Dyslexia: reading, writing & spelling problems

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Dyslexia is a common learning difficulty that can cause problems with reading, writing and spelling. Dyslexia does not affect intelligence but it often affects school grades. This is because it’s difficult to do well in exams if reading and writing are a struggle.

Why do people with dyslexia have difficulty reading & writing?

Most of us read so easily it is easy to forget what an incredibly complicated task it is. In order to read, we have to master a series of difficult skills. A difficulty in any of the areas listed below may cause the reading and writing problems that we see in dyslexia:

1. Match each of the small symbols we see on the page (letters) with the sounds that they make.

In languages such as English one letter can have multiple sounds. For example, the ‘c’ in cat is very different from the ‘c’ in circle. If you combine letters together you get another set of sounds. The letter pairing ‘ch’ gives you the sound at the beginning of ‘chicken’, the sound at the beginning of ‘chef’ and the sound in the middle of ‘anchor’. There’s 44 unique sounds in English. Click here for a list and click here for the BBC’s pronunciation guide). Sounds difficult doesn’t it? Well it is, but surprisingly many children can learn how sounds link to the letters just by reading. However, we usually learn more quickly and effectively if we are taught phonics.

Phonics & Dyslexia

Phonological decoding is thought to be the main reason why people with dyslexia struggle with reading and writing. Most interventions for children with dyslexia are based on structured, multi-sensory phonics instruction. In Malaysia, good Montessori kindergartens should deliver the sort of multi-sensory phonics instruction that early learners need. It’s also possible for them to improve their knowledge using books such as Jolly Phonics and iPad apps such as ‘Teach My Monster to Read’. Older children usually need a more specialised programme that doesn’t feel patronising but is repetitive enough to encourage learning.

2. Rapidly blend all those sounds together to form words

Once you know what sounds the letters make, then you have to blend them all together in order to make words. If you do this too slowly it will be difficult to read.

Processing speeds problems & dyslexia

Some people with dyslexia have very slow ‘processing speeds’. They may be very intelligent but they might do simple clerical tasks really slowly. This can cause them to struggle to read and write even if they know their phonics.

3. ‘Instantly’ recognise words

Many words in English are irregular and cannot be sounded out using phonics (for example, ‘the’). To read them you need to memorise how they look.

Sight Reading & dyslexia

A small subset of people with dyslexia have difficulty with visual recognition of words which causes a problem in reading. However, most people with dyslexia tend to over-rely on sight reading because they can’t use phonics effectively.

4. Know what the words mean

You need to know the meaning of the words before you can work out the meaning of the sentence. Building up a good vocabulary is essential for reading comprehension.

Vocabulary & dyslexia

Most spoken conversation uses relatively simple vocabulary. So, past a certain age, we learn most new words by reading. If you have dyslexia your vocabulary may be restricted because you are reading less than others. However, the advance of technology offers a solution to this. Audio books, text-to-speech software and good podcasts give people who have difficulty reading the same access to information and vocabulary as strong readers.

5. Be able to concentrate and remember what you have read

Concentration is important for reading and comprehension. We need to focus for long enough to be able to decode words or read them by sight. Then we need to be able to remember we have read.

Attention & dyslexia

It is common for people with dyslexia to struggle to concentrate on reading and writing. This is because it takes much more effort for any of us to concentrate on something that is difficult to do.

However, some people with dyslexia also have general concentration and attention issues which prevents them from concentrating on anything. Read more about attention and concentration problems here.

Working memory & dyslexia

Some people with dyslexia have a difficulty with their working memory. This is the ability to hold something in mind whilst we do something with it. It’s important in skills such as mental arithmetic, remembering a list of instructions and remembering what you have read or what you are about to write.

6. Understand grammar & spelling Rules

Sentences are constructed in a structured way and you need to have an understanding of a language’s grammar in order to be able to understand the meaning of a sentence. Don’t worry if you can’t explain these grammar rules to others – most of us know them but don’t know how to explain them.

Spelling in English is difficult because of odd rules like ‘i before e except after c’ and the fact that those rules are often broken. It is usually more difficult to spell than read.

Spelling & dyslexia

Some people with dyslexia are able to read but their problems are more apparent in their spelling and written work. People who have problems spelling often simplify their sentences in order to avoid the words they are unable to spell. This can lead to a big discrepancy between their ability to express themselves verbally and their ability to express themselves in writing.

What else could explain a difficulty in reading or writing?

Poor teaching

It is possible to have difficulty reading and writing difficulties without having dyslexia. People who have never been taught how to read or who missed out on teaching in some way may struggle to read. Fortunately, they benefit from the same phonics teaching and instruction as people with dyslexia and they will usually learn to read and write more quickly than people with dyslexia.

Language

If you can’t speak a language fluently it will be very difficult to read or write in that language. It’s best to improve spoken language before focusing on reading and writing.

It’s interesting to note that certain languages are much harder to learn to read and write for people with dyslexia. Malay is much easier than English because it has a simpler phonics system. One letter in Malay tends to have only one sound whereas English has many more sounds (see above). Han Yu Pin Yin is easier than English for the same reason. Unfortunately, people with dyslexia may find it difficult to learn multiple languages because it’s easy to get the different phonics systems mixed up.

Written Chinese is less reliant on phonics so it possible for children to find it easier to read and write in Chinese than English. It depends on their visual memory.

Verbal Communication Problems

Some people find it very difficult to communicate verbally in any language. This is best helped by meeting with a Speech and Language Therapist. You can read more about verbal communication problems here. 

General Learning Disability

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability because it affects one particular area of ability. People who have a general learning disability are likely to have problems in all areas of academic achievement and learning, including reading and writing.

How can we tell someone has dyslexia?

To determine whether someone has dyslexia it is necessary to do a full cognitive assessment and a literacy assessment. Essentially, we look to see if their reading and writing skills match their level of intelligence. If there is a discrepancy we then try to determine why by looking at the profile of strengths and difficulties on tests that measure different abilities.

You can find out more about learning or cognitive assessments here.

There are some problems with testing Malaysians because we don’t have any assessments that were developed in Malaysia. We have to rely on assessments from the UK or the USA. This is very unreliable if your first language isn’t English and you are learning in Malay, Chinese or Tamil. It’s less of a problem if your first language is English and you are learning in English. In practice this means a psychologist doing the assessment has to take all these issues into account when making a judgement.

It is also why I don’t recommend full assessments for dyslexia for very young children (6 years and below). If there are concerns about verbal language I refer them to a Speech and Language Therapist. Otherwise I would suggest that they get some good phonics instruction (for example, a good Montessori school or tutor combined with some of the programmes in the links below).

If an assessment doesn’t include a full cognitive assessment then it is only a screening assessment. A screening assessment might miss dyslexia in very intelligent people because very intelligent people can have age-appropriate literacy skills which are still much poorer than we would expect considering their intelligence. A screening assessment might also find dyslexia in people that do not have dyslexia because it is easy to mix up dyslexia with any of the issues I’ve listed in the ‘what else causes dyslexia’.

What can we do about dyslexia?

The primary intervention for dyslexia is a structured, multi-sensory phonics programme. Very young children do well with a good Montessori programme and some of the software applications listed in the links below.

Older children will feel too old for the Montessori method. They will need a programme adapted to their age.

Young adults or children who have received a year of phonics instruction but did not benefit from it will be better helped by using strategies to help them get round their reading and writing difficulties.

As an adult it is possible to use technology in such a way that there’s no reason why reading or writing problems should get in the way of your success. Advances in text-to-speech, dictation, text recognition via a phone camera have made most text accessible. This combined with the availability of audio books, online video resources and podcasts mean that there are plenty of ways to access knowledge that was previously locked away in text books.

Those still attending education may face obstacles caused by literacy difficulties. I am less sure of what support is available to students in the local Malaysian educational system. However, most examining boards in the west have recognised dyslexia and it’s possible to get a range of access arrangements providing you have a report stating you have dyslexia. If you’re taking iGCSEs, A-Levels, IB, university degrees or any other higher education qualification from countries such as the UK, Germany, France, USA, Australia, Canada or New Zealand then you should be able to apply for exam accommodations. These could include extra time, having someone read the questions to you, being able to use a computer in exams or having someone write down your verbal responses.

Any questions or comments?

Did you find this article helpful? If you have any questions on this topic write them in comments section at the bottom of this page and I’ll reply to you as soon as possible. It would also be good to read any comments or opinions you may have.

If you’d like more advice on how best to help manage your difficulties feel free to arrange an appointment with us. For information about the assessments we can conduct to determine if you or your child has dyslexia click here.

Further Information …

I’ve included some links to websites that I have found useful below:

Teach Your Monster To Read

A free online game for children in the first stages of learning to read, or for older children who need a bit more practice. It manages to be fun whilst teaching reading using method that is backed up by good science. You can also pay for iPad, iPhone & Android versions of the game.


Jolly Phonics

Jolly Phonics is a well-established structured, multi-sensory phonics teaching programme. Books, worksheets and software resources are available for purchase or can be downloaded for free.


UK Primary School Teacher, Mr. Thorne’s YouTube videos

Full-time UK primary school teacher Mr Thorne has some fabulously entertaining and educational videos on YouTube.


Yale’s Center for Dyslexia on Assistive Technology

Yale University gives an introduction to some of the technology that people with dyslexia can use to get round their reading and writing issues. Technology develops quickly so you may find even better solutions have emerged since these articles have been written.


British Dyslexia Association

The BDA has resources and information that mainly focused on the UK but some of the information is useful for people based overseas.


US Charity ‘Understood’s’ article on dyslexia

Understood is the website of a group of charities in the USA. They provide good advice about dyslexia and other common issues that young people face at school.


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