What is Dyslexia?

What is Dyslexia?

This is an overview article on what is Dyslexia? Dyslexia is defined in the Dictionary as ‘an impairment or loss of the ability to read’. It comes from the Greek ‘dys’ difficult and , ‘lexis’ meaning speech (or lexicos meaning words).

What is Dyslexia?

Most simply put dyslexia is a significant, persistent difficulty with reading, spelling and writing skills in a child, adolescent or adult of normal intelligence. Dyslexia also appears to run in families and is more common in boys than girls.

A child or adolescent who has normal vision and hearing and appears to be a bright, inquisitive learner, but is not learning these skills at the expected rate for their age and intelligence, will most likely be suffering from some form of dyslexia.

Dyslexia however is a general name for a cluster of symptoms, more like a syndrome than a singular difficulty, which is why dyslexic people can be very different from each other. This is also why there is so much confusion amongst parents and professionals when faced with a child who is bright but not learning to read, write and/or spell as expected.

Children and adults with dyslexia can show many different “symptoms”. There is such a wide range of symptoms to be seen in this group that in some countries, including New Zealand, the term dyslexia was discarded for many years in favour of “specific learning disability” or “specific learning difficulty”.

The term was first used over 100 years ago and has gone through many stages of redefinition. In Great Britain, Canada and the USA dyslexia has long been recognized as a very real learning disability, and policies, strategies and funding have been put in place to support dyslexic students in these countries.

In New Zealand the Ministry of Education only acknowledged that dyslexia existed as a legitimate learning difficulty or disability in 2007. The Ministry is currently involved in a consultation process to decide on policies and resources to support children with this diagnosis.

The current working definition which has been developed by the Ministry of Education in New Zealand can be found in full on their website. It begins:

“Dyslexia is a spectrum of specific learning difficulties and is evident when accurate and/or fluent reading and writing skills, particularly phonological awareness, develop incompletely or with great difficulty. This may include difficulties with one or more of reading, writing, spelling, numeracy, or musical notation.”

Students with dyslexia do not make expected progress in these areas in spite of good teaching and the type of extra support that would be helpful for most other children.

1 in 10 people have dyslexia

Source: Dyslexiascotland.org.uk

Is My Child Dyslexic?

If your child has normal hearing and vision, does not have a cognitive delay (low IQ) and shows some of the following symptoms, he or she is likely to be dyslexic.

Note: Some of these signs are very commonly found in young children in the first two years of school (5-6 years) before the visual perceptual, spatial and auditory systems are sufficiently matured for easeful learning of these complex cognitive tasks.

However if these symptoms persist beyond the age of 7, then there is cause for concern.

Signs & Symptoms of Dyslexia

The following lists of symptoms are organised in a manner which indicates not only what dyslexia may look like, but also the underlying cause of these symptoms. We must remember that although dyslexia is not an illness, it does have underlying causes. These are obstructions or immaturities in the pathways in the brain needed for easeful learning.


• a persistent tendency to write letters and numbers backwards beyond the age of 7 years

• a persistent tendency to begin writing on the right hand side, at the bottom or in the middle of the page

• a persistent tendency to run all of the words together when writing, leaving no spaces between words

• untidy printing, starting letters from the bottom up or difficulty forming the correct shape of the letters

• very tight and/or unusual pencil grip


• poor visual memory for the shapes of letters, can do it correctly one day but has forgotten by the next

• confusion between letters such as b, d, p, q , g and when reading and writing

• poor visual memory for the shapes of words (slow to spell and recognize frequently used words)

• poor visual skills, which may include difficulty tracking along a line of words. (the eyes may stray to the line above or below, or skip over words)

• a tendency to reverse the order of letters in words both when writing and or reading. For example “dog” for “god”, or “was” for “saw”.

• a tendency to omit, skip over syllables or reverse the order of syllables in a word when reading or speaking. For example “shinesun” for “sunshine”,

• difficulty seeing words as individual units. The dyslexic reader may not see the spaces between words on the page and may run the end of one word into the beginning of another, seeing completely different letter combinations as one word

• difficulty learning spelling patterns such as –ing, -ough, as well as common basic words such as little, come, some, which, where, when, there, their etc.


• difficulty associating and remembering the shape of a letter with its sound

• difficulty discriminating the differences between similar sounds such as short vowels ( a, e, i, o, u,) or sounds such as sh and s, h and f, p and b , b and d, or n and m

• difficulty pronouncing longer words beyond the initial consonant or syllable

• a persistent tendency to mishear the order of sounds or syllables in a word.

For example, jipamas for pyjamas , hopsital for hospital or even a combination difficulties resulting in biscetti for spaghetti

• indistinct speech with many sounds omitted, mispronounced or mumbled over.

Many of these difficulties manifest in our children when they first begin to speak and can bring us much delight and enjoyment. However as the child’s auditory (listening) system matures with age these should drop away and by the age of 7 years such errors in speech should be rare.

Why Does My Child Have These Symptoms?

There may be many reasons why your child has symptoms of dyslexia. If you have a family history of dyslexia there may be an inherited predisposition towards developing dyslexia.

Other reasons can be found in an interruption to or obstruction of early childhood movement patterns.


Literacy skills are only able to develop in a child after a long period of spontaneous early childhood activities. These begin with rolling, creeping and crawling on the floor in the first year, and are followed by walking, and running in the second. During this time the child should have been exploring the space around him, learning about spatial concepts such as up, down, left and right, developing gross motor skills such as hopping, jumping and skipping, running in circles and straight lines, moving forwards, backwards and diagonally, and later learning to control and master the movements of his fingers to draw and paint.

All of these activities enable the child to internalise his spatial awareness through whole body movement and play. They mature the neurological pathways in the brain which will become the child’s “learning equipment” for the rest of his life.

This internalised spatial awareness is later available to use in order to learn to read, spell and write on paper. After all, letters and numbers are made up of circles and straight lines, diagonals, some with sticks on the right or left of the circles, some of which go up and some of which go down, some on the right and some on the left. We write forewords from left to right and in mathematics we compute ones, tens, and hundreds from right to left.

Insufficient movement and play in three dimensional space through play will result in a difficulty transferring this learning to two dimensional space on paper.

For example, a child will only be able to learn to write an O if he has spent years running around in circles on the lawn or in the living room, riding his tricycle around and around (as they do), and later drawing lots of circles in his pictures in the so called scribble drawings of the 2-3 year old. (Remember the first person your child drew? Most likely it was a “potato person”, a roughly circular form with a face, and maybe arms and legs sticking out from the body.)


Visual skills must also be mature enough to perform the tasks of reading. For example, he must be able to quickly alter his focus when copying from the board onto his paper. His eyes must also be able to track along a line of print without straying up or down. These visual skills also begin develop during the early childhood stage of getting upright (especially creeping and crawling) and later during gross motor play, painting and drawing.


The auditory system must also be maturing in an age appropriate way. Hearing should be normal, and the child should be able to tell the difference between a wide number of sounds.

In general, if a child has poor speech it is most likely that his hearing is poor or that his auditory systems is not functioning well.

Children begin to listen from before birth, first to their mother’s voice in utero, and then after birth to all of the sounds and speech of the world around them. If there is any interruption to the reception of sound waves during the crucial years of early speech development, the child may not develop the ability to process all of the sounds of speech accurately. Obstructions such as ear infection and sinus infections block the pathway of the sound waves to the brain. If this situation occurs frequently, or over a long period of time the brain may not be “awakened” to a number of sound frequencies. If this happens the child cannot articulate them well and also will not be able to spell words containing these sounds because he cannot fully hear them.

I Don’t Want My Child To Be Labelled

Many parents who bring their children to me say that they do not want their child to be labelled, especially in the state school system. They believe that such labelling will lead to a pigeon holing, lack of opportunity and a negative judgement of their child. They are afraid that their child will be put at a disadvantage as they move through the school system.

It is true that previous generations of children have suffered from the effects of inappropriate labelling. In fact, many of the parents of the children we see in our clinics have suffered their entire life from being labelled “dumb,” because they could not learn to read, write and spell like the other children in their class.

They may also have been overtaken in their reading levels by younger siblings. As a result the label of “dumb” may have been used in the family, or at the very least self applied, further damaging their self esteem. This still occurs in families today.

Many of these same individuals however have gone on to become highly successful adults, establishing flourishing careers and businesses, often self employed, in areas of their interest and expertise. However this has always been at great effort and cost to the individual who has had a very difficult road to follow while overcoming the negative effects of this particular label in addition to the challenges of being dyslexic and undiagnosed.

However in the modern educational environment in New Zealand things are starting to change. If a child has a learning difficulty or disability, a label can be most helpful both for the parent and the child. If your learning challenged child can be identified as having a recognized learning disability or difficulty, this “ label” can in fact lead to the “opening of the door” for your child. It may mean that his specific learning needs will be recognized and attended to within the school system . He may be awarded additional educational resources, funding and eventually the most precious experience of all: the joy of learning.

In the event that sufficient help for your child is not offered within the school system, you as a parent will at least have a tool to use when advocating for your child. You will also be better equipped with knowledge about your child’s difficulty which will enable you to seek out the most appropriate assistance for your child, either within the school system or privately outside it.

What Do I Do If I Suspect My Child Has Dyslexia?


First of all make an appointment to talk to your child’s teacher. If your child is very young, his teacher may reassure you that there is nothing to worry about and that he will probably grow out of it.

If your child is under the age of 6 years and the difficulties are mild they are most likely to be right. If the difficulties you are concerned about are sporadic and gradually fading, then a regular check-in with your child’s teacher at Parent Interview time may be sufficient.

We must remember that young children do not have the physiological maturity to cope with literacy skills until the age of 6 or 7 years, and that boys are generally 6 months behind girls in this maturation process.

That is one of the reasons children in Australia and most European countries do not start primary school until the age of 6 or 7 years.

Children are also long sighted until the age of 6- 6 ½. (Ask any optometrist). The task of focusing their eyes on a page of print is developmentally too early and is a strain on their visual system.

Most children of 5 to 6 years of age also have difficulty sitting still and concentrating for any longer that 15-20 minutes, and then only if engrossed in an activity, story or picture book.( I do not mean while watching TV. This will be the topic of another article coming soon.)

However if these difficulties persist beyond the age of 7 years and your child is struggling to keep pace with the other children in his class it is time for the school to take a closed look. Ask your child’s teacher to refer him for further assessment.



Good hearing is an essential underpinning for learning. Do not rely on the school hearing screening test as it is minimal and many children with poor hearing can slip through undetected.

Make an appointment with a local, child-friendly audiologist and have your child’s hearing tested. Some offer free hearing tests. Otherwise the fee for this is usually approximately $60.

If you cannot afford an audiologist, go to your GP and request a referral to the hospital audiologist. This usually takes about 2 months but is free of charge. You can also request an auditory processing assessment at this time. Be sure to ask for this in advance of your appointment because it is different from a hearing test and takes extra time.


If your child has an auditory processing difficulty or disorder you will need to find a trained sound therapist. These can be located via the internet using the following sites:

www.developmentallearning.co.nz — North Island — includes a clinic offering a full range of sound therapy options for both air and bone conduction.

www.integratedlistening.com — For professionals trained in Integrated Listening Systems sound therapy

www.thelisteningprogram.com — For professionals trained in The Listening Program sound therapy.

For more information on sound therapy or auditory retraining therapy auditory processing disorders and treatment see the following sites and follow the links.




NOTE: Sound therapy is relatively new and is not used by audiologists and speech and language therapist as a rule. In fact your GP, your audiologist and your speech and language therapist may not have heard of it. However it has been in existence for approximately 40 years and was developed by a French ear nose and throat specialist, Dr Alfred Tomatis. This is the only useful therapy I have found for children with auditory processing difficulties and disorders.

Get your child’s vision checked by a fully trained and qualified optometrist.

Do not rely on the school vision check which is minimal and only tests basic vision (i.e. whether or not your child can see the board from the back of the room). The cost is approximately $60.

If possible go to a behavioural optometrist and ask for a complete vision assessment. Behavioural optometrists have specialised in children’s vision and can also assess the many different visual skills your child needs to have in order to be able to read easily, such as tracking, accommodation etc. You may need to have two visits, one to test basic vision to see if your child needs glasses for short sightedness or long sightedness, and then one to test for visual skills which will be an extra charge.

The behavioural optometrist may offer vision therapy to those children who will benefit from this, or they may refer you to a developmental movement therapist if they see any underlying neuro-developmental immaturities which need to be attended to first.

You can locate a developmental optometrist near you through the following site: www.acbo.org.au

Ask your school to refer your child for an assessment by a Resource Teacher of Learning and Behaviour. This may be useful to get your child into the system. They may then offer “RTLB Lit” assistance for a block of time, This is one-to-one reading tutoring from an RTLB who has additional training in teaching reading. However this will be for a limited time only ( perhaps one term) because of lack of resources and funding. It will also only deal with your child’s symptoms of dyslexia by giving one-to-one instruction in reading.  It will not address any of the underlying causes.

However this is the referral and funding pathway for your child to access whatever assistance is offered by the Ministry of Education now, or in the future.

If your child does not improve quickly as a result of this tutoring and/or his gains are not maintained, he will most likely need movement therapy, sound therapy and also perhaps vision therapy to treat the underlying causes of his difficulty.

Note: Your child most likely will have been picked up in the 6 year old net, and given Reading Recovery at school. This may have helped short term but if your child is dyslexic it will not be sufficient and any progress made is likely to lapse because the underlying causes of the difficulty are not addressed.


At the present time, one of the best places to go for an assessment to see if your child has dyslexia is the not-for-profit organisation SPELD NZ which operates nationwide (0800 773 536 or www.speld.org.nz). SPELD NZ will guide you through the process of getting an assessment and let you know the fee charged.

SPELD NZ assessors will do a battery of tests (oral, written and visual) to see the exact form of the learning disability. In addition they will give a cognitive skills (IQ) assessment . This gives important information about your child’s overall strengths and weaknesses in his learning. In the typical dyslexic, the spread of cognitive or intellectual scores over the different tasks will be wide, often indicating above average intelligence in some skills and low ability in others.

This information is then passed on to a SPELD NZ trained teacher with guidelines and suggestions for the focus of an individualised learning programme for your child. SPELD NZ tutors are fully trained and experienced classroom teachers who have also taken additional training in working with children with dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities. They are highly skilled in tutoring children with dyslexia and the one-to-one attention in a quiet room is also very helpful for the child who struggles to learn in a noisy classroom environment.

The good news is that recent research indicates learning outcomes for children with dyslexia can be vastly improved with specialised, early intervention by SPELD NZ. The research showed thinking ability, cognitive fluency and processing speed could be significantly boosted after 60 lessons.

In some cases, SPELD NZ can provide subsidies to help children whose families can’t afford the full costs of diagnostic assessments and tuition.


If your child has many of the symptoms described above it is most likely that he will show little improvement in his literacy skills despite intervention unless the underlying immaturities are dealt with first.

Imagine trying to build a house without putting in a firm foundation. Or imagine an electrician wiring up your lovely new house but forgetting to connect some to the wiring to the switches. Turning on the lights is going to be very difficult and the house itself is unlikely to stand for long before cracks begin to show in the walls and the roof begins to leak. To simply put on a “new roof”, or install a “new switch” without attending to the foundations or the connections would be futile.

Trying to remediate a child who simply does not have the equipment (wiring) and foundation (mature neurological systems, good spatial awareness, listening and vision) for their “house of learning” is very difficult. Requiring the child to do more and more of the tasks that he simply cannot do can lead to further loss of self esteem and compensatory behaviour problems.

In this case you would be better to look for a developmental movement therapist to treat these underlying immaturities first. The answer for these deeper causes can be found in repeating the sequence of early childhood movement patterns which should have laid down the foundation and pathways in the first place. For what ever reason this has not occurred in your child. However a developmental movement therapist can give your child a second chance to build the foundation and equipment needed to learn to read.

Then later when all is in place and the child’s learning equipment is up and running , all that will be needed is a little tutoring to fill in the gaps.

Where Do I Find a Developmental Movement Therapist?

If your child is under the age of 6 years you can have an assessment done by a Pediatric Occupational Therapist at your local child development unit. You can request a referral from your school or kindergarten, or you can self refer.
The occupational therapist will assess the neuro-developmental and physical skill level of your child, and may give you a program of activities to help to be done at home. If the child has a more significant neuro-developmental delay, an exercise and activity programme may be designed to be carried out at school each day as part of your child’s Individual Educational Programme or IEP, possibly with the assistance of a teacher aid.

The OT may also refer you to a neuro-developmental therapist for therapy and/or a paediatrician at the hospital if further medical investigation is indicated. This service is free.

Why Hasn’t My Child Been Picked Up By The System Before This?

If your child had a normal birth and has passed through all of the early childhood milestones without noticeable delay then it is unlikely that you will have been referred to any of these services. However it has been my experience for over 7 years in practice that every child with dyslexia has some level of mild developmental delay.

There are now a number of privately trained therapists in NZ who can offer a full developmental movement programme for your child. They are trained to assess your child’s current neuro-developmental status, and will closely observe your child’s gross and fine motor movements usually in a playful fashion through games and activities.  If a neuro-developmental delay is discovered they can give your child a second chance to establish the neurological pathways by revisiting those early childhood movement patterns in a developmentally safe progression. In this way your child’s “learning equipment” can established.

These are professionals (teachers, occupational therapists, physiotherapists etc) who have undertaken a further 3 years training with the Institute for Learning Difficulties in Extra Lesson™ and have graduated as Extra Lesson™ Practitioners.

For more information or for a Registered Extra Lesson Practitioner near you contact:


www.developlearning.co.nz — North Island

In addition, the Integrated Learning Therapy centre in Wainuiomata offers similar programmes for younger children using the HANDLE© method of neuro developmental therapy. See www.ilt.co.za or www.handle.org for more information.

Finally the best thing you can do as a parent is to become fully informed so that you can advocate for your child and seek out the best possible assistance. Here’s a few more websites that can help:

www.4dschools.org.nz — raising awareness 4 DYSLEXIA in NZ schools

www.dyslexiafoundation.org.nz — Dyslexia Foundation’s main website

www.speld.org.nz — website of SPELD NZ, the Specific Learning Disabilities Federation, which has 29 member associations nationwide.

www.minedu.govt.nz — follow the links to dyslexia.


For more information on learning impairments in children, see our Learning difficulties section.

Rosemary Murphy

Rosemary Murphy is a trained teacher with a particular passion for helping children overcome learning difficulties. She is a graduate of the Extra Lesson™ post graduate training programme and is a Registered Extra Lesson Practitioner. She is also an Integrated Listening System Professional, a certified provider for The Listening Program®. Rosemary runs the Developmental Learning Centre

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