Best Defense Against Dyslexia: Early Detection

Early Detection
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When a child has dyslexia, the child’s brain has difficulty matching sounds with letters, so reading and writing also become difficult. In addition, the skills needed to learn these basics—accurate and/or fluent word recognition and good spelling and decoding abilities—don’t come naturally.

The most effective antidote? Early diagnosis and intervention. Dyslexia can be diagnosed as early as age 3, especially if it runs in the family and there is an awareness of the symptoms. Ideally, it would be caught by kindergarten or first grade, before the gap widens between the dyslexic student and the student’s peers.

Early diagnosis is extremely important, because children who complete second grade behind in phonic, reading, and writing skills remain behind in learning as they transition from learn-to-read to read-to-learn. When they enter middle school, this gap can grow, and reading struggles soon become reading failures. To close the gap, the learning pace is often accelerated—an uphill battle for dyslexics.

In Overcoming Dyslexia, Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a professor of learning development at Yale University, emphasizes that proven prevention and early intervention programs can show remarkable results and alter the life course of an at-risk child’s reading. In one example she cites, an elementary school in Tallahassee, Florida, saw its percentage of struggling readers drop from 31.8 to 3.7 percent when such a program was implemented.

Most states provide support to students with learning disabilities, but all too often there is a lack of proper diagnosis, teacher training, and resources, and some states do not even recognize dyslexia as a learning disability. Grassroots organizations, such as Decoding Dyslexia, have been formed by parents of dyslexic children who are concerned about the limited access to educational interventions for dyslexia and are working to change this.

The key is to help parents understand the symptoms so they can become their children’s best advocates. Common early signs for children aged 3 to 7 include:

  • Trouble with nursery rhymes
  • Not recognizing rhyming patterns
  • Inability to learn or remember names of letters of the alphabet
  • Mispronouncing familiar words
  • Not understanding that words come apart
  • Not associating letters with sounds
  • Difficulty blending sounds in words, such as “t-a-p: tap”
  • Difficulty separating sounds in simple words, such as “cat: c-a-t”
  • Trouble learning rote information such as days of the week, months of the year
  • Inability to sound out simple words, such as dog or big

Common signs for children aged 4 to 7 and older include:

  • Reversing letters, such as b for d or w for m
  • Reversing words, such as pit for tip or saw for was
  • Inability to read new words
  • Memorizing text rather than reading
  • Substituting words while reading, such as dog for puppy
  • Confusing words that sound or look similar, such as smell and small
  • Difficulty memorizing rote information
  • Not advancing in reading skills
  • Complaining about how hard it is to read
  • Avoiding reading aloud
  • Having a messy handwriting and poor spelling

Emotional symptoms to watch out for include signs of low self-esteem or lack of confidence despite being bright and not wanting to attend school.

Dyslexia may be a disability, but with early diagnosis and intervention it does not have to be debilitating.


Shaywitz, Sally. Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level. New York: Knopf, 2003; Vintage, 2005. Received the Margo Marek Book Award and the NAMI Book Award.



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