Understanding Dyslexia - How teachers and parents can spot the signs and intervene

Praise instead of criticising children with learning difficulties

Praise instead of criticising children with learning difficulties

Published Oct 6, 2022


BY Alison Scott, Executive Headmistress of Bellavista School

Educators and parents play a vital role in the academic and emotional well-being of learners with dyslexia. This learning difficulty is more common than people often realise and is thought to affect around 10% of the population and 4% severely.

It is a common Specific Learning Difficulty and is often described as a ‘hidden disability’. Although weakness in the area of literacy is often the most visible sign, dyslexia affects the way information is processed, stored and retrieved.

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling (Rose Report, 2009).

Dyslexia is an auditory processing issue, not a visual one. Characteristic features include difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed.

Dyslexia occurs across a range of intellectual abilities. It is best thought of as a continuum. Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor co-ordination, mental calculation, concentration and personal organisation, 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, intensive intervention.

The key to realising the potential of this type of learner is to ‘screen and intervene’.

Learners with dyslexia may have emotional responses to their difficulties. These can include embarrassment, low self-esteem, depression, frustration and anger, which will cause additional barriers to learning. It is imperative that classrooms provide an environment where learners feel secure and confident to take risks and realise their learning potential.

Raising awareness and educating people through initiatives such as Dyslexia Month helps create a better understanding, including identifying the strengths that many people with dyslexia have and creating a positive ethos in a school.

In the pre-school years, watch out for the child who does not “outgrow” difficulty learning nursery rhymes or detecting rhyme, has a history of delayed speech and language development, and who likes listening to stories but shows no interest in letters, words or books.

Flag indicators such as difficulty learning to sing or recite the alphabet and poor ability to follow instructions. Be alert to children who muddle letters in words, e.g., cubumber, flutterby, when speaking, and forgets the names of friends, colours etc.

Monitor for any difficulty keeping simple rhythm and poor auditory discrimination. Outside of the language domain, observe for persistent difficulty in dressing, such as manipulating buttons effectively.

A child who has a cluster of these difficulties together may be dyslexic, but remember that the levels of development and speed of learning at the pre-school stage differ significantly for each child.

Into the primary school years, look out for areas of weaknesses that will appear alongside abilities, which may be in areas of creativity or in highly developed verbal skills. The child at risk for dyslexia likely has a poor standard of written work compared with oral ability.

Output is messy, with many corrections and attempts to spell correctly, e.g., bcos, becos, because. The same word may be spelt differently within one written piece. Be alert to persistent confusion between letters that look similar, particularly b/d, p/q, n/u, m/w. The learner who makes poor reading progress, especially using ‘look and say’ methods, demonstrates poor letter-sound knowledge, is hesitant, laboured, and inaccurate in reading, is likely at risk.

Learning to tell the time and keep to time is challenging. So too, is personal organisation.

Task avoidance tactics, such as sharpening pencils and looking for books, should trigger your radar. Often, a learner with dyslexia is excessively tired due to the energy required through a school day. A child who has a cluster of these indicators, together with some abilities, may be at high risk for dyslexia.

Often, a child in high school who is not supported or understood as dyslexic, presents as a behavioural concern with anxiety and or disruptive behaviour emerging as strong features.

The adolescent with dyslexia offers a poor standard of written work compared to their oral ability, has poor handwriting, or has a neat script but writes very slowly. Shoddy written work, with spellings crossed out several times and the same word spelt differently in one piece of work, is a hallmark characteristic of a dyslexic child, and this often elicits irritation within the teacher, who expects more of them.

Adolescents with dyslexia have great difficulty structuring written output, from ideation to layout, and demonstrate limited punctuation, despite maximum exposure and guidelines. Homework and class-based tasks are often turned in late, if at all. When reading, someone with dyslexia may be hesitant or overtly avoidant when called upon to read aloud, and if this is attempted, it is laboured and characterised by omissions, repetition or haste.

Even at this age, the learner with a Specific Learning Difficulty may use a finger or marker to keep the place when reading. Pin-pointing the main idea in a passage is difficult and creating a succinct outline or precis is very challenging.

Beyond reading, the adolescent with dyslexia has difficulty remembering tables and or basic number sets, even if accomplished in mathematical reasoning, is disorganised or forgetful, e.g., over sports equipment, lessons, homework, appointments, and finds holding a list of instructions in memory difficult, although can perform all tasks when told individually.

Again, this individual may be excessively tired due to the amount of concentration and effort required in an academic day.

Dyslexia is a combination of abilities as well as difficulties. It is the disparity between oral and written ability that may be indicative of a learner with dyslexia, and these traits are useful screening tools. Despite the barriers to access the curriculum, these learners may be design orientated and creative, interpersonally skilled, high in emotional intelligence, artistic, sporty and orally very able and knowledgeable. School for them may be like a long walk to freedom as the system battles to accommodate their needs.

However, within an informed and supportive environment, their future is bright in the world today.

For more information, vist www.bellavista.org.za