The International Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia as: 

“Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterised by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading.”

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM 5) definition of dyslexia is:

“Dyslexia is a term that refers to difficulty in acquiring and processing language that is typically manifested by the lack or proficiency in reading, spelling and writing. People with dyslexia have difficulty connecting letters they see on a page with the sounds they make. As a result, reading becomes slow and effortful and is not a fluent process for them.”

The DSM5 is the manual most assessors use to guide them in confirming a diagnosis of dyslexia.

Problems in reading begin even before learning to read. For example, children may have trouble breaking down spoken words into syllables and recognising words that rhyme. Kindergarten-age (Year 1 in New Zealand) children may not be able to recognise and write letters as well as their peers. People with dyslexia may have difficulty with accuracy and spelling as well. It’s a common misconception that all children with dyslexia write letters backwards or those who write letters backwards all have dyslexia.

People with dyslexia, including adolescents and adults, often try to avoid activities involving reading when they can (reading for pleasure, reading instructions). They often gravitate to other mediums such as pictures, video, or audio.

Quick Facts 

  • Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability. 
  • The international data suggests 1 in 5 people have dyslexia (New Zealand doesn’t keep a record).
  • Dyslexia refers to a mix of symptoms, which results in people having difficulties with specific language skills, particularly reading. 
  • Students with dyslexia usually experience difficulties with other language skills such as spelling, writing, and pronouncing words. 
  • Dyslexia affects individuals throughout their lives; however, its impact can change at different stages in a person’s life. 
  • Often dyslexia runs in families and it can present differently depending on age and severity. 
  • It is referred to as a learning disability because without early identification, targeted instruction and where required reasonable adjustments, a student with dyslexia will experience immense trouble accessing the classroom curriculum. 


What are the signs of dyslexia? 

The list below is a guide to consider when you are looking for signs. Not all children with dyslexia present the same and it’s worth remembering many of the challenges will develop at different stages of their lives. Dyslexia is also on a continuum of mild to severe. It is important to understand that some kids can mask dyslexia for years and for others it may be more noticeable when they start school. 

Years 0-2 

  • Trouble with rhyming
  • Difficulty learning and sequencing letter names and sounds
  • Struggles to remember phonics patterns
  • Inconsistent memory for words 
  • Can’t remember lists/sequences (days, months, seasons)
  • Can’t recite the alphabet song in order
  • Mispronounces words (’cause’ instead of ‘because’, ‘tainer’ instead of ‘container’)
  • Easily distracted by background noise 
  • Poor retrieval of names for colours, objects
  • Does not spell phonetically (doesn’t use sound knowledge to spell) 
  • Frustration, avoidance in learning related to reading 
  • Often confusing letters and sounds that look similar (like ‘b’, ‘d’, ‘p’, and ‘q’) or sound similar (like ‘f’ and ‘v’, ‘b’ and ‘p’, or ‘d’ and ‘t’) 
  • Substituting words when reading aloud, like saying ‘house’ when the story says ‘home’
  • Looks like they are guessing words on the page. This might look like they can remember the word on page 1 of the predictable text, but can’t remember it on page 3
  • Has trouble remembering the words sent home to memorise for spelling or you may notice they have been on the same words for a very long time
  • Your child isn’t progressing at the same pace as other children in the class – staying on a yellow predictable PM book for months and still struggling to read that level. PM books are predictable texts and based on memorising. According to the old standards children finish PM books by Year 3. 

Years 3-5

  • Reverses letter sequences (‘soiled’/’solid’, ‘left’/’felt’)
  • Problems with phonic decoding (struggles to use sounds to read words)
  • Substituting words when reading aloud, like saying ‘house’ when the story says ‘home’
  • Over-reliance on context and guessing to decode words – looking for pictures or clues to work out the word
  • Poor spelling
  • Difficulty learning new vocabulary
  • Symbol confusion (e.g. arithmetic symbols: =, +, -, x)
  • Has trouble remembering the words sent home to memorise for spelling or you may notice they have been on the same words for a very long time. 

Years 6-8

  • Poor spelling, symbolic errors
  • Poor punctuation, capitalisation
  • Difficulty learning cursive writing
  • Over-reliance on context to read; poor decoding
  • Dislike and avoidance of writing and reading
  • Slow reading
  • Can’t decode (read) new vocabulary
  • Poor spelling
  • Difficulty organising written compositions 
  • Word confusions.

High School 

  • Written language skills less developed than reading comprehension
  • Poor spelling and ‘mechanics’ of writing
  • Difficulty learning a second (or third) language 
  • Slow, minimal, or disorganised writing.

Signs of Dyslexia at Different Ages

RED FLAGS at any age

  • Poor phonological awareness. Phonological awareness is the foundation to learn to read (decoding) and spell (encoding)
  • High anxiety (sore tummies, aches and pains, headaches to full blown migraines) 
  • Poor working memory 
  • Some may have poor Rapid Automatised Naming (RAN). RAN is the ability to quickly name aloud a series of familiar items
  • May have some oral language challenges in expressive (speaking) and receptive (understanding) language
  • Mixing up the sequence when retelling a story
  • Avoids reading at all costs
  • Will often call an item ‘a thing’ or ‘stuff’ instead of its name or when searching for words they substitute by saying ‘gate’ instead of ‘fence’ 
  • Having poor spelling, like spelling the same word correctly and incorrectly in the same exercise
  • Having trouble remembering how words are spelled or applying spelling rules in writing
  • Having trouble remembering too many instructions. “Please get your hat, coat and shoes.” and they come back with a hat
  • Another sign is they are behind their peers in reading and they aren’t accessing the same curriculum as their peers. 

What dyslexia is not 

  • It is not a visual problem – colour lenses or overlays will not support a dyslexic child. Please the read the report on Irlen Syndrome here 
  • It is not the child being lazy
  • It is not a behaviour issue although certain behaviours can be the result of not addressing a dyslexic child’s needs (teach them to read) 
  • Dyslexia is unrelated to intelligence
  • Dyslexia is not reading words backwards
  • Dyslexia is not caused by not reading to your child enough 
  • Dyslexia is not anyone’s fault. 

Dyslexia is a language based learning disability.

How is the dyslexic brain different

How is the dyslexic brain different? Hear from dyslexia expert Guinevere Eden on what parts of the brain are used for reading. And see how the brain changes when people with dyslexia learn to read fluently.  


What causes dyslexia?

The exact cause of dyslexia are still not completely clear, but anatomical and brain imagery studies show differences in the way the brain of a person with dyslexia develops and functions. Moreover, most people with dyslexia have been found to have difficulty with identifying the separate speech sounds within a word and/or learning how letters represent those sounds, a key factor in their reading difficulties.

Specific disabilities that can co-occur with dyslexia

Dyscalculia – a mathematical disability in which a person has unusual difficulty solving arithmetic problems and grasping math concepts.

Dysgraphiais a term used to describe difficulties with putting one’s thoughts on to paper. Problems with writing can include difficulties with spelling, grammar, punctuation, and handwriting.

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorders (ADHD) can impact learning but they are not learning disabilities. An individual can have more than one learning or behavioural disability. In various studies as many as 50% of those diagnosed with a learning or reading disability have also been diagnosed with ADHD. Although disabilities may co-occur, one is not the cause of the other.

Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) means that a child or young person has severe, persistent difficulties understanding or using spoken language. DLD was previously known as Specific Language Impairment. The studies state that 50% of dyslexics also have DLD. To learn more read What is Developmental Language Disorder?

Can dyslexics learn to read?  YES!!!!! 

Where possible early identification is key but we know anyone with dyslexia can learn to read regardless of age with the right intervention. It’s never too late to learn. 

Dyslexics need to be taught using an evidence-based approach. The National Reading Panel identified the five essential reading concepts that need to be at the core of any approach or programme to be effective – phonemic awareness, alphabetic principle, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. The deb and the International Dyslexia Association recommend the best approach to teaching dyslexic children is Structured Literacy

For more information please read What is Structured Literacy?‘ and What we do recommend and What we don’t recommend’.

How common is dyslexia?

Unfortunately in New Zealand the Ministry of Education doesn’t hold any records of children who are diagnosed or children who meet the criteria but haven’t been officially assessed. Until the assessment process to diagnose a learning disability in New Zealand is funded these figures will never show the reality of the problem. 

The Australian Dyslexia Association (ADA) states that 10-20% of the population have mild to moderate dyslexia and 2-5% have severe dyslexia.

“Individuals with dyslexia can go to do amazing things with the right understanding, teaching and support.” ADA 

Note: This information was created by Sharon Scurr, the founder of the Dyslexia Evidence Based Group (the deb) and the content has been approved by Jodi Clements, the President of the Australian Dyslexia Association (ADA).

This document was created by Sharon Scurr, founder of the deb, December 2021.