Parents and teachers often wonder how they can tell if children have a learning disability. There are many different kinds of learning disabilities, but today’s blog post will focus on dyslexia.
While it takes a professional to diagnose a learning disability such as dyslexia, it can be helpful for parents or teachers to look for the indicators. Even preschoolers may exhibit some signs. Perhaps they can’t remember simple nursery rhymes or other rhyming words. Or they may have difficulty recalling the alphabet or identifying letter names, or both, often even the letters in their own names. Some children with dyslexia mispronounce words when speaking that other children their age can say correctly.
Once letter sounds are introduced, usually in kindergarten if not earlier, it may be difficult for children with dyslexia to remember the sounds or to associate them with the correct letter names. When reading instruction begins, they may not be able to sound out even basic consonant-vowel-consonant words such as hat or sit. Many do not understand that spoken words are made up of individual sounds—in other words that these sounds can be taken apart or put together (a lack of phonemic awareness). When they attempt to read, they often guess at words rather than sounding them out, or they substitute words with similar meanings, such as kitty for cat.
By second grade, children with dyslexia continue to have difficulty acquiring reading skills. They usually require a lot of repetition during instruction, and reading is slow and dysfluent. Because most children with dyslexia have not been able to master letter-sound correspondences (sounding out words), they guess at words when reading and, when possible, often totally avoid reading out loud. Some have word retrieval issues and use general words instead, such as “stuff” or “thing.” Many mispronounce long words—for example, ambliance for ambulance, amulium for aluminum. By second or third grade you may also begin to see students struggling in school. They do not finish tests on time because of their poor reading ability, and spelling has begun to be a problem. Handwriting is often illegible. Children at this age start to realize that they’re different from their peers, and self-esteem may suffer.
As children with dyslexia progress through the grades, their reading skills continue to deteriorate unless they receive an appropriate intervention. Any gains that they make do not compare to the gains of their same-age peers. What is worse, their poor reading skills start to affect performance in other subjects. Moreover, when reading is such a chore, these children rarely read for pleasure, and consequently their store of word meanings is limited. Sadly, they often begin to believe that they’re dumb. To save face, they may do whatever they can to avoid reading and sometimes begin to act out in class--or conversely to withdraw. Sometimes teachers and even parents mistake their difficulties for lack of effort and compound the problem by calling them lazy or unmotivated.
By about fourth grade, when content area instruction is stressed so much more than it was in the primary grades, children with dyslexia really falter because they are unable to use their reading skills to learn the content. They fall further and further behind. What began in preschool as a minor difficulty snowballs with each grade until the student with dyslexia cannot manage in school anymore without assistance. All subjects are affected, and self-esteem comes crashing down. Although intervention is best in the primary grades, it is never too late. However, the intervention must include intensive reading and writing instruction. Classroom accommodations alone are necessary but not sufficient.
Dr. Andrea Winokur Kotula is an educational consultant for families, advocates, attorneys, schools, and hospitals. She has conducted hundreds of comprehensive educational evaluations for children, adolescents, and adults.