Characteristics and Signs of Dyslexia

Dyslexia can look different for different people. However, there are some common characteristics of dyslexia, and signs you can look for in people of all ages.


Dyslexia is comprised of three central components: struggles with word reading, spelling and/or reading fluency.  The profile of a student with dyslexia contains one or more of these weaknesses, but the severity will vary across students.  Since dyslexia occurs on a continuum of severity, the expression of dyslexia will appear different across students. Learn more in the section entitled, “Definition and Continuum of Dyslexia.”

Thus, dyslexia does not have a uniform profile; it can look different for different people. The clinical signs and symptoms can also overlap or coincide with other disorders, called co-existing or comorbid conditions, which may add to the complexity. Learn more in the section entitled, “Common Co-existing Conditions with Dyslexia.”

There are, however, some common characteristics that set dyslexia apart from other types of reading and writing difficulties, disabilities, and disorders. Dyslexia is a language-based reading disorder. The primary characteristics of dyslexia are as follows:

  • Poor decoding: Difficulty accurately reading (or sounding out) unknown words;
  • Poor fluency: Slow, inaccurate, or labored oral reading (slow reading rate);
  • Poor spelling: Difficulty with learning to spell, or with spelling words, even common words, accurately.
  • Poor reading comprehension: In moderate to severe cases, poor decoding and limited fluency can interfere with reading comprehension, even if oral language comprehension skills are adequate. 

The main sources for these characteristic difficulties, which can be identified in psychological evaluations, are as follows:

  • Weak phonological awareness, including segmenting (or breaking apart), blending (or putting together), and manipulating (or changing) the spoken syllables and sounds in words;
  • Weak phonics skills, starting with learning the names of letters and their associated sounds; Once the letters and their sounds have been learned, the reader must apply this knowledge to printed words. This process requires orthographic mapping, which refers to matching the speech sounds (the phonemes) to the appropriate letters or letter patterns (graphemes).
  • Poor phonological memory or working memory (difficulty holding information about sounds and words in memory in order to use this information to read or spell);
  • Difficulty with rapid naming of familiar objects, colors, numbers, or letters of the alphabet.

Learn more in the section entitled, “Continuum of Assessments for Dyslexia.”


People with dyslexia exhibit particular strengths and difficulties at different stages in their education. Some of the characteristics are more likely to be present in young children, whereas others are more apparent in adolescents.

Dyslexia has sometimes been referred to as a “hidden disability” because students with dyslexia may exhibit strengths in cognitive abilities that can then mask their difficulties. Thus, examining typical strengths alongside typical difficulties can be enlightening in understanding the signs of dyslexia.

The distinctive strengths and difficulties of people with dyslexia at different ages and stages are presented in the resource entitled, Signs of Dyslexia.”


Dyslexia has a long history of being a misunderstood reading difficulty. In fact, in 1887 a German ophthalmologist, Rudolf Berlin, first coined the term “dyslexia” to replace its previous label of “word blindness.”

There are many myths, misconceptions, and incorrect definitions of dyslexia still circulating today. Families and educators should be aware of these myths so they can align their thinking with the facts available. Here is a collection of the most common myths and misconceptions regarding students with dyslexia.

  • People who have dyslexia will never be able to read.
  • If you are “smart,” you cannot have dyslexia.
  • Dyslexia is more common in boys.
  • People can outgrow dyslexia.
  • Dyslexia is an oral language disorder.
  • Students with dyslexia see or write words and letters backwards more than students without dyslexia.
  • All readers who struggle have dyslexia.
  • Dyslexia is a rare learning disability
  • Poor instruction causes dyslexia.
  • Dyslexia is caused by a lack of effort toward learning how to read.
  • There is only one evidence-based program for dyslexia intervention.

The FCPS online dyslexia handbook provides information and resources to FCPS schools and parents alike to support students with dyslexia.

© 2017 Fairfax County School Board. All rights reserved. This material may not be reproduced, displayed, modified or distributed without the express prior written permission of the copyright holder. For permission, contact the FCPS Department of Special Services, Office of Special Education Instruction, Willow Oaks Corporate Center, 8270 Willow Oaks Corporate Drive, Fairfax, VA 22031.