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How dyslexia affects reading

Father and son reading
From difficulty with phonics to ‘dancing’ letters, dyslexic children may face extra challenges when they're learning to read. We explain how you can support their learning at home.

Learning to read is a tricky business for most children, but for children with dyslexia, the mountain can be even harder to climb. And because it’s a challenging – and often frustrating – experience, it can be tempting for some children to avoid reading altogether. But with time and patience, they can learn to read at an appropriate level to enable them to study and achieve.

So what are the specific difficulties that children with dyslexia may have with reading, and how can you help them to overcome their challenges?

Dyslexia reading problems: phonological challenges

Primary school children are taught to read using phonics: a system where they learn the sounds that letters make (for example, the letter ‘a’ can make an ‘ah’ or ‘ay’ sound). They then learn how these sounds – called phonemes – are joined together, or blended, to make a word. When they encounter a new word, they ‘decode’ it by breaking it down into phonemes.

This process can be difficult for children with dyslexia. ‘They often have difficulty breaking words down into sounds, and even linking the sounds to the letters,’ explains Dr Kate Saunders, chief executive officer of the British Dyslexia Association. ‘When they see a word on the page, they have to try to sound out the individual parts of the word, but their poor phonological skills means they make errors.’

Dyslexia reading problems: a lack of ‘blueprint’ for written words

Although children learn to read using phonics, within a relatively short space of time they no longer need to sound out every word. This is because they’ve committed the way the word looks to memory.

Children with dyslexia can have trouble with forming these mental blueprints for how words look. Words may look strange and new every time they see them, as they have no corresponding image in their mind. ‘This means they’re relying on sounding out every time, and (as we’ve already seen) this, too, can be a challenge,’ says Kate.

Dyslexia reading problems: visual stress

Some dyslexic children find reading difficult because of the way the words appear on the page. This can be due to 'visual stress.'

‘These disturbances include seeing the letters moving, dancing or shimmering, seeing letters in the wrong order within words, seeing ribbons of white going down the page, and letters looking bigger in the centre of the page than at the sides,’ explains Kate. ‘Visual stress is exacerbated by the glare of a white page, and can make reading very tiring.’

Dyslexia reading problems: a slower pace

Unsurprisingly, given the extra effort they’re putting into it, learning to read can take longer for dyslexic children. ‘They take longer to learn to read, and even when they’ve mastered phonics through good teaching, their reading speed often remains slower,’ Kate says. ‘They lack fluency, and because they’re putting in so much effort, they get very tired when they read. As a result, they may not read for pleasure.’

Dyslexia reading problems:: curriculum access

Because every area of the National Curriculum requires children to be competent readers – whether they’re deciphering word problems in maths or following a set of written instructions in science – dyslexia can mean they’re unable to access the curriculum at a level that’s appropriate to their age and intelligence. This is why schools have a duty to identify and make appropriate provision for their special educational needs.

8 top tips for helping dyslexic children with reading

1. Use multisensory learning

‘Strategies like using wooden and plastic letters to make the constituent sounds in words, or using their finger to trace them in a tray of sand, helps children form a physical memory of the shape of a word and link sounds, movement and vision,’ says Kate.

2. Minimise visual stress

‘Placing a sheet of coloured acetate over the page, or using a transparent coloured ruler over the lines the child is reading, can help to reduce the glare that can make reading tiring and uncomfortable,’ Kate explains.

3. Give verbal support

A child with dyslexia can struggle to read written instructions, for example, explaining how to approach a homework or classroom task. Running through the instructions verbally can give them a better understanding of what they need to do.

4. One-to-one or small group teaching

Like any other children with special educational needs, children with dyslexia often make the most progress when they’re being taught on a one-to-one or small group basis, allowing them to focus on their particular difficulties.

‘Dyslexic children have difficulty becoming automatic with their reading skills, so they need more practice, and for longer,’ Kate says. ‘Working in a dedicated phonics group with a teacher, teaching assistant or, best of all, a specialist dyslexia teacher, can help them catch up.’

5. Thumb covering

Because children with dyslexia can have difficulty breaking words down into their constituent sounds, a good, everyday strategy is to encourage them to use their thumb to cover up the part of the word that they’re not reading – so if they were reading the word ‘sunshine,’ they might first cover up (in bold) sunshine, then sunshine and then sunshine.

‘This is a structured and systematic approach that puts the child on solid ground because it can help to stop the letters jumbling together,’ Kate says.

6. Use audiobooks

Listening to audiobooks not only gives children the chance to enjoy books that their peers are reading but that may be above their reading level, but also familiarises them with a wider range of vocabulary, sentence structure and content that will in turn benefit their own writing.

7. Read aloud

Even if you think your child is far too loud to be read to, try to make time to read to them daily. ‘Although dyslexic children tend not to read for pleasure, they’re usually very keen to hear stories,’ Kate explains. ‘They generally love listening and are very attentive when you’re reading aloud.’

8. Use technology

There are a number of technology-based aids for children with dyslexia, for use at home and at school. These include programmes and games to help children learn, as well as support aids, including software that can photograph text onto devices and read it out loud.

For more advice and support with your child’s dyslexia, visit or contact the helpline on 0333 405 4567 or by email at [email protected].

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