Helping children who struggle

The National Center for Learning Disabilities reports one in five children in the United States has learning and attention issues. Many of those children have symptoms of dyslexia, a language-based disability that makes it very difficult to learn to read.

Dyslexia can be extremely frustrating for individuals with this condition, as well as their families, teachers and employers. But with early identification and appropriate instruction, children will be much more likely to reach their full potential in school and in the workplace.

You can help your loved ones, or others who have dyslexia, by understanding the true nature of this learning condition and spreading the word. A good place to start is by dispelling the myths and misunderstandings that many of us have about dyslexia.

Myth #1: People with dyslexia see letters in words in reversed or mixed-up order.

Many of us have joked at one time or another about having dyslexia. Maybe you had trouble writing down a phone number, or you reversed the letters in a word you were trying to spell. But people with dyslexia do not “read backwards.” Dyslexia does not originate from visual impairments. Instead, individuals with dyslexia have trouble associating printed letters with the sounds they represent.

However, someone could have one or more of these difficulties and not have dyslexia. Formal testing of reading, language and writing skills is the only way to confirm a diagnosis of suspected dyslexia.

Individuals with dyslexia have difficulties acquiring and using written language. Specific problems experienced by people with dyslexia include the following:

  • Learning to speak
  • Learning letters and their sounds
  • Organizing written and spoken language
  • Spelling
  • Memorizing number facts
  • Reading quickly enough to comprehend
  • Correctly doing math operations
  • Persisting with and understanding longer reading assignments
  • Learning a foreign language

Myth #2: Children with dyslexia will grow out of it — just wait and see.

If your child has signs of dyslexia, it is critical to find help as soon as possible. Children may show signs even before they start school, and the earlier dyslexia is identified and they receive help, the more likely they are to keep up with their peers. Early intervention or additional instruction should begin as early as kindergarten or first grade when the gap is small and students benefit from the brain’s plasticity, an advantage for learning language-based skills. Brain plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to learn. When a student is not achieving at an average rate, additional instruction should be provided immediately to help them catch up.

Structured Literacy instruction involves more than traditional phonics and includes the following elements:

  • Identifying and working with individual speech sounds
  • Linking speech sounds to letters that represent them
  • Breaking words into syllables for reading and spelling
  • Understanding meaningful parts of words, such as prefixes and roots
  • Working with sentence structure
  • Developing vocabulary or knowledge of word meanings
  • Understanding how written language is organized

How is dyslexia diagnosed?

Children can be screened or evaluated for dyslexia by professionals from several disciplines, as long as they are trained to understand the condition. Evaluations can be conducted by trained school personnel or outside specialists. Current federal guidelines encourage a school to see how a student responds to remedial instruction before undertaking a comprehensive evaluation. This approach is known as Response to Intervention (RTI). Parents should know, however, that at any point they have the right to request a comprehensive evaluation under federal law, whether or not the student is receiving instruction under an RTI model.

A comprehensive evaluation typically includes cognitive and academic achievement testing, as well as an assessment of the critical underlying language skills that are closely linked to dyslexia. These include receptive (listening) and expressive language, phonological skills including phonemic awareness and a student’s ability to rapidly name letters and numbers. A student’s knowledge of sound-symbol correspondences (phonics), ability to read lists of words in isolation, spelling and fluency in reading passages should also be assessed.

Myth #3: People with dyslexia are lazy or unintelligent.

When individuals with dyslexia do not do as well as their classmates, teachers and others may assume it is because they have a low IQ, don’t care about reading or are lazy. Unfortunately, these assumptions stand in the way of individuals with dyslexia getting the help they need to overcome the challenges they face. And, to make matters worse, if they believe these negative labels, they might give up, lose confidence and feel bad about themselves, which can make it even harder to succeed.

Contact your local branch of the International Dyslexia Association to find help in your area.

Final words

If you are concerned your child might need to be tested, speak up. Contact your local branch of the International Dyslexia Association to find help in your area. You might also find help from other parents and families. Decoding Dyslexia is a grassroots organization of parents who are working very hard to change laws to help children with dyslexia.

Louisa Moats, Ed. D., has been a board member and officer of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA). She is the author or co-author of many journal articles, books, and policy papers about reading and language difficulties, including Basic Facts About Dyslexia. She creates professional development for teachers through LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling). To learn more about dyslexia and to find help for struggling readers, visit IDA at and @DyslexiaIDA on social media.