervention in preschool and elementary school is ideal, interventions can still be helpful for students in middle school or high school. Treatments look very similar to those available for younger students with providing more exposure to letters and sounds. In addition to intervention, it can be helpful to use modifications, or offering ways to help a student learn, like listening to audiobooks for reading assignments or using voice to text for writing assignments. These modifications should be discussed with your child’s school.

    What if dyslexia is left untreated?

    With no intervention and support, kids with dyslexia can give up on reading and suffer academically. This can lead some students to engage in disruptive or withdrawing behaviors. Falling behind with schoolwork can have long-term consequences on a child’s future personally, socially and economically. This is why treatment at any stage is so important to helping a child reach their full potential, no matter their diagnosis.

    Child Psychology

    Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine