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.
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.