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Education & Development

What is dyslexia?

Updated Tuesday, 31st July 2012

Find out more about dyslexia, a learning difficulty that causes people to experience problems in learning to read and spell fluently

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A set of colorful plastic alphabets meant for learning English language Creative commons image Icon Les Cunliffe | under Creative-Commons license Although it is possible to find many different definitions of dyslexia  there is agreement amongst researchers that dyslexia ‘exists’ and has some characteristic features. Dyslexia is not related to a  person’s  intellectual ability or their social background.

The difficulties that a person experiences with literacy tasks are underpinned by  problems with the processing, sequencing and recall of  verbal information, and the development of phonological awarenes - the ability to identify and manipulate the sounds and words within a language.

This means that not only may children with dyslexia  have a delay in learning to read and spell, but that they may also have some problems in recognising rhyme, understanding  letter-sound correspondences, and aspects of language learning.  

It is also common to find co-occurring difficulties that affect the development of mathematical skills  and personal organisational abilities, for example  scheduling and sequencing tasks. 


A question that is often asked is how can we tell if someone is dyslexic or not? This assumes that dyslexia is a distinct category, i.e. something that one  has or doesn’t have.

It is perhaps better to think of dyslexia as a continuum, created by a combination of different skills and difficulties that affect  the development of reading, writing and spelling to varying degrees. Some children  learn to read but might experience other difficulties related to language learning  or the sequencing and recall of information. 

Early identification and support  of children with dyslexia is more likely to produce better long term outcomes. Therefore classroom teachers have an important role in looking for how well a child responds to consistent and appropriate teaching.

This is a challenging process, as children can come to school with vastly different experiences of reading and pre reading activities and it may take some time to spot children whose failure to make progress might signal dyslexia.


Typically once a concern is indicated a specialist teacher or educational psychologist will be asked, in consultation with parents, to carry out  further assessment of the child’s reading and cognitive skills and to explore appropriate teaching responses.

A particular issue concerns young people with dyslexia who attend secondary or further  education. They may have long term experience of failure in literacy related tasks and will need significant support to prevent them becoming demotivated. The emotional toll of dyslexia and its long term effects, for example on self- esteem, are now beginning to be recognised. 

Children with dyslexia benefit from consistent and ongoing teaching that emphasises the phonological and  phonemic aspects of language.  A phoneme is the smallest unit of spoken language, and has no inherent meaning,  for example  "mat" has three phonemes: ‘m’, ‘a’ and ‘t’.  

Developing phonemic awareness is strongly associated with success in beginning to read.  This term is sometimes confused with ‘phonics’,  which is the mapping of speech sounds to letters.

Phonological instruction 

Many experienced  teachers  recommend combining this with a multi-sensory approach, which explicitly uses several senses. For example very young children might trace letters in sand or shape them using playdough.  

Approaches that use computer based feedback for learners, such as  reading back what they have just written, have proved a promising, particularly for older learners with dyslexia. In general terms phonological instruction that links with ongoing work in the  classroom and helps to develop language comprehension is beneficial for those who experience problems with literacy.

Interestingly, the extent to which a different and special approach is needed for children with  dyslexia is debatable. Approaches which work well for them are likely to work well for other learners also.





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