Understanding Dyslexia

What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling. 

 ●● Dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities.

Difficulties of a dyslexic nature can affect children across the range of intellectual abilities. This represents an important shift away from reliance on a discrepancy between measured IQ and measured attainment in reading and spelling once used to identify dyslexia.

 ●● It is best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, and there are no clear cut-off points.

The definition proposes that dyslexic difficulties are best thought of as existing on a continuum from mild to severe, rather than forming a discrete category. Until recently, a child was deemed to either have or not have dyslexia. It is now recognised that there is no sharp dividing line between having a learning difficulty such as dyslexia and not having it.

●● A good indication of the severity and persistence of dyslexia difficulties can be gained by examining how the individual responds or has responded to well-founded intervention.

The severity of a particular learning difficulty can be gauged by the response of the learner to good, well-implemented intervention. For example, those with mild literacy or dyslexic difficulties will make good progress in word-level reading in the context of appropriate classroom teaching or after some additional support. A small proportion will need more intensive support and long-term assistance. It is important that those children who have responded well to interventions continue to be monitored, to ensure that progress is maintained and to notice whether there are subsequent difficulties involving aspects such as reading fluency and spelling.

Characteristics of Dyslexia? 

Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed. Difficulties with these are reliable markers of a potential diagnosis of dyslexia.

Phonological awareness is defined as the ability to identify and manipulate the sounds in words, and is recognised as a key foundation skill for early word-level reading and spelling development. For example, phonological awareness would be demonstrated by understanding that if the ‘p’ in ‘pat’ is changed to an ‘s’, the word becomes ‘sat’.

Verbal (phonological short-term) memory is the ability to retain an ordered sequence of verbal material for a short period of time. It is used, for example, to recall a list of words or numbers or to remember a list of instructions.

Verbal processing speed is the time taken to process familiar verbal information, such as letters and digits. Difficulties in these areas can be thought of as reflecting disorders in the systems that are involved in processing information about word sounds (phonology).

Skills affected by Dyslexia?

In practice people with dyslexia often find it hard to:

  • retain spoken information within their short-term memory systems
  • access spoken information from long-term memory
  • reflect on the units of sound within words.

These difficulties impact on the learning of vital aspects of reading and writing, such as encoding, decoding, segmenting and blending. In addition the definition identifies the following difficulties which, although not part of the dyslexic pattern, can co-occur with it:

  • Aspects of language – receptive and expressive language (Speaking and Listening)
  • Mental calculation – dyscalculia
  • Concentration and attention – distractibility
  • Motor coordination – dyspraxia
  • Personal organisation.


Pat Minton and Daryl Greaves July 2009

What conditions are related to dyslexia? 

Dyscalculia (Specific Arthrimetic Disorder)

The inability to understand or perform maths-related concepts and activities. For example, word problems and mental arithmetic are difficult for those with this disability.

For more information about dyscalculia please click here


Is a fine motor disability that makes penmanship difficult as they have the inability to properly form letters. For example, a person with dysgraphia may have unreadable writing.

Dyspraxia (Developmental Coordination Disorder)

Consists of oral, verbal and motor dyspraxia.

  • Oral dyspraxia is difficulty making non-speech sounds on command in the absence of muscle weakness. For example, whistling or sucking.
  • Verbal dyspraxia is a disorder of the production of speech sounds in words in the absence of muscle weakness. 
  • Motor dyspraxia is a problem with gross or fine motor skills that affect coordination and make the person appear clumsy. 

Dyslexia commonly co-occurs with or can be mistaken for other learning difficulties/ attention issues, because they have similar sypmtoms. Understanding the differences between dyslexia and similar conditions can help you get the best help for your child.


Please note: The psychologists at Speld will do cognitive and educational assessments that will assist in diagnosing learning difficulties. However, there are some exceptions whereby there may be a referral onto other professionals after the assessment to assist in the diagnostic process. If you are unsure about whether or not to get an assessment at Speld, you could call our infoline (1800 051 533) for more advice and support. 

 Keep reading? 

 Read our fact sheet "what Dyslexia is not and what to do about what it is" 


 Get personalised resources for you or your child 


Learn tips on early indicators of dyslexia