It might seem a bit odd to you that I’m combining such a large span of time from second grade through high school.  But there is a method to my madness… A rhyme to my reason.  It’s sort of a cue to remind you of the importance of early intervention when symptoms of dyslexia are identified in first grade or earlier.  Amazingly, we still see some of the same reading, writing and spelling issues all the way through high school because we aren’t attending to the base skills that should have been mastered in first and second grade.

When you’re looking at the signs of dyslexia in this age range, it is important to think in terms of the match or fit with a student’s wiring and the environment in which they find themselves.  Of course, as a child progresses through school the educational and developmental expectations of the environment change, right?  You’re not expected to read as much or write as much in third grade as you do in sixth.  In fact, the big jumps in expectations happen in third grade, in fifth or sixth when you move to middle school and ninth or tenth when you go on to high school.

I can’t tell you how many of the middle and high school instructors that I teach at the Masters level who still see kids in their class that are still struggling with sounding out words!  Fluency and comprehension go right out the window along with their own sense of self.  The pain and confusion sets in quickly and may possibly not abate for many years.  It’s just not necessary.  It’s not a simple problem but there is much we can do.

So let’s talk about what you’re looking for.  You have to think in terms of your child or student’s language expression (speaking skills) as well as actual problems in reading.  Again, to anchor my conversation, I’m going to borrow from Sally Shaywitz and her work at Yale.

Symptoms of Dyslexia in Speech

Think in terms of speaking skills.  The broad based themes are word finding, time needed for response, general memory issues, fluency and accuracy of words used.  Think about it in terms of fluency and comfort with expressing yourself.  Do you notice that your child, student, loved one:

  1. Mangles complex words.
  2. Has trouble remembering details like dates, names and numbers or the numbers get jumbled.
  3. Tends to fall back on using words like “stuff” instead of the actual name of the object.
  4. Substituting words that are sort of close to each other.  For instance, “hurricane” instead of “tornado.”
  5. Needs more time to formulate a verbal answer to question than you would expect.  Uses “um” a lot.
  6. In addition to needing more time, they also pause a lot when they speak like they’re searching for the words.

One caveat here.  Remember that these symptoms of dyslexia are just one piece of the puzzle.  There are a lot of reasons why someone might exhibit the type of speaking issues mentioned above.  The point is to be aware and question what it might mean.  It’s just one piece of the puzzle.

Reading Problems

When you think about the kinds of reading issues you’ll see in symptoms of dyslexia, remember the basic building blocks of language processing:

  • Phonological Awareness:  How to master sound/symbol relationships…What letters or grouping of letters sound like
  • Semantics :  What words mean
  • Syntax:  How to put together and understand what a sentence is supposed to mean
  • Discourse:  Understanding increasingly more complex language…Written and spoken

Remember that these all build on each other.  If your phonological processing is weak, all else falls away from there.  How are you going to rapidly understand what a word means when you struggle with sounding it out?

Let me review the list that Shaywitz uses in her book Overcoming Dyslexia.

  1. Without proper intervention, a student is going to continue to exhibit slow to no progress in their reading skills
  2. They’re usually not going to have the means to create effective strategies for attacking unknown words
    1. Instead what you’ll see is a lot of guessing
  3. Fluency is going to be dramatically impacted:
    1. The bulk of energy will be expended on trying to sound out individual words at the expense of omitting “connector” words like an, in the.
    2. Complicated words will be mangled or pieces of them will be missed
    3. You will see all kinds of substitutions, omissions and mispronunciations
    4. Reading speed gets slowed way down in general
  4. Smarter readers are going to try to use context clues to better understand what they are reading
  5. If they have to read out loud, students will really struggle with fluency and may sound stilted like they’re reading a language they don’t know
  6. In terms of school performance:
    1. Tests will take longer to complete
    2. Multiple choice tests will be very difficult
    3. Reading word problems for math tests will be problematic
    4. Spelling will be very weak–spell check will be needed
    5. Fine motor skills for handwriting is also often impaired.  A computer or tablet will be needed
    6. Homework becomes a more arduous task as a student progresses through school.  Parents remain involved at a level much higher than expected relative to social and emotional expectations.
    7. Parents often become surrogate readers
    8. Foreign languages are often very difficult to learn
  7. Socially and emotionally, chronic struggles in school take a heavy toll:
    1. As the years go by, the idea of reading out loud becomes increasingly more painful and avoided at all costs
    2. Enjoyment of anything to do with reading wanes, even for pleasure
    3. The students’ sense of self, sense of efficacy is often weakened and they can feel confused, angry and frustrated.  It is possible that they feel like a failure.

So there is a pretty big list to consider.  Again, we’re looking for consistent patterns over time not just occasional disruptions in the students’ progress.  The key issue, though, is that if you are aware of the symptoms of dyslexia and you identify the issues and move quickly, you can potentially save your child, student or loved one years of unnecessary pain, confusion and suffering.  That’s a good thing!