Dyslexia – a learning difficulty affecting accurate and fluent word reading and spelling – is based in language.

Its roots lie in phonology, the sounds in speech which are the fundamental components of language and which children need to perceive and blend together to make words when they read, and break up in words when they spell. Mapping these sounds to letters is at the core of learning to read and spell. Enhancing a child’s phonological awareness of how sounds make up and break up words, and how letters relate to sounds, improves their ability to decode words when reading and encode them when spelling.

Learning to read is not just about decoding a word. Successful reading requires both decoding and language comprehension. We read to understand, to get meaning from the strings of letters, and to do that we need language skills. Understanding of vocabulary and grammar plays a key role in comprehending both oral language and what we read. Once words are decoded we use our oral language skills to understand what the writer is communicating.

Even when a child can decode words well, persistent difficulties with understanding language, causes problems comprehending what they have read. Weak oral language skills are one of the main contributors to reading comprehension difficulties and improving language skills and vocabulary knowledge is crucial in developing reading for meaning. Training children in the relationship between letters and sounds improves decoding skills, but we must not focus only on phonics and neglect language development.

So, both phonological awareness and language knowledge contribute to reading and children who have difficulties in both these areas are at greater risk of developing reading problems. However, not all children with speech and language difficulties have dyslexia. Dyslexia is one of a group of specific learning difficulties and a child whose writing and reading skills are in line with their spoken language skills may have broader difficulties with learning rather than dyslexia. And not all children with dyslexia have problems with spoken language – dyslexia is primarily a difficulty with written language and many children with dyslexia have good verbal skills. It is often the difference between a child’s ability to verbally express interesting and complex ideas and their difficulties with reading or spelling which is the first sign that they may be dyslexic. For these children their good knowledge of language can be a compensatory factor and can help them to have good comprehension of text even when they find it difficult to read fluently. Listening to audio books and accessing text through text to speech software is a way of developing their love of ‘reading’ even when they find the mechanics hard.

Dyslexia and difficulties in speech and language share very similar cognitive processing characteristics. Phonological awareness, verbal memory and auditory processing

speed all underpin communication and difficulties in these areas are features of dyslexia.

A child with weak phonological awareness may not be able to hear individual sounds and manipulate them to create new words, and they will find sounding out words to read or spell them challenging. Rhyming games, breaking words into syllables or blending syllables, breaking words into individuals sounds and asking children to manipulate sounds in words are all great ways of building phonological awareness.

A child with verbal memory difficulties will struggle to transfer the meaning and sounds of new words from their short-term memory into their long-term memory. Following instructions, remembering information and working on it in their heads will present challenges in the classroom. When spelling a child needs to pull individual sounds in words apart and hold them in memory when writing them down. This is demanding of verbal memory and for children with deficits in this area, spelling will be difficult.

Being able to process complex language or a series of instructions at speed is crucial in the learning environment. Children may need extra time to process information and store it in long term memory before that information is lost, or to process instructions, formulate answers to questions, or both. They will have difficulties reading unfamiliar words, particularly at speed and this will

impact on reading comprehension – being able to read fluently without pauses and gaps improves our comprehension of what we read.

As with children with communication difficulties, every child with dyslexia is unique and individuals vary in the severity of the difficulties they face. For any child, it is important to understand their individual needs and the strategies they are using successfully to support their own learning. Despite sharing many of the same characteristics, no child is the same even if they do meet the criteria for a diagnosis of dyslexia and/or a speech and language difficulty – knowing the child well is key to putting in place relevant and effective support.

How can we make the classroom more communication friendly?

Top Tips

Support pupils in processing verbal information by…

  • removing noise distractions,
  • making sure the classroom is completely quiet when giving instructions
  • building in quiet working time
  • Use pupils’ names to focus their attention before you give instructions
  • Give instructions one at a time and in the right order to help with verbal memory difficulties.
  • Monitor your own language and avoid complex vocabulary and figurative language.
  • Moderating the pace of your speech will help pupils think about what they are hearing and keep pace with the information being given.
  • If a pupil does not appear to understand, repeat what you have said in the same way rather than rephrasing it which merely gives the pupil another set of language to understand. If this doesn’t work then try simplifying it and check pupils’ understanding at regular intervals.
  • Allow pupils more time to makes sense of what they have heard and to formulate an answer – even if the wait feels uncomfortably long!
  • Above all, make things visual – introduce new vocabulary with visual support, and show what you want them to achieve through visual representations of tasks. Show pupils as much as you tell them.
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