What is Dyslexia? Common Symptoms in Children

Dyslexia in children is common, but commonly misunderstood. This learning disability includes symptoms like trouble with reading, pronouncing words, and punctuation. Here, get an age-by-age breakdown of dyslexic signs and symptoms in kids.

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 by difficulties in learning to read and spell —  difficulties that can’t be explained by lack of education, poor eyesight, or lowered mental capacity. A dyslexic child can learn to read and write, but will often do with difficulty, struggling to develop fluency and the effortless reading and writing patterns that those without the condition take for granted.

As dyslexia is a lifelong condition, symptoms manifest somewhat differently through the years as situations and environments change. Problems a dyslexic child experiences in elementary school, for example, may not be the same he or she will experience in high school.

Dyslexia has a prevalence of up to 10 percent in school children, according to some studies.1

How Do You Know if Your Child Has Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is typically diagnosed in elementary school, when problems with reading and writing become apparent. Many children, however, may be diagnosed later — or never receive a diagnosis until adulthood.

[Could Your Child be Dyslexic? Take This Dyslexia Test for Kids]

If you notice any of these symptoms at home or in school (broken down by age), your child may be showing signs of dyslexia. Early intervention is crucial, so paying close attention to symptoms before middle school is best.

Dyslexia in Children: Symptoms in 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
  • 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

Dyslexia in Children: Symptoms in 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
  • 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)

Dyslexia in Children: Symptoms in 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
  • 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

Experiencing any of the symptoms above, however, isn’t a definite sign of dyslexia. A formal diagnosis only comes after testing reading, language, and writing skills. A child, furthermore, could have more than one learning or mental disorder, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

[Click to Read: The Dyslexia and ADHD Connection]

How is Dyslexia in Children Diagnosed?

If you notice any of the above symptoms of dyslexia in your child, ask the school for an assessment or your pediatrician for a referral to a specialist knowledgeable about dyslexia and learning disabilities who can conduct an evaluation.

There isn’t a single test or diagnostic tool for dyslexia, but the path to diagnosis typically follows this order:

1.Talk to your child’s doctors about your concerns. A pediatrician usually isn’t the best person to make a definitive dyslexia diagnosis, but she may be critical in ruling out other causes of your child’s reading problems. Ask her to look for vision or hearing issues that could be hindering your child’s ability to read, and to chart your child’s development to see if she’s on track in other key areas. Be sure to mention any relatives also diagnosed with dyslexia.

2. Tell the school. Communicate with your child’s teachers and school administrators about his struggles with reading — even if they already know. The best way to do this is to write a letter formally requesting an evaluation for special-education services. Once you grant permission, the school will start the evaluation process; it should be completed in no more than 60 days.

3. Get a specialist involved. Your child’s school will likely use its own specialist to evaluate your child, but you may ask your pediatrician for a referral. (Note: If you choose to have your child evaluated privately, the school isn’t required to pay for it or to follow any recommendations that result from it.)

The specialist — a psychologist or other learning professional — will test your child’s proficiency with reading, rhyming, spelling, and writing. She will also look for other potential confounding factors, like ADHD or anxiety. During this process, you and your child’s teachers may be asked to fill out questionnaires on your child’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to reading. The results will help determine whether your child should be formally diagnosed with dyslexia.

4. Set up accommodations. Once your child receives a formal diagnosis, the school is required to hold a meeting to determine if he is eligible for services. Dyslexia is covered under the “Specific Learning Disability” section of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), but remember: just having a disability doesn’t automatically qualify someone for an IEP. The school will need to decide whether accommodations and/or services are necessary for your child to succeed in school. Before you go to the IEP meeting, read the evaluation report so you can learn exactly where your child struggles, and be prepared to advocate fiercely on his behalf.

What Age Should a Child be Tested for Dyslexia?

Most experts recommend that children start interventions for dyslexia by third grade so they have the greatest chance to catch up in reading levels and comprehension skills.

But according to the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), screenings to identify students at risk for reading difficulty and who need targeted intervention should be used beginning in kindergarten. These screenings should evaluate the precursors to reading development:language skills, phonological awareness, memory, and rapid naming.2

How Do You Treat Dyslexia in Children?

Medication won’t help with dyslexia, but there are effective dyslexia treatments in the form of interventions, accommodations, and skills-building programs that can help child develop reading strategies, compensate for challenges, and live a successful life.

Regardless of whether the school sets up an IEP, you can consult an expert to help your child receive the most appropriate and effective dyslexia interventions at school.

There are many reading interventions for dyslexia, the most popular being Orton-Gillingham, Wilson, and Lindamood-Bell. Guided reading is not an intervention for dyslexia, so make sure your child gets an intervention that has been empirically validated for students with dyslexia, not one designed to help struggling, non-dyslexic readers.

Examples of interventions to treat dyslexia in the classroom include:

  • Providing summaries or copies of lesson notes
  • Providing slightly altered materials or assignments
  • Highlighting essential information
  • Repeating directions
  • Implementing flexible work times
  • Allowing audiobooks and other assistive technologies, like electronic tablets

At home, parents can help create an environment where reading can be practiced in a judgement free way.

Keep books, especially about subjects your child likes, around the house so that your child is inclined to pick it up on his own. And set an example too — make sure that your child sees you and others in the house reading as much as possible, whether that’s thumbing through a magazine, newspaper, or using your e-reader.

[Read This Next: “How My Dyslexic Son Fell Out of Love with Books and How I Brought Him Back”]


1Samuelsson, S., Lundberg, I. The impact of environmental factors on components of reading and dyslexia. Ann. of Dyslexia 53, 201–217 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11881-003-0010-8

2Dyslexia in the Classroom: What Every Teacher Needs to Know. (2017). International Dyslexia Association. Retrieved on Feb. 28, 2020 from https://dyslexiaida.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/DITC-Handbook.pdf