If dyslexia runs in your family you may have a good idea that your child is dyslexic long before professionals are ready to acknowledge it, or support and assess them. However, it is increasingly clear that early intervention is critical, so here are the warning signs and how you can give your child the best start.
The three things most likely to be identified as ‘core’ problems for children with dyslexia are-
- Poor phonological awareness – difficulty with perceiving the individual sounds in words.
- Poor working memory- difficulty ‘holding’ information in short term memory and doing anything with it.
- Poor rapid retrieval skills – difficulty accessing the information in the brain quickly and automatically.
How can I tell if my preschooler is dyslexic?
These three issues can already been seen affecting the behavior of very young children.
1. Poor phonological awareness - difficulty with perceiving the individual sounds in words.
Many children suspected of having dyslexia also have some degree of speech and language difficulties. These may be so extreme that they have already been identified and speech and language intervention has been given. There is a massive overlap between speech and language difficulties and later literacy difficulties- so this is definitely a warning signal.
Under the radar speech and language difficulties - These are problems that you as a parent or concerned teacher might have picked up on, but are unlikely to have resulted in speech and language intervention (SALT):
- They may begin speaking late and may continue to be quiet children.
- They may have slightly ‘blurry’ speech where sounds aren’t always clearly pronounced (e.g. ‘duce’ for juice, ‘wabit’ for rabbit)
- They may leave the final letters of sounds (e.g. ‘sweet’ instead of ‘sweets’)
- They may miss out short sounds altogether (e.g. ‘pees’ instead of ‘please’, ‘cap’ instead of ‘clap’).
- They have difficulty with multi-syllabic words, even if they are just repeating back a word you have just said, )e.g. ‘hippopotamus’, ‘alligator’, ‘helicopter’).
- They may not pick up on rhyme (e.g. ‘box, fox ____?’) or alliteration (e.g. ‘ant, apple, ____?’) particularly well.
2. Poor working memory - difficulty ‘holding’ information in short term memory and doing anything with it.
- They may have difficulty remembering multistage directions, (e.g. get your coat and bag and come down stairs).
- They may forget new words and names quickly
3. Poor rapid retrieval skills – difficulty accessing the information in the brain quickly and automatically.
- They may have difficulty remembering common sequences such as the order of numbers, the order of letters in the alphabet or the order of days in the week.
- They may have difficulty naming things, taking longer to learn a new word or name than peers.
- They may use imprecise words like ‘thing’, ‘stuff’, ‘it’ or ‘he’ a lot.
Caveat 1- this is compared to peers.
All these things are hard for small children, the important thing is to compare them to other children of the same age. If you are a parent speak to nursery/kindergarten teachers who can make a comparison between them and their peers. Try not to compare them to siblings as big individual differences are very common.
Caveat 2 - Verbal abilities are not a consistent marker for dyslexia.
There are children who are dyslexic who are very verbally able, have a great vocabulary and are particularly articulate for their age. Being exceptionally bright can hide a lot of dyslexic difficulties.
So you still think your preschooler is dyslexic but what can you do to help?
Poor phonological awareness
The good news is that this is the area where it is possible to make real lasting changes. This is where early intervention really matters and can make all the difference.
- Get a really good pack of alphabet picture cards (obviously mine are the best by a mile - 'The Unforgettable Alphabet', but after that I would recommend ReadWriteInc Phonics Flashcards). Starting early and keeping things consistent will really help with letter recognition. Don’t push your child, but using the cards in games can just make them more familiar. Children quickly pick up on the association between the sounds and cards (can you get me the horse picture? Yay, it’s a /h/ - horse).
- Make sure you are pronouncing the sounds clearly and cleanly. If you aren’t sure how to do this watch my free gesture videos online which have all the sounds pronounced clearly or visit http://www.oxfordowl.co.uk/for-home/reading-owl/expert-help/phonics-made-easy. Don’t think that you remember them from your own education as things have progressed substantially since then.
- Play rhyming and alteration games frequently. Get your child to tune into the sounds in words. Who do they know whose name starts with the same sound as their name? Play 'I spy' but use letter sounds not letter names.
- Invest in some wooden or magnetic LOWER CASE letters. Even before your child begins learning sounds this helps them become familiar with the shapes of different letters.
- Play games and activities where words are broken into their individual sounds. For example, clapping for each sound in someone’s name. There are some great books that do this at a syllabic or on-set/rime level, but try to focus on things that split things up into individual sounds as well (e.g. Tanka Tanka Skunk by Steve Webb ). It is this smaller unit size that will be most useful when they being reading and writing.
- Share books and talk about the rhymes and alliteration at a level your child can understand (e.g. Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler or Giraffes Can't Dance by Giles Andreae).
- Use letter names. Make things easier for your child by always using letter sounds rather than names. If they are going to struggle remember 26 sound-letter associations we only make it twice as difficult and much more confusing by teaching letter names as well. Children don’t need letter names until much later. This means no more alphabet songs and games! When you have alphabet freezes do letter sounds rather than the alphabet. This is give them a real head start when they start school.
- Avoid having upper case letters around. Find fridge magnets/alphabet books etc. with lowercase letters. Focus on recognizing lowercase letters. Children only need uppercase letters much later. The only exception is for their own name. Others can wait until after they have mastered basic letter-sound associations.
- Don’t focus on whole word recognition. Children with dyslexia often fall back on this as a technique and it doesn’t get them past the second school year. Focus on sounds. It is much better if they can hear some of the sounds in words when they start school than they have rote sight learned 20 words.
In an ideal world-
Teach your child using a complete system, where a picture and gesture are taught from the offset. This means that each letter becomes much more memorable, and children can draw on whatever sensory experience is predominate for them to support their learning. If /i/ is a small purple insect is it completely different from /j/ a spoon full of jam – the letters are no longer confusable). Common schemes are ReadWriteInc and Jolly Phonics. However, I would obviously recommend my own. Look at Synesthetic Learning to understand why this system is better for dyslexic brains.
Poor working memory
Unfortunately this is one area where practice doesn’t make perfect. Most studies have found practice will improve performance on a single task, but the effects are short term with little or no cross over to other tasks. So this is an area where we generally focus on coping strategies and techniques.
- Ask your child to repeat back instructions e.g. I have to get my shoes AND my book bag.
- Break multi-step tasks into smaller more digestible chunks.
- Begin to teach your child to vocalize instructions as they ‘hold’ them in their memory e.g. repeat ‘bag and shoes’ as they head upstairs to get them. Eventually this will become the sub-vocal instructions that many people use to support their memory (e.g. repeating a phone number in your head until you have a chance to write it down).
- Don’t get frustrated when it feels like your child isn’t listening. They are. They simply can’t remember what you have said.
- Don’t give an instruction and then further information as they are even less likely to remember.
Poor rapid retrieval skills
The poor rapid retrieval skills are because processes that become automatic for most people never quite become automatic for people with dyslexia. Again, there isn’t any credible research I have seen that suggests that this can be changed at a fundamental level. However, in relation to specific items you can strengthen recognition and increase familiarity.
In terms of literacy the biggest impact poor rapid retrieval will have is on reading speed, where the retrieval of information about letters, sounds, words and meaning happens very quickly and automatically in fluent readers. Making sure your child can quickly recognize letters when given their sound and the sound when given the letter is something you can move towards practicing every day. It is the speed element which is critical as we are strengthening automaticity. While you don’t want to push your child before they are ready, some children are ready and able to do this before starting school.
- Play speed based letter recognition/sound recognition games. For example, playing a tune on a xylophone by the adult saying letter sounds and the child hitting the notes (stick lowercase alphabet letters in a random order on the keys…music lovers will hate me for this but it does work really well), or 'Letter Hunts'- hunt for particular letters in text. This is great as part of story sharing.
- In terms of words and naming, encourage children to find the word, even if it takes a little longer (what thing? What’s your friends name again?). If you feel they are getting frustrated provide the name along with the answer (oh, you were playing with Samuel, his name is Samuel) but then ask for the same information a little while later.
- Get so good at guessing what your child wants or is trying to say that they barely have to speak.
- Accept pointing as a request when they are able to speak.
- Get frustrated because your child hates any time pressure. Generally people don't like activities they are not good at. Just work on making it fun.
Giving your dyslexic preschooler the best start
Model and encourage good reading behaviors-
- Ask them to turn the page so they get used to which page comes next.
- Ask them where to start reading, getting them to find the front of the book, the first page, the first line and the first word.
- Run your finger under text as your read. Ask them to point. If they go fast, speed up your reading and when they are slow, slow down. This gets them to associate the writing on the page with what you are saying.
If you are worried your child is dyslexic you want to send them to school more prepared than the other children, as it will be a bigger challenge for them. You need to make language a richer and more engaging part of their childhood than it is for other children, because the increased exposure and interest will help offset the effects of their dyslexia on their learning.
Most of all surround you child in a language/literacy rich environment. Talk to them lots and listen to them. Sing songs, rhymes and lullabies. Share books and make sure that the bedtime story is the best bit of the day. Challenge them with long words. Play with words and sounds together. Having a love of language and stories will have a bigger effect than any amount of directed teaching they receive.
If you possibly can, establish a really good relationship with their class teacher. Explain why you are concerned and what risk factors your child has (e.g. three siblings who have been identified as dyslexic). Check what sounds they are learning in class so you can do that little bit extra at home, preferably ahead of time. Make sure you get regular updates to avoid surprises the end of the year.
You may be lucky and have a fantastic school, rapid assessments and fabulous support. However, that is not always the case. Warning factors to watch out for are stalled progress or if the teacher describes your child as distracted, lazy or slow,. They may be all these things, but those behaviors can also reflect unmet needs. Check what support is in place and if you have concerns speak to the school SENCO. Above all, support your child, because they are AWESOME...and dyslexic.
What makes you think your preschooler is dyslexic? How do you support them?