“There seems to be a lot more of it about . . . . “

This comment was made by Her Majesty, the Queen, as she presented me with an MBE for services to children with dyslexia.

Far be it from me to contradict the monarch – but I believe that there is not really more dyslexia about – we are just much better at identifying it than we used to be.

One of the reasons we are better at identifying dyslexia in the 21st century is because education professionals no longer accept and deal with classroom behavioural issues as only divergent or disruptive but now look beyond inappropriate behaviour to find out what causes it – and very often, we find a child or young person with dyslexia.  It is important for teachers to understand that their ‘usual’ strategies (or sanctions) employed for dealing with behavioural issues may not be effective unless any underlying dyslexia is also addressed.

It is now generally accepted that one person in ten may be dyslexic to some degree and the learning of one person in four could be severely affected by their dyslexia.

Some people think that there are more males than females with dyslexia, but it is more likely that girls are not identified as dyslexic at school because they meet fewer barriers to learning because they are able to compensate better than boys due to differences in the way they process language.  It is also claimed that younger girls exhibit less attention-seeking behaviour and thus any dyslexia may not be identified as such in school – though their school reports may be full of comments about being ‘too chatty’ or presenting ‘careless spelling’ or as ‘distractible’ or ‘lacking concentration’.

Learners with dyslexia constantly meet barriers to learning across the curriculum and may become discouraged very quickly due to lack of initial success in an activity.  This may result in teachers assuming that these pupils are inattentive or lazy, when they are actually working much harder than their classmates, but producing very little.  For learners with dyslexia the experience of success may be rare, if not totally absent.  In addition to struggling with literacy issues, they may:

  • lack self-confidence and have low self esteem
  • have a poor self image, thinking of themselves as ‘stupid’ or odd
  • fear being embarrassed or humiliated in new situations
  • appear to avoid set work because they don’t know how to begin
  • be very disorganised with a poor short term memory
  • become fatigued in class, lacking stamina

For example, pupils with dyslexia may fully understand the teacher’s spoken introduction to a topic but be unable to follow the written instructions to complete required activities.

Many secondary teachers assume that any dyslexia will have been identified and assessed at primary school, and that relevant information will be passed to them as part of transition arrangements.  But there are some aspects of dyslexia that do not become apparent until students begin to experience difficulties within the secondary curriculum – perhaps having reached a stage where they are no longer able to use their strengths to compensate for dyslexic difficulties.  In some cases, this may not be until students are about to sit formal, timed examinations – and this late identification may present problems if Access arrangements are required for exams.  If a young person’s main strategy for coping with undiagnosed dyslexic issues is to put in many extra hours of homework, the school may not have clear evidence of this extra time taken to meet JCQ standards for verification of the ‘usual way of working’.

Dyslexia may not be identified until after pupils transfer to secondary school for a number of reasons:

  • differences between the supportive primary classroom and the busy secondary school timetable, cause dyslexic problems to emerge
  • the move to secondary school has eliminated many of the support strategies that ‘hidden’ dyslexic pupils developed at primary school to mask that they were having problems – such as peer support and effective TA input
  • some dyslexic difficulties may not appear until the demands of the secondary subject curriculum cause a pupil’s coping strategies to collapse
  • the time aspect of the secondary timetable often creates problems for dyslexic pupils accustomed to having all the time they need in the primary classroom
  • a mismatch between a pupil’s apparent ability and the quality (and quantity) of written work emerges in some subjects

Children/young people who present a great challenge to teachers – who find it difficult to cope with atypical classroom behaviour – are often identified as having social, emotional or behavioural problems.  But these learners may be able individuals with dyslexia whose behaviours have not been sufficiently understood or accepted as manifestations of unidentified dyslexia.

Specialist teachers cannot predict if/when pupils will ‘suddenly’ reveal dyslexic difficulties through their behaviour – but it is very important that they there is an expectation that this may happen at any stage, so all teachers should familiarise themselves with ‘dyslexic’ triggers for difficult behaviour in order to respond appropriately by offering support rather than applying sanctions.

Knowledge about the typical characteristics of dyslexia and use of a reputable checklist when pupils exhibit behavioural difficulties might help teachers/TAs to identify dyslexic issues and separate them from other classroom behaviours.

Pupils with dyslexia may:

  • underachieve academically
  • perform well orally or in practical activities but find reading/writing difficult
  • be considered clumsy and disorganised
  • appear restless, with poor concentration span
  • seem inattentive, forgetful, easily tired
  • have a low tolerance of their own lack of achievement
  • have low self esteem

 Teachers should be aware that:

  • dyslexic difficulties can range from mild to severe, according to the activity required
  • individual dyslexic profiles will show both strengths and weaknesses
  • dyslexia can occur at any level of intellectual ability
  • dyslexic pupils often have natural talents, creative abilities and vision
  • dyslexic learners often experience difficulties in education, some of them hidden

Dyslexia is often hidden, masked by a student’s high ability or by distracting behaviour, even deliberately concealed by teenagers who are desperate not to be ‘different’ from their peers.  Some pupils’ true levels of ability may be masked by dyslexia – when they perform at the expected level but are actually limited by underpinning dyslexic difficulties resulting in unidentified underachievement and a curriculum that lacks challenge and fails to stimulate them.

CPD Bytes courses on Hidden Dyslexia provide information at various levels – for parents, for teachers, for TAs and other school support staff – and for non-education professionals – to help them identify and understand barriers to learning and achievement experienced by many children, young people and adults.

Author: Moira Thomson MBE is Education Director of CPD Bytes and author of; Supporting Students with Dyslexia in Secondary Schools, published by Routledge.