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"Learned Helplessness" Identifying The Symptoms of Dyslexia

Categories: Audiobook Library, dyslexia, Education & Teaching, Learning Disabilities, Reading Strategies for K-12, Student Centric Learning, The Digital Age

Guest blog by Tracy Block-Zaretsky, Dyslexia Training Institute     

Have you looked up dyslexia on the Internet just to find overwhelming definitions, data and symptoms? It is daunting for parents and teachers. You don’t know what to believe or what to look for in a child or teen that is struggling to read. Why?

No two people with dyslexia will look exactly alike in their symptoms and the manifestations of those symptoms. There are multiple symptoms, and they can range from mild to severe. The more severe the symptoms the earlier they will become apparent. Some symptoms show up later in the learning process, because a child may learn to mask them, and may display high intellect and the ability to develop compensatory strategies. This is common when the symptoms of dyslexia are mild and/or the student is gifted (high IQ).

Backwards/Forwards Letters

Let’s start with a symptom that most people believe: Seeing letters and words backwards. It is developmentally normal to reverse letters through first grade. It is uncommon to continue to have reversal issues past first grade. Students with dyslexia are not seeing letters backwards, their brains are having difficulty learning that directionality matters when it comes to reading print.

Before students start learning to read, directionality does not matter in defining an object. An elephant is an elephant no matter which way it is facing, or standing, or laying down. However, we have specific ways to form letters and orient them on a line. Learning this form and orientation can be more challenging for a student with dyslexia (or dysgraphia). These learners see print like you and I, but have challenges with reversals of letters and words well beyond what is developmentally normal.

Comprehension – Patterns and Structures

Another common symptom is difficulty remembering a word a student has seen and practiced. They may have figured a word out on one page, just to struggle to recognize the same word in the next occurrence. Students with dyslexia have a difficult time picking up language patterns and structures not explicitly taught. They may be able to pick up patterns not related to language (ie: math, art), but not language patterns and structures. This is why students with dyslexia have a difficult time rhyming-- a language pattern that their brain does not process well.


I have never met a student with dyslexia that didn’t struggle to spell. All the rainbow writing, air writing, tracing, etc., that is typically taught and repeated doesn’t help. Frustration mounts as student begin to acknowledge they cannot spell words in their written work that they use all the time in their native language and oral responses. Written work of students with dyslexia rarely reflects their intellectual abilities. This can be humiliating.

Reading Avoidance and Coping Mechanisms

We often hear these statements about students who struggle to read: “She avoids reading and writing.” “He just don’t seem to want to apply himself.”  “She isn’t working to her potential.”

A child starts out in school trying their best to learn, to be like their peers, to please teachers and parents. As hard as they try, they are not learning. They are letting others down. It doesn’t make sense to them why they struggle so much. They are not seeing a payoff and begin to think there is something wrong with them and they are stupid. Some students will turn into wallflowers or just the opposite act out in class to avoid reading and writing. These are not signs of not applying themselves or not working to potential, these are cries for help!

Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness is an unintended result of having learning disabilities that many students with dyslexia experience. Well-meaning teachers, aides, parents or tutors who aren’t trained or skilled at working with struggling learners, unintentionally lead student’s to believe they are not able to do a task without “help.”

When a student states they cannot do something and the person helping them shows the student how to do it, often completing a portion if not all of the work, over time, the student requires more and more help, and loses the ability to learn 'how to learn.' This feeling of “helplessness,” spirals negative beliefs about themselves as learners. They can lose faith in themselves that affects not only school. They may be labeled as lazy or not applying themselves, and not receiving adequate academic expectations and goals that match their intellectual ability.

More Struggling Readers Can Achieve

We are getting smarter. I want to give you hope for the future and a current look at what’s happening around dyslexia now.

-- More awareness about dyslexia and support for legislative change is happening due to parents advocating and groups like Decoding Dyslexia. (Check to find your state’s group.)

-- More schools and institutes are educating and training teachers and parents to look for dyslexia in struggling learners, and how to teach them, but there is more work to do to get schools on board.

-- More research to study dyslexia and comorbid* conditions is happening in the U.S. and around the world.

-- More parents are advocating for dyslexia screening processes that start as early as kindergarten, but don’t stop at any grade to avoid students falling through the cracks.

-- More teachers and specialists are developing personalized learning plans and IEPs that include explicitly teaching patterns and structures of the English language, but also incorporating reading and writing accommodations, like assistive technology, audiobooks, reading devices and speech-to-text, that remove barriers to curriculum so that students can access and produce grade-level content and are motivated to read and write daily.

-- More educators and parents are aware that a student’s self-belief is as important as their academic prowess.

About Tracy Block-Zaretsky

Tracy Block-Zaretsky is the co-founder of the Dyslexia Training Institute. She has provided remediation for children and adults with dyslexia for the past 20 years and has developed and taught workplace and family literacy program. She is a certified Special Education advocate assisting parents and children through the Individual Education Plan (IEP) and 504 Plan process. She is a past President of the San Diego Branch of the International Dyslexia Association. Tracy has training in Structured Word Inquiry, the Orton-Gillingham approach, Lindamood-Bell programs, Read Naturally and a variety of reading and writing assessments. She co-created and produced, "Dyslexia for a Day: A Simulation of Dyslexia," and has provided professional development for educators and training for parents at numerous conferences, private on-site trainings and online courses and webinars. Tracy is also a parent of a child with dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADD and Executive Function Disorder.


Learning Ally is a leading nonprofit edtech organization delivering a comprehensive learning solution for struggling readers in elementary, middle and high schools. Our proven solution includes an extensive library of human-read audiobooks that students want and need to read, along with a suite of teacher-focused resources that ensure student success. Schedule a quick demo to learn how your school or district can transform more struggling readers into grade-level achievers. Call 800-221-1098.

To get involved, learn more about the Dyslexia Training Institute, about Learning Ally’s reading accommodation and audiobook library, and share this Edwebinar, “What Dyslexia Red Flags are for Students in Different Grades.”

*Comorbid definition - ‘existing simultaneously with and usually independently of another medical condition.’

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