Dyslexia is a specific learning disorder of neurobiological origin, characterized by difficulties with accurate and fluent word recognition, verbal memory and verbal processing speed. It stems from a deficit in phonological awareness. It is a life-long disorder, although its impact on an individual can vary in different stages of their life. “Neurobiological” means that it is caused by certain cerebral abnormalities which are genetic in origin.

Although the number of early intervention programmes in schools, at least in Madrid, is growing, too often in schools, dyslexia is only detected when a child “fails” to learn to read and intervention only begins after a formal diagnosis is received, usually at around 7 years of age. The effects of delaying support-provision until this point is reached can include, not only bad academic performance, but also a negative attitude to school, low self-esteem and behaviour issues.

This article aims to provide information to teachers and parents on detecting risk of dyslexia in pre-readers and on the best techniques to ensure that children with difficulties learn to read successfully.

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How much do teachers know about dyslexia?

Unfortunately, in contrast to the United States, there is still a lack of teacher training in dyslexia in Early Years and Primary schools in Spain, and the amount that teachers know about the disorder varies, depending more on their individual experience of children than anything else. The fact that dyslexia is one of the most common disorders to encounter in the classroom (in Spain the percentage of children with dyslexia is 7-10%) underlines the importance of addressing this problem, through the provision of training and information resources.

Common myths surrounding dyslexia, which need to be dispelled, are, for example:

  • that the main symptom of this disorder is writing letters back-to-front or reading words backwards;
  • that dyslexia is caused by a problem with visual processing;
  • that dyslexia is associated with a low level of intelligence;
  • that dyslexia can be cured.

How can dyslexia be detected in children before they reach reading age?

There is considerable consensus amongst researchers as to what are the early signs that a child is at risk of later experiencing reading difficulties. Below is a list of the signs which should alert teachers and parents to the possibility of risk. It is important, however, to bear in mind that many children present at least one of these behaviours to some extent. It is when at least three of these signs are present, and especially if they persist over time, that the red flag should be raised:

Many of the early signs of dyslexia are listed in this article. Other early signs (in children of 3-5 years) include:

  • Difficulty remembering the names of familiar things, or with learning numbers, colours and letters;
  • S/he likes listening to stories but shows no interest in the words or letters on the page;
  • “Good” and “bad” days at school, for no apparent reason;
  • Difficulty remembering sequences, such as days of the week, months, etc.
  • Lack of attention or concentration;
  • Lack of motor control, especially fine motor skills with writing tools, or with buttoning up clothes, tying shoe-laces, etc.
  • Problematic social behaviours.
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In many schools in the United States, there are periodic screenings for children at risk of dyslexia. These take place in the classroom and are based on what is known as the Response to Intervention model. The success of this model has been backed up by substantial research.

How can teachers screen for children at risk of dyslexia?

The screening of children at risk is more likely to be accurate if it is based, not only on the early signs mentioned above, but also on family risk. When children enter the school system, Early Years teachers have the opportunity to gather information about the child’s family when they meet with the parents of the children in their class. By asking whether parents or siblings of the child have had reading difficulties or been diagnosed with dyslexia, they will know whether the genetic risk exists. Children who have a close relative with dyslexia are at significantly higher risk of having the disorder themselves.

Meetings or interviews between parents and teachers are a way that teachers can be made aware of the child’s development and behaviours at home. Teachers could also provide information to all parents about dyslexia and the signs to look out for. However, it is important that pre-readers are not labelled at this early age; the aim of the screening should be to identify children who might have problems with the learning-to-read process. It is always possible that children who are identified later do not demonstrate any problems, or that with a little extra support, they are able to attain the reading level of their classmates. It is also important to take into account that difficulties may also be linked to another type of disorder.

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What should happen after children are screened?

Initially, the idea would be that children who are identified as being at risk of developing reading difficulties are given extra support and reinforcement with phonics and developing their phonological awareness, either by regular school teachers, teaching assistants or special needs teachers. Over time, it is possible that several groups of children need to be taught separately at different levels, although this depends on the availability of teachers to give such multi-level instruction. Screening children from a very early age is never going to be an accurate predictor. It is always possible that children who appear to show early red-alert signs later turn out not to have difficulty with phonics and reading. Screening children periodically means that there can be regular monitoring of how each child’s reading skills are developing. In this way, if a child who was identified as “at risk” is found to be learning at a faster rate than expected, they can always be moved to another group to receive less intensive instruction.

How do we give children the skills to learn to read in the classroom?

The basic steps which should be taken in order to prepare children for learning to read are outlined in this article. Some other guidelines to follow are:

  • Teach letter sounds (phonemes) with small letters first;
  • Start with the most frequently used letters;
  • Associate letters with words through pictures (e.g. /b/ with a picture of a baby);
  • Reinforce letter shapes by getting children to trace them in the air, in sand, or over the printed letter shape;
  • Ask the child to find things (e.g. in the classroom), starting with that letter.
  • Once children have learnt all the single letter phonemes, teach them to blend consonants with vowels. Usually, the best way in the English language is to start with 3-letter consonant-vowel-consonant (cvc) words. However, if a child has difficulty blending the three sounds, it can be best to focus on blending vowel-consonant sounds first (at/ig/up etc.) or consonant-vowel sounds (ma/bi/po).

How can parents support this process with their pre-reader child at home?

If parents suspect that their child might be at risk of having difficulty learning to read (see the section above on early signs), they should not hesitate in informing teachers. It is also important that they share with teachers techniques which they have found work or do not work for their child at home.

Below are some more guidelines for parents:

  • Try and look at books every day. Read stories and poems. A child does not automatically know how to hold or open a book, where the story begins, where the top of the book is, or in which direction words are read.
  • Watch television or learning videos together. Children learn a lot more if they watch programmes together with their parents.
  • Trace shapes and letters and make letters with plasticine.
  • Play “I Spy” with letter sounds.
  • Clap the syllables in words.
  • Sing rhyming songs or songs about the days of the week, months of the year, etc.
  • Magnetic letters are also very useful for reinforcing letter sounds, syllables and words at home.
  • Expose your child to new words whenever possible to expand his/her vocabulary.
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The following resources (Reading Rockets and Jolly Phonics) can be very useful for parents:

Family Guide from Reading Rockets | Reading Rockets

Hear all the letter sounds – Jolly Phonics (jollylearning.co.uk)

Although on the surface the Response to Intervention model requires an initial commitment of resources, especially human resources (teachers) for the regular screenings of young children and multi-group teaching, the argument in its favour is that if this results in fewer reading difficulties at a later stage, fewer resources will be needed for children once they reach reading age. Add to this the benefit of avoiding all the emotional, psychological and behavioural problems in children who do not receive the support they need in order to learn. Whatever strategy is used, it is very clear that we should not wait for children to fail at reading before we help them.

About the author:

Julia Jakubovics is from the UK. She has lived in Spain for over 20 years. She has a degree in Psychology and recently completed a Masters course in Interventions for Learning Difficulties in Children at ISEP (Instituto Superior de Estudios Psicológicos). She is currently working as a Shadow Teacher and Study Coach for Sinews, providing one-to-one and in-class support for children with special education needs.

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