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How To Recognize Dyslexia at Different Ages

Geoff Nixon

By Geoff Nixon

A Dyslexia Symptom Timeline

If your child is having trouble reading, it’s only natural to be concerned. Is it dyslexia? Or is it just a little bump on the road to reading, a little glitch experienced by most children at some point.  This article will help you recognize dyslexia at different ages.

Reading is a critical life skill your child needs, so it’s not something to be taken lightly. Often parents worry about dyslexia at the first hint of trouble, but that’s not always the case. Trouble reading doesn’t always mean dyslexia. Inversely, some children learn to read, offering up only small hints of the problem.

What is Dyslexia?

The classic definition of dyslexia is an unexpected difficulty with reading.  It is characterized by difficulty with phonemic awareness, phonology, and word decoding. People with dyslexia may also have trouble with some of the following: learning the alphabet, being able to read quickly, reading aloud, and being able to spell words correctly.

None of these skills can develop if the decoding is not automatic. And decoding automaticity is challenging when the brain has trouble connecting letters to sounds. As the brain must work that much harder to process the words they’re reading, it slows down the entire process making the entire process of reading words and comprehending them more difficult.

There’s a persistent myth that states that those with dyslexia read backwards. Dyslexia is more complex than that, though it’s easy to see how this misconception started. Adults and children with dyslexia often write their words with jumbled or mixed up letters.

Dyslexia occurs in people of all intelligence levels and from all walks of life. It is not caused by a lack of intelligence or by poor vision. In fact, most people with dyslexia have normal vision and are just as smart as their peers.

Dyslexia Symptoms by Age

Reading is a language skill, and so it’s possible to detect future reading skills in 3 and 4 year olds by noticing how well they process language – including rhyming.   Here is a comprehensive breakdown of what you need to be aware of in these critical early years:

Ages 3 to 4

At this age, the clues about dyslexia are language related – listening, speaking and manipulating.  Mistakes are common and, most of the time, nothing to worry about. If these mistakes persist for any length of time, or you notice the same mistakes being repeated consistently, it could be an early indication of dyslexia.

Some of the indicators to look for at this age are:

  • Speech delays
  • Problems with simple rhymes
  • Forgetting names, colors, and numbers
  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Taking a long time to learn new words

To reiterate, difficulty rhyming is the single most common predictor of reading delays in young children.  However, if your preschool age child exhibits these symptoms for any length of time, it may be an indication of dyslexia.

Ages 5 to 6

Children ages 5 to 6 are still new to school. While some children will already be reading at this point, it’s not uncommon for others to be a little slower to catch up. Many children struggle in those first years of learning to read, and for some it simply comes a bit slower. This, in itself, isn’t an indication of dyslexia.

The signs you will want to look for during these early school years are:

  • Trouble with rhyming conventions
  • Difficulty comprehending the concept of time
  • Reversing words, i.e., “cat” for “tac”
  • Mixing up sounds, e.g., [ba] and [da]
  • Noticeably tired after reading or writing

Each of these symptoms of dyslexia identifies a different difficulty but they all stem from inefficient and/or inaccurate language processing.  Remember, the occasional issue or difficulty is one thing, but if you notice your child experiencing any of these problems repeatedly it’s a strong indicator that something is amiss.

Ages 7-8

By this age your child should be reading and writing with little to no trouble. It’s at this age where the symptoms may be more noticeable.

Signs to watch out for at this age are:

  • Continued difficulty reading – slow, labored decoding
  • Messy and/or slow handwriting
  • Pauses often during speaking or fills in with “uuum”
  • Struggles with and/or avoids reading out lou
  • Trouble remembering names and dates

By this age your child has likely developed ways to deal with or work around some of the issues, but it’s still difficult for them. If you see any of these symptoms you’ll want to get them checked by their doctor.

Ages 9-11

At this age, children should be decoding effortlessly and comprehending most of what they are reading.  However, at this age, a child can also have many new, competing interests and so reading avoidance or apparent difficulty may still be due to a lack engagement by your child in the learn to read process.

And so, to recognize dyslexia at this age, you can look at attitude to reading, reading stamina, reading comprehension and fluency.

  • Resists reading – a generally negative attitude to reading
  • Cannot read for extended periods
  • Poor spelling
  • Does not understand literal meaning of text
  • A slow reader, needs to re-read text

Ages 12-18

At this age, while it’s mainly about reading comprehension, observing your child’s writing can also be helpful. For instance, grammar.  Language conventions are mainly learned through observation while reading. If a child is not reading well, and not picking up these language rules, it will show up in your child’s writing. Here are some symptoms to look for.

  • Homework stress
  • Doesn’t observe punctuation when reading or writing a story
  • Does not add detail to essays
  • Doesn’t enjoy reading, especially dislikes reading aloud
  • Cannot recall what was just read
  • Frustration, withdrawal, and behavioral problems start to increase


Here is a dyslexia infographic that summarizes the above.

What Next?

The earlier dyslexia is detected, the sooner they can receive the help they need, and the lower the chance they fall behind their peers in school.

According to a study in the Journal of Pediatrics, evident signs of dyslexia are often seen as early as first grade. The longer these symptoms persist undiagnosed, the further behind they risk falling academically. This is where the “achievement gap” begins. From this point it gets harder each year to catch up with their peers.

How is Dyslexia Diagnosed?

As stated earlier, dyslexia can’t be detected by blood work or scans. Dyslexia is diagnosed through a combination of assessments and evaluations. These may include:

  • A review of your child’s medical and developmental history
  • A cognitive assessment to assess your child’s overall functioning
  • A psychoeducational assessment to identify your child’s academic strengths and weaknesses
  • An evaluation of your child’s reading skills, including phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension
  • A writing sample to assess your child’s ability to express himself or herself in writing
  • A classroom observation to see how your child functions in the educational setting

The diagnosis of dyslexia is based on a pattern of strengths and weaknesses that are relative to each other and to the individual’s overall level of functioning. There are a number of tests for dyslexia you can request, but really the diagnosis of dyslexia comes from a gathering information from multiple sources to make an informed determination.  

Treatment for Dyslexia

To the extent that reading is more difficulty with reading than expected, interventions that help reading can help children with dyslexia. Gemm Learning treats dyslexia with language and text recognition exercises that work on the root causes of dyslexia. More on our dyslexia treatment here.

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