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5 ways for tutors to spot reading and spelling challenges in young learners: part 1

Updated: Oct 14, 2022

As a parent, teacher or private tutor, how can you spot literacy difficulties in those children who have started school and are having their first reading and writing lessons? What exactly are they doing that alerts teachers, and and parents and tutors that learning to read and write isn’t going as smoothly as it could be?

1. slow progress

All children in class get exactly the same teaching but some children will forget what they have learned, or will need frequent refreshers to help them remember it. It’s when teachers get that feeling of “it’s just not sticking”. Specifically, that starts right at the beginning when letters and their matching sounds are taught in phonics lessons. It’s when a child sees a letter but can’t remember the sound it makes, even though it has been taught and revised and is obvious for most of the others in the class. Private tutoring is really helpful to consolidate learning and get that extra practice.

2. difficulty reading short words

Once the letter-sound combinations have been taught (phonics), children move onto the simplest three letter words that sound like the letters in them: words like cat, dog, rat, etc. These are CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words. The very first step is sounding them out: c-a-t says cat. Children on the dyslexia spectrum may have trouble with this. They may only remember the last sound, so they will say a word that begins with t if they are trying to read cat. Or the sounds look meaningless to them and they don’t know where to begin. What skilled readers will do is sound out the word once or twice and then read it automatically. Reading automatically means they don’t need to sound it out ever again. If a child has to sound out a word for longer than most other learners in order to read it, that could be an indication of difficulties on the dyslexia spectrum. It means that reading isn’t becoming automatic - and exactly what skilled readers are is automatic readers.

3. flipping letters when writing

Flipping letters is normal for almost all learners at the beginning of learning to write. Even though it’s popularly the most well-known sign of dyslexia, flipping letters doesn’t necessarily mean a young learner is dyslexic. The concern is when it goes on for a long time, when other learners have grown out of letter-flipping, especially if there has been letter-formation training and handwriting training. Handwriting training - especially training joined-up writing - is a really helpful skill for dyslexics. That’s because joined-up writing develops muscle memory which is automatic, so writing words correctly becomes more automatic, like riding a bike.

4. difficulty writing short words

This is something you see in two different ways. The first is not knowing where to begin - when learners really are unable to link letters and sounds. So if there is a picture of a dog and the young learner’s attempt to write dog comes out as something like mp, or some other random group of letters, this is a sign that dyslexia could be the cause.

Secondly, very erratic and inconsistent mistakes is a strong clue that a learner is likely to be dyslexic. It’s when learners write the same simple word very many different ways, so there is no predictability to how they write, that is a strong clue that it could be dyslexia. On the other hand, mistakes that you can read and recognise - like kat (cat) and kaic (cake) are the very best kinds of mistakes to make and show the learner has a sophisticated understanding of spelling patterns, but just needs a bit more practice. There’s nothing dyslexic about those kinds of mistakes.

5. rules don’t work

Dyslexic learners don’t do well with rule-based spelling instruction because rules are often too abstract for dyslexic brains. Rules like the “magic e” rule are very often not helpful to dyslexic learners. This is where specialized teaching comes into its own for dyslexic learners because it moves them away from rule-based literacy learning to a more tailored approach that creates understanding through making meaning, not just following rules. What you see with dyslexics learners, even the youngest ones, is that they either over-apply a spelling rule to where it has no place, or they make up their own rules and follow those.

Come back next week for part two of this blog on how to spot literacy difficulties in young learners.

Questions or comments? Leave them below and I will get back to you!

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