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Condition Basics

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a learning disability that makes it hard to read, write, and spell. It occurs because the brain jumbles or mixes up letters and words. Children who have this problem often have a poor memory of spoken and written words.

Having dyslexia doesn't mean that your or your child's ability to learn is below average. In fact, many people with this problem are very bright. But not being able to read well can make many areas of learning harder.

Dyslexia is also called specific learning disability, reading disorder, and reading disability.

What causes it?

Experts don't know for sure what causes dyslexia. But it often runs in families. So it may be passed from parents to children. Some studies have found problems with how the brain links letters and words with the sounds they make.

What are the symptoms?

Signs of dyslexia in children who are too young for school include:

  • Talking later than expected.
  • Being slow to learn new words.
  • Problems rhyming.
  • Having a hard time knowing which sounds are most alike and which ones don’t belong (for example, not being able to tell that “was” doesn’t sound like mat, hat, or sat).
  • Problems following directions that have many steps.

After a child begins school, the signs of dyslexia include:

  • Trouble learning the alphabet
  • Problems reading single words, such as a word on a flash card or in text they know (like a favourite book).
  • Problems linking letters with sounds.
  • Confusing small words, such as "at" and "to."
  • Reversing the shapes of written letters such as "d" for "b." For example, the child may write "dat" instead of "bat."
If your child has one of these signs, it does not mean that they have dyslexia. But if your child has several of these signs, or if you have a family history of dyslexia, you may want to speak with your family doctor or your child’s teacher. They can arrange tests to check your child’s reading.

How is it diagnosed?

Dyslexia and other learning problems are diagnosed by a psychologist who specializes in children and how they learn (called an educational psychologist). A diagnosis is made by an assessment process that may include:

  • Gathering information about your child’s development and their medical, family, social, and educational (school) history.
  • Tests to help them understand how your child learns, solves problems, and what their strengths and problems are with learning and understanding language.
  • Gathering information from you, your child, and your child’s teachers.

After the educational psychologist looks over all of the information they gathered, they will write a report. The report includes:

  • All the assessment information.
  • A diagnosis (if there is one).
  • Treatment recommendations for your child.
  • Ways for your family and school to support your child.

How is dyslexia treated?

Treatment uses a number of teaching methods to help your child read better. These methods include:

  • Teaching how letters are linked to sounds to make words.
  • Teaching how to divide longer words into syllables.
  • Using hands-on, fun activities to teach concepts.
  • Giving extra time for reading tasks.
  • Using audio books that your child can listen to while reading. This helps them link the letters they see to the sounds they hear.

If your child is diagnosed with dyslexia, the educational psychologist will develop a plan for your child’s support and treatment. This is called an individual program plan (IPP) or individual support plan (ISP). The educational psychologist will ask you, your child's teachers, and others at the school who they work with to take part in designing the plan. Your child will get an updated plan each year based on how well they are doing and what your child's needs are.

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Signs of dyslexia in children who are too young for school include:

A preschool-age child may:

  • Talk later than most children.
  • Have more difficulty than other children pronouncing words. For example, the child may read aloud "mawn lower" instead of "lawn mower."
  • Be slow to add new vocabulary words and be unable to recall the right word.
  • Have trouble learning the alphabet, numbers, days of the week, colours, shapes, how to spell, and how to write their name.
  • Have difficulty reciting common nursery rhymes or rhyming words. For example, the child may not be able to think of words that rhyme with the word "boy," such as "joy" or "toy."
  • Be slow to develop fine motor skills. For example, your child may take longer than others of the same age to learn how to hold a pencil in the writing position, use buttons and zippers, and brush their teeth.
  • Have difficulty separating sounds in words and blending sounds to make words.

After a child starts school, the symptoms of dyslexia include:

Kindergarten through grade 4
Children in kindergarten through fourth grade may:

  • Have difficulty reading single words that are not surrounded by other words.
  • Be slow to learn the connection between letters and sounds.
  • Confuse small words such as "at" and "to," or "does" and "goes."
  • Have trouble rhyming words.
  • Make consistent reading and spelling errors, including:
    • Letter reversals such as "d" for "b."
    • Inversions such as "m" and "w" and "u" and "n."
    • Guessing words based on the first letters.
    • Substitutions such as "house" and "home." Or substitutions within a word such as “sat” and “set” or “pat” and “mat”.
    • Adding or taking away letters in words, such as “mate” to “mat” or “though”, “through”, and “thought”.

Grades 5 through 8
Children in fifth through eighth grade may:

  • Read at a lower level than expected for their grade.
  • Read at a slower rate than expected.
  • Reverse letter sequence such as "soiled" for "solid," "left" for "felt."
  • Have trouble rhyming words.
  • Be slow to recognize and learn prefixes, suffixes, root words, and other reading and spelling strategies.
  • Have trouble remembering and understanding what they read.
  • Be able to read a word right in one place and wrong in another place within the same text.
  • May mispronounce the same words, such as saying “fustrated” instead of “frustrated”.
  • Have difficulty spelling, and they may spell the same word differently on the same page.
  • Avoid reading aloud.
  • Make more mistakes when reading aloud compared to others in their grade.
  • Have trouble with word problems in math, or math related words (such as hundredth and tenth).
  • Write with difficulty or have illegible handwriting. Their pencil grip may be awkward, fist-like, or tight.
  • Avoid writing.
  • Use lower than expected levels of vocabulary in their writing.
  • Have trouble organizing writing.
  • Have slow or poor recall of facts.

High school and university
Students in high school and university may:

  • Read very slowly with many inaccuracies.
  • Continue to spell incorrectly, or frequently spell the same word differently in a single piece of writing.
  • Avoid courses or tests that require large amounts of reading and writing, and procrastinate on reading and writing tasks.
  • Have trouble taking notes in class.
  • Have trouble following instructions.
  • Have trouble preparing summaries and outlines for classes.
  • Have trouble doing assignments with more than one step or long-term projects.
  • Have trouble managing their time.
  • Have trouble studying from large amounts of written information.
  • Work intensely on reading and writing tasks.
  • Have poor memory skills and complete assigned work more slowly than others.
  • Have an inadequate vocabulary and be unable to store much information from reading.
Adults with dyslexia may:
  • Hide reading problems.
  • Spell poorly or rely on others to spell for them.
  • Use technology to help them spell, such as spell check or voice-to-text features.
  • Avoid writing or not be able to write at all.
  • Be very competent in oral language, but unable to write at the same level.
  • Rely on memory rather than on reading information.
  • Have trouble with understanding large amounts of text or text above their reading level.
  • Have trouble in social settings, such as not understanding sarcasm (when someone says something they don’t actually mean) or someone’s tone of voice, body language, or expressions of their face.
  • Have spatial thinking skills. Examples of professionals who need spatial thinking abilities include engineers, architects, designers, artists and craftspeople, mathematicians, physicists, physicians (especially orthopedic surgeons, surgeons), and dentists.
  • Often work in a job that is well below their intellectual capacities and are more likely to not have a job or full-time work.
  • Have difficulty with planning and organization.
  • Be entrepreneurs, although lowered reading skills may result in difficulty maintaining a successful business.

If your child has one of these signs, it doesn't mean that they have dyslexia. Many children reverse letters before age 7. But if your child has several signs and reading problems, or if you have a family history of dyslexia, you may want to have your child checked for the problem.

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When to Call a Doctor

If your child struggles with language, reading, and sounding out words, you may want to have your child checked for dyslexia. You can also speak with your child's pediatrician, teacher, school psychologist, or school counsellor if you believe your child's reading or other language skills are not advancing compared to other children their age.

If you have dyslexia and are concerned that your child may have some of the signs of dyslexia, you may want to talk to your doctor or to school staff. Your child is at increased risk for having dyslexia.

Treatment Overview

There are many programs to help children develop their reading and writing skills (called structured literacy intervention). They all follow several rules or methods that include:

  • Teaching how to make better connections between letters and sounds and how to sound out words with more than one syllable.
  • Not expecting children to learn these concepts and skills through their school work and assignments alone.
  • Teaching easier concepts and skills before harder ones and harder reading tasks.
  • Using hands-on, fun activities to teach concepts.

Provincial laws may require schools to set up a learning plan to meet the needs of a child with dyslexia. An example of this is an Individualized Education Program (IEP). An IEP may also be called an Individualized Program Plan (IPP). You, your child's teachers, and other school personnel will have a say in designing the plan. The plan is updated each year based on how well your child is doing and what your child's needs are.

If you seek special education assistance for your child, it's handy to keep copies of:

It’s important to remember that children do not learn at the same rate. Children with dyslexia have their own strengths and areas for growth. They will also learn skills at their own pace. Because their reading and writing skills are below the level of others in their grade, it’s important that they get ongoing help and support.
Schools can offer support and use teaching technology to help students with dyslexia succeed. This may include:

  • Giving extra time to complete tasks.
  • Help with note taking.
  • Adapted assignments.
  • Digital and online reading and writing tools and apps.
  • Online books that are available to read and listen to.

It is important to know that dyslexia is a lifelong condition. Even though early treatment during childhood can help, your child will likely always have to make an extra effort to read and write.

Helping Your Child

Children who have dyslexia may need emotional support for the many challenges they face. Here is a list of ways parents can offer encouragement.

  • Learn about dyslexia.

    Information about dyslexia can help you better understand and help your child.

  • Teach to your child's areas of strength.

    For example, if your child understands more when listening, let him or her learn new information by listening to an audiobook or watching a DVD. If you can, follow up with the same story in written form.

  • Respect and challenge your child's intelligence.

    Most children with dyslexia can be challenged by parents who encourage intellectual growth. Be honest with your child about dyslexia. Explain it in understandable and age-appropriate examples and terms. Offer unconditional love and support.

  • Talk openly about dyslexia

    Be honest with your child about what dyslexia is. Explain it in understandable and age-appropriate examples and terms while offering unconditional love and support.

  • Recognize what your child finds hard to do.

    There may be some things your child will always struggle with. Help your child understand that this doesn't mean that he or she is a failure.

  • Don't be a homework tyrant.

    Expecting perfection and arguing with your child over homework will create an unhealthy relationship and will put the focus on your child's failures.

Helping your child develop reading skills

You can be a positive force in your child's education. Following is a list of ways parents can help their young children who have dyslexia develop reading skills.

  • Read to your child.

    Find time to read to your child every day. Point to the words as you read. Draw attention to words that you run across in daily life, such as traffic signs, billboards, notices, and labels.

  • Be a good reading role model.

    Show your child how important reading is to daily life. Make books, magazines, and other reading materials available for your child to explore and enjoy independently.

  • Focus on the sounds (phonemes) within words.

    Play rhyming games, sing songs that emphasize rhyme and alliteration, play word games, sound out letters, and point out similarities in words.

  • Work on spelling.

    Point out new words, play spelling games, and encourage your child to write.

  • Help with time and planning.

    Hang up simple charts, clocks, and calendars, so your child can visualize time and plan for the future.

  • Share in the joy of reading.

    Find books that your child can read but that you will also enjoy. Sit together, take turns reading, and encourage discussion. Revisiting words that cause trouble for your child and rereading stories are powerful tools to reinforce learning.

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Adaptation Date: 8/3/2022

Adapted By: Alberta Health Services

Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services

Adapted with permission from copyrighted materials from Healthwise, Incorporated (Healthwise). This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any warranty and is not responsible or liable for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.