What do Albert Einstein, Keira Knightley, Richard Branson and Walt Disney have in common? They all have (or had) dyslexia. Once dubbed a learning disorder, dyslexia is, in fact, a combination of strengths and weaknesses and certainly didn’t hinder the aforementioned in their chosen careers. ‘Sufferers’ may actually be extremely creative, excellent at lateral thinking and possess strong visual and spatial skills. So, what exactly is dyslexia, how worried should parents be if they suspect their child has it and what can they do to help?
What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a combination of abilities and difficulties in one or more areas of reading, spelling, writing and numeracy. A neurologically based and often inherited disorder, dyslexia is a persistent condition that can occur regardless of your child’s level of intelligence or teaching. Other weaknesses may occur in areas of processing speed, short-term memory, organisation, sequencing, spoken language and motor skills, or perhaps auditory and/or visual perception. Although dyslexia is a life-long condition, individuals often respond to timely and appropriate intervention.
What are the signs?
No two people with dyslexia are alike because dyslexia ranges from mild to profound. So someone with dyslexia may not have every single dyslexic symptom, but they will have many of them. The most common characteristics seen by teachers of school-aged children with dyslexia are:
• Difficulty learning the alphabet, nursery rhymes or songs.
• Difficulty identifying or generating rhyming words, or counting syllables.
• Difficulty hearing and manipulating sounds into words.
• Difficulty distinguishing different sounds in words.
• Difficulty in learning the sounds of letters.
• Difficulty remembering names and/or shapes of letters.
• Difficulty with fine motor skills, including pencil grip.
• Difficulty learning to read.
• Reversing the order of letters when reading.
• Misreading or omitting common small words.
• ‘Stumbling’ through longer words.
• Poor comprehension during oral or silent reading.
• Slow, laborious oral reading.
• Difficulty with written language.
• Difficulty putting ideas on paper.
• Many spelling mistakes (may do well on spelling tests but make mistakes in daily work).
• Difficulty in proof-reading.
How early can I tell if my child is dyslexic?
Parents can play a significant role in identifying the early signs of dyslexia from children as young as three years old. The pre-school child with dyslexia will have difficulty repeating or remembering rhymes, colours or counting in a sequence. They may love stories being read to them but not be interested in the discovery of letters and words. Perhaps they appear clumsy and struggle to dress themselves (buttons, laces etc), or they may have difficulty deciding which hand to hold a pencil with and hold it awkwardly. Children with dyslexia find it difficult to retain instructions, especially if there is a long string of commands. They may also mispronounce words and get syllables confused. Formal assessment does not usually occur until they’re around six years old and must be done by someone qualified in the field (ask at their school or call the Dubai Dyslexia Support Group).
What can I do to help my child?
It is vitally important for you to provide your child with a language-rich environment. Singing nursery rhymes, playing ‘I spy’ using sounds not letter names (I spy with my little eye something beginning with ‘sh’), talking about rhyming words in story books, talking about street signs when driving, playing alliterative word games (‘silly Sally saw some sand’), memory games and ‘Simon Says’ are all excellent ways to promote language skills in an enjoyable way. Research shows parental involvement plays an important role in supporting literacy development and has also been found to impact on future reading success. However, activities should be entertaining and without pressure. Remember, children can sense a parent’s anxiety and this can exacerbate the situation.
What will happen if my child is diagnosed as dyslexic?
If your child has been professionally diagnosed, they will need expert tutoring (generally in a phonics programme) to promote reading success and alleviate difficulties associated with dyslexia. Ideally, these programmes should be provided by their school and teach skills explicitly through a multisensory approach, incorporating vision, hearing, touch and movement. Each concept needs to be practised to the point of ‘over-learning’ in order to overcome the memory problems of dyslexia. Remember to reinforce these skills at home.
How concerned should I be?
It’s important not to let a learning difference become a learning difficulty. Children with dyslexia usually have many strengths and, with good teaching and support, they can do well at school and go on to enjoy successful careers as adults. In fact, many dyslexics have gone on to develop unique talents and contribute to the world in many ways. When recognised and understood, dyslexia can be a gift.
Lynne teaches at Uptown Primary (04 288 6270). Dubai Dyslexia Support Group (050 652 4325) provides general advice on dyslexia, holds regular meetings and organises assessments and visits by educational psychologists.