What Does Dyslexia Look Like in Children?

Get an age-by-age breakdown of the symptoms of dyslexia to identify potential signs in your child.

Mother helping her daughter with ADHD work on reading comprehension in their living room
Mother helping daughter with ADHD read in living room

Dyslexia is a learning disability that is defined as a difficulty learning to read and spell — a difficulty that can’t be explained by lack of education, poor eyesight, or lowered mental capacity. Someone who has dyslexia can learn to read, but he will often read with difficulty, struggling to develop fluency and the effortless reading style that those without the condition take for granted.

Dyslexia affects up to 20 percent of the U.S. population, but many individuals remain undiagnosed. In childhood, symptoms can look a lot like ADHD — particularly if they’re mild — and many children develop coping mechanisms to avoid being labeled as “stupid” or “slow.” Early diagnosis and treatment is key to setting up helpful accommodations and utilizing other strategies to help your child build her reading skills and repair any damage to her self-confidence.

Symptoms at Home

Dyslexia isn’t just a problem at school. Reading happens throughout our lives, and dyslexia can also affect how children interact with other kids, adults, and the larger world around them. If you notice any of these at-home symptoms (broken down by age), your child may be showing signs of dyslexia.

Preschool and Kindergarten

  • Difficulty pronouncing common age-appropriate words
  • Struggles to match words to objects; brings you a ball when you ask for a doll, for example
  • Doesn’t enjoy or is unable to complete common nursery rhymes
  • Trouble following simple two-step directions
  • Difficulty telling left from right

Elementary and Middle School

  • Resists games or activities that involve reading
  • Doesn’t seem interested in books, even if they’re on topics he enjoys
  • Can’t summarize a story for you, even if she just finished reading it
  • Mixes up letters and sounds, or can’t connect the correct letter to its corresponding sound
  • Stammers when telling a story, or uses a lot of filler words like “like” and “um”
  • Doesn’t seem to understand body language; often acts inappropriately in social situations

High School

  • Slow to get jokes or understand common idioms
  • Has difficulty “getting to the point” when speaking; meanders or goes off on tangents during stories
  • Struggles to read a map, plan directions, or tell her left from her right

Symptoms at School

The nature of dyslexia means that symptoms will likely be most readily apparent during school or while your child is completing homework assignments. If your child’s teacher — or yourself — has noticed any of these age-specific markers in the classroom, they may be further indicators that your child has dyslexia.

Preschool and Kindergarten

  • Trouble recognizing letters of the alphabet
  • Struggles to match written letters to the sounds they make
  • Has a smaller vocabulary than other children of the same age; finds it difficult to learn new words
  • Unable to recognize or come up with rhyming words

Elementary and Middle School

  • When reading, struggles to differentiate between individual sounds in words
  • Slow to differentiate between various phonemes (or “speech sounds”)
  • Reading or writing letters or words out of order
  • Reading slowly and/or painfully
  • Difficulty sounding out unknown words
  • Misuse of or total disregard for punctuation
  • Difficulty mastering correct spelling or age-appropriate vocabulary
  • Difficulty recalling known words
  • Substitution of sight words for one another (replacing “the” with “he,” for example)

High School

  • Difficulty learning a foreign language
  • Uncomfortable reading out loud
  • Struggles to read at expected grade level
  • Difficulty summarizing stories or identifying key points of passages

If you notice any of these signs in your child, ask the school for an assessment or your pediatrician for a referral. Medication won’t help with dyslexia, but there are effective interventions that can help your child develop reading strategies, compensate for challenges, and live a successful life.

Updated on January 19, 2018

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