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How to Recognize Dyslexia in Children, Including English Language Learners

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 (Aşkın Dursun KAMBEROĞLU/Getty Images)

This is chapter two of the MindShift Guide to Understanding Dyslexia. You can find the remaining chapters and a complete printable PDF of the entire guide by clicking here.


One of the most challenging aspects of properly addressing the different brains of dyslexic children is recognizing them in the first place.

Dyslexia occurs on a continuum and there is no “sharp dividing line” between having dyslexia and not having it. In the early years of elementary school, all children are learning to read, and all are developing their reading skills at different rates. “The behaviors of 4-to-6 year-olds who are at risk for dyslexia are not very different from those of children who are not,” writes professor Mark Seidenberg, cognitive scientist at the University of Wisconsin, in Language at the Speed of Sight. “Typically developing children learn to read at different rates for constitutional and environmental reasons.”

Further, because dyslexia’s symptoms and manifestations can change over time, families, teachers, and schools understandably struggle to identify dyslexia in children.

But the way dyslexia presents itself in young readers is far from the only hurdle: sometimes elementary teachers haven’t been given the proper tools to recognize the early warning signs, and many who recognize the symptoms of reading trouble ahead don’t know how to address those issues.


For example, when Dr. Martha Youman first began her career as a second grade teacher, she knew that some of her students simply couldn’t read but she didn’t know what to do about it: “I kept them busy. Truly, there were interventions they needed, I just didn’t know how to help them,” says Youman, who now treats kids with dyslexia. “I had a master’s in teaching, and didn’t know how to deal with these students.”

Often the diagnosis of dyslexia comes after months or years of exhausting frustration and failure for students, parents, and teachers. It’s common for dyslexic children to avoid reading and become angry or upset in class or when it’s time to do homework or read aloud in front of others. Sometimes these students are seen as smart but lacking motivation or not working hard enough. To make things more complicated, dyslexic children often have another developmental disorder like ADHD alongside their reading challenges.

The key to preventing reading failure is early detection.


Though dyslexia can take on many forms, two common areas where differences can be clearly seen and heard are slow reading and difficulty with handwriting and spelling.

Also, in some cases, certain speech patterns can be an early indicator of dyslexia, like mispronouncing familiar words or using “baby talk.”

In the following video, a fourth grader with dyslexia reads from Rosie Revere, Engineer, and then writes what she’s looking forward to when she gets to fifth grade (see picture below). At the time when this video was taken, she had already had 1.5 years of targeted Wilson dyslexia tutoring, and her reading had improved significantly.


For kids who are entering school, according to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, signs of dyslexia in kindergarten and elementary school children include:

• Difficulty sounding out simple words like cap, map, nap
• Difficulty associating letters with sounds, and can’t break words apart
• Talks about how hard reading is and/or resists reading
• Family history of reading difficulties
• Difficulty speaking In second grade and up, signs of dyslexia might include:
• Avoids reading out loud
• Exhibits slow and awkward reading, and difficulty in acquiring new reading skills
• Makes wild guesses when sounding out a word
• Has no strategy for sounding out unfamiliar words
• Relies on vague language when searching for a word, like “things” or “stuff”
• Mispronounces long or unfamiliar words
• Uses lots of pauses, hesitation, and “umm’s” when speaking
• Seems to need extra time to answer questions
• Has extreme difficulty learning a foreign language
• Has messy handwriting

For more signs of dyslexia in younger children and adults, including particular dyslexic strengths, visit the Yale Center’s Signs of Dyslexia page.


According to Pew Research Center, there are about 5 million English Language learners in American public schools, or nearly 10 percent of the school population. While the vast majority (77 percent) of American English learners’ first language is Spanish, the top five are rounded out by Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese and Somali. Among states, California has the highest number of English learners, with more than 20 percent of school children speaking a different language at home.

For schools, teachers and parents, diagnosing dyslexia in English learners can present an extra set of hurdles.

Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley, co-founder of the Dyslexia Training Institute in San Diego, California, says dyslexics learning English can sometimes be overlooked for two reasons: first, there’s not a lot of research on the topic and often educators don’t know what to look for, and second, reading difficulties can often be attributed to learning a new language.


According to Sandman-Hurley, students who have trouble with phonemic awareness in their first language will also find learning letters and sounds in English difficult. But if it’s not possible to screen kids’ phonemic awareness in their first language, educators can look for other clues that children are struggling.

Sandman-Hurley says it’s often important to check and see if English learners are having trouble in other subjects—that is, if a child learns math quickly and relatively easily, then a reading disability might be at play.

Sandman-Hurley makes two recommendations to educators trying to spot reading difficulties in English learners:

  1. If possible, provide screening in the child’s native language
  2. Dig into what’s going on at home—since dyslexia tends to run in families, find out if other family members also had difficulties with reading, or if children had displayed some of the early warning signs, like an inability to rhyme words or learn the alphabet.

Speech-language pathologist Dr. Elsa Cardenas-Hagan has spent 25 years working with biliterate and bilingual students at the Valley Speech Language and Learning Center in Brownsville, Texas, and says that educators should look to see if the English learner has trouble learning the English alphabet or has trouble with writing. Even if they’re still learning English as a new language, those should be considered warning signs.

“We want to give English learners plenty of listening, speaking, reading and writing opportunities. To do any writing you have to be aware of sounds, so if a child is having trouble being able to sound out a word and write it, that should be a red flag.”

Cardenas-Hagan also agrees that looking into family history can help teachers who don’t speak the child’s first language. Because dyslexia tends to run in families, asking if anyone else in the family had troubles with reading and writing when they were growing up might provide indicators.

She says it’s also helpful to ask about when the child developed language. “Did the child speak on time? Did they start using words on time, did they produce the words with clarity and precision? We watch those kids very carefully, because if you have trouble hearing and speaking sounds in whatever language you learned, you’re going to have that same trouble reading and writing,” she says.


Universal Screening. Requirements vary wildly between states and even between districts. Beginning in kindergarten many schools use universal screeners like the RAN/RAS (Rapid Automatized Naming) test and the PAR (Predictive Assessment of Reading/Rapid Alternating Stimulus) to assess children’s knowledge of phonemes, letter recognition, and vocabulary.

However, not all screeners are created equal and often do not provide a complete picture of a child’s talents and deficiencies, according to Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide at Dyslexic Advantage. For a more complete picture, students whoaren’t reading at grade level most often need a full evaluation by a school psychologist in order for parents and the school to implement the proper intervention.

Find out each state’s approved reading assessment tools, courtesy of Dyslexic Advantage.

To learn more about screening standards and what to look for in high-quality assessments and screeners, read Literate Nation’s white paper on how to select screening instruments.

RTI—Response to Intervention. Another way for teachers to recognize reading trouble is through the Response to Intervention (RTI), a multi-tier reading program designed in the 1990s to determine whether a child has a Specific Learning Disability (SLD) like dyslexia. RTI has been mandated in 14 states and is widely used among others. The program aims to identify who is at risk for reading failure and to provide targeted instruction to those students through different tiers:

• Tier 1 interventions involve a blend of high-quality classroom instruction, adequate screening and group interventions that typically last around 8 weeks.

• Tier 2 Students who don’t make adequate progress in Tier 1 move to Tier 2, where intervention is more targeted and intensive, where instruction can last up to a grading period.

• Tier 3 When students don’t progress in Tier 2 they are moved to Tier 3, where they receive one-on-one targeted and intensive instruction and often a full evaluation to determine whether they qualify for special education services.

Curriculum and instruction aren’t uniform but designed by schools or districts individually.

Due to the varying quality of programs, response to RTI has been mixed. A comprehensive 2015 RTI evaluation by the National Center of Education Evaluation found that first graders who participated in the RTI program did worse than those who didn’t receive any targeted assistance.

“RTI is thoughtful, logical, well-designed program. It has only one flaw: it has to be implemented in real-world environments that are often inhospitable,” Seidenberg writes in Language at the Speed of Sight that “How well the RTI program works depends on how well it’s implemented, which is left to the school districts or system to decide.”

Full Evaluation. Even when schools provide universal screeners and assessments to identify at-risk students, if reading doesn’t progress, students need more complete evaluations to determine the cause of the reading failure and then a way forward. In most cases, that means an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for special reading services.


Most schools offer an evaluation through the school psychologist, but these evaluations can be complicated for several reasons.

First, school psychologists are often overworked and backlogged, so testing and a full evaluation can often involve long wait times. This is often why families with the financial means to do so will take their child to a private psychologist to be evaluated and speed up intervention.

Next, complete evaluations can be complicated and difficult to understand, because different states, districts and psychologists use more than one term to describe reading difficulties. Terms like ‘Specific Learning Disability’ (SLD), ‘reading deficit,’ or ‘language learning deficit’ are often used interchangeably with other terms, like ‘dyslexia.’

But according to dyslexia expert Nancy Mather, professor emeritus in the Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies at the University of Arizona, the different labels create undue confusion for parents and students, since more than 80 percent of reading disabilities are in fact dyslexia.

“It creates confusion,” she says. “The parents are told their child has an ‘SLD’ but they don’t realize their child has dyslexia.”

But using the right terminology means that the student is much more likely to get the right kind of help, because dyslexics need a very specific kind of reading intervention and a specially trained teacher in order to read.

For that reason, some families have their children evaluated outside the school, like a university or private testing center, where the cost of testing can be very high. Universities sometimes offer free or low-cost testing, but families might spend six to nine months on a waitlist.


This is chapter two of the MindShift Guide to Understanding Dyslexia. You can find the remaining chapters and a complete printable PDF of the entire guide by clicking here.