Early Signs of Dyslexia

Your child or student is having a hard time with pre-reading skills. Check out these early signs of dyslexia to decide on your next steps.

Many people still think dyslexia is pretty rare. It is not.

Dyslexia impacts about 20% of the population.

And it’s no wonder. Learning to read is not a natural process.

Our brains are not wired to read. Unlike learning to speak, we actually have to create new pathways to learn to read.

But the good news with dyslexia is that early intervention can dramatically reduce a child’s struggle learning to read. There are evidence-based programs that teach dyslexic children to read and write well.

So if you’re concerned your child (or student) might be dyslexic, read on to discover some of the early signs of dyslexia.

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What is a key indicator of dyslexia?

There is still a popular myth about dyslexia: it’s all about reversing letters or seeing them backward.

This isn’t true. All children can reverse letters until 2nd or 3rd grade. When it persists, it tends to indicate uncertainty with letter formation or a handwriting challenge.

Dyslexia is an unexpected difficulty with reading and spelling that is inconsistent with intelligence.

The core feature of dyslexia is difficulty with phonological processing. This means dyslexics have a harder time identifying individual sounds and breaking words into sounds.

Reading involves breaking a code.  Written language is made up of symbols (letters) that represent phonemes (sounds).

Difficulty with hearing sounds in words leads to a child who cannot use phonics skills to break apart words on a page. It also leads to challenges with spelling as a child cannot hear the individual sounds in words.

When I first started suspecting my daughter had a learning disability, I noticed she had very weak phonological awareness skills.

What are some early signs of dyslexia?

These are some of the early signs of dyslexia. It is important to note these can overlap with other conditions like intellectual or social-communication disabilities.

If your four-year-old struggles with any, you can try to work on them. If your five-year-old struggles with these, I recommend you request a professional evaluation for dyslexia.

Early signs of dyslexia can include:

  • family history
  • speech delay
  • mixing sounds in words
  • difficulty with rhyming
  • struggles with recalling names or words
  • hasn’t learned any letters by age four
  • hasn’t learned the whole alphabet by age five
  • difficulty with following 3-step directions

Family History of Dyslexia

Dyslexia is highly-inheritable. If there is a family member diagnosed with dyslexia, your child is more likely to develop it.

Also remember that dyslexia is widely undiagnosed, so if a child’s parent claims to be an awful speller or says they had a hard time learning to read, there is a chance they could have undiagnosed dyslexia.

It also does not need to be a parent to create a family history. In our family, one of my siblings has a diagnosed language-based learning disability (i.e. it’s probably dyslexia but the evaluator didn’t say that 25 years ago).

My mom reports that reading and spelling were very hard for her in school. Following oral directions is still a challenge and gives her a lot of anxiety. Her dad also had a hard time in school. So it seems that undiagnosed dyslexia like runs in our family.

All three of these adult family members are very smart and had successful careers – so remember, dyslexia has nothing to do with intelligence.

Speech delay as a sign of dyslexia

At its core, dyslexia is a language-based learning disability. Speech delay can be a factor in many disabilities, however.

Speech delay can be an early sign of dyslexia when:

  • Your child learns to speak later than peers
  • A child has difficulty acquiring new vocabulary
  • Child misuses vocabulary frequent
  • Baby talk persists beyond the typical range.

Remember: not all children with a speech delay are dyslexic. This merely is an indication that parents should look for other signs to develop.

Oral Language Difficulties

Along with speech delays, children with dyslexia have other issues with oral language.  These challenges are often associated with phonology, or the ability to hear sounds.

Phonological difficulties can impact a child’s:

  • Understanding that language is made of sounds (phonological awareness)
  • Ability to recall sounds or words (phonological memory)
  • Skills at pulling those words from their memory (phonological retrieval)
  • Production of complex words correctly (phonological production)

What could this look like in your child?

  • Difficulty breaking a simple sentence into words
  • Trouble remembering a letter sound from day to day
  • Can’t seem to find the right word
  • Takes longer than usual to name everyday objects
  • Leaves out sounds in words

Oral language challenges in your child are a strong predictor of dyslexia in children with other reading difficulties.

Mixing Up Sounds in Words

As mentioned in oral language, mixing up sounds in words is really common in dyslexic children.  My daughter says “congradulation” for “graduation.”

Other examples of mixing up sounds in words are:

  • “aminals” for animals where sounds are reversed
  • “pisghetti” for spaghetti where sounds are dropped
  • “lotion” for ocean when a word with similar sounds is used

Again, by itself mixing up sounds does not necessarily mean dyslexia. I said “aminals” until 3rd grade and have no learning issues. When combine with other traits, mixing up sounds and words is an early warning sign of dyslexia.

Difficulty with Rhyming

Many parents read classic rhyming books with their children like “Sheep in a Jeep” or “Cat in the Hat.” Children with dyslexia will have difficulty hearing and identifying rhymes in words.

If you pause and wait as you read a rhyming book, many children will supply the rhyme for you – especially if they have heard the book before.

Children with dyslexia are late to learn nursery rhymes and to generate rhymes compared to their peers. Or they lack what is called “rhyme sensitivity,” or the ability to hear rhymes.

I noticed this early sign of dyslexia as soon as the pandemic started and my first-grade daughter started distance learning at home.

Struggles with Recall

Recalling from memory is a typical challenge in dyslexia. This is when a child knows something but just cannot easily access the information in their memory.

At its core, this is due to language issues. Words are not easy to pull out of their brain and say aloud.

In Overcoming Dyslexia, Sally Shaywitz gives a classic example of a smart child struggling with oral language. describing an eruption with lava on a mountain and saying “tornado” for volcano (2020, p. 55).

Children might also use words like “stuff” or “things” when you know they have a more accurate vocabulary. Your child is just having a hard time retrieving it (p. 115).

We all have times when word retrieval is hard. You might feel like the word is on the tip of your tongue. It is more persistent with dyslexia.

Older children tend to struggle with math facts, spelling words they know automatically, and applying vocabulary correctly. These are all related to challenges with recall.

Difficulty Learning the Alphabet

Unfortunately, I’ve seen early childhood influencers claim on social media that it doesn’t matter when your child learns the alphabet. They say it’s just like memorizing the names of dinosaurs and it’s “low-level thinking.”

They are wrong.

Difficulty with learning letters around age four is one of the early signs of dyslexia. Children have a hard time connecting language related to these squiggles on a page (ie the letters).

Research has also shown children are at less risk for reading failure if they know 18 capital letters, 15 lowercase letters, and a handful of letter sound when they enter kindergarten (see Piasta, et al, 2012).

If your four year old child doesn’t know the letter names because you haven’t taught them, start practicing a few at time for a few minutes a day. If they have not mastered them by the beginning of kindergarten, you can start advocating for an assessment for dyslexia.

Challenges with Following Directions

To be a broken record: dyslexia is a language-based disability. To follow oral directions, a child has to hear the language and store the words in their short-term memory.

If your child has difficulty with language and pre-reading skills, challenges with following directions can also be an early sign of dyslexia.

This can also be a challenge for children with autism, ADHD, or receptive language disorders so it’s important to get a thorough evaluation by a qualified practitioner.

How do I know if my child has dyslexia?

The only way you will really be able to know if your child has dyslexia is to have a formal evaluation by a qualified professional.

Likely this means you need to see an educational psychologist or a neuropsychologist. The clinician you choose should be able to explain to you ahead of time about the ways dyslexia can appear.

Make sure your practitioner uses valid assessments like:

  • CTOPP (Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing)
  • WISC (Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children)

They need to assess for:

  • phonological sensitivity
  • reading read and nonsense words
  • reading fluency
  • reading comprehension
  • listening comprehension
  • working memory
  • intelligence.

So be a savvy consumer. Any evaluator should be able to answer any of your questions.

Can my child be slightly dyslexic?

A child is either dyslexic or is not. What you’re probably wondering is if your child can be only mildly impacted by dyslexia.

Dyslexia occurs on a continuum with some people experiencing profound difficulty with learning to read, write, and spell while some people primarily struggle to spell.

My daughter appeared to read just fine until the end of first grade. She even “passed” her iReady reading assessments (i.e. she correctly guessed her way out of them).

I really only suspected a writing disability until I had her evaluated for all learning disabilities. It was only then that my concerns about phonological processing were confirmed.

She scored less than the 1st percentile. But she could still read okay; it mostly impacted her spelling.

Some younger children don’t show signs of dyslexia until the end of first or second grade when texts get harder. They might have used their high intelligence to guess from context when they read. And sadly many schools still use patterned reading books in kindergarten and first grade that encourage looking at pictures and memorization rather than sounding out words.

Recapping Early Signs of Dyslexia

If your child displays a collection of some of these signs and you’re concerned about their reading and spelling, speak to their medical provider and teacher:

  • Doesn’t seem to “hear” sounds
  • Can’t rhyme
  • Persistent baby talk or difficulty pronouncing words
  • Difficulty with the alphabet and letter sounds
  • Hard time following oral instructions
  • Mixes up words or uses non-specific words like “stuff”

And last, do not give up. Even with two Masters degrees in education, I had to advocate hard.

My daughter’s school team at her old school blamed her difficulties on her behavior. Instead, I saw her behavior was caused by her academic difficulties.

My husband and I saved for a private evaluation; we chose to forgo gym memberships, vacations, babysitting, takeout, and other luxuries for a private evaluation. And it was worth every cent and every sacrifice.

At her new school, now in 4th grade, she is reading on grade level. Her spelling is about 1.5 years behind but she is making steady gains.

And instead of not being able to write a single word on a paper, her teacher just showed us a paragraph she wrote citing evidence from her novel.

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