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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Tsapakis

Dyslexia 101: Part 2 - Characteristics of Dyslexia

Welcome to Part II of our Dyslexia 101 series. Over the next five weeks, our blog series will continue to focus on expanding your understanding of dyslexia.

If you missed last week's post, you can quickly read it here!

By the end of LD Expert's Dyslexia 101 series you will be able to:

  • Define dyslexia in a way that friends, family, and teachers can understand.

  • Understand common characteristics of dyslexia.

  • Understand how the common characteristics may impact students in the classroom and adults in the workplace.

  • Recognize common misconceptions and learn the facts that dispel them.

  • Understand what quality intervention looks like and describe why it is important that children have access to and receive early, evidence-based intervention services.

  • Advocate for your child at school or for yourself in the workplace

Today we will focus on understanding the common of characteristics of dyslexia in both children and adults.

The International Dyslexia Association's definition of dyslexia states that a person with dyslexia may struggle to accurately and quickly recognize words and struggle with reading and writing.

In a very high level sense, those are very common characteristics associated with dyslexia. But as we discussed in last week's blog, people with dyslexia fall along a continuum. People will experience a wide range of characteristics that also vary in severity. Additionally, there are talents and strengths that we typically see displayed in individuals with dyslexia.

This blog will focus on the struggles and strengths that suggest a person with dyslexia may have by looking at three groups:

These clues include both struggles and strengths as defined by Drs. Shaywitz's in their book, Overcoming Dyslexia on pages 142 - 148.

When I was completing my introductory Wilson Reading System training course, my instructor, Dr. Cheri McManus, said: "You will nearly always find that people with dyslexia have these additional beautiful gifts."

She said it very casually within the course content, but it's something that has stayed with me.

Because she's exactly right.

Below you will find the comprehensive information provided by Drs. Shaywitz that focuses on both common struggles, but, just as importantly, lists of strengths.

Preschool – First Grade



  • Trouble learning rhymes and lacks an appreciation of rhymes

  • Mispronounced words or baby talk

  • Struggles to learn and remember the name of letters and numbers

  • Failure to know the letters in his/her own name

Kindergarten – First

  • Failure to understand that words come apart: catnap can be pulled into cat and nap

  • After this, failure to understand that words can be broken down further: cat into c, aah, t

  • Reading errors that show no connection to the sounds of the letters: hug read as boat

  • Inability to read common one-syllable words or to sound out simple words like dog, hat, mop

  • Complains, runs away, or hides when it is time to read

  • History of reading problems in parents or siblings


  • Curiosity

  • A great imagination

  • The ability to figure things out

  • Eager embrace of new ideas

  • A good understanding of new concepts

  • Surprising maturity

  • Large vocabulary for age

  • Talent at building models


Second Grade - Graduation

Clues | Speaking

  • Mispronounces long, unfamiliar or complicated words

  • Leaves out parts of long words

  • Confuses the order or the parts of long words

  • Speech that is not fluent – a student may have frequent pauses or hesitation while speaking and use a lot of um's

  • Uses imprecise or vague references to things or stuff when talking instead of the proper name

  • Struggles to find the exact word – a student may say: related for elated, lotion for ocean, tornado for volcano, or humanity for humidity

  • They need time to prepare their oral response and may struggle to answer questions when quickly when questioned.

  • Difficulty remembering isolated pieces of verbal information like dates, names, phone numbers, lists, etc

  • Struggles to learn information by repeating it over and over (rote memory learning)

  • Struggles to remember facts, but does better with concepts

Clues | Reading

  • Very slow progress in acquiring reading skills

  • Lacks a strategy to read new words

  • Struggles to read unknown words that must be sounded out

  • Makes guesses when reading unknown words

  • Has an inability to read small function words like that, an, in

  • Stumbles when reading multisyllabic words

  • Does not completely sound out the full, multisyllabic word

  • Omits parts of long words

  • Avoids and/or fears reading out loud

  • When reading out loud, the reading has substitutions, omissions, and mispronunciations

  • Text read out loud is choppy and labored, lacks inflection and prosody

  • Relies on the context of a text to understand what was read

  • Has a better understanding of words in context when compared to their understanding of an isolated word

  • Disproportionately poor performance on multiple-choice tests

  • Has an inability to finish tests on time

  • Substitutes words with the same meaning when reading or when unable to pronounce a longer word: would say car for automobile

  • Disastrous spelling with words not resembling true spelling and words with strange spellings that are missed by spell-check

  • Trouble reading math word problems

  • Has never ending homework and parents often called in for reading support

  • Messy handwriting

  • Extreme difficulty with learning a foreign language

  • Struggles to read anything but memorized words

  • Lacks enjoyment with reading and avoids reading - even if it's just a sentence

  • Avoids reading for pleasure because it seems exhausting

  • Reading accuracy improves over time, but continues to lack fluency and remains laborious

  • Lowered self-esteem with pain that is not always visible to others

  • History of similar problems in family members

Clues | Additional Areas

  • Difficulty memorizing multiplication tables that then impacts math calculation and carrying out basic math concepts

  • Good understanding of math concepts, but has a tendency to solve problems in his/her head without showing how he/she arrived at the answer

  • Problems with directionality:

    • Getting lost within a building or while walking

    • Difficulty driving to a destination

  • Difficulty proofreading

  • Poor spelling that overshadows great ideas and imagination


  • Excellent thinking skills: conceptualization, reasoning, imagination, abstraction

  • Learns best through meaning instead of through rote memorization

  • Gets the big picture

  • High level of understanding when read to

  • Has the ability to read and understand at a high level words in special areas of interests that they have spent time practicing and memorizing. The example provided by Drs. Shaywitz is that a child that loves restoring cars may have the ability to read an auto mechanics magazines.

  • Develops a specialized and focused miniature vocabulary that they can read surrounding an area(s) of interest(s)

  • Surprisingly sophisticated listening vocabulary

  • Excels in areas that are not dependent on reading: math, computers, visual arts

  • Excels in areas that are more conceptual than fact-driven: philosophy, biology, social students, neuroscience, creative writing

  • Often is exceptionally empathetic


Young Adults and Adults

Clues | Speaking

  • Persistence of earlier oral language difficulties

  • Mispronounces names of people, places and trips over parts of words

  • Difficulty remembering names of people, places and confusion of names that sound alike

  • Struggles to retrieve words, "It was on the tip of my tongue."

  • Lacks glibness, especially when put on the spot

  • Experiences some anxiety when called upon to speak publicly

  • Spoken vocabulary is smaller than listening vocabulary

  • May hesitate to say words aloud that may be mispronounced

  • Difficulty learning a foreign language

Clues | Reading

  • Childhood history of reading/spelling difficulties

  • Persistent reading problems

  • Spelling remains disastrous so writes words that are easier to spell

  • Extreme fatigue from reading

  • Slow reading of most materials - books, manuals, subtitles, teleprompter

  • Penalized by multiple-choice tests, leading to bad results

  • Unusually long hours spent reading school- or work-related materials

  • Frequently sacrifices social life for studying

  • Word reading becomes more accurate over time, but continues to require great effort

  • Lacks fluency when reading

  • Embarrassment caused by oral reading with the avoidance of Bible study groups or reading at Passover seders

  • Trouble reading and pronouncing uncommon, strange, or unique words such as people's names, streets, locations, or menu items.

    • May resort to asking, "What's your special of the day?" or order as, "I'll have what he's having!"

  • Substitutes made-up words during reading for words that cannot be pronounced and then doesn't recognize the word when it is seen or heard in a lecture or meeting

  • Prefers books with figures, charts, or graphics

  • Prefers books with few words per page or a page with a lot of white space

  • Doesn't enjoy reading for pleasure

  • Poor performance on rote mechanical or clerical tasks that require minimal thinking or reasoning


  • Maintains the strengths noted above

  • High learning capacity

  • Large improvement on multiple-choice tests when given extended time

  • Noticeable excellence when focused on highly specialized areas in medicine, law, public policy, finance, literature, or basic science

  • Excels when writing if content and form is not important

  • Noticeably well-spoken when expressing ideas and feelings

  • Exceptional empathy and warmth toward others

  • Succeeds in areas not dependent on rote memory

  • Talent for high-level conceptualization and the ability to come up with original insights

  • Big picture thinking

  • Thinks outside of the box

  • Noticeably resilient with a good ability to adapt

  • Gets to the point, often almost instantly, leaping over others who are stuck thinking sequentially


We cannot overstate how much we love Drs. Shaywitz book, Overcoming Dyslexia. It is the Gold Standard when it comes to books to help you understand and navigate life with dyslexia that is based on years of research. Here's the link again to purchase!

Shaywitz, S. E., & Shaywitz, J. (2020). Overcoming Dyslexia (142 - 148). New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

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