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Understanding Clues to Early Reading Difficulties and Signs of Dyslexia – by Michele Opper, Ph.D.

When children enter school we expect them to learn their ABCs and eventually, develop the reading skills necessary for academic success. However, what happens when you notice that this process is not happening fluidly and your child is having difficulties recognizing letters or understanding sound-symbol relationships? Other concerns include: reading words backwards (for example, reading “bad” as “dab”), mispronouncing words (e.g., for “spaghetti” saying “pisgetti”), and not being able to decode nonsense words (e.g., “ak”).

In simplest form, Dr. Sally Shaywitz (2003), co-director of the Yale Center for the study of Learning and Attention, defines dyslexia as “…a reading difficulty in a child or adult who otherwise has good intelligence, strong motivation, and adequate schooling” (p. 132 in Overcoming Dyslexia). Dyslexia, or reading difficulties occur along a continuum and special education policies often exclude struggling children from getting the help they need through an arbitrary cutoff. According to Dr. Shaywitz, about 3.5% of the school population is receiving special education services for a reading disability, but this number represents a significant underestimate of the numerous children with reading difficulties that are undiagnosed. Based on Dr. Shaywitz’s longitudinal study in Connecticut, she estimates that reading disability affects one in five children. Many dyslexic children are first identified in the third grade or above by their schools and reading disabilities are more difficult to remediate later in life. Furthermore, dyslexia is persistent (it is not outgrown) and without intervention, poor readers will remain poor readers over time. Thus, early identification of dyslexia and the precursors to dyslexia is critical, as the brain is much more plastic (malleable) in younger children (i.e., neural circuits can be re-routed) and intervention can be most beneficial.

As parents, we need to be aware of the early signs of dyslexia so we can advocate for our children. Check out some of these early clues to dyslexia and if you have concerns about your child and there is a family history of dyslexia and/or learning disabilities or language delays, you should seek out an evaluation.

Clues to Dyslexia in Early Childhood:

(Preschool years)

Delayed language skills may be an early warning sign for future reading problems especially in a family that has a history of dyslexia

Trouble learning common nursery rhymes, such as “Jack and Jill”

Mispronounced words; persistent baby talk

Difficulty in learning (and remembering) names of letters

(Kindergarten and first grade)

  • Difficulty connecting letters to their corresponding sounds

  • Failure to understand that words come apart (e.g., bat = b aaa t)

  • Reading errors that show no connection to the sounds of the letters

  • Complaints about how hard reading is and avoidance of reading

(From Second Grade and on)

  • Problems in Speaking

  • Word-finding difficulties (e.g., saying tornado instead of volcano)

  • Mispronunciations of long words or confusing the order of parts of words

  • Difficulties with rote memory (e.g., dates, names, random lists)

  • Problems in Reading

  • Very slow progress in acquiring reading skills

  • Difficulties reading small function words such as, in, on, that

  • A reliance on context to discern meaning of what is read

  • Tremendous difficulties with spelling

*References: Shaywitz, S., M.D. (2003). Overcoming Dyslexia. Knopf: New York

~Michele Opper, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in both New Jersey and New York and a licensed school psychologist as well. She also holds an advanced certificate in school psychology and a bilingual extension (Spanish) in New York. She has been practicing in the field of psychology for approximately eighteen years and recently opened up an office in Waldwick, NJ. Dr. Opper has worked with children of all ages conducting developmental evaluations, kindergarten readiness screenings, and psycho-educational assessments. She developed a niche working with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers in addition to school-age children. Dr. Opper specializes in the diagnosis of learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, anxiety disorders, ADHD, and behavioral disorders, as well the identification of gifted students.


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