How Does Dyslexia Affect Primary School Children?

How Does Dyslexia Affect Primary School Children

Takeaway: Dyslexia stems from brain changes that affect your child’s reading, writing, and maths abilities, as well as her physical coordination and learning-related behaviour. But this says nothing about your child’s intelligence and learning potential. So if we diagnose and address your child’s challenges early (in primary school), she can compensate for them and become a skilled learner.

We often think of dyslexia as a reading difficulty. But really, it’s about struggling to learn.

It’s easy to mistake dyslexia as a reading difficulty because reading is usually what’s most obviously affected. But really, dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty (SpLD) that affects how children engage with language. For instance, they find it harder to figure out the structure of alphabets, words, and sentences – which shows up as reading and writing difficulties.

To understand dyslexia better, we need to explore what’s at its core. I.e., we need to learn about ‘phonemes.’

Children with dyslexia struggle with language sounds. And the smallest unit of these sounds is called a phoneme. Remember that although we usually read and write without saying the words aloud, that’s not how we started out. As children, we would sound out each letter we read, stringing them together to form syllables and combining syllables to create words and sentences. So those letter sounds (which language experts call ‘phonemes’) were the basis of everything that followed. When reading, we break down words into phonemes, and when writing, we combine phonemes to form words.

Phoneme-related difficulties make old words seem new and foreign, even if we’ve come across them many times before.

The more children practise reading and writing, the better their brains can recognise the phoneme groups that form words. And soon, they can directly recognise words without worrying about the intermediate phonemes. Their brains develop a mental map of what words look like, so they don’t have to sound them out anymore. (It’s like how you immediately recognise a friend’s face without having to consciously piece together features like the size of her nose, the colour of her eyes and hair, the shape of her chin, etc.) But to create these mental word maps, we first have to master phonemes. And since dyslexia gets in the way of this, it makes reading and writing so much harder.

Primary school is the ideal place to diagnose dyslexia because young children are completely defenceless against it.

So many of dyslexia’s challenges happen in a child’s mind, out of view. For instance, dyslexia sometimes causes ‘visual stress,’ where letters on a page seem to be moving/dancing or appear smaller/bigger than they really are. It can be quite a surreal experience, but young children usually can’t explain what they’re seeing because they don’t have anything else to compare it to. So, they’re defenceless against dyslexia’s challenges, making it vital that we step in and help.

Dyslexia in primary schoolers usually shows up as signs across six general categories.

Dyslexia is a complex phenomenon influenced by multiple factors, so there isn’t just one conclusive sign to look for. Instead, we need to pay attention to patterns of difficulties spread across the following general categories.

1. Writing difficulties.

You’ll likely notice that your child’s writing skills are less refined than her speaking skills. For instance, she might have poor handwriting – finding it harder to form letters and space them out properly. Or she might make many spelling mistakes, forcing her to keep rewriting words. (You’ll notice lots of crossed-out, failed attempts.)

2. Reading difficulties.

Your child will likely read very slowly because she finds it hard to recognise even familiar words. So, she might mispronounce words, skip words or add ones that aren’t there, misunderstand what she’s reading, or lose momentum because she’s desperately trying to decipher sentences. And this makes it harder to remember what she’s read – which gets in the way of studying.

3. Maths difficulties.

Her reading issues won’t only be limited to words. She’ll also likely have issues with symbols (e.g., confusing maths signs like ‘+’ and ‘x’) or identifying the place value of numbers (e.g., confusing 13 with 31).

4. Sequencing and organising difficulties.

The maths place-value issue is part of a more extensive difficulty in recognising and remembering sequences – even things like the days of the week, the order of alphabets, or the relative position of concepts (like yesterday/tomorrow/today or left/right/up/down). She’ll likely also struggle to tell time, remember which month it is, or keep to a daily schedule (because that means remembering sequences of activities).

5. Coordination difficulties.

Children with dyslexia often have trouble with physical coordination. For instance, they might struggle to catch a ball, play a sport, or grip a pen while writing. Note that this clumsiness overlaps with signs of dyspraxia – another specific learning difficulty.

6. Behaviour changes.

You’ll also notice general behaviour trends as your child tries to cope with the challenges we’ve discussed. For instance, she might try to avoid reading/writing by using delaying tactics like tidying her room before studying. You might also notice that she gets distracted easily or channels her frustration by either acting up or withdrawing and daydreaming. And often, you’ll see that she tires very quickly because of how much mental effort it takes to read and write.

To make an official dyslexia diagnosis, though, we need to rely on more than just these signs.

The signs we’ve discussed are a good starting point, but they aren’t enough to make a dyslexia diagnosis. For this, we start by studying your child’s learning history – looking at reviews from class teachers and examining samples of her written work. We’ll then test a range of abilities like her verbal skills (reading, writing, spelling, speaking), maths skills, perception and memory, motor skills, left/right-hand dominance, and her emotional health (including self-esteem levels).

Parents are often reluctant to diagnose and ‘label’ their children so early. But it really does make a big difference to their future.

A dyslexia diagnosis can be a gift to your primary-age child because it explains why she’s been struggling at school. Remember, many children mask their dyslexia by compensating with other strengths – like their speaking ability, emotional intelligence, humour, etc. But all the while, they think deep down that they’re ‘stupid.’ Getting an early dyslexia diagnosis removes all the pressure to keep up this tiring charade. It reminds your child that a few language difficulties can’t overshadow her intelligence and promising potential. And since primary school lays the foundation for all future learning, it’s the perfect place to recognise and address dyslexia’s challenges before they balloon out of control.

Have you noticed your child struggling with any of the things we’ve discussed? If so, consider bringing her in for an assessment.

At The Ed Psych Practice, we offer face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:

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