Dyslexia: why we need to be more specific about identification in schools

If up to four children in every classroom are dyslexic, why are so many going through school undiagnosed? Liz Murray looks at the problem with identification in schools, and what signs teachers need to be looking out for

Author details

Liz Murray has worked in education for 20 years, as an accredited advanced skills teacher, pastoral and curriculum leader, SENCO and assistant headteacher. She has worked across the mainstream and independent sectors. She is also the founder of...

According to the British Dyslexia Association, 10% of the population are dyslexic, 4% severely so. This translates to between three to four children in every classroom.  

Accurate data on how many children are identified with dyslexia or dyslexic-type difficulties in school is hard to source, but we do know that large numbers of children go undiagnosed.

Many children with dyslexia are unable to access the curriculum, meaning they do not achieve their full potential and the long-term effects are serious. Depression and increased risk of suicide and delinquency are well documented.

Surveys consistently demonstrate that amongst the high percentage of illiterate people in prison, a disproportionate number have dyslexia, many of them previously undiagnosed. (Dyslexia International, 2014

Dyslexia is complex and presents differently in different people, but often in schools we generalise the criteria and intervention

Given the above, school leaders and SENCOs should regularly reflect on internal data from their SEND register and ask key questions about their school setting:

  • Are the three to four dyslexic children in every classroom identified in our school?
  • How are they identified? Are there several stages to this? 
  • Is identification consistent?
  • Are they identified early enough? 
  • Does subsequent intervention alleviate barriers to learning caused by dyslexia? How do we know this?

If the numbers of children identified don’t match up with the stats above, scrutinising the identification processes in a school is valuable, as is considering how SENCOs and teachers can be supported to spot the signs of dyslexia and use targeted intervention to make a difference.

Teachers are expected to not just teach, but to identify when a child may have a specific learning difficulty.

This is a challenge – the professionals who can officially diagnose dyslexia are those with years of specialist study behind them; educational psychologists or special dyslexia assessors. The school SENCO is a general practitioner when it comes to identifying needs; they know what to look for but are unlikely to have specialist knowledge in every area. Just as a medical GP may spot the signs of a grumbling appendix, only a specialist consultant can diagnose and treat accordingly.

This medical analogy is useful to frame how schools should approach identification and intervention.

Dyslexia is complex and presents differently in different people, but often in schools we generalise the criteria and intervention. When we we lose the specificity, we also lose the ability to support effective understanding and targeted intervention that works.

A widely accepted definition

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

Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed.

Dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities. It is best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, and there are no clear cut-off points.

Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor co-ordination, mental calculation, concentration and personal organisation, but these are not, by themselves, markers of dyslexia.

Jim Rose (2008)

The problem with identification in schools

In many schools, definitions like this one have been condensed into a simple checklist for teachers which focus on spotting indicators of poor word reading fluency and spelling without acknowledging the ‘continuum’ model cited by Rose.

This may be a reason why many children are identified late or, not at all. It also explains why intervention programmes focusing on re-teaching phonics for dyslexic children are common, yet interventions which support working memory or teach strategies for coping with verbal information delivery are less readily available.

Teachers need to understand the difference between word reading and comprehension. They need to know what weak verbal memory, working memory and verbal processing speed look like in the classroom. For example, there are many dyslexics who can read text but cannot process verbal information without additional support.

If support is not given it is not surprising that frustration can turn to depression

Imagine being in a classroom where a teacher is explaining a set of instructions verbally and you simply cannot compute the information. What happens next is that you become stuck on the instructions or initial explanation and then you are unable to access the subsequent learning. 

Dyslexia occurs independently of intelligence 

There are many young people who have an above average IQ and are articulate but also have dyslexia. These children may be still achieving in the average range yet are still not achieving their individual potential due to their ‘spiky profile’.

We miss identifying these children because they are still achieving in line with their peers and do not meet the criteria for SEND. A young person in this situation often becomes very frustrated: a child I worked with described it as feeling like a ‘piece of the jigsaw’ was missing from her thought process. 

If support is not given it is not surprising that frustration can turn to depression at being unable to translate high-level thinking into successful academic output.

Explaining dyslexia to teachers

Teachers cannot be expected to be educational psychologists, and the lack of specialist assessment available to schools is a problem. However, schools can provide high quality CPD to give teachers a better chance of understanding the complexities of dyslexia and to support identifying children with less obvious dyslexic profiles.

In each school the CPD model will need to be appropriate to the school context, but would ideally be delivered in small enough groups to allow teachers to ask questions and relate it to their specific context. For example, in primary schools it might be more appropriate to deliver training in Key Stage groups, whereas in a secondary setting, training in departmental groups might be better suited. 

Whatever the format for training, it is essential to challenge preconceptions and myths about dyslexia. For example, it can be used to explain how dyslexia is diagnosed. 

Testing to assess

  • Underlying ability (IQ): verbal or non-verbal intelligence
  • Processing speed
  • Working memory
  • Phonological processing and awareness
  • Attainments – reading, spelling, writing

They are looking for a discrepancy between the IQ and any or all of the other aspects. This is why dyslexic people are often referred to as having a ‘spiky profile’.

It can also be helpful to frame a classic dyslexic profile and explain how each aspect may present, finding examples from teachers’ classrooms:

  • Weak working memory
  • Slow processing; especially auditory
  • Word reading difficulties (but probably not comprehension)
  • Verbal sequencing difficulties
  • Discrepancy between attainment in literacy and that of other subject areas
  • Performance on literacy tests does not match IQ

Training should emphasise that dyslexia is complex, best thought of as a continuum, and that children and young people could struggle with one aspect of it in a mild form, or all of them, acutely.

So, what should teachers look for?

Once teachers understand the complexities of dyslexia, it can be powerful do a piece of work on developing in-house checklists. For example, we developed the checklist below after training.

Signs to look out for Does the pupil display this sign?
Great difficulty with spelling despite intervention e.g, bizarre or inconsistent errors  
Very weak sequencing skills e.g. days of the week or recent events  
Very slow or illegible handwriting  
Easily frustrated and upset or angry when required to work  
Very weak phonological skills despite intervention e.g. great difficulty blending letters, syllables, rhyming etc.  
Difficulty responding in a meaningful, relevant way e.g. turn-taking in conversation, body language, following instructions  
Difficulties organising what they say to convey meaning and make themselves understood  
Recalling verbal information and acting on it   
Noticeable discrepancy between oral skills and general knowledge   
Snapshot demonstrates concerns across the curriculum with learning and progress  

The list not only acknowledges the various dyslexic presentations but was anchored to training so teachers knew how to triangulate their observations with other data available on children in their lessons.

They also acknowledged the value of monitoring children across the curriculum, and added specific criteria on the checklist for pastoral staff to look out for.

A journey towards accurate identification

It is useful to consider developing identification processes as something that develops over time and improves as staff become more confident. Some further actions that schools can take are:

  • keeping identification of dyslexia on the agenda of every department meeting
  • developing checklists for different subject areas
  • having regular joint observation opportunities for the SENCO to observe children of concern with middle leaders.

Next steps to take

Once a child has been identified as having dyslexic-type difficulties, a process will need to follow to explore their profile in further detail and then to support them. The support package will depend on the child and their specific profile but just as a medical problem requires a plan and specific prescription, this will too.

Check out Liz's next article on practical strategies for teaching children with dyslexia.


Further reading

  • Assessment of Learning with Dyslexic-Type Difficulties, Phillips, Kelly and Symes (Sage, 2013)
  • Teaching Literacy to Learners with Dyslexia – A multi-sensory approach, Kelly and Phillis (Sage, 2016)
  • Dyslexia, A Practitioners Handbook5th Edition, Gavin Reid (2016)
  • Dyslexia Pocketbook – 2nd Edition, Julie Bennett (2014)
Last Updated: 
29 May 2019