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A Guide to Early Markers of Dyslexia

Blog Type:  Learning Disabilities Date Posted:  Monday, March 16, 2020 Byline:  By Molly Ness, Ph.D.

girl reading

This article originally appeared on PsychologyToday.com.

Along with parents and caregivers, early educators lay the foundation for children’s lifelong learning. One of their most essential roles is to provide children with a solid start in reading development.

For too many children, however, reading acquisition is a struggle. Many demonstrate the early markers of dyslexia, a language-based reading disability that historically affects 10-15% of children (Cortiella & Horowitz, 2014).

Here’s an abbreviated definition from the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) (2002):

"Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological [sound processing] component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction."

Cutting-edge neuroimaging studies in infants and toddlers show that dyslexia is associated with structural alterations in the portions of the brain that support reading (Ozerno-Palchik & Gaab, 2016). But despite dyslexia's neurobiological roots, a bevy of misconceptions remain. Dyslexia is not directly a comprehension problem, though children who struggle with reading may develop comprehension problems. Nor is dyslexia caused by visual deficits. Simply put, dyslexia is not seeing words and/or letters backwards, reversed, jumbled, or transposed. In fact, a 2009 paper from the American Academy of Pediatrics states emphatically that vision problems are not the cause of dyslexia.

As advocated by professional organizations such as the International Dyslexia Association, the International Literacy Association, and the Learning Disabilities Association of America, early prediction and identification of children with dyslexia is essential. As numerous states roll out legislation outlining plans for early screening and effective instruction, early childhood educators and parents can serve as partners in early identification.

What to Look for Early On

When parents and early childhood educators understand dyslexia as a deficit in a child’s ability to understand sound structures, they are better prepared to observe some of the early warning signs. Phonological awareness is a fundamental literacy skill; it enables children to take a stream of oral language and divide it into individual words, words into syllables, and syllables into individual sounds. 

Without firm phonological awareness skills, children may struggle to match letter names to their corresponding sounds (e.g. the letter name is M and its corresponding sound is /m/), struggle to segment words into their parts (e.g. cowboy broken into cow-boy), and struggle to blend individual sounds into larger words (e.g. /b/ /a/ /t/ into bat) or manipulate sounds (e.g., what’s bat without the /b/ at the beginning?).

We now know that the precursors of dyslexia are visible as early as age 3, demonstrated in weakness in phonological skills, letter knowledge, rapid naming, and working memory (Gaab, 2017). None of these behaviors stands alone in a diagnosis of dyslexia, but the following are early markers of dyslexia. 

Family and Medical History Relevant at All Ages

Potential Signs of Dyslexia in Toddlers and Preschoolers

  • May have difficulty pronouncing words (e.g., busgetti for spaghetti, aminal for animal)
  • May be unable to recall the right word
  • May have trouble recognizing and remembering rhyme
  • May have delays in speech development or production
  • May use ambiguous language or struggle to provide specific words
  • May have difficulty learning or remembering names of letters
  • May not be able to recognize the letters in his/her own name

Potential Signs of Dyslexia in Kindergarten and Grade 1

  • May have trouble manipulating portions of words (e.g., "Say birthday. Now say birthday without saying birth")
  • May have pervasive baby talk
  • May be unable to sound out simple words like mapbatpig
  • May have trouble identifying sounds in a word (e.g., “What is the last sound that you hear in mop?”)
  • May have trouble identifying letter sounds and names (e.g., “What letter is this? What sound does it make?")
  • May make oral reading errors that are disconnected from the words on the page
  • May give spelling/writing that is usually difficult to decipher
  • May struggle to blend sounds together (“Can you push these sounds together for me to tell me the word they make? /c/ /a/ /t/")

Potential Signs of Dyslexia in Second Grade and Beyond

  • May show frustration, such as avoiding reading, complaining that reading is too hard
  • May have difficulty with handwriting
  • May have difficulty with spelling
  • May have difficulty decoding unfamiliar words
  • May demonstrate slow or laborious reading
  • May struggle to recall or understand what s/he reads
  • May have difficulty remembering high-frequency words
  • May need additional time providing oral responses to questions

As many states and school systems adopt universal early screenings for dyslexia, teachers must collect classroom data, document student progress, and conduct assessments that help identify children in need of more comprehensive evaluations. These observations and teacher knowledge provide important insight for the literacy specialists, reading clinicians, and school psychologists who can provide formal diagnoses of dyslexia. And don’t forget, parents can help.

About the Authors

Molly Ness, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University. She previously directed the McGuffey Reading Clinic at the University of Virginia. She is the author of four books and numerous articles. In addition to writing about teachers’ knowledge of dyslexia, her forthcoming publication encourages pediatricians to be advocates in the early identification of children with dyslexia. She can be reached at molly@drmollyness.com and www.drmollyness.com.

J. Richard Gentry, Ph.D., is an independent researcher, author, and educational consultant and a former university professor, reading center director, and elementary school teacher. He is the author of 17 books, including the recently released Brain Words: How the Science of Reading Informs Teaching (Stenhouse, 2019), co-authored with Canadian psychologist Gene Ouellette. Richard speaks nationally and internationally at educational conferences and blogs for Psychology Today. He earned his elementary education degree from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a Ph.D. in reading education from the University of Virginia. Dr. Gentry currently resides in Mobile, Alabama, and can be reached at Richard@jrichardgentry.com. For more visit his website www.jrichardgentry.com .


American Academy of Pediatrics, Council on Children with Disabilities, Marican Academy of Ophthalmology, American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus, & American Association of Certified Orthoptists (2019). Joint statement – Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia, and Vision. www.pediatrics.org/cgi/doi/10/1542/ped.2009-1445. DOI10.1542/ped.2009.1445

Cortiella, C. & Horowitz, H. (2014). The state of learning disabilities: Facts, trends and emerging issues. New York: National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Gaab, N. (2017). It’s a myth that young children cannot be screened for dyslexia. Baltimore, MD: International Dyslexia Association.

International Dyslexia Association (2002). https://dyslexiaida.org/definition-of-dyslexia/ 

Ozernov-Palchik, O. & Gaab, N. (2016). Tackling the ‘dyslexia paradox’: Reading brain and behavior for early markers of developmental dyslexiaCognitive Science

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What It’s Like to Be a Writer With Dyslexia

Blog Type:  Learning Disabilities Date Posted:  Monday, March 9, 2020 Byline:  By Brittny Pierre

"She’s lazy” and “she doesn’t work hard enough” are two sentences I’ve heard from educators on why school was difficult for me.

The reality wasn’t simply that I didn’t have the resources that suited my learning style to help me reach my full potential as a student. Now, as an adult, I often fear this is how my employers view me as I adapt to working with my learning disabilities. I am lucky to have formed a support group of ladies who are willing to take time out of their day to look over a piece or a pitch for errors before I send it off, but I can’t help but wish I didn’t need to reach out to others to proofread my work. Why can’t my brain just spot errors on its own? Why must the one talent I have and love face such a huge hurdle?

I have fond memories of pure excitement when my mom would read me a book right before bed. I loved hearing stories and imagining them playing out in my head. I also enjoyed the quiet moment of bonding with my mother through stories. I couldn’t wait to be able to read on my own. Toward the third grade, however, it became apparent that it wouldn’t be as easy as I thought. Sounding out and reading certain words was hard, because what I saw was completely different than what was actually on the paper. Even though I’d read an entire passage, I couldn’t comprehend it. As my grades started to slip, I felt less confident as a student. My mother did everything to figure out the reason I was falling behind. She placed me in tutoring sessions, made sure I had extended time for exams, and advocated for me with teachers, but educators still often felt I just wasn’t working hard enough. We didn’t know where exactly my learning disabilities were stemming from or how to address them.

In high school, I was finally diagnosed with dyslexia—specifically difficulty with decoding, reading comprehension, and spelling. It was a relief that I finally figured out exactly how this was affecting me, but the stigma that I wasn’t as smart as everyone else was still there. Though reading was difficult, I learned to find joy in reading books and writing my own stories. Living in my head and dreaming up stories gave me a sense of peace when everything around me felt chaotic. I lived with the pressure of wanting to perform well. When a teacher called on me to read a passage, I would become anxious and read ahead, just to make sure I could read it correctly and not scramble the words. I lived in fear of my classmates making fun of me for reading simple words like “then” but seeing “them” and not grasping right away why it was incorrect.

"Though reading was difficult, I learned to find joy in reading books and writing my own stories. "

Despite my guidance counselor’s dissuasion, I went on to a four-year university, where I received an A in a notably difficult course. My professor expressed that it’s extremely hard for first-year students to ace Rutgers English courses and that I should consider entering my essay in a writing competition. I didn’t enter my essay in the competition, because I lacked confidence in my writing. I still have many regrets about not submitting that essay. Along with my writing and reading struggles, I had difficulties in math and science. My grades were dropping, and depression set in. I was determined to figure out strategies to get back on track and graduate. I learned how important it is to attend office hours when you’re a number in a big university. I took a speed-reading course that helped me identify keywords when taking tests, and I taught myself how to study in a way that benefits my learning style.

After graduating from college, I didn’t realize how much my learning disabilities would continue to be a challenge when I entered the real world, especially as a writer. I will never forget one major mixup after I completed an internship. An editor sent me a story assignment to interview a rap duo. I misread the email, went to interview the group, transcribed it, and then only afterward did I realize I had misread the email and interviewed them on the wrong topic. The deadline was approaching, and the publicist declined to let me re-interview the duo. The assignment was ultimately killed. I was devastated and thought I wouldn’t have a career as a journalist.

My fear has always been that an editor won’t enjoy working with me due to little errors I’m unable to spot because my mind can’t comprehend the mistake. I have pondered the idea of mentioning my disability to the editors I’m pitching. There hasn’t been much discourse on adults with disabilities and the difficulties of functioning as a freelancer.

Even with the many mishaps, spelling errors, and scrambled words, however, I am a published writer. I have several pieces in many publications that I am proud of. Every article reminds me of the winding journey that took place, from pitching to writing to getting published.

As an employee, I’ve been in positions where I was expected to multitask and work at a fast pace. I’m a quick learner in many areas, but I like to take my time to ensure I’m not making careless mistakes. Most employers would prefer that we work fast and complete as many tasks as possible, but when I do that, unfortunately, I often make many errors. This has caused me to lose many jobs, even as a hostess and receptionist. Readers might think I’m not a competent employee, but this actually causes me to be more careful and pay closer attention, arguably making me a better worker. Processing many things at once takes me a lot longer, and words and numbers often get scrambled, which causes many mistakes on my end, so I have learned to take my time and always double-check my work.

I never imagined that, post-college, I would continue to combat my learning disabilities. I didn’t think they would hinder my ability to complete tasks or fulfill my dreams. Even with the many mishaps, spelling errors, and scrambled words, however, I am a published writer. I have several pieces in many publications that I am proud of. Every article reminds me of the winding journey that took place, from pitching to writing to getting published.

As I reflect on my hardships, I know I’m not alone in this struggle. Many public figures, writers, readers, and so on have the same uphill climb to overcome and deal with dyslexia and reading comprehension problems. Today, reading is still a struggle, but that doesn’t change how much I love it. Reading nonfiction and short stories still brings me the same joy it did when I was a little girl reading with my mom. Using my imagination still helps me escape the chaos and find peace within myself. I will never allow my struggles to stop me from achieving my goals or quiet my voice.

About the Author

Brittny Pierre is a Chicago-based culture writer, focusing on music, personal essays, and pop culture. She has been published with Vibe magazine, Bustle, Zora, and Shondaland.

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Empowered By Their Learning Differences

Blog Type:  Learning Date Posted:  Tuesday, January 7, 2020

2019-2020 student advocates

There’s no doubt that having a language-based learning disability (LBLD), such as dyslexia, affects students in the classroom. They may struggle with listening, speaking, reading, or writing; managing time, materials, or information; or self-advocacy and self-regulation. LBLDs also factor into students’ lives outside school, in social situations and at work, for example.

Several of Landmark School’s Student Advocates talked about how their LBLDs influence their personal lives. While their learning differences certainly pose challenges, these students embrace their disability and find inspiration from it. 

The Student Advocates are a small group of seniors who deliver presentations about their learning differences to graduate and undergraduate education students at local colleges and universities, as well as to students, teachers, and administrators at elementary and middle schools. Their personal accounts are honest, powerful, and eye-opening.

Several of the advocates said they feel empowered by their learning difference, whether it boosts their creativity or drives them to exceed the expectations of those who don’t understand what it means to have a learning disability.

Joe, who plans to study architecture in college, thinks that his learning disability has enhanced his creativity and eye for design subtleties. “I've always found that with architecture I tend to be a critical thinker and designer, and I can see things that other people can’t see when it comes to structures,” he said. For example, “somebody might look at a building and say, ‘Wow, that’s a cool building.’ Meanwhile, I see that building has some components of Victorian architecture, and it also has some of this and some of that. Due to having a learning difference, I can notice things that others don't.”

People sometimes think I’m not able to do something because I have a learning disability. I prove to them that I’m much more capable than they immediately expect. —Lucie

Similarly, Lucie credits dyslexia with gifts that will help her succeed in every aspect of her life. “I’m super organized, have a creative mindset, am an abstract thinker, and have well-developed social skills that will take me far,” she said. In addition, Lucie takes pride in proving people wrong who doubt her abilities. “People sometimes think I’m not able to do something because I have a learning disability. I prove to them that I’m much more capable than they immediately expect.” 

Isa’s working memory deficits affect her in situations such as job interviews. “Absorbing content coming at me really fast is difficult,” she said. “In job interviews, my biggest anxiety is they are going to tell me crucial information that I won’t remember, so through Landmark I’ve learned to write things down and create to-do lists. I’ll bring a pen and paper to the interview.” Having a learning difference has helped Isa develop an enviable outlook on test scores. “If I don’t do well on a standardized test, it doesn’t mean I’m not intelligent. Having a learning disability (LD) helped me see that getting a certain number on the SAT doesn’t indicate my intelligence or affect my self-worth. I think having an LD has allowed me to move past those types of ranking of worth.”

Other advocates reported that working can be difficult and stressful, but they overcome these challenges by using strategies they learned at Landmark or by focusing on their strengths.

Having a learning disability (LD) helped me see that getting a certain number on the SAT doesn’t indicate my intelligence or affect my self-worth. I think having an LD has allowed me to move past those types of ranking of worth.—Isa

When John started working as a salad chef, he had a difficult time memorizing the recipes and he made a few mistakes. He used strategies to commit them to memory.  “I took pictures of the recipes and quizzed myself before and after every shift,” he said. Perhaps because of some of the difficulties he has faced, John considers himself an empathetic problem solver. “I've always been great at solving social conflicts or helping people combat whatever they're struggling with at the time.”

Jessup’s job can also be stressful as a result of his LBLD. He works at a family-owned grocery store, and he sometimes takes phone orders for fruit baskets. He said that customers can get annoyed if he asks them to repeat information. “I try to avoid that part of the job!,” he said. An eager, ambitious, and enthusiastic student, Jessup embraces his learning disability because it has helped him view education “more positively than many other students. I care about my education a lot.” 

Liz shares Jessup’s sunny outlook about having dyslexia. “I would say I am a creative person and I often see things in a different way than others,” she said. “I believe this is because of my dyslexia, and this has helped me in numerous ways.” And like John, Liz works in food service and has struggled at times, particularly with spelling some menu items. “When I'm typing in the orders on the computer there are certain words, 'marinara' for example, that I don't know how to spell. My coworkers don’t understand that even though I spell it about 10 times a day, I can’t spell it correctly even if I just typed it 10 minutes ago,” she said. “I explain to my co-workers that I have dyslexia, a learning difference but they don’t always understand it.” 

The Student Advocates are going a long way in helping people understand that learning differences don’t make a person less capable and these differences can in fact be a gift that helps them see the world through a different lens. As Lucie said, these students will go far in life.


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