Signs of Dyslexia

Disclaimer: No two people with dyslexia are exactly alike because dyslexia ranges from mild to moderate to severe to profound. Some people with dyslexia also have ADD/ADHD, which contributes to their challenges in school.

Therefore, someone with dyslexia may not have every single symptom listed below. But they will have many of them. Professional testers look for a “constellation” or cluster of symptoms in the following areas.

If someone struggles with spelling, is a slow reader who has a difficult time sounding out unknown words, and has difficulty getting their great thoughts down on paper in acceptable form, and that person has 3 or more of these classic warning signs, it is worth getting that person screened for dyslexia.

These problems are unexpected when compared to the person’s proven abilities in other areas.

Preschool and Kindergarten Warning Signs
Reading and Spelling Difficulties
Quality of Written Work
Directionality Issues
Sequencing Steps in a Task
Rote Memory of Non-meaningful Facts
Telling Time on a Clock with Hands
Messy Bedrooms and Desks
Math Difficulties
Co-existing Conditions


Preschool and Kindergarten Warning Signs:


If three or more of these warning signs exist, especially if there is dyslexia or ADD/ADHD in the family tree, the child should be screened for dyslexia when the child becomes five years old. Also, phonemic awareness games and other reading readiness activities should be done daily during the preschool years.

  • Delayed Speech
  • Mixing up sounds in multi-syllabic words: (aminal for animal, bisghetti for spaghetti, hangaber for hamburger)
  • Early stuttering or cluttering
  • Lots of ear infections
  • Difficulty learning to tie shoes
  • Confusion over left versus right, over versus under, before versus after, and other directionality words and concepts.
  • Late to establish a dominant hand: May switch from right hand to left hand while coloring, writing, or doing any other task. (Eventually, the child will usually establish a preferred hand, but it may not be until they are 7 or 8. Even then, they may use one hand for writing, but the other hand for sports.)
  • Despite listening to stories that contain lots of rhyming words, such as Dr. Seuss, cannot tell you words that rhyme with cat or seat by the age of 4½.
  • Difficulty learning the names of the letters or sounds in the alphabet; difficulty writing the alphabet in order.
  • Trouble correctly articulating R’s and L’s as well as M’s and N’s.

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Reading and Spelling Difficulties:

People with dyslexia do not make random reading errors. They make very specific types of errors. Their spelling reflects the same types of errors. Watch for these errors:


  • Can read a word on one page, but won’t recognize it on the next page.
  • Knows phonics, but can’t—or won’t—sound out an unknown word.
  • Slow, labored, inaccurate reading of single words in isolation (like lists of words, when there is no story line or pictures to provide clues).
  • When they misread, they often say a word that has the same first and last letters, and the same shape, such as house-horse or beach-bench.
  • They may insert or leave out letters, such as could–cold or star–stair.
  • They may say a word that has the same letters, but in a different sequence, such as who–how, lots–lost, saw–was, or girl–grill.
  • When reading aloud, reads in a slow, choppy cadence (not in smooth phrases), and often ignores punctuation.
  • Becomes visibly tired after reading for only a short time.
  • Reading comprehension may be low due to spending so much energy trying to figure out the words. Listening comprehension is usually significantly higher than reading comprehension.
  • Directionality confusion shows up when reading and when writing. (b/d, m/w, n/u)
  • Substitutes similar-looking words, even if it changes the meaning of the sentence, such as sunrise for surprise, house for horse, while for white, wanting for walking.
  • When reading a story or a sentence, substitutes a word that means the same thing but doesn’t look at all similar, such as trip for journey, fast for speed, or cry for weep.
  • Misreads, omits, or even adds small function words, such as an, a, from, the, to, were, are, of.
  • Omits or changes suffixes, saying need for needed, talks for talking, or late for lately.



  • Spelling is far worse than reading. (They sometimes flunk inventive spelling.) Have extreme difficulty with vowel sounds, and often leave them out.
  • With enormous effort, they may be able to “memorize” Monday’s spelling list long enough to pass Friday’s spelling test, but they can’t spell those very same words two hours later when writing those words in sentences.
  • Continually misspells high frequency sight words (nonphonetic but very common words) such as they, what, where, does and because—despite extensive practice.
  • Misspell even when copying something from the board or from a book.
  • Written work shows signs of spelling uncertainty—numerous erasures, cross outs, etc.

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Handwriting (dysgraphia):

Also known as a visual-motor integration problem, people with dyslexia often have poor, nearly illegible handwriting. Signs of dysgraphia include:

  • Unusual pencil grip, often with the thumb on top of the fingers (a “fist grip”).
  • Young children will often put their head down on the desk to watch the tip of the pencil as they write.
  • The pencil is gripped so tightly that the hand cramps.
  • Writing is a slow, labored, non-automatic chore.
  • Writes letters with unusual starting and ending points.
  • Has great difficulty getting letters to “sit” on the horizontal lines.
  • Copying off of the board is slow, painful, and tedious. Looks up and visually “grabs” just one or two letters at a time, repeatedly subvocalizes the names of those letters, then stares intensely at the paper when writing those one or two letters. This process is repeated over and over. frequently loses place when copying, misspells when copying, and doesn’t always match capitalization or punctuation when copying—even though the child can read what was on the board.
  • Unusual spatial organization of the page. Words may be widely spaced or tightly pushed together. Margins are often ignored.
  • Has an unusually difficult time learning cursive writing, and shows chronic confusion about similarly-formed cursive letters such as f and b, m and n, w and u. They will also have difficulty remembering how to form capital cursive letters.

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Quality of Written Work:

People with dyslexia usually have an “impoverished written product.” That means there is a huge difference between their ability to tell you something and their ability to write it down. They tend to:

  • Avoid writing whenever possible.
  • Write everything as one very long sentence.
  • Not understand that a sentence has to start with a capital letter and end with punctuation.
  • Be confused about what is a complete sentence versus a fragment.
  • Misspell many words—even though they often use only very simple one-syllable words that they are “sure” they know how to spell.
  • Take an unusually long time to write, due to dysgraphia.
  • Have nearly illegible handwriting, due to dysgraphia.
  • Use space poorly on the page; odd spacing between words, may ignore margins, sentences tightly packed into one section of the page instead of being evenly spread out.
  • Do not notice their errors when “proofreading.” They will read back what they wanted to say, not what is actually on the page.

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Directionality Issues:

Most dyslexic children and adults have significant directionality confusion.

Left–Right confusion:

  •   Even adults have to use whatever tricks their mother or teacher taught them to tell left from right. It never becomes rapid and automatic.
  • A common saying in households with dyslexic people is, “It’s on the left. The other left.”
  • This explains the b–d confusion; one points to the left and one points to the right.
  • Will often start math problems on the wrong side, or want to carry a number the wrong way.

Up–Down confusion:

  • Some are also up-down confused. They confuse b–p or d–q, n–u, and m–w.

Confusion about directionality words:

  • First–last, before–after, next–previous, over–under
  • Yesterday–tomorrow (directionality in time)

North, South, East, West confusion:

  • Adults with dyslexia get lost a lot when driving around, even in cities where they’ve lived for many years
  • Often have difficulty reading or understanding maps.

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Sequencing Steps in a Task:

Learning any task that has a series of steps which must be completed in a specific order can be difficult. That’s because you must memorize the sequence of steps, and often, there is no logic in the sequence.  These tasks are usually challenging for people with dyslexia:

  • Tying shoelaces: This task not only has a series of steps, but many steps have directionality as part of them. Many children do not master this task until they’re teenagers.
  • Printing letters: The reason they form letters with such unusual beginning and ending points is that they can’t remember the sequence of pencil strokes necessary to form that letter. So they start somewhere and then keep going until the letter looks approximately right.
  • Doing long division: To successfully complete a long division problem, you must do a series of five steps, in exactly the right sequence, over and over again.
  • Touch typing: Learning to touch type is an essential skill for people with dysgraphia. But it is usually more difficult (and requires much more effort) for a dyslexic child to learn to type since the keys on the keyboard are laid out in a random order (which requires rote memorization).

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Rote Memory of Non-meaningful Facts:

Memorizing non-meaningful facts (facts that are not personally interesting and personally relevant) is extremely difficult for most dyslexic children and adults. In school, this leads to difficulty learning:

  • Multiplication tables.
  • Days of the week or months of the year in order.
  • Science facts: Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, etc.
  • History facts: Dates, names, and places. Dyslexic students do well in history classes that emphasize why some event happened, and the consequences of that event, rather than rote memorization of dates and names.

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Telling Time on a Clock with Hands:

People with dyslexia have extreme difficulty telling time on a clock with hands:

  • When asked what time it is, they may say something ridiculous, such as, “It’s ten past quarter to.”
  • They may be able to tell whole hours and half hours (5:00, 5:30, etc.) but not smaller chunks, such as 5:12.
  • Concepts such as before and after on a clock are confusing. Therefore, time arithmetic is impossible.
  • Getting them a digital clock only helps a little bit. Now they can tell what time it is at the moment, but if you tell them to be home in 15 minutes, they can’t figure out when that would be.

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Extremely Messy Bedrooms or Desks:

  • People with dyslexia have an extremely difficult time organizing their belongings. They tend to pile things rather than to organize them and put them away. It is almost as though if they can’t see the item (if it is behind a door or in a drawer), they will forget where it is.
  • This results in extremely messy bedrooms, lockers, desks, backpacks, purses, offices, and garages.
  • Students with dyslexia and/or ADD/ADHD do not know how to organize school materials, backpacks, homework calendars, or notebooks. Those skills can and must be taught and modeled.

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Math Difficulties:

People with dyslexia are often gifted in math. Their three-dimensional visualization skills help them “see” math concepts more quickly and clearly than non-dyslexic people. Unfortunately, difficulties in directionality, rote memorization, reading, and sequencing can make the following math tasks so difficult that their math gifts are never discovered.

  • Memorizing addition and subtraction facts.
  • Memorizing multiplication tables.
  • Remembering the sequence of steps in long division.
  • Reading word problems.
  • Copying an answer from one spot to a different spot.
  • Starting a math problem on the wrong side.
  • Showing their work: They often “see” math in their head, so showing their work is almost impossible.
  • Doing math rapidly.
  • They often excel at higher levels of math, such as algebra, geometry, and calculus—if they have a teacher who works around the arithmetic  problems caused by their dyslexia.

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Co-existing Conditions:

Attention Deficit Disorder with or without Hyperactivity:

Attention Deficit Disorder is a completely separate condition than dyslexia. However, research has shown that at least 40% of people with dyslexia also have ADD/ADHD.


Light Sensitivity (Scotopic Sensitivity):

A small percentage (3% to 8%) of people with dyslexia also have light sensitivity (sometimes called scotopic sensitivity). These people have a hard time seeing small black print on white paper. The print seems to shimmer or move; some see the rivers of white more strongly than the black words. These people tend to dislike fluorescent lighting, and often “shade” the page with their hand or head when they read.

Colored plastic overlays and/or colored lenses can eliminate the harsh black print against white paper contrast, and may make letters stand still for the first time in someone’s life. However, the plastic overlays or colored lenses will not “cure” dyslexia, nor will they teach a dyslexic person how to read, as some people have believed in the past.

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(Reprinted with permission from Susan Barton)