Dyslexia: Finding the elephant in the classroom.


In this blog, I aim to help Primary classroom teachers identify the elephants…I mean dyslexic children in their midst. I feel that teachers often have a good instinct but perhaps lack confidence, or are limited by school policy, when it comes to identification of dyslexia.

I am driven by the desire to help to identify and support dyslexic learners because my own son is dyslexic. Dyslexic learners often have low self esteem and can become disenfranchised due to negative experiences in school.

I challenge you to be curious…

I’m told Dyslexia is a ‘predictable’ need but many educators still resist identifying and supporting this, fairly common, learning difference. Why?

Is it fear of cost implications, at a time when budgets are tight?

Perhaps it’s the abstract nature of dyslexia, or the fact that, unlike some other learning differences, dyslexia reflects directly on teaching. Is it fear of labelling a child?

It is suggested that there are, at least, three elephants in every classroom! The analogy of an elephant seems particularly pertinent; I’ve often seen the scientific study of dyslexia likened to blind  men ‘looking’ at an elephant. They each experience a different aspect and are convinced they have the full story. The truth is; it’s different for every individual (due to genetic and environmental factors) but there are many common characteristics.

We can ignore dyslexia but it will not go away; what is the cost, both to the mental health and future opportunities for these children? Could educators be doing more to identify and support these learners?

The year 1 phonics screener might give information about these children and the year 1 target of ‘knowledge of letter names’ might give a further clue. Dyslexic children typically struggle to acquire the ‘Alphabetic Principle’ i.e. that letters have names AND sounds. Letters continue to be abstract to them until they ‘discover’ them through multi-sensory learning (feeling the letters, saying the sound, writing the shape).

Observe and listen to your children! Who might be dyslexic?

This isn’t exhaustive but might just get you thinking! Remember, the only expert is the child – get to know them and work with parents to provide mutual support.

**Take a moment to jot down what you think are indicators of dyslexia, under the following headings: Speaking and listening, Writing, Reading, Maths and Sensory differences.

Now read on!

Here are some clues:


speaking and listening

Be on the Look out for:

Bee on the lookout

  • I might… get confused between groups of letter sounds which originate in the same area (articulation) : /f/th/v/, k/g, /b/d/p/. I might also have difficulty saying consonant blends e.g. /st/ (links to writing).

*nb a letter within 2 lines e.g. /a/ suggests a sound.

Why? I may have low sensory feedback from these speech sounds (I can’t feel them or ‘hear’ them), this transfers to spelling later. This might be linked to some challenges with coordination too.

  • I might…have trouble remembering letter names and get certain pairs mixed up e.g. c/s, g/j, f/v, u/y.

Why? This might be because these letter names are articulated in the same areas e.g. ‘c’ and ‘s’ are said through the teeth.

  • I might… put my hand up and forget what I want to say, or when put on the spot, not be able to remember/answer. I might call out in class without waiting to be chosen.

Why? I can’t hold the information in my working memory and when under stress, forget what I want to say. I’m desperate to take part and share my awesome ideas which are often complex.

  • I might… have trouble sequencing multi-syllabic words e.g. hippopotamus and following several verbal instructions given at once.

Why? I might have working memory (where auditory information is held) and auditory (processing of sounds) processing difficulties, this leads to sequencing difficulties.

  • I might… have difficulty retaining and understanding abstract language e.g. what a ‘verb’ is.

Why? I often try to support language with my imagination and may visualise meaning, using my ‘mind’s eye’, I don’t have a picture for ‘verb’.



Be on the Look out for:

Bee on the lookout

  • I may not… be able to hold a pencil well and may not remember the shape of the letters I want to write, I may reverse them long after other children stop.

Why? I might have difficulties with co-ordination and fine motor skills. The shape of letters may not have become automatic for me. I may not really understand what letters are i.e. a picture of a sound.

  • I may… miss abstract words out of my sentence, often High Frequency Words (words commonly used in the English Language).

Why? Abstract words cannot be visualised, many are similar, (I don’t have a picture for them to help me) and they drop out of working memory when I’m writing, due to memory overload.

  • I may… have difficulties with layout and punctuation: finger spaces, margins; also commas and full stops.

Why? I might have a difficulty with visual perception (how things appear on the page) and orientation. I might get memory overload, I might not really understand how to use punctuation. I’m concentrating so hard due to cognitive burden that I forget.


  • I may… spell the same word several different ways ON THE SAME PAGE! Have persistent difficulties with High Frequency Words, make letter omissions in consonant blends (two consonants seamlessly mixed together e.g. /mp/), transposition of letters (mix them up), mix up similar sounds e.g. /b/ and /p/ and make unusual phonetic attempts at spelling.

Why? I can’t tell when a word ‘looks’ wrong and it’s like encountering the word for the first time. I typically struggle to map sounds (phonemes) to their corresponding letter shape (graphemes). My difficulties with speech and language start to transfer to writing. Letters and syllables may be transposed (wrong order) due to working memory difficulties (working memory is where we hold information temporarily).

Sounds in words are indistinct to me and a word can be like a chewing-gum blob of sound in my mouth!



This is probably the area most commonly associated with dyslexia. To really understand and spot dyslexia though, one has to look across a child’s cognitive profile and Primary teachers are perfectly positioned to do this.

Be on the look out for:

Bee on the lookout

  • I might… misread letters, especially b/d.

Why? I can’t differentiate between them, my mind might rotate them/play with them ( they don’t necessarily MOVE). I can’t recognise them automatically. I might have a difficulty processing symbolic information (see also maths).

  • I might have difficulties blending sounds; particularly initial consonant blends e.g. /st/ and end blends e.g. /mp/.

Why? I might… struggle to hold the sounds in memory and sequence them, it may be a coordination issue. Simple CVC words may provide challenge.

  • I tend to have difficulties recognising High Frequency Words. I might read ‘was’ correctly and then incorrectly ON THE SAME PAGE! For reasons discussed.
  • I can… have difficulties with  eye tracking (co-ordinating eye movement), I might read across a word and begin reading with the sounds out of sequence or not read to the end of the word correctly.

Why? Decoding/reading is primarily an act of coordination and the eyes jump in saccades (hop) across the page and across words. Dyslexic children seem to lack coordination in this area, this improves with practice but reading is effortful and so they are often reluctant.



Be on the Look Out for:

Bee on the lookout

  • I can’t… remember what the symbols mean for the main operations.

Why? Because I can’t remember symbolic information without supporting aids e.g. visual or semantic clues (meaning).

  • I can’t… lay information out on the page e.g. writing out a simple sum.

Why? I might have visual and perceptual difficulties.

  • I get… numbers mixed up and might write them back to front, I might not remember the names of numbers.

Why? Numbers are symbols and are abstract which makes it hard for me to remember.

  • I might… get numbers mixed up e.g. twelve and twenty because they begin in the same way: /tw/, I might struggle to remember the counting sequence after ten because the pattern becomes irregular.

Why? I might have difficulties sequencing and remembering abstract information.

*Time, times tables, days of the week  and months of the year can be really tricky for me.

The language of maths, with Greek and Latin roots, can be challenging and abstract. Long, complex words burden working memory and the phonological loop so that it never goes into Long Term Memory.

Be sure to have transparency around the language – connect with the etymology (history of the word), create an image, practice retrieving the word eg perimeter- peri= around, metron = measure.


This aspect of dyslexia tends to be discussed far less than e.g. reading, where a lot of money has been put into research. Observe the child, talk to them, does any of this fit?

In additional to our main 5 senses, we have our proprioceptive sense (where our body is in space) and vestibular (balance). If you are lucky enough to have an OT in school, talk to them about this.

Bee on the lookout

Be on the look out for:

  • I can’t… concentrate when the classroom is noisy.

Why? I might struggle to filter out background noise.

  • I might… sit on my foot, rock in my chair or droop sleepily over my desk.

Why? I might have difficulties maintaining arousal/concentration and need some kind of external input to help me concentrate. Movement might help me, or standing to learn.

  • I learn… best when I am using all of my senses in learning and when my unique thinking is appreciated!

Why? It’s how I process the world!



  • Can you look across these areas and identify signs of dyslexia, did they match the list you wrote at the beginning?
  • There’s a great deal of information out there, read broadly, apply and reach your own conclusions!

For help with spelling: Memory and spelling

For suggestions to help with learning the alphabet see: Alphabet Arc

How might you initiate a discussion around dyslexia in your school? read here: Let’s chat: dyslexia

Suggested Further Reading:

BDA Read BDA’s Indicators for Primary.

Day-to-Day Dyslexia in the Classroom, Joy Pollack, Elisabeth Waller and Rody Politt, (2004, RoutledgeFalmer).

Dyslexia and Mathematics, T. R. Miles and Elaine Miles, (2004, RoutledgeFalmer)

Dyslexia: A Practioner’s Handbook, Gavin Read, (2016, Wiley and Sons)

Removing Dyslexia as a Barrier to Achievement, Neil McKay, (2012, SEN marketing)

Rose Report Read Rose Report

Sensational Kids, Lucy Jane Miller, (2006, Penguin).

Teaching Literacy to Learners with Dyslexia: A Multisensory Approach, Kathleen Kelly & Sylvia Phillips (2011, Sage).









20 thoughts on “Dyslexia: Finding the elephant in the classroom.”

  1. I can’t find your sharing buttons on this page! Will share using the link. Have you come across operation diversity? I will take them in when I share this blog. All the best!

  2. Great job Mellissa. I know the problems dyslexic kids face too. Since my Dad and my daughter are both dyslexic. But even though they struggled with traditional learning they were both gifted in many other areas. We must never give up an continue to search and find ways to teach all children …. We are all different and that’s a good thing…

  3. Your articles are very informative and will be very helpful as I begin working with my grandson. He is ten and in the 4th grade. We have just gotten a formal report back and found out that he is dyslexic. I knew something was different about him, but was not sure what it was. I have been working with him after school since kindergarten. I found out from your articles that I have been doing a few things right while teaching him his spelling words without knowing anything about his dyslexia. You have taken a complex subject and put into simple descriptive chunks of information. This is exactly what I was looking for to help my grandson. I have read a few books, but no one has given explicit directions in simple terms. I am going to print these articles and file them so that I may refer to them again. I am looking for an Orton Gillingham programs to use. Are there any prepackaged programs that come close to the things you suggest? Or would the use of play dough and color writing be an added activity? Thank you!

    1. Hi Tina! Lovely to be in touch. I’m not trained in Orton Gillingham but know it’s very popular in the States. There are a few programmes out there such as Beat Dyslexia and Alpha to Omega. The programme I was taught on my dyslexia MA is called ‘Conquering Literacy’ and you can buy the book by Kathleen Kelly. This might be the cheapest option and you can dip in and out of it and tailor it for yourselves.
      It’s great that you are working with your grandson! Sounds like you are already doing a fantastic job!
      Get some alphabet letters – if you haven’t already – I have some ideas in my ABC post, or you can google ‘alphabet arc’, start every session with this. Spellings etc should be structured and sequential but otherwise I would just say HAVE FUN and experiment with what works for him, what helps him to remember?
      You are awesome, please keep in touch and let me know how he’s doing or if I can help with anything.
      I’m so happy this stuff is useful.

  4. Pingback: The scientific study of dyslexia is likened to blind men ‘looking’ at an elephant. – Diane P. Proctor

  5. Hi has anyone got any thoughts on how to teach the older learner at uni.student support is delivered by framework that isnt suited to all.

  6. Pingback: Journey of a dyslexic writer – thinkpix

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