The earliest common symptom of dyslexia is late speech (though not all late talkers have dyslexia, and not all children with dyslexia were late talkers). There is a wide range of “normal,” but Reading Bright Start, a useful site for parents of children from birth to age five, provides some useful milestones to look for.
Kids may begin to speak later than expected for a variety of reasons, but no matter the cause it’s a good idea to have a child evaluated as soon as there is concern. A quick consultation with your child’s daycare or preschool teacher can be valuable; these professionals have worked with countless children and usually have a good sense of whether a child is behind or not. Free early intervention evaluations are available in every state for young children. Young kids just beginning school should be monitored, too. According to the International Dyslexia Association, at least one of a handful of measures* should be given to all school-aged children, beginning in kindergarten, to identify kids who are at risk for reading difficulties.
Speech and language sessions for young children don’t focus much on reading skills. It’s too early for that. Instead, the therapist helps children to understand the sounds that make up language, which is a critical foundation for literacy down the road. Strengthening skills early can prevent or lessen many struggles children may otherwise have when they begin school.
Sometimes, though, the signs of dyslexia aren’t addressed until elementary school (or later). Never fear, though; with the right instruction (look for our upcoming post on that topic) there is still good reason to believe that older kids can learn important literacy skills at any age. Recent neurological research indicates that brains are plastic throughout much of our lives—great news for adults!
When seeking out an assessment for an older child, a good assessment should probe all areas in which the child appears to be struggling. An assessment that only seeks to determine whether a child has dyslexia may miss other important issues that are contributing to that child's academic struggles. Among the aspects of an assessment that are most helpful in determining whether a child has dyslexia or another language based learning difficulty are the following:
Intelligence – A child with a cognitive deficit is not considered to have dyslexia.
Oral Language Skills – It’s important to rule out a language impairment. Children with dyslexia typically have strong higher-language skills, though they may struggle with building blocks, like word pronunciation.
Phonological Processing – These measures usually don’t involve written language at all; rather, the assessor will examine the way your child identifies, pronounces, recalls, and manipulates the sounds in language. An assessment of phonological processing must be a part of a dyslexia evaluation.
Word Recognition – This means reading familiar words in isolation.
Decoding – This means reading unfamiliar words in isolation. Students may be required to read “nonsense words,” too, to ensure that they aren’t simply recognizing the word’s shape instead of actually interpreting the individual letters.
Spelling – This is usually one of the toughest tasks for children with dyslexia.
Automaticity/Fluency – Some students with dyslexia can stumble along with good accuracy, but measures of fluency will reveal how taxing literacy processes are for them.
Reading Comprehension – Children with dyslexia usually have the cognitive skills to understand grade-level text but score poorly on measures of comprehension measures. This is an artifact of their difficulty decoding the text.
Vocabulary Knowledge – Most children with dyslexia have smaller vocabularies than their peers because of their difficulty processing oral language and accessing written language.
The assessor should also ask about physical and emotional health and family history and educational history. Issues with any one of these areas can interfere with a child's learning.
If it turns out that your child does need special reading instruction, the resulting report will be invaluable. It will help service providers make a treatment plan, and it will demonstrate your child’s needs if you need to negotiate with the district to get your child the services s/he deserves. We have countless posts on this blog about all aspects of assessments and special education laws. Start with the "search" feature on the right hand side of this post, looking for posts on subjects like "IEE" (Independent Educational Evaluation) and "IDEA" (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).
So what happens if your child is diagnosed with dyslexia? Look for our next post on effective instruction for dyslexic learners.
*Predictive Assessment of Reading (PAR); Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS); Texas Primary Reading Inventory (TPRI); and AIMSweb screening assessments