Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Cher, Walt Disney, Steven Spielberg, Leonardo Da Vinci, Whoopi Goldberg, explorer Ann Bancroft, and Thomas Edison. What do these well-known people have in common? Each one was or is dyslexic.

Progress is being made in understanding, identifying, and possibly overcoming dyslexia—the most common learning disability. It’s now reported that up to one in five of us may have some degree of dyslexia. If your child is dyslexic, it’s likely that half of his or her siblings are, too. Waiting to identify a reading or spelling disability comes at a cost. The longer parents or school personnel wait, the more intensive—and expensive—it is to remediate or overcome. More importantly, the earlier reading difficulties are addressed, the less harmful it is for the child. Almost all students who have early major difficulties with reading struggle as high schoolers and adults (Shaywitz, 2003). And the research now shows that schools often fail to diagnose dyslexia correctly (Quinn & Wagner, 2013).

In my work with dyslexics, I find that it’s equally important to help adults with dyslexia recognize the signs of this debilitating condition, which can present overwhelming challenges and prevent them from meeting their full potential. I recently met an undiagnosed 34-year-old father. He was the brilliant founder of a search engine marketing and optimization company who struggled with challenges in the workplace due to his dyslexia (that I immediately recognized due to the list of warning signals that follow). He was also struggling at home with his 11-year-old son who was unidentified as dyslexic at school. Learning about his own dyslexia explained a lifetime of struggles and presented a new slate of options for success both in business and at home. It was only after the father learned of his own dyslexia that he put the school on the right course with his son. The school had completely misdiagnosed and mislabeled his son.

An elementary art teacher spent nearly her entire 30-year career “doubting my intellectual capacity,” she told me recently at a staff development session on dyslexia. “Look at this,” she revealed having circled almost the entire classic adult warning signs in the list below. “I’m not dumb, I’m just dyslexic! What a relief!”

One adult I helped discover his dyslexia is an accomplished world-class reporter for the Washington Post. Steve Hendrix called me out of the blue to discuss his life-long struggles with spelling. “I read tons. I have a robust vocabulary. I just can’t spell,” he told me. Then he went on to describe his atrocious spellings as “little land mines”—not only powerful enough to embarrass and humiliate but too often explosive to his career. I referred Steve to the Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention because he wanted to understand the science behind it. Clinical and neurobiological exams revealed Steve’s dyslexia and why, when under pressure, “spelling collapses in a heap,” he said. Gleefully, Steve reported his conclusions in a piece for the Washington Post Magazine entitled, “Why Stevie Can’t Spell (After more than three decades of mangling words, a mortified writer sets out to get some answers.) “Some people, even geniuses, just can’t spell…. Science has spoken,” Hendrix concluded (2005). 

No two dyslexics are exactly alike, and dyslexia ranges from mild to moderate and from profound to severe. But dyslexics do share patterns of observable behavior. To help unravel some of the mysteries of this sometimes debilitating condition, I’ve listed three sets of classic warning signs: one for early childhood, one for elementary school-aged children, and one for young and older adults. The more items you observe from the checklist the more likely you may benefit from learning more or a formal assessment for your children.

Classic Warning Signs in Early Childhood

  • Speech delay; language doesn’t seem to be occurring as it should. Often the child can understand language normally but expressive language may be delayed.
  • Chronic ear infections
  • Delay in establishing a dominant hand
  • Confusion with left and right
  • Trouble learning to tie shoes
  • Odd pronunciations or saying sounds in the wrong sequence (e.g., pa-sket-ti (spaghetti), am-i-nal (animal), em-i-ny (enemy), a-lu-ni-mum (aluminum), dis-wex-tia (dyslexia), fus-twated (frustrated)
  • Difficulty with word retrieval; trouble finding the word one wants to use (e.g., “That thingy”)
  • Trouble with rhyming words
  • Early difficulty with letter names and sounds
  • A history of family members with reading problems
  • Strengths may include high levels of thinking, imagination, vocabulary, as well as artistic, athletic, or manipulative abilities.

Classic Warning Signs in School-Aged Children*

In addition to signs in early childhood, add the following:

  • Difficulty memorizing arbitrary sequences such as days of the week and months of the year, or sequences in solving math problems
  • Misspelling their own name
  • Letter and number reversals after first grade
  • Learning their address
  • Learning their phone number
  • Learning the names of letters
  • Learning the sounds of letters
  • Multiplication tables
  • Not learning to tie shoelaces until after age 6
  • Continuing difficulties with retrieving the correct word when speaking (e.g., use of “whatchamacallits” and “thingies”)
  • Issues with directionality (i.e., being left/right confused)
  • Issues with dominance (i.e., right-handed or left-handed)

                -Normal—4 years old
                -Dyslexic—7, 8, 9 years old
                -Dyslexic—mixed dominance (Mixed dominance may be considered a                            strength in sports and some creative activities.)

  • Poor handwriting skills
  • Extremely poor spelling

*Some of this list was adapted from a Susan Barton workshop. (www.BrightSolutions.US)

Classic Warning Signs for Young and Older Adults 

In addition to the items listed above, add the following:

  • Acceptable performance in school, but it’s a struggle
  • Life-long lousy spelling
  • Dread of reading aloud
  • Weak written expression; inability to prove one’s intelligence as a writer
  • Slow reading rate
  • Poor test-taking skills
  • Difficulty remembering people’s names or retrieving known information (e.g., song titles) particularly under duress
  • Difficulty learning foreign languages
  • Bad sense of direction (e.g., difficulty knowing whether to go left or right when walking out of a hotel elevator after at the end of the day; a bad sense of directionality when driving)
  • Difficulty reading musical notes from a score

Dyslexia Is More Common in Males

S.E. Shaywitz, B. Shaywitz, Fletcher, & Escobar (1990) claimed that the male preponderance in dyslexia was due to referral bias. However, Rutter, et al. (2004) then published four independent epidemiological studies in the same journal, concluding again that “reading disabilities are clearly more frequent in boys than in girls.” Most recently, Quinn and Wagner (2015) noted “Reading impairment is more common in males, but the magnitude and origin of this gender difference are debated,” and then concluded, based on studying almost half a million second graders, that gender differences in reading impairment exist and “are attributable primarily to male vulnerability rather than ascertainment bias.” So be advised that being male increases the chances of being dyslexic.

Tips for Parents

Keep in mind that if you are a keen observer, you can “see” dyslexia in your child’s spelling and, sometimes, in struggles with writing or penmanship. You can sometimes “hear” dyslexia warning signs in the child’s speech. If you or your child is dyslexic, my best tip is to learn more about managing dyslexia and to focus on your strengths. You may have special right-brain capacities. Perhaps you can think outside of the box or have unique insights or creativity. You may be able to see things three-dimensionally, giving you special talents as an artist, architect, website developer, or graphic designer. You may have a talent for playing music by ear even though playing to printed music is a disaster! You or your child may have particular skills for athletics, the fine arts, science, or theater. Dyslexia doesn’t have to be a curse. Just look back at the list of famous people who put the gift of their dyslexic brains to good advantage!

References

Hendrix, S. (2005, February 20). Why Stevie can’t spell. Washington Post Magazine, 26-45.

Quinn, J.M., & Wagner, R.K. (2013). Gender differences in reading impairment and in the identification of impaired readers: Results from a large-scale study of at-risk readers. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 20(10), 1-13. 

Rutter, M., Caspi, A., Fergusson, D., Horwood, J. L., Goodman, R., Maughan, B., & Carroll, J. (2004). Sex differences in developmental reading disability: New findings from four epidemiological studies.  Journal of the American Medical Association, 291, 2007-2012.

Shaywitz, S.E. (2003). Overcoming dyslexia: A new and complete science-based program for reading problems at any level. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Shaywitz, S.E., Shaywitz, B., Fletcher, J., & Escobar, M.D. (1990). Prevalence of reading disability in boys and girls. Journal of the American Medical Association, 264, 998-1002.

Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write–From Baby to Age 7. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.

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