What Is Dyslexia?

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on October 25, 2023
6 min read

Dyslexia is a learning disorder that makes it hard for you to read, spell, and write. People who have it are often smart, but their brains have trouble connecting letters they see to the sounds those letters make.

About 5%-15% of Americans have some symptoms of dyslexia, like slow reading, trouble spelling, or mixing up words. Adults can have this learning disorder, but most people are diagnosed early in life. Others don't realize they have dyslexia until they get older.

You might not notice your child has symptoms of dyslexia until they start school. Their teacher may be the first to see the signs in preschool.

Dyslexia symptoms in preschoolers

  • Hard to learn or remember the letters of the alphabet
  • Gets their letters and words mixed up
  • Falls behind their peers in language skills
  • Mispronounces familiar words
  • Has trouble with letters (mistaking "t" for "d")
  • Can't recognize rhyming patterns, like "Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall/Humpty Dumpty had a great fall"

Dyslexia symptoms in grade-schoolers

  • Reads slower than kids their age
  • Can't tell the difference between certain letters or words
  • Can't connect letters with the sounds they make
  • Writes letters or numbers backward, such as "b" instead of "d"
  • Has trouble sounding out words when they read
  • Writes slowly
  • Misspell easy words like "dog"
  • Says words look blurry or jump around on the page
  • Struggles to follow instructions

Dyslexia symptoms after elementary school

  • Withdraws socially because it's hard to communicate with peers
  • Make errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation
  • Takes a long time to finish their homework or complete tests
  • Messy handwriting
  • Speaks slowly
  • Avoids reading aloud
  • Uses the wrong words, like "furnish" instead of "finish" or "lotion" for "ocean"

If your child has these symptoms, talk to their teacher to find out what's happening in the classroom. Then, call your child's doctor to see if they have another health problem like hearing loss or vision loss. If dyslexia is the cause, your doctor can refer you to a specialist for more tests and treatment.

The earlier your child is diagnosed, the sooner they can start treatment.

Dyslexia symptoms in adults

If you're not diagnosed with dyslexia as a child, you can still learn later in life that you have it. Adults who have dyslexia may find that they have a hard time:

  • Reading or doing things that involve reading
  • Spelling, memorizing, or remembering words
  • Taking notes or copying things down
  • Understanding common sayings or jokes like put a different meaning to a set of words like “in the home stretch”
  • Doing math, learning another language, or remembering numbers such as passwords or pins
  • Staying organized and meeting deadlines

If you think you have dyslexia, reach out to your doctor for a referral to a specialist.

There is no blood or neurological test to diagnose dyslexia. Instead a diagnosis comes after testing and assessment by a medical professional. They look for certain signs to determine if your child has dyslexia.

Tests for dyslexia

To match your child with the right dyslexia program, a doctor or an educational specialist will do tests to see how well they read and write. Some of the things a test for dyslexia might include are:

  • Reading and sounding out unfamiliar words
  • Verbal language skills
  • Reading comprehension
  • Spelling
  • Vocabulary
  • Word recognition

Your pediatrician will rule out ADHD, depression, or anxiety that may affect learning. An educational psychologist will dig deeper into learning disabilities. Once you have a firm diagnosis, you can work with your child's doctor, teacher, and educational specialists to create a learning plan.

There are no medications to treat dyslexia, but there are many different tools your child can use to be an effective reader.

Reading programs

Kids with dyslexia have trouble matching letters with the sounds they make and matching words with their meanings. They need extra help learning to read and write.

Your child can work with a reading specialist to learn how to:

  • Sound out letters and words (“phonics”)
  • Read faster
  • Understand more of what they read
  • Write more clearly

Other reading programs geared toward kids with dyslexia include:

  • Orton-Gillingham is a step-by-step technique that teaches kids how to match letters with sounds and recognize letter sounds in words.
  • Multisensory instruction teaches kids how to use all of their senses to learn new skills. For example, your child might run their finger over letters made out of sandpaper to learn how to spell.

Extra help

The law requires schools to set up special learning plans, called Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), for your child with dyslexia. An IEP describes your child's needs and how the school will help meet them. You and the school will update the plan each year based on your child's progress.

Extra help for your child can also include:

  • Special education. A learning specialist or reading specialist can do one-on-one or group sessions, either in the classroom or in a separate room in the school.
  • Accommodations. An IEP outlines special services your child needs to make school easier. These might include audio books, extra time to finish tests, or text-to-speech, a technology that reads words out loud from a computer or book.

School isn't the only place where your child can learn. You can also help foster reading and writing skills at home. Read with your child whenever you can. Help them sound out words they have trouble with.

Learning strategies

These tips can help both kids and adults with dyslexia:

  • Read in a quiet place with no distractions.
  • Listen to books on CD or computer and read along with the recording.
  • Break up reading and other tasks into small pieces that are more manageable.
  • Ask for extra help from your teacher or manager when you need it.
  • Join a support group for kids or adults with dyslexia.

We don't know the exact cause of dyslexia, but there are a few ideas on why and how it happens:

Genetics: Dyslexia is linked to your genes, which is why it often runs in families. You're 30%-50% more likely to have dyslexia if one of your parents has it.

Change in brain development or function: Dyslexia can also happen because there were differences in parts of how your brain formed or how it works. Imaging scans in people with dyslexia show that areas of the brain that should be active when a person reads don't work as expected.

When you find out your child has dyslexia, you naturally want to do everything you can to help them.

One of the best ways to get started is to support your child's reading.

Read with them

  • Listen to audio books and have your child read along.
  • Make sure they spend time reading alone, both quietly and aloud.
  • Re-read their favorite books.
  • Take turns reading books aloud together.
  • Talk about the stories you read together and ask questions like, "What do you think happens next?"

Make learning playful

It always helps when learning doesn't feel like work:

  • Make up songs, poems, and even dances to help remember things.
  • Play word games.
  • If your child is younger, use nursery rhymes and play silly rhyming games.

Help with schoolwork

  • Use technology like tablets, smartphones, and computers.
  • Add online dictionaries, spell-check, and text-to-speech software as your child gets older as long they're approved for use.
  • Help keep their schoolwork organized.
  • Break big tasks into smaller chunks.

Support them emotionally

As with many parenting challenges, it's helpful to be firm, patient, and positive.

  • Celebrate successes. Take a day at the end of a project or after a big test to have fun together.
  • Don't expect perfection. A lot of times, close enough is a huge success.
  • Help your child understand what dyslexia is. They should know that it's not their fault and you'll work through it together.
  • Let your kid do activities they're good at and enjoy. This can balance the struggles with schoolwork.
  • Praise your child's strength and skills. Don't let learning struggles be the main focus.