Learning Differences – What Is Dyslexia?

This is a guest post from Mary Mountstephen, author of A Practical Guide to Support Children with Dyspraxia and Neurodevelopmental Delay and A Practical Guide to Support Children with Speech and Language Difficulties .

This is the first in a three part series which will provide information about learning difficulties which are well-recognised as causing some children to under-perform and under-achieve in the classroom.

Very often there is a degree of overlap (known as comorbidity) which means that a child may be dyslexic as well as dyspraxic for example. If you have one difficulty, it is likely that there will be more than one difficulty. Parents may ask themselves:

Is there something wrong with Gemma?
Will her reading ever improve?
Has something happened to make her like this?
Is it my fault she’s like this?

Dyslexia – What is it?

The word ‘dyslexia’ comes from the Greek: ‘dys-‘ meaning difficulty with, and ‘lexia-‘ meaning words or language. Dyslexia affects many aspects of learning, not just reading and writing. Dyslexia is not related to intelligence, race or social background.

It is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling. It is often thought of as a continuum, ranging from mild to severe and there are no clear cut-off points. However, when a child is experiencing continued difficulties in learning to read, write or make expected progress in school, investigations need to be made.

Is Dyslexia common?

Figures vary widely on how the percentage of people who have dyslexia. The figures vary from 4-5% to up to 10% and above.

When would I become aware of it and how?

Children are generally born with dyslexia, but it may remain undetected until the child starts school and begins to struggle with aspects of their learning. The link between early language and later reading ability suggests that it is possible to screen for dyslexia in children as young as five. The child with dyslexia is often at a disadvantage right from the start in school as their strengths are not in reading, writing spelling and dealing with symbols. They often do have strengths in other areas such as imagination, creativity and many dyslexic people grow up to be successful in careers such as architecture, engineering and other creative arts. They can also be good at acting.

Persisting factors in Dyslexia.

There are many persisting factors in dyslexia, which can appear from an early age. They will still be noticeable when the dyslexic child leaves school.

These include:

  • Obvious ‘good’ and ‘bad’ days, for no apparent reason,
  • Confusion between directional words, e.g. up/down, in/out,
  • Difficulty with sequence, e.g. coloured bead sequence, later with days of the week or numbers,
  • A family history of dyslexia/reading difficulties.


  • Has persistent jumbled phrases, e.g. ‘cobbler’s club’ for ‘toddler’s club’
  • Inability to remember the label for known objects, e.g. ‘table, chair’.
  • Difficulty learning nursery rhymes and rhyming words, e.g. ‘cat, mat, sat’.
  • Later than expected speech development.
  • Pre-school non-language indicators.
  • May have walked early but did not crawl – was a ‘bottom shuffler’ or ‘tummy wriggler’.
  • Persistent difficulties in getting dressed efficiently and putting shoes on the correct feet.
  • Enjoys being read to but shows no interest in letters or words.
  • Is often accused of not listening or paying attention.
  • Excessive tripping, bumping into things and falling over.
  • Difficulty with catching, kicking or throwing a ball; with hopping and/or skipping.
  • Difficulty with clapping a simple rhythm.

Primary school age.

  • Has particular difficulty with reading and spelling.
  • Puts letters and figures the wrong way round.
  • Has difficulty remembering tables, alphabet, formulae etc.
  • Leaves letters out of words or puts them in the wrong order.
  • Still occasionally confuses ‘b’ and’d’ and words such as ‘no/on’.
  • Still needs to use fingers or marks on paper to make simple calculations.
  • Poor concentration.
  • Has problems understanding what he/she has read.
  • Has difficulty with tying shoe laces, tie, and dressing.
  • Has difficulty telling left from right, order of days of the week, months of the year etc.
  • Surprises you because in other ways he/she is bright and alert.
  • Has a poor sense of direction and still confuses left and right.

Can both boys and girls have Dyslexia?

It used to be thought that more boys than girls were dyslexic but it now appears that boys and girls are almost equally affected, but boys are more likely to identified, perhaps as a result of other associated problem such as poor behaviour and frustration. .

Is Dyslexia inherited?

Dyslexia does seem to run in families, although this is not always the case. There may be other reasons for a child appearing to have some symptoms suggesting dyslexia.

Will it get better or worse? Can it be cured?

Children with dyslexia can be helped in a number of ways so that they can achieve to their potential, but their fundamental learning style will not be changed.

Could anything else be causing this behaviour?

It can sometimes be difficult for teachers and parents to decide whether a child has dyslexia or not. Specialist dyslexia teachers have access to a number of tests which can help determine if this is the case. Typically, a child of average intelligence who has been very well taught in literacy may appear to have few signs of dyslexia on the test, but they will have problems in the day to day life of the classroom.

Dyslexia type symptoms can occur when there are eye teaming, eye tracking and perceptual problems that can cause words, letters and numbers to appear to move or jump on a page.

Top tips if you think your child has Dyslexia

  • Ask for information from other people you trust and professionals such as your GP or health visitor.
  • Speak with your child’s teacher and special educational needs coordinator and find out what the school says it can do when concern is expressed.
  • Ask them for copies of any assessments they have carried out with your child and what the implications of these are. Do not accept that your child ‘will grow out of it’.
  • Speak to your child and see how they feel about themselves. Even very young children have insights into how well they are doing compared to their friends.
  • Reassure them that they are loved, important, valued and special. Play down incidents of clumsiness, frustration and failure and praise any small positive experience.
  • Be kind to yourself: blaming yourself or wondering whether you are at fault in any way and have caused the problem is not as useful as becoming your child’s biggest ally and supporter.
  • Keep a file of your information and dated observations. The more information you have that can back up your case, the more likely it is that you will be listened to.
  • Always check on the credentials of private / independent specialists.

About Mary Mountstephen MA (SEN)

Mary is an Associate Member of British Dyslexia Association. If you would like further advice or wish to contact Mary you can do so at Elvie Brown Associates, 2 Regal Way, Shepton Mallet, Somerset BA4 5AA mem@imaginationgym.ws.

Editors Note – Upcoming Course in the UK

I found Mary’s article of dyslexia an informative and excellent reference guide. If you are in the UK, you are lucky enough to have the chance to hear Mary further, when she holds a workshop in June. I have included the details below:

Improving learning, balance and coordination
Date: Friday June 4th, 10.00-4.30
Location: Glastonbury, Somerset BA6 8LD
Recommended for: parents of children with additional needs, teachers, support staff, therapists working with children aged 5-13

  • The clumsy child
  • The messy eater
  • The child who can’t learn to swim
  • The sensitive child
  • The verbally creative child who cannot express himself in writing

This one day course looks at the possible underlying causes of these difficulties and outlines a simple, practical movement programme to help children establish firmer foundations for learning. It can improve balance and coordination as well as having an impact in the classroom and in terms of social and emotional functioning.

The course is based on the work of Sally Goddard-Blythe (The Well Balanced Child) and Barbara Pheloung (Move to Learn) and is led by Mary who works with families and schools internationally as a child development specialist.

For further information: Tel 01458 837514 or mem@imaginationgym.ws.