Towards Understanding Dyslexia: How Parents Can Help

In a recent parents group meeting at DAS, we discussed ways of helping your child become successful with dyslexia. Some of the advice given is reproduced in the article below.

Children with dyslexia are the largest group of children with special educational needs in mainstream schools. They have a disorder in one or more areas of learning, usually in learning to read, but they may have associated problems with writing, spelling, speech and language, maths, co-ordination, speed, essay writing, memory, lower self-esteem, and some will have attention deficit disorder (ADHD) and problems with social skills which reach far beyond reading!

Their problems may be misunderstood – both parents and teachers may think they are lazy and just not trying! But dyslexia is also genetic in origin, with around a 50% chance of being dyslexic if you have a dyslexic parent. This means that some parents will have difficulties themselves, and may find it particularly hard to help their children.

My son Matthew’s story age 8

Matthew was a bright, verbally able and outgoing boy who had surprising difficulty in getting to grips with reading, writing and spelling. When he started school he was outgoing and interested, but as time went by and he had difficulty in keeping up with his peers he started to become anxious and withdrawn, and even stopped speaking. At first his teachers thought he might be lazy, or that he was just a typical boy who was not really interested in learning. But it soon became clear that Matthew had Specific Learning differences and would need help to get to grips with literacy and fulfil his potential. It seems likely that Matthew has a profile that has been described as classically dyslexic.

How can parents recognise problems in young children with dyslexia

  • Many have good language but subtle verbal and language problems
  • Difficulty following instructions – ask them to go upstairs, brush their teeth and put their shoes on, and they will become confused
  • Some may have poor language, both understanding and production
  • Many will have problems listening
  • This may be helped by speech therapy
  • Some (but not all) will have visual processing problems that affect reading
  • Most will have problems with short term or working memory and sequencing
  • Many will have problems in Motor Skills

Impact on learning

These lead to problems in early learning including:

  • Naming letters and numbers
  • Identifying letters (graphemes) and linking these to sounds (phonemes)
  • Breaking words up into sounds for reading
  • Identifying the correct sounds for spelling
  • Problems with Word and Alphabet knowledge
  • Speed of language production – shown in tasks such as rapid naming

How does this affect school?

Most will have problems in writing and forming letters, including too much crossing out or rubbing out and poorly formed and messy handwriting

Some will have problems with attention, sustained concentration and attention and perseverance on tasks. This may be because they find the work difficult, or because they have a specific problem with attention. They may produce inadequate amounts of work.

A typical child with dyslexia…

  • Problems in reading, writing and spelling
  • Slow to complete work
  • Seems to make careless mistakes
  • Seems to know something one day, then forgets it!
  • Seems not to listen
  • May be disorganised and untidy
  • Slow to change for gym
  • May daydream, or clown around!
  • Most children have problems in more than one area

Strengths in dyslexia

Difficulties may be surprising! These can be children with encyclopedic knowledge about areas of interest! They often have strong verbal skills and may be creative and artistic. They can be particularly good with pattern matching and non-verbal reasoning, and able to see the ‘bigger picture’, They may give the right answer, but not know how they got there! This is particularly critical for Maths and Science.

Understanding assessment

Your child may have a screening test that shows whether or not they are at risk of dyslexia. A formal assessment by an educational psychologist may then be recommended, this may also involve a speech therapist or occupational therapist.

This looks at verbal and non-verbal processing, memory, and speed of processing. Dyslexic children may show verbal strengths, and weaknesses in memory and processing speed. They may also have a curriculum-based assessment by a specialist teacher.

Parent’s role in assessment

Parents will need to provide evidence on early language and motor milestones, family history factors or birth problems. It is also important to provide information on behaviour at home and any associated stress and anxiety. There is an important role for parents in helping child to understand that label of dyslexia is not a stigma, but a difference in processing and an explanation for their pattern of strengths and weaknesses.

How can parents help their child?

One of the key areas in protecting children at risk from dyslexia of falling behind is good vocabulary knowledge. This can help children to learn to read, so talk to your child and encourage them to develop their interests. Read stories to your child at all ages. Liaise regularly with school on your child’s progress and keep them informed for example of how long your child has taken to produce their homework. Try to make sure that your child has a quiet place to produce their homework, and check this has been done and handed in. Your child will benefit most from receiving specific structured intervention such as that provided by DAS.

It is important for parents and children to recognise that it is possible to be successful with dyslexia – think of the many examples of celebrities who have struggled to overcome dyslexia. Try to make sure that your child maintains his self-esteem, this is so important in success at every level. My son Matthew now has a 2.1 in politics from a good UK university and has presented to our Prince Charles on environmental issues – not bad for a boy who stuttered so badly he ran away from giving presentations while at university and needed to be hypnotised to deal with the stress!

Further Information

Books and Articles
Gavin Reid, (2011) Dyslexia: a complete guide for parents and those who help them . Wiley Blackwell
Nicolson, R. I. and Fawcett, A. J. (2008). Dyslexia, Learning and the Brain. MIT press.
Screening Tests
The DEST-2 (2004) and DST-J are published by Pearson Education.

About the Author:
Angela Fawcett
Research Consultant
Emeritus Professor, Swansea University, UK
Learn more about Angela

This article was first published in FACETS