A Parent’s Intuition: Identifying and Addressing Signs of Dyslexia in Pre-Readers

Imagine for a moment that you’re a parent that has overcome the reading challenges associated with dyslexia. Now, you have children of your own and you know that one or more of them could have dyslexia, like you do, because research has shown that it’s inheritable.

As a parent, you have a choice to make. You can wait for the moment in your child’s schooling where his or her school is able to officially diagnose dyslexia. Or, you can watch for early signs on your own and address them, even in the absence of an official diagnosis.

I recommend the latter, and here’s why. Homeschooling with Dyslexia reports that “studies where at-risk kids received early intervention show that 95% of them did not fall behind their peers and that they experienced fewer emotional struggles. Studies also show that 74 percent of children who display reading problems in the third grade will remain poor readers into adulthood unless they receive special instruction on reading and phonological awareness.”

In short, early intervention works for kids with dyslexia. The longer you wait for an official diagnosis, the less time you have to intervene early.

Identifying Signs of Dyslexia in Pre-Readers

Before deciding to intervene early, you’ll want to look for signs of dyslexia in your pre-reading child. Here are some simple things to look for, which come directly from a parent with dyslexia.

Evaluate if your child is:

  • Slow to identify each letter of the alphabet by name – For non-dyslexic kids, letter recognition comes fairly easily. They can learn to recognize all the capital and lowercase letters from a to z just by watching alphabet videos or reading alphabet books with an adult. For a child with dyslexia, far more repetition may be needed before he or she can look at a random letter and tell you its name. There may also be moments of false mastery, where you think that a child with dyslexia has learned a specific letter, but the following day the knowledge is gone and must be re-learned.
  • Slow at pairing letter names with letter sounds – A core skill in reading is the ability to pair letter names with letter sounds and phonograms with phonogram sounds. Like letter recognition, learning this skill may take a lot of repetition for kids with dyslexia.
  • Bad at rhyming – A pre-reader with dyslexia may find it hard to identify rhyming words. If you say “tree” can they think of a rhyming word like “bee”, “see”, or “he”? If you say “straw” can they think of “draw”, “paw”, or “jaw”? If not, that’s a warning sign of dyslexia.
  • Challenged by puzzles – Children with dyslexia tend to be very good with envisioning and manipulating things in three dimensions. However, flat, two-dimensional puzzles may be hard for them. If you think a pre-reading child may have dyslexia, watch them work with puzzles around other kids their age. If they make a lot less matches or get frustrated easily where the majority of other kids don’t, that could be a warning sign.
  • Behind in handwriting and drawing – Children with dyslexia also tend to show less skill with pencil and paper than non-dyslexic children their age. In drawing and coloring, they may still be scribbling when others their age are drawing circles, lines, spirals, and other distinct shapes. In handwriting, they may resist handwriting instruction and find it extremely challenging.
  • Bad at sequencing – Children with dyslexia may be bad at putting things in order. This could mean having trouble naming the letters from a to z or having trouble describing events in stories in the order they happened.
  • Has trouble with word recall – Another warning sign of dyslexia is if a child forgets vocabulary words that had once been learned or is very slow to recall words. A child with this challenge may say, “you know that thing?” when talking about vocabulary that has been forgotten. He or she may also need more time to recall the item and talk about it. Children with this challenge need patient listeners for teachers who will give them time to recall the words that make up the thoughts they are trying to communicate.

If a pre-reader in your life exhibits two or more of the signs above, that would be a good reason to intervene early.

Addressing Signs of Dyslexia in Pre-Readers

There are a lot of easy, fun interventions that you can implement now, even in the absence of an official dyslexia diagnosis. In addition, the following activities are useful for any child, not just children with dyslexia. You really can’t go wrong by incorporating these activities into your day-to-day interactions with a pre-reading child.

  • Help your pre-reader pair letter names with letter sounds and phonograms with phonogram sounds.

    Be sure to work from a comprehensive list of letters and phonograms, such as those on the Story Hour Academy Phonics Checklist, so that you don’t miss any key phonograms. For each letter and phonogram, find a song to sing about it. The book and audio CD “The ABCs of the Sounds We Read” is a good place to start. This Jolly Phonics playlist also has some useful songs. With letter sounds, you can build toward being able to sing all the letter names and sounds in one song, like in this letter sounds song. There’s also some great songs in the Preschool Prep Meet the Phonics DVD series and LeapFrog: Letter Factory DVD. In addition, formal lessons designed specifically for children with dyslexia from companies like Nessy and products from SECRET STORIES® could also be useful in this endeavor.

  • Work on forming letters of the alphabet using multi-sensory activities.

    Instead of letting your pre-reader get frustrated with handwriting, work on letter formation in other ways. For example, make letters out of playdough or clay, with visual support from letter mats that you either download, print, and laminate or buy. And, have your pre-reader make letters out of wiry material like Wiki Sticks or pipe cleaners. Wiki Sticks offers alphabet fun cards, which go well with this activity. For an additional way to work with capital letters, you can use these wood pieces from Handwriting Without Tears and their corresponding laminated cards. Or, you can use this free “Build-a-Letter” printable as an alternative to the Handwriting Without Tears wood pieces.

  • Develop rhyming skills by listening to rhymes, differentiating rhyming words from non-rhyming words, and by producing rhymes together in fun and engaging ways.

    In the listening phase, make use of the plentiful amount of rhyming videos and books. Mother Goose Club on YouTube has some great videos with Mother Goose rhymes such as this one and this one. Archive.org has many Mother Goose books and nursery rhyme books available to download for free. You can read these from a computer or iPad. When you do, be sure to explicitly point out the rhyming words.

    In the differentiating phase, do as Marianne at Homeschooling With Dyslexia suggests, which is to “Say three words where one word does not rhyme. For example: mat, sat, car. Mat and sat end the same way: at. But car doesn’t end the same, so it doesn’t belong.”

    In the producing phase, also do as Marianne suggests, which is to “Simply say a word such as: sit. Ask your child to tell you a word that rhymes. You can also make up short sentences such as, ‘I have a cat who is very ____.’ Ask your child to finish the sentence with a word that rhymes with cat.”

  • Build other phonemic awareness skills such as isolating sounds, categorizing sounds, blending sounds, segmenting sounds, counting syllables, blending syllables, and segmenting syllables using simple and fun games.

    Most of the games I’ve listed here can all be done out loud, without support from printed materials or manipulatives, which makes them easy to do anytime, anywhere. However, there are many more activities in these categories that you can find, which do use printed materials and manipulatives. It’s a huge category of activities. The list here is just a few of the things that you can do.

    Isolating sounds – This Reading Mama offers a zero prep sound isolation activity, along with a bunch of others here. She writes, “You can integrate phonemic isolation into everyday life as you live literacy together. For example, while getting your child dressed, you can say things like, ‘/s/ /s/ /s/ sock. That starts with the /s/ sound, just like your name /s/ /s/ /s/ Sam!'”

    Categorizing sounds – You can focus on categorizing beginning sounds, ending sounds, and middle sounds with a little spoken word game. For beginning sounds, say three words where two start with the same sound, and one does not. Then, ask which word doesn’t start with the target beginning sound. For ending sounds, say three words where two end with the same sound, and one does not. Then, ask which word doesn’t end with the target ending sound. For middle sounds, say three words where two contain the same middle sound, and one does not. Then, ask which word doesn’t contain the target middle sound.

    Blending sounds – Play a game where you ask your pre-reader to bring you something, or do an activity by slowly sounding out the name of the object or activity. For example, you can say, “Bring me the /b/ – /a/ – /l/” to get your pre-reader to bring you a ball. Or, you can say, “Pet the /c/ – /a/ – /t/” to get your pre-reader to pet the cat.

    You can also blend sounds when reading aloud to your pre-reader. Take any word in the text, sound it out slowly, and then ask your pre-reader to “say it together fast.”

    Segmenting sounds – Since segmenting is the opposite of blending, you can turn any blending game into a segmenting game. In the game where you ask your pre-reader to bring you something or do an activity, just turn the game over to the pre-reader by saying, “Okay, it’s your turn to ask me to get something. Be sure to say the item name really slowly by pronouncing each sound in the word.”

    When reading and playing the “say it together fast” game, you can add on a segmenting activity by asking your pre-reader to “say it slow now by pronouncing each individual sound in the word.”

    You can also add a tactile element to blending activities with a rubber band. The phoneme segmentation guide from hasdk12.org shares a game called the Rubber Band Stretch where you stretch out a large rubber band as you stretch out a word. For example, you would say “/mmmmm/ /aaaaaaaa/ /nnnnnnnnnn/” as you stretch out the rubber band. Then, you’d bring it back to original length and say the word fast: /man/. After modelling the activity, have your pre-reader say the sounds in different words while stretching out a rubber band themselves.

    Counting syllables – You can teach you pre-reader to count syllables by saying the following:

    “Words are made of smaller parts called syllables. Some words only have one syllable, but others have two, or three, or more syllables. When you say a word, every time your jaw drops, you’re saying a syllable. If your jaw drops once when you say a word, it’s a one syllable word. If your jaw drops twice when you say a word, it’s a two syllable word. If your jaw drops three times when you say a word, it’s a three syllable word.

    Put your hand under your chin and say the word “dog”. How many times did you jaw drop? Just once, right? That’s because “dog” is a one syllable word.

    Put your hand under your chin and say the word “dragon.” How many times did your jaw drop? Twice, right? That’s because “dragon” is a two syllable word.

    Put your hand under your chin and say the word “basketball.” How many times did you jaw drop? Three times, right? That’s because “basketball” is a three syllable word.

    Let’s count the number of syllables in spoken words. I want you to walk around the house and say the names of different objects that you see. As you do this, hold your hand under your chin and count how many times your jaw drops. After you say each word, announce the number of syllables in the word by announcing the number of times you jaw dropped.”

    Blending and segmenting syllables – Use the same games that you used to blend and segment words using individual sounds, except replace the individual sounds with individual syllables. For blending syllables, you can play the item retrieval and command game by breaking your requests up by syllable or you can break words in a read aloud up into syllables and ask your pre-reader to “say it together fast.” For segmenting syllables, you can do the opposite. Have your pre-reader issue the request in the item retrieval and command game. When reading and playing the “say it together fast” game, add on a syllable segmenting activity by asking your pre-reader to “say it slow now by pronouncing each individual syllable in the word.”

Across all of these activities, be prepared to cover the same ground again and again until the knowledge sticks for good. Keep the activities fun and pause them if your pre-reader starts to get frustrated. The key to success will be repeating the activities necessary to ensure that your pre-reader can:

  1. Recognize all written letters in the alphabet by name.
  2. Associate all written letters in the alphabet with the sound or sounds they make.
  3. Associate all written phonograms in the English language with the sound or sounds they make.
  4. Form all letters in the alphabet using a multi-sensory method such as out of playdough or with pipe cleaners.

Waiting for Your Early Interventions to Pay Off

As the parent of a pre-reader with signs of dyslexia, you may not feel successful in your efforts even after the four items listed above are accomplished. It will have taken a lot of time and patience to help your child achieve those goals. Yet, they still may not be reading or writing words and sentences. Don’t be discouraged. If your pre-reader has the four skills listed above, he or she will have the foundational knowledge that will make the next phase of their journey to fluent reading and writing come easier.

The next step toward reading will be to read together daily by sounding out each word in each book you share according to the letter-sound, phonogram-sound, and syllable patterns and rules of the English language.

For writing, the next step will be to find a method of writing that your child does not reject. This could be cursive writing, typing, or dictation to an app such as Voice Dream Writer. You’ll want to get your child excited about sharing their ideas and thoughts through time and space with people they love. You’ll find the most success at this stage by encouraging the use of writing as a communication tool and by avoiding writing assignments that are busy work and that will never be read by other people.

In terms of timing, expect the journey to reading and writing fluency to take a long time. If a child shows early signs of dyslexia, it could take special interventions during the Pre-K, K, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade school years to get the child to a point where he or she can operate on par with non-dyslexic students by 5th grade. Once you’ve got a strong reader and writer in 5th grade, you’ll know for sure that your early interventions have paid off.