Dyslexia is a learning disability (LD) that makes it difficult to read, write, and speak accurately and fluently. Some estimates suggest as many as 15% to 20% of Canadians have dyslexia—and about 4-5 students in every classroom struggle with reading and writing.
Dyslexia is a neurological disorder. We don't understand the precise cause of it, but studies have revealed that the brains of people with dyslexia actually develop and function differently.
This learning disability equally affects people of all genders, socio-economic, and ethnic backgrounds, and is genetically inherited.
First and foremost, it's important for early childhood educators to understand that:
1) Dyslexia is NOT in any way linked to intelligence (plenty of children with dyslexia go on to pursue advanced university degrees, successful careers, and happy lives)
2) Dyslexia is highly treatable, so spotting warning signs in young children is crucial (and a key role for early childhood educators to play)
So, let's look at some of the symptoms of dyslexia ECEs should watch out for in pre-school age children.
1. Difficulty decoding simple words while reading
Many kids begin learning basic reading strategies in pre-school and daycare. They take these skills with them to kindergarten, and continue building on them throughout elementary school.
Children with dyslexia, however, have a great deal of difficulty with the first stage of reading, which is called "decoding." Decoding happens when we see a new word, and sound it out, one syllable at a time, eventually figuring out how the word sounds as a whole. This is standard practice in reading instruction.
But a child with dyslexia will have a really hard time matching letters with sounds and breaking words apart while attempting to read. These are a few common signs to watch for:
- he or she has consistent trouble decoding words, and often just guesses at their meanings and pronunciation
- sounds out simple, one syllable words (like "cat") very slowly while peers are able to decipher and pronounce them quickly
- has difficulty remembering what he or she has already read, because it takes so long to decode each word
2. Difficulty learning new vocabulary
Young children with dyslexia are often slower than their peers when it comes to learning new words and the names for things. They may struggle with pronouncing certain words (saying "psghetti" instead of spaghetti, or "aminal" instead of animal), and have difficulty recognizing rhyming patterns.
Specific challenges you may notice include:
- difficulty learning the letters of the alphabet
- slow to remember the correct terms for objects
- trouble learning the days of the week or months
- difficulty learning or remembering the names of colours and shapes
- the child may avoid speaking altogether
All pre-schoolers learn at different paces. But if a child in your care seems quite a bit behind their classmates in terms of vocabulary and spoken language, it is worth taking note. Delayed language development is a very common sign of dyslexia in pre-school age children.
3. Difficulty following classroom instructions & routines
Because dyslexia disrupts the ability to process and understand language, young kids with dyslexia often struggle with instructions. They find it hard to understand and remember steps and procedures, and may need frequent reminders to follow rules and routines.
It would be easy to assume such a child is simply undisciplined, or even disruptive, but closer inspection could reveal that the youngster simply doesn't understand what is expected in your classroom.
Early childhood educators with students who don't follow instructions should look closely at other symptoms—such as those described above—to determine if the child is struggling with language in general. If multiple signs of dyslexia are present, it's time to discuss your observations with a supervisor, or speak directly to the parents.
There are standardized tests for dyslexia, which are performed by professionals who specialize in learning disabilities. And once a pre-schooler is diagnosed, appropriate new teaching strategies and accommodations can be introduced to ensure the child gets every possible support.
ECEs are often the first to notice young children who struggle with reading, writing, and speaking. They're in a unique position to catch those first, early warning signs of dyslexia and help make a real difference for children dealing with learning disabilities.
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