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Identifying students with dyslexia

Do you know the signs of a student struggling with dyslexia? What to look for and how to help.

6 min read

Voice of the Educator



This article is part one of a four-part series about what educators can do to identify, assess and accommodate students with dyslexia. You can also read Part Two: How to find for a dyslexia screener and Part Three: Supporting students with dyslexia. Part Four: “4 ways to lead a dyslexia initiative” will be available November 1.

During my honeymoon, I realized I had never heard my husband read aloud. It was then that I heard him stammer, omit even the shortest words and repeat entire sentences. My extremely intelligent husband is an adult dyslexic who had not received appropriate assessment and intervention. When I cautiously questioned him about his reading, he revealed that, when he was in school, it took him more than six hours a night to complete his homework. He often misspelled the months of the year and struggled with certain days of the week. He had to practice his home address. He would often blaze past construction signs and public signs, appearing to disregard the information when, in truth, he couldn’t read it quickly enough to process what it meant.

One in five students has a learning disability, the most common of which is dyslexia. Now that all but seven states have finally adopted dyslexia as its own category of special needs, more districts are taking action to identify and accommodate students with dyslexia. There are so many ways educators can recognize the telltale signs of students with dyslexia, and it can make all the difference for those affected. If remediation is conducted early and appropriately, students who have manifested signs of dyslexia are likely to learn to read just like their non-dyslexic peers. When an observant instructor knows what to look for with regards to dyslexia, then he or she can begin to see a constellation of behaviors that distinguish dyslexia from other reading challenges.

Characteristics of dyslexia

Educators, administrators and other school personnel responsible for teaching and assessing reading need to be trained in assessing and preventing reading challenges. Many researchers now agree that struggling word-level readers share some characteristics such as poor phonemic awareness (PA) and below-average rapid automatized naming (RAN). Phonemic awareness refers to the ability to manipulate sounds in spoken words, and RAN is the amount of time needed to name stimuli including digits, letters and colors.

Sally Shaywitz at the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, author of the highly regarded book “Overcoming Dyslexia,” has a comprehensive list of recommendations for educators and parents, including being observant of early language development focusing on rhyming, word finding and pronunciation. She also counsels teachers to be attentive to print-to-language skills like naming individual letters. Shaywitz also recommends examining family history, which can be a strong indicator.

Both of my children with dyslexia were verbal in childhood, with no obvious signs of language challenges, until I started introducing the alphabet with letter-to-sound correspondence. As soon as I would introduce a letter with its sound, my children with dyslexia would forget it. My otherwise very quick children were absolutely struggling with the basic connection between written letters and their corresponding sounds.

Common experiences in the classroom

In the classroom, students with dyslexia will continue well past elementary school to misspell common words such as the days of the week or months of the year. They often have anxiety about being in the classroom because of the numerous tasks involving reading and writing. Writing assignments may go unfinished, even when the student seems engaged in the topic. Penmanship may be sloppy, not because of an underlying handwriting issue, but to disguise poor spelling. Often, the student will randomly capitalize words or letters within words because the rules of spelling and grammar are still elusive.

Negative behaviors such as talking during class instruction, inattentiveness, excessive bathroom breaks and “time-wasting” can be a direct result of the student lacking basic literacy skills. When I taught middle and high school and had a student with behavior challenges, I always looked at literacy skills. The majority of the time, that student would have a skill deficit impeding their academic success.

My son with dyslexia will often accept a lower grade rather than ask for much-needed help to finish a writing assignment. He is capable of completing any writing assignment with speech-to-text or a scribe. If those aren’t available, he won’t even attempt to finish the assignment. Writing takes so much effort with a language-based learning disability like dyslexia that it’s essential, even after reading remediation, to provide accommodations for students with dyslexia. There will be more details about how to do this in part three of this series.

What to do if you suspect a student has dyslexia

If an educator suspects a student has dyslexia, they can immediately request the student be evaluated under the Child Find mandate found within The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The wording of Child Find is clear: “Schools are required to locate, identify and evaluate all children with disabilities from birth through age 22.” Identifying students who need services is an important first step. Child Find includes children from birth to 22 years of age and covers home-schooled students as well as those in private schools. This means that a student under 22 years of age who has not been identified still qualifies for identification even if the student is “advancing grade to grade.” For more comprehensive information regarding Child Find, search or  

My husband should have been identified as dyslexic numerous times, as he was clearly underperforming given his potential. Basically, it’s never acceptable to see a student unable to read or write at grade level without any known intervention or support and say nothing.

Donell Pons is a reading and dyslexia specialist in Salt Lake City, Utah. Pons started her career in education when her youngest son was diagnosed with dyslexia. She has a master’s degree in education and teaching from Westminster College, along with a certification in special education. Connect with her at


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