What is dyslexia?

This unit concentrates on the issues surrounding dyslexia. It builds on the knowledge of learning processes for reading and writing that you have gained in previous units in this module.

In this unit, you will learn about:

  • The definitions and features of dyslexia.
  • Other difficulties that are often present with dyslexia.
  • The language difficulties associated with dyslexia.
  • The view of dyslexia as having a continuum of severity, and what that means for interventions.
  • The biology of dyslexia.
  • The three-level assessment framework.
  • Monitoring the impact of interventions and maintaining progress.

The Rose Report (2009) said dyslexic difficulties "are best thought of as existing on a continuum from mild to severe, rather than forming a discrete category". While it stated there was no sharp dividing line of having or not having dyslexia, it defined three characteristic features; select an information point for a brief description of each.


The Rose Report: characteristic features of dyslexia

Phonological awareness

Phonological awareness

This is the ability to hear and analyse the sounds within words. It is understood to be the key skill required for learning phonics and acquiring the alphabetic principle.

  • Rhyming
  • Blending sounds
  • Segmenting sounds in a word
  • Spoonerisms and word play

Verbal memory

Verbal memory

Verbal memory difficulties may give the impression that a pupil has not been paying attention, and include an inability to recall verbal instructions, failing to respond or responding slowly to questions. Issues with note taking, essay planning and self-organisation can be seriously troublesome for older pupils with greater than usual difficulties in verbal memory.

  • Hearing and repeating words
  • Remembering information that is heard or said
  • Remembering lists of words and numbers
  • Also called phonological short-term memory

Verbal processing speed

Verbal processing speed

This is the time it takes to process familiar verbal information, such as letters and digits.

  • Tested by rapid automatised naming (RAN) tasks
  • RAN tasks = naming long lists of objects, letters, digits or colours
  • Tasks are marked on speed and accuracy
  • Results can indicate weak phonological processing and memory

Co-occurring difficulties

Aspects of language

Children with language difficulties frequently also have literacy difficulties. This can include both:

  • Pupils who have a history of mild language difficulties that are often not severe enough to need speech and language therapy
  • Pupils with specific language difficulties

Early difficulties with speech sound production are only thought to affect literacy skills when they remain after a child turns six. Even then, such children still hear and understand speech well so experience no phonologically based issues with literacy.

Characteristics of dyslexia that are linked to language include:

  • Slow access to verbal labels
  • Difficulties in retaining spoken information in short-term and working memory

Having good language skills can protect pupils with phonological difficulties from the poorest outcomes in literacy development. This is because such pupils can use these skills to compensate for their phonological problems, such as using the surrounding context of a passage to decode an unknown word.

These pupils typically find reading single words out of context more difficult than reading an entire passage.

This resource looks at two other difficulties that can be experienced by dyslexic pupils. Switch between the tabs for a brief description of each.


Other difficulties

Aspects of language

The academic difficulties experienced by pupils with dyslexia can lead to them experiencing feelings of low self-esteem.

As noted in the 2009 book, Understanding difficulties in literacy development: issues and concepts, there is a clear, negative association between early and continuing literacy difficulties and self-concept/self-esteem.

However, the book also notes that it is not clear that such issues are inevitable, or if they can be overcome by particular interventions.

It can also be the case that the pupil only experiences low self-esteem in the specific area of academic work, while they may have high self-esteem in areas such as friendships, sport and art.

Classroom strategies for supporting pupils with SpLD

Three schools discuss their approaches to supporting pupils with dyslexia and SpLD. They outline how they use verbal and phonic techniques, and how they differentiate within large class groups to help these pupils decode language. Which of these approaches do you use, and which could you develop?

This audio clip relates to activity 1 in your PDF of unit 14.

Show transcript

Lyn Brimson

I’m Lyn Brimson, and I’m from Orchard Vale Community School in Barnstaple.

In order to get a child to be confident with decoding, and taking part in your lesson, first of all you need to make sure that they’ve got a safe environment in which they can do that in. So you want to make sure that every child in your class has access to, yes the curriculum, But you can only do that if you’ve got really good behaviour management support systems in your class. If the children know that they’re safe with you and then they can feel confident enough to tackle a written text because they know they’re in a safe place, and they know about the reward systems in class. They know that they can take risks in the classroom and it doesn’t matter if they get it wrong. And I think once you’ve got that embedded in the classroom, and you’ve got pupil voice happening in your class, you can then work on, right, here’s the written text, how are we going to have fun with this text, how are we going to make this text come alive for you? So then it’s a case of building in the skills of looking at phonics, looking at words maybe, looking at the pictures in a book. So they’re then talking about the pictures and images first, then beginning to look at the words that then match with those pictures, and looking at the sounds. You might take a word in isolation out. You might then put it back in, look at different words, you play games with those words. You then look at saying, the initial sounds, looking at the sounds together, and then blending them together in order to create the whole word. And then once the children have been happy with that, you then look at the whole sentence.

But it’s not looking at the sentence in terms of - it’s a block of separate words which are then put together. You’ve then got to build on the flow of the sentence. So then throughout, through the daily phonic sessions which happened down in Year One and Two, leading on to the phonic sessions in Year Three/Four, you can then build in a bit more fluency. They look at the sounds of their words, they look at diagraphs, they look at how maybe sound buttons are used in words, and then they push those sounds together in order to begin to read whole words properly.

In order to help them further with spelling, what we will do is we will highlight a key word, maybe from a text, that the children need to recap on. So I will ask the children first of all to have a go on their white boards, what do they think that word might look like? So the children will have a go, they’ll discuss it together. We’ll then pick out a certain sound maybe. So if it was "beach", they’ll know the initial sound is the ‘buh’. Then they’ll look at the next sound which is the ‘ee’ which is the digraph, and they will discuss with me that sometimes the digraph "E" is made with double "E", and sometimes it’s made with "E", "A". So then as a class, we’ll then discuss which words have the sound "ee" with "E," "E", in and which with "E", "A". So they’ll have two lists, two columns on the white board of possibilities.

And then we’ll look at the final sound, the "ch" and how do you make the "ch" sound with "C" and "H". And then we’ll highlight that and I’ll refer back to that in the following lesson as well, so if we suddenly notice another pattern, we’ll then add that in. And so they’re building up a bank of words that they’re familiar with, with that sound.

Kirsty Randles - Teacher

My name is Kirsty Randles, and I’m a teacher at Hawes Side Primary School in Blackpool.

Pupils with SpLD, you have to be really, really specific with them, and in whole class teaching, very often it’s geared towards a middling group of children, and not to the lower group of children, so a lot of the time they don’t access, or they can’t access it which is why it needs differentiating. And also within that, sometimes even when it is differentiated, it’s easier to work with them as a group where they’re all at the same and similar levels which helps them as a group, it helps them with the team work, and it also helps them to improve and understand what they’re doing within the classroom.

As a teacher, to help children to decode, I would sound the word out, and then I would ask them to sound the word out, and ask them to give me individual letters. If they were unable to do that, I would then sit with them and sound it out slower for them, for them to be able to pick up the letters and the sounds within the word, and then, hopefully, with a bit of emphasis, they would be able to pick up the sounds and understand that once they’ve split it up, those are the sounds that are then put back together to spell the word.

Some children are very good orally, absolutely fantastic, so we always try and incorporate some kind of discussion, some kind of involvement with them so they can get their ideas out, and ideas down, and then it’s a slow process of getting it down on paper. Sometimes we don’t use paper, sometimes we do recordings, so we’ll Flip Cam them, rather than them writing it down. We have overlays for them to help them read, and we have lots of visual aids for them, like the "b" and the "d", because often they get things mixed up and confused about how they’re writing.

Working memory has been incorporated into my classroom practice. It’s always a continual: revising, revision, revisit, and then once I know that they’ve got it, we then do our work, and then constantly, so it’s constant every single day, it’s a revision of what they’ve already learnt, making sure they they’re aware of what they’ve learned, and they’ve memorised it and remembered it.

Robinne Lowrey – Key Stage One Team Leader

I’m Robinne Lowrey. I’m Key Stage One Team Leader in Orchard Vale Community School in Barnstaple in Devon.

To help the children to decode what they’re trying to do, we do run separate phonic sessions outside of our literacy time. So the children are identified as working within a particular phase group of letters and sounds, and the children I was working with specifically using the role play are all working within phase two. So that means they are really just learning their sounds and being able to use the correct letter grapheme for the sound that they want portray in their writing.

Within a phonic session, we’re teaching them how to represent each sound with a letter grapheme or with digraphs, and they are then taught to break down, segment, their word and blend it together. So in writing, it’s really about breaking down the word into its sound components and using the correct letter grapheme to represent the sounds that they want to say.

I’m really passionate about teaching writing, and I enjoy writing myself, and I really do find that if you’re enjoying it that the children enjoy it. I think appropriate text type is really important for the children, finding a story, or a non-fiction text that you know that they’re going to enjoy, but will open up many doors for the children. We use so many strategies just to encourage the children to want to write. I’ve used film to encourage children to write, using a film as a story-starter can get lots of creativity out of the children.

For children who are less able in the actual process of writing, by using microphones, digital microphones, to help them record their story, and because, if they can orally retell the story, that’s success in its own right.

We also enjoy a lot of success if you enable the children to use a laptop, to get them to produce a Powerpoint, they can feel really proud of what they’ve achieved in a different way that isn’t just about using the pencil and paper.

If a child has produced a piece of writing, the way it as a teacher can have a huge impact on how the child approaches another piece of writing, and by being positive and saying, "that’s a fantastic piece of writing" to a child, is so meaningful, that the next piece of writing is when you might experience the progress.

Poor responses to intervention

This mind map shows the five main indicators, as identified by Nelson, Benner, and Gonzalez (2003) in volume 18 of Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, in predicting a poor response to intervention.

The paper, Improving the Early Literacy Skills of Students at Risk for Internalizing or Externalizing Behaviors With Limited Reading Skills (PDF, 217KB) , provides some interesting insight into this matter.


Factors predicting a poor response

  • Low rapid naming scores
  • Behaviour/attention problems
  • Phonological processing variables
  • Weak alphabetic principle skills
  • Low scores on measures of memory

Planning for SpLD

Year 5/6 team leader Lyn Brimson and key stage 1 team leader Robinne Lowrey, of Orchid Vale Community School in Barnstable, Devon, provide insight into how their team go about planning provision for SpLD pupils.

This audio clip relates to activity 3 in your PDF of unit 14.

Show transcript

Lyn Brimson – Year 5/6 Team Leader

I’m Lyn Brimson and I’m from Orchard Vale Community School in Barnstaple.

When we’re planning, we plan as a team regularly together so we look at our literacy planning together, we look at our maths planning together, and then when we plan the other subjects, we sit down and we plan different activities and different experiences for the children. What that means in literacy and in numeracy is that when we go through the planning, we look at different groups of children, and the sorts of activities that we can provide for those children in order that they can all take part within the lesson. Now within that we also look at the kind of resources we’re going to use. For example, our maths groups, we’ve separated them into a low ability, middle ability and a high ability. And that’s to make sure that all the children in one whole cohort can have the special provision of care which I believe we’re really good at providing here. However, it also means that you can target your lessons for that particular group of children. So some children might be more advanced - they might need computers, or they might need different kinds of equipment, whereas children in the lower ability might need more hands on equipment - like the cubes, they might need more number squares, multiplication grids, they need to see the numbers and do the maths practically.

Some children obviously won’t be able to access necessarily the written word, so we look at providing maybe an art stimulus to start the writing process with. From that the child will then maybe have some labels to add to the image of the art, and then from then they’ll then be encouraged to write a sentence. But throughout all the art planning and the labelling, they will have had lots of input with talking, lots of speaking and listening, maybe some drama and role play as well. And as teams we organise those moments for those children whether that be with the class teacher, whether it be with a guided group in the classroom, or whether that will be with the TA outside the classroom. And then from that, I believe that builds up their positive attitude towards writing; it makes writing a safe thing for the children with Special Educational Needs who need that extra support.

As we progress further through maybe a topic area, in order to encourage the children to write further, they have differentiated frameworks. So rather than having a sheet of lines, they have a sheet of boxes which they need to fill in which makes writing seem not quite so scary. And then gradually you then reduce the number of boxes and then maybe, at the end of your framework, you’ve then got some dotted lines and they write on a dotted line. So really it’s about setting them up in steps and stages, so you build the confidence first, so all children know that they can access the learning in the classroom. And then you give them the crutches and the support and the demonstrations, they talk about learning. Learning is made very open here, and we talk the language of learning. We also talk the language of making a mistake; it’s really good if you make a mistake, and it doesn’t matter who you are, the fact that you’ve made a mistake means that that can be discussed in class, and then children can then evaluate their own learning, and move all their learning forward.

As a school we also use a system called Assessing Pupil Progress, which is known as APP. And teams of teachers here will get together and they will look at the progress being made through each and every child in their class. Now that will first of all mean that the teacher will sit down, will assess the children through guided reading activities, will look at the strengths of the child’s writing over the course of 6 weeks, and then sit down with the APP criteria and look at how this relates to the child across Geography and Science and History, and highlight off the relevant targets that have been met. And then as a team, we then gather together all of that evidence and we look at the needs of the cohort, so say if some children are struggling to make the necessary progress that they need, we will then sit down together and see what intervention programmes group which in place, what new resources do we need in class, how can we as class teachers help them through maybe our Guided Focus Groups, do we need to change around on Guided Focus Groups in order to help these children further. So it really is almost like a team around the child. Everybody is aware, in the whole of our teams, who needs that extra support.

Robinne Lowrey – Key Stage One Team Leader

I’m Robinne Lowrey, I’m Key Stage One Team Leader in Orchard Vale Community School in Barnstaple in Devon.

For less able children in reading, so children working towards age related expectations, we do assess the children half termly for phonics as well as using APP for reading, the children are assessed for letter recognition and sound recognition, and also for tricky word recognition as well. So there’s a lot of high frequency word recognition happening alongside their phonic skills.

We also use APP half termly across a range of texts for the children, so during guided reading sessions, the children experience a range of different stories and non-fiction work to be able to assess them using the APP assessment criteria.

Once we’ve assessed a child’s writing skills, dependent on what the next step would be for that child, we would put a strategy in place to support and scaffold their learning. With a child with dyslexic tendencies, it might that if letter formation is weak, we might help them to improve their pencil grip by using a pencil grip. We’ve also been talking about using the thinner pencils because their hands are smaller, so their letter formation might improve in that way.

Again dependent on what the need is, a word bank might be useful, and using coloured paper to help the child also might be useful. A writing frame, and again as you move up the scale towards more able children, depending on their need, and simply prompts with what makes writing good, a success criteria for them to extend themselves would help them progress further in their writing.

In my classroom, we are actively look and assess where the children are at in their learning, and if a child is demonstrating dyslexic tendencies at that age, we would be using strategies such as correct letter formation, pencil grip, ensuring that child has access to the correct colour resources necessary to support dyslexia friendly work, and we also use powerpoints that enable the child to approach the learning more appropriately to support their needs, and we make it visual, and hopefully we make it enjoyable.

Monitoring the impact of interventions

This diagram represents the process of monitoring and adapting interventions, then assessing the impact, as described in your PDF. Where difficulties are relatively mild, progress within a short period of time – as little as 10 weeks – should be expected. Select each stage on the diagram to read more.


By monitoring the success of interventions, you can make adaptations where necessary to better meet the pupil’s needs. The monitoring of interventions is an ongoing process that should continue for those children who have responded well to interventions in the past. This helps to ensure their progress is maintained.



By modifying the content or direction of work, or changing the learning environment to make it more comfortable for the pupil, you may be able to enhance the effectiveness of the intervention. Use the evidence you’ve gathered during monitoring of what does and doesn’t work to help shape any such adaptations.



Assessment is at its best when considered as part of the planning around a pupil’s needs, rather than a one-off diagnosis. Standardised tests of reading and spelling can be important for evaluating progress, in addition to evidence of progression through a structured programme.


This graphic shows the elements for supporting learners with dyslexia/SpLD in the classroom, as described in your PDF.


Supporting learners in the classroom

  • Writing frames
  • Dyslexia-friendly texts
  • Careful formatting on worksheets
  • Differentiated work
Pupil at desk
  • Extra reading and spelling support
  • Targeted programmes
  • Writing on a whiteboard